The 2012 Major League Baseball season opened last week, and with it came the perpetual belief that every team has a chance.
Well, every team except maybe the Houston Astros.
Fresh off a dismal 56-106 record last season, the Astros have been picked last in most MLB preseason power rankings and are deep in rebuilding mode.
All of which is to say that new general manager Jeff Luhnow, who graduated with a dual degree from Wharton and the School of Engineering in 1989, has his work cut out for him.
Luckily, the Penn grad and former St. Louis Cardinals executive seems up to the task, despite this being his first GM position. One article, written shortly after his hire, describes Luhnow as brainy and bilingual, part of the new breed of cerebral, stats-first baseball execs:
Some old-school baseball team initially derided Luhnow with nicknames such as “Harry Potter” and “the accountant.” Here’s a guy whose playing career peaked out in high school, whose pre-Cardinals resume featured stints as the president of a dot.com venture, Archetype Solutions, Inc., and vice-president of marketing for Petstore.com.
That said, his Penn degree will certainly serve him well in his new role, wrote another Houston sportswriter – Zachary Levine – who also went to Penn.
Educated in a dual degree program that blended business and engineering, Luhnow joins a front office that is increasingly data-oriented. To listen to him and to CEO George Postolos talk is a different experience than to listen to the old regime when it comes to what Luhnow called “the zero-sum game” of baseball.
Still, while Luhnow’s “new-age” thinking may have upset some “old-school” baseball men in the past, Luhnow was quoted in the same story as trying to steer clear of the scouts vs. stats war that has seemed to be building steam ever since the writing of “Moneyball” nine years ago. Here’s his quote:
“There’s a misperception about what the winning formula is. You can’t be the elite scouting and player development organization without the best scouts and coaches in the industry. Those are baseball people who have been in this their entire life and use their good judgment and experience to make decisions.
“The complementary part is adding a whole new area, which is really utilizing whatever technology and whatever capabilities are available, whether it’s understanding medical assessments, understanding performance histories, different ways to evaluate character. There’s a lot of science that can be added to the equation.
“But it’s really all about gathering up as much valuable information as you can, organizing in a way that makes sense and making the best possible decisions.”
Luhnow would certainly be wise to use all of the tools at his disposal to rebuild the Astros, which opened the 2012 season with 10 players on a major league roster for the first time. That number shows just how inexperienced the ’Stros are and how deep Luhnow’s rebuilding efforts must go. But for the general manager, that part is also, well, kind of cool:
“One of the most fun things I’ve gotten to do in my nine years as a baseball executive is tell five position players and five pitchers that they were making their first opening-day roster in their career. That was really a fun experience after a lot of the other conversations that you have to have during the spring: letting a guy go or telling a guy that he’s going to be reassigned or optioned out. It was really fun to get a chance to do that.”
Of course, there will also be some hard parts, mixed in with the fun. But for now, the Penn grad is saying all the right things as he tries to build the worst team in baseball into the best.
“I want to see Minute Maid Park filled to the rafters in an American League championship series. I want to see this city get excited about the possibility of going to a World Series. And I would love to see Houston to win the World Series, and the team in Texas that gets talked about be the Houston Astros. I’m all in.”