BOSTON-- Hired directly out of a career in the world of business, Jeff Luhnow was brought into the Cardinals front office in 2003 as part of an organizational effort to operate in an increasingly analytical, data-driven manner. After eight-plus seasons with St. Louis, Luhnow was hired as the general manager of the Astros in 2011 and has quickly become one of the stars in the sports analytics universe. That universe is converging on the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston this weekend, where executives from thirteen major league teams are among the 2,000 attendees at this year's two-day event.
Luhnow, widely regarded as one of the pioneers in baseball analytics, expressed excitement for the field's rapidly growing impact on sports.
"It gets me excited about how many intelligent and motivated people are working on sports analytics across all sports," Luhnow said. "As a decision-maker for a baseball organization, I like the fact that there are so many bright people working on all of these issues. A lot of them will publish their work and I get to be the beneficiary. This is a great place to find talent for clubs that need help."
Luhnow's Astros were busy this offseason, signing five major league free agents (Scott Feldman, Jerome Williams, Jesse Crain, Matt Albers and Chad Qualls) and acquiring outfielder Dexter Fowler in a trade with the Rockies. Analytics played a major role in each of those decisions, according to Luhnow.
"In any player acquisition decision we make, we use all the information that is available," Luhnow said. "We may weigh it a little bit differently in certain cases based off of what we need relative to what's out there. We look at supply and demand. In the case of Feldman, Crain, and Albers, the analytics certainly played a role in all of those decisions--the combination of the scouting reports we had, the projections that we have, and the evaluation of delivery and mechanics. All of the stuff we have access to, it all went into the decisions."
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While front-line starters like Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez had slow-developing markets this winter and could have been attractive additions for the Astros' rotation, those within the organization felt that Feldman was the perfect fit for the club.
"Those [Santana, Garza and Jimenez] are quality arms, but for us, Feldman was the right combination of total cost, value and timeframe for our organization," Luhnow said. "Quite frankly, he's immediately taken on a leadership role with a lot of our young pitchers, and that was part of the decision as well.
"We made more offers than to just the players we signed. We got guys we really liked who were at or near the top of our list, but we were in the market for other players that we didn't get."
Luhnow acknowledged that draft-pick compensation as a result of the qualifying offer system factored into his decisions this winter. He noted that the Astros place a high value on the competitive balance draft pick that they received from the Orioles in last summer's Bud Norris trade, and that they were not looking to lose it by signing a compensation-linked free agent this offseason.
With Nelson Cruz recently signing a low-value, one-year deal with the Orioles and three free agents who declined qualifying offers remaining on the market (Santana, Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales), there is plenty of talk throughout baseball about changing the compensation system for free agents. Luhnow recognizes the flaws in the system, but doesn't seem to believe that it is as bad as others have made it out to be.
"Players in order to be in that position have to turn down what a lot of people would consider pretty generous, life-changing money," Luhnow said. "The intent of the rule is an improvement over what was there before. Can it be improved? Maybe. We'll wait and see. Everyone had this conversation last year, then [Kyle] Lohse got signed and we went back to normal, so we'll see what happens."
As Luhnow makes decisions on which players to add or subtract from the Astros' roster, he is armed with a team of diverse thinkers who aid in almost every decision. While speaking on a panel entitled "Baseball Analytics: The Next Frontier" at the conference, he mentioned that Houston currently employs five full-time analysts who spend a significant amount of time in the clubhouse.
"We prefer that the coaches are the ones to guide the players, so we don't want the players to be getting direction from pure scientists or math majors," Luhnow said. "Certain players are curious enough and ask for more things, so there will be exceptions to that.
"Generally speaking, you train the trainers, you coach the coaches, and all we do is provide the coaches with the information to allow them to figure out what is the best way to implement it. I give them some advice just because my experience is more in management and not necessarily on the technical side. If you're going to try to convince a pitcher who is wary of certain types of things, I say 'this is how I would communicate it to them' or that type of thing. Generally speaking, linkage is between the front office and the coaching staff, and then between the coaching staff and the players."
Luhnow has also hired journalists to work as part of his front office in recent years, and emphasized that communication skills should never be lost in the advanced world of analytics.
"The technical skills are huge, but if you can't communicate them effectively, then you're going to lose the impact," Luhnow said. "You could have the brightest analysts, but without the ability to package the information and communicate to the decision makers properly, you're going to lose the ability to have an impact. People who have spent a lot of their time trying to communicate their findings to the world through BP [Baseball Prospectus], or wherever, have figured out how to communicate in writing and using the verbal word as well. You get the best of both worlds when you hire a technical person who has some experience in communications."