Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Astros suck in more than just the obvious ways

The word is out among MLB players: the Houston Astros blow goats.  It's still more of a whisper campaign, but former Astros and other players are starting to speak up.

The Astros have become one of baseball's most progressive franchises as they try to rebuild and avoid a fourth consecutive 100-loss season.

But general manager Jeff Luhnow's radical approach to on-field changes and business decisions has created at least pockets of internal discontent and a potential reputation problem throughout baseball.

"They are definitely the outcast of major league baseball right now, and it's kind of frustrating for everyone else to have to watch it," said former Astros pitcher Bud Norris, now with the Orioles. "When you talk to agents, when you talk to other players and you talk amongst the league, yeah, there's going to be some opinions about it, and they're not always pretty."

The criticism, through interviews with more than 20 players, coaches, agents and others, comes in two parts:

On the field, the Astros shift their defenders into unusual positions to counteract hitter tendencies more than any other team, including in the minor leagues. They schedule minor league starting pitchers on an altered and fluctuating rotation schedules, what they call a "modified tandem" system, a development strategy unique in baseball.

Off the field, the Astros are said to handle contract negotiations and the timing of player promotions with a dehumanizing, analytics-based approach detected by some across their operation.

The central question is how much criticism should be inherent to their process and how much should signal trouble in a game where word of mouth spreads quickly?

There's a good deal more, but it's behind the Chron's paywall.  Shame, because it's one of the more interesting investigative pieces they have done in awhile.  (That's only meant to be a little harsh, considering they published the "Bulletproof" HPD expose', including the reveal of the Harris County shooting simulation that is meant to influence grand jurors to the POV of cops who murder, and the recent series about NASA, "Adrift", by Eric Berger.  The Chron's doing some good journalism, but they're hiding their lights under a bushel, still hoping people will pay something for it.  Good luck with that; it's a blog topic for another time.)

"If you look at every organization, I think the trend is going toward sheer statistical-driven analysis, and I think that (the Astros) are certainly on the front lines of that," said former Astros shortstop Jed Lowrie, now with the A's. "Baseball is kind of going through this tectonic shift, and there are people out there banging on tables saying, 'This is not the way the game's supposed to be played or evaluated.' But from a business standpoint, I get it.

"It is a purely statistical analysis. I think you can't have that approach and expect to have good personal relations. That seems like a hard balance to strike, when you're judging someone strictly on numbers and nothing else, and I'm not talking about whether it's a good guy or a bad guy. But there are certain intangibles, and the perception is the numbers are trying to drive out (the importance of) those intangibles."

Ohhhh, so it's a numbers game. 

They've been bad at the major league level for long enough -- with 106-, 107- and 111-loss seasons in the last three years -- that even the television show Jeopardy mocked them this winter. They're one of the lowest spending teams in baseball, and their cable network is in bankruptcy.

Luhnow's tenure in St. Louis as vice president for scouting and player development was marked by an approach that often caused a sense of acrimony in an organization pulled between analytics and traditional methods even though many of his draft picks have played essential roles in the Cardinals' current run of success, which includes a World Series title in 2011 and another World Series appearance last year.

Winning begets winning, and the opposite is also true.  Growing up as a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, I figured Jim Crane understood that much.  Obviously that Cardinal connection was a factor in hiring Luhnow.  Fours years in, though, and the trajectory is still steeply down.  Some would say tailspin.  Or maybe freefall.

When players are promoted to the majors, they need not be paid more than the standard minimum salary of $500,000. Once in the majors, a player's service time clock begins, which will eventually determine when he is eligible for salary arbitration (three years, or two-plus in some special cases) and free agency (six years) – both vehicles for bigger paydays.

The Astros have benefited from making contract offers to young players at low rates and holding back players in the minors for service-time reasons.

Last year, Jose Altuve, signed a guaranteed four-year, $12.5 million deal (that the Astros can extend to six years) that made him even more valuable than his statistics alone - players who are not only productive, but inexpensive are the game's most valuable commodity.

Top prospect George Springer, who was promoted to the Astros after the season started, isn't eligible for free agency until he's 30 after the team delayed his move to the majors. The Astros said service time wasn't a factor in a timing that could potentially save them millions.

The Astros saved themselves money. But the question is whether the Astros handle these matters in a way that fosters confidence, and how much they should care about that perception in a business worth half a billion dollars based on a core product of 25 players.

"Players are people, but the Astros view them purely as property that can be evaluated through a computer program or a rigid set of criteria," one player agent said, echoing others. "They plug players into it to see what makes sense from a development or contractual perspective and it does not engender a lot of goodwill in the player or agent community.

"They wield service time like a sword (in contract extension negotiations) and basically tell a player, 'this is what you are worth to us, take it or leave it.'"

The long term adverse consequence is the organization's reputation, a value for which there is no tangible metric.  Many -- I would say most -- players would like to spend their careers with a single team even if that meant they didn't reach for a ring (see Bagwell, Biggio).  But this commoditization of labor means that the talented free agents won't come to play for Houston even if they were offered big bucks, which of course they aren't.  And the future stars the Astros grow on the farm -- Springer, Jon Singleton, etc. -- won't hang around.  And I don't blame them.

Springer had an offer last year the Chronicle was told was worth about $7 million guaranteed with the potential to earn more. The Astros, too, have made third baseman Matt Dominguez an offer worth $14.5 million for five years, plus two options, and outfielder Robbie Grossman received at least one similar offer, $13.5 million for six years plus two options, a person familiar with the offers said.

None of the players accepted. Luhnow has a policy of commenting on contracts only if a deal is finalized.
Astros prospect Jon Singleton is in situation akin to Springer's as he is still in the minors while the big-league team is in need of offense at first base. Singleton's agency declined comment when asked if the Astros slugging first baseman had been offered a contract extension.

What if these players signed deals? Would Grossman still be in the majors? He was demoted just two weeks into the season. Would Springer have been here earlier? No one can prove anything, ultimately, but for a budget-conscious team such as the Astros, the team's critics say yes.

One last word.

If a young Astros player or his agent feels mistreated today or is just turned off by the organization's actions, why would he stick around on a hometown discount in the future, or stick around at all if comparable opportunities exist elsewhere?

Players in every organization rely on relationships formed at all levels of the game to help them. Everybody talks, and no one's a fool.

"Everything is seen," Orioles outfielder Adam Jones said. "There's nothing that's missed. Baseball, any sport, any business, word of mouth is good."

Or bad.

In my humble O, Jim Crane is apparently not quite rich enough to be a baseball owner, or else he's just squeezing all the possible juice out of the lemon he bought.  Keep in mind that he took a couple of runs at ownership before finally getting the 'Stros, and his failures in closing the deal had only a little to do with his sullied reputation as a bigot and a war profiteer, one he has worked overtime to amend.

He was only able to finally purchase a major league baseball team -- on his fourth attempt -- that was gutted in order to reduce its selling price, and discounted further because it was humiliatingly compelled to change leagues for the sake of numerical 'balance'.  This trashed the team's 50-year legacy as a National franchise, insulting the fan base even before the minor leaguers took the major league field for the first time.  Yes, MLB screwed Crane over, but he's made plenty of big mistakes himself: the payroll-expense-slashing, the Uber-like surge pricing for key homestand matchups, the Comcast debacle.

But candidly, these really aren't mistakes.  From a profit standpoint, he's the best in baseball.

Jim Crane is running the Astros as if it were a McDonald's: severely underpay your employees, offer a substandard product, keep cutting costs until they scream.  Even McDonald's is beginning to understand how bad that business model is.

I don't have much sympathy left for the atrocious example of raw greed and brute capitalism that is the Houston Astros, but I'm still going to watch the Civil Rights Game next week in the club section, my second game this year... and probably my last.  Point being, I would be attending 20 or 25 games a season if they weren't so lousy.  Inside and out, through and through.

They have worked very hard to earn my disrespect, and it will take years for them to re-earn my loyalty, if ever.  Frankly they are a disgrace to the city of Houston at this point, and not just major league baseball.

Related: So what happens to the Astros if they lose their fans?


Gadfly said...

We Cards fans miss having you in the NL Central, of course.

I halfway agree with defensive shifting, or more than halfway. It's the smart countering of the OBP + SLG = OPS approach to offense that says a strikeout isn't worse than any other out.

The other stuff? Yeah, the team blows goats, including their suck-ass local cable contract. And, Houston's not a small-market team, and in the past, decently supported baseball, even if, per the the HPress link, some fans were front-runners.

Team needs to spend on somebody in free agency this offseason, just to prove to fans its not acting like a small-market team.

PDiddie said...

The team won't. Not in the five-year plan. W/r/t defensive shifting, here's another excerpt.

Baseball Info Solutions' John Dewan wrote on Twitter this month that the Astros had already saved seven shift runs - "similar to adding a 10th fielder who happens to be elite."

Marc said...

I was a fan of the San Diego Padres and Chargers many years ago. They turned into training teams, which would trade away good players before they'd demand better pay. They lost me a a fan (not only of the team, but of the whole sport), when I understood that a winning team was not a priority. I'll not pay to sit in a stadium to see a bad team - I can watch them on tv, if I really wanted to.