Hot Take: The Astros Need New Leadership

Houston Astros Owner Jim Crane Is The Problem

Hi, it's him. He's the problem, it's him.

You think that take is hot? Here's one that's incendiary. Ready?

If they don't get new leadership, then...

The Astros should tear it all down to the studs and start over.

Yeah, I know. Hear me out, because it's probably not exactly what you think.

First of all, hello everybody. Long time no see. For those who weren't around from, I dunno, 2015 until 2018 or 2019 (honestly, the dates get a little fuzzy for me at this point), I used to be a writer here. Not a very good one, mind you, but I did do it. It was fun, for a while. Then it wasn't.

But that's probably enough about that.

I also have drifted away from the sport over the last couple years more and more, and with the absolute fecal festival in the Astros front office last offseason coupling with new rules changes I personally find abhorrent (yep, hi, you found the one person on earth who despises this season's rule changes...I'm chock full of takes you'll hate, just ask the old hands), it was very easy for the first four months or so of this season to tune out entirely, for me. I've been focusing on fiction writing, hanging out with my know. The good stuff.

But here down the stretch, I drifted back and started watching again, mostly because my whole family surrounds me all the time with it and they still ask me questions and things, so I figured, it's on here in the house, I might as well have some way to answer them when they ask me things.

All season long, the questions have had a similar overarching theme:

"What's wrong with Bregman?"

"What happened to our pitching?"

"What, did the real Jeremy Pena fall down a well?"

On and on. And sure, there have been some positive surprises this year. I don't think anyone really expected Mauricio Dubón to be a particularly good baseball player - and he hasn't been, really, clocking in at a 99 wRC+ with 1.8 fWAR (in basically a full season's worth of playing time) and a paper-thin .313 wOBA.


He's played well enough, and was hot enough out the gate while Altuve was missing, to make it forgiveable if you forgot to check the deeper performance metrics with him and just let yourself believe he was playing really well.

Of course, much has been written here and elsewhere about Chas McCormick's surge this season. What a heck of a year for him.

Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, and Kyle Tucker are all basically themselves, though with some lower aggregate stats than we might expect thanks to missed time on the injury list.

But, seriously, take a good hard look at a majority of the roster, and the more you look at their overall performance (the real stats, folks, remember: batting average and RBIs and such aren't the "statistics" you want to be looking at if you're trying to really understand the performance value of baseball players) across the roster and compare it to years past - even last year - the clearer it all gets.

The Astros should tear down and start over.

That's not because the Astros aren't still a good team right now. They are. Most of the pieces - despite down seasons from a large percentage of the roster mysteriously all at the same time this season - are the guys who won the World Series just last season, and who've been to the ALCS a bunch of years in a row coming into 2023. They didn't stop being those guys.

But maybe those guys were more a product of the pristine data they received than the general public has largely acknowledged.

Nowhere on the roster has the post-Luhnow regime dropoff been more pronounced than in Alex Bregman, who went from looking like a perennial MVP candidate, and a top five player in the league, in 2019 to...well, still a good player. Hovering in the 120s with your wRC+ isn't really anything to sneeze at, and that's where he's been since Luhnow left. He started abysmally this season, struggled to adjust for months, and then slowly began clawing his way back to where he is now at the end of the year, which is slightly down from the "very good, maybe even an occasional All-Star" type of player he's been since 2020. Despite ostensibly being in his prime now at 29 years of age, he's no longer an 8-win player. He's more like a 4- or 5-win player. And that's still a very good player, but...when you're banking on the 8-win player, like many were after 2019, getting a little more than half of that is quite the drop-off.

Recent rookie crops (like the banger class that surprised the baseball world in 2022, when Hunter Brown and Jeremy Pena appeared on the scene and looked to be long-term mainstays anchoring their respective sides of the baseball) have suffered the largest drop-off from 2022 to 2023, I think would be a fair assertion. Brown has seen his GB% plummet as his LD% and FB% take off, he's giving up a lot more hard contact than he was, his SIERA and FIP and FIP+/- have all tanked relative to his debut last's a mess. I haven't done a very deep dive into his pitch data and the spin metrics and stuff, but I'd be willing to bet there's a marked decline from 2022 to 2023 there, as well, especially in aggregate.

Pena is even more baffling. I've heard people questioning whether he got cocky, or lazy, or something, and to me...that doesn't really track. It's not like baseball players are typically (there are exceptions, yeah I know, miss me in the comments) exactly lacking in confidence and bravado to begin with. It's possible that's a factor with Pena, but more likely I think, is that the simplest explanation for Jeremy Pena's large dip from 2022 to 2023 probably coincides with the performance dip a large percentage of players across the roster are experiencing to varying degrees. And before you start with the "sophomore slump" talk in trying to explain Pena and Brown, I'm referring to a consistent decline among a large percentage of the Astros roster, all with varying levels of experience and service time. For them to all be suffering degrees of diminished performance this season?

There's a likely culprit, methinks: quality data. Specifically, its lack.

The majority of these players largely met success in the first place thanks to a data-intensive approach to baseball employed in the Luhnow regime and, perhaps slightly less efficaciously, in the Click regime. But, thanks to last offseason, these same players now find themselves in one of the least data-intensive organizations (at least as far as teams who are generally on the winning side of the ledger) across the sport.

In other parlance, if you're a football guy...they've got a bunch of nickel backs playing smash-mouth defense. Or something. I dunno, I haven't been a football fan in more than a decade. I digress.

Even more than on the offensive side of the baseball, and arguably even more than with regard to the pitching (though I think you'll find that the pitching and this element are inextricably linked), you can really see the decline in both the quantity of data and the quality of it when you really study the defensive returns for the Astros this season.

I was ruminating on this back in August, and our favorite statistical haberdasher (mhatter) and long-time Astros fan and stat head Greg Stoll chimed in, with the latter tagging in old pal Brian Arbour (better known these days as "Breathin' Orange Fire" - there is no rule that says you only have to read one Astros blog, definitely go check out/subscribe to his substack in addition to TCB and Astros County and the other great ones, if you're not already: who confirmed that yes, it's not just anecdotal at this point: the Astros defense is measurably worse this season than it's been in years, even though several members are longtime stalwarts and others (looking at you, Mr. Pena) won gold gloves last year and came up through the minors as players with defensive-first reputations.

Brian posted this graphic, which came from this piece he wrote including data through June at that point, in response to my query about whether the Astros defense is actually worse, not only thanks to the absence of shifts, but because their positioning data (or lack thereof, it sometimes seems) is so, so much worse this year than it was under the previous two front office regimes:

The Astros

It's not just the absence of the shift...the positioning data is mediocre to bad this year, where it was among the best in baseball under Luhnow and Click

Forgive me for not putting in the statistical leg work of my own that I used to put into my articles. If you're really interested, come find me on Bluesky (Twitter is poison, you should delete it entirely) and I'll be happy to rap with you about the statistics in more depth.

I think I've given a pretty broad idea, even if it's lacking in statistical specificity, of what I think the real problem is with the team this year. It's the absence of high-quality data coupled with skilled operators (you are missed, Sig Mejdal) to help interpret the data for application by players and coaches.

It's nothing personal against Dana Brown, he seems quite capable even if possessed of a very different skill set and philosophy. He's inherited a stable full of quarterhorse studs who seem mostly to very much miss the higher quality data they were inundated with under previous regimes. His results, especially in Atlanta, of doing things his way appear to have merit.

But inheriting a team full of guys who were assembled to attack the sport of baseball in a very different fashion than his philosophy (or Dusty Baker's, if we're being honest) allows for, all because the owner of the team decided - in his hubris - that he knew better than the minds who bore him to the summit on the backs of pristine data, has really put Dana Brown in a difficult position here in Houston.

Rather than squandering the last couple years of Jose Altuve's career, or wasting the primes of Alex Bregman and Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, it's probably best for the team to either accept as a sunk cost the owner's arrogance and short-sightedness and revert to being a data-intensive organization on the bleeding edge of the science of baseball...

(, lmao...)

...or, since that is absolutely not happening, it's probably time (now, while they have riches at the major league level that they can parlay to restock the minor leagues) to tear everything down to the studs, so that Dana Brown can have full sway over utterly, completely remaking the system from the ground up in the vision he prefers to operate within.

Yeah, I don't like it either. But here we are.

Thanks a lot, Jim.