In Luhnow vs Porter, Only One Choice

added 9/1/2014 by Bob Hulsey

Trouble in Astroville? A report by Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports claims there is discord between General Manager Jeffrey Luhnow and Manager Marquis Donnell "Bo" Porter. Rosenthal claims Porter has had discussions with Owner Jim Crane regarding Luhnow's criticism of Porter's in-game decisions. The report claims one or the other probably won't be around next season.

First of all, Rosenthal is essentially Richard Justice with a bow tie so don't take everything he writes as gospel. But Porter has indirectly confirmed this upon further questioning from the media, other than to deny he has had face-to-face meetings with Crane. Luhnow and Crane seemed far less willing to discuss the issue.

Luhnow is, of course, the architect of a new type of baseball management based on advanced statistical methods with a healthy dose of zany "what if" baseball research (what if we rotate eight starting pitchers in the minors instead of five traditional starters?, what if we try to squeeze three players out of the draft slotting bonus for the first overall? what if we shrink our major league payroll to $12 million?, etc.)

Porter, Houston's second African-American manager in the last three full-time skippers, initially seemed to buy into this experiment but after two years of managing bad baseball, the patience of Bo appears to have fallen short of the patience of Job. I've always suspected that somewhere in the manager's office in the bowels of Minute Maid Park is a drawer with a bulk supply of heartburn medicine. Surely, I'd need one for that job.

Managerial candidates with no big league experience at the helm tend to have no leverage which is why the cheap-as-dirt Astros keep hiring them. Since Bill Virdon was deposed in 1982, 10 of the 12 managers hired by the Astros were rookies at the job. Only Jimy Williams and Phil Garner had managed elsewhere in the majors before being chosen by Houston. Which is to say Porter won't win any battle of wills with the front office. He's disposable.

Step out of line and there's a long list of others who would like their crack at the job no matter if the general manager wants to base the pitching rotation on lunar phases or advice from psychics. Only 30 men can hold major league managerial jobs at one time.

That's not to say Porter isn't in the right. Porter isn't the one that turned the Astros roster into an absurd joke. Porter isn't the one who had his database hacked. Porter isn't the one who has yet to land a major free agent. Porter isn't the one who botched the signing of the first overall draft pick this summer. Porter isn't the one who seems to be alienating agents, union reps, former players and hotshot high-schoolers on a regular basis.

Supposedly, the flashpoint between Porter and Luhnow came in July when 2013 top selection Mark Appel, struggling in Class A ball, was given a bullpen session at Minute Maid Park with Astros pitching coach Brett Strom just before he was promoted to Class AA Corpus Christi. Some Astros grumbled and Porter was apparently unaware the session had been planned. I don't understand why this was controversial but Porter has a clubhouse to control and it must have made him look like he'd been shut off from the decision making.

Porter has made a few questionable managerial decisions such as choosing to pitch to his friend Chris Young who murders Houston pitching as if it's a personal vendetta. Porter's bromance with Jerome Williams over making him a late-inning relief option in close games was baffling at best. But managers are allowed to play hunches and several of Bo's decisions have turned out pretty well. He's had to spend two years trying to make chicken salad out of the personnel Luhnow has left him. That has to be hard for a man to put a positive spin on night after night.

Few people have held Porter accountable for his 110-190 (.367) mark as manager, acknowledging he has had an unfair disadvantage. Bo knows it all still goes down on his managerial record and will no doubt come up on his next job interview someday. "Losing" managers have to wait a long time, if ever, to get a second chance. Ask Brad Mills about that.

But the battle lines actually runs deeper. I admit I have a built-in animus towards people alleged to be "brilliant" who waste their time in sports. Someone with a degree from MIT or Harvard should be trying to discover a cure for cancer or retiring the national debt instead of wasting their intelligence playing a real-life version of Baseball Mogul.

Baseball is a GAME, one that people who love the smell of leather and the crack of a bat on a warm afternoon play for the enjoyment of it. Who let the nerds with the slide rules come in and take over to begin with? I'd love to see this scene featuring the late John Matuszak (a first overall pick of the Houston Oilers, for you trivia buffs) from the film "North Dallas Forty" reenacted some day in a major league clubhouse (WARNING - frequent profanity in this movie clip). Could you imagine Lucas Harrell having a rant like this before his trade?

I can just picture a "decision scientist" explaining to his girlfriend why he is breaking up with her because her Kisses Above Replacement Date (KARD) is declining or her Hugs Per Date (HPD) average in close and late situations is down. Some things just don't need to be scientifically analyzed to the nth degree. It's better to just accept romance for what it is. Make Baseball, not WAR.

However, it's easy to tell why Luhnow will remain whether Porter stays or goes. Crane is too far down this road to change now. The larger premise is that short term pain would bring long term gain which can always be extended out and revised if more pain is required first. The goalposts can always be pushed back. Three years wasn't going to be enough time to get the job done and, with the gaffes the Astros keep making, 30 years may not be enough time.

As one commenter said recently, a restaurant doesn't fire the chef for arguing with the maitre d'. You don't fire the building contractor for arguing with the subcontractor. The smaller fish is always going to be the one terminated first; the same reason that pitching coaches and hitting coaches are often sacrificed before the manager gets fired. Incompetence may flow from the top down but accountability seems to rise from the bottom up.

I like Bo Porter. He seems to be a man who speaks directly and doesn't use weasel words or try to baffle people with cow manure. He also tries to keep clubhouse disputes out of the media which is what ought to be. His job, as he often says, is to try his best everyday to win games and I'm sure he notices when personnel moves are made that only makes his task harder.

Through it all, he'll come out of 2014 with a record 10-20 games better than the year before which is to his credit as much as anyone on Texas Ave. His dugout is vibrant and enthusiastic even when there is seemingly nothing to play for. His players seem to respect him and play hard for him even though they are still grossly overmatched at times.

I think it would be a shame to let Bo go. But, like Mills before him, I wish he had a real team to manage before deciding he's not right for the job. The game is much easier when you have a decent roster to compete with.