Finding Luhnow's Manager

added 9/4/2014 by Scott Barzilla

Sure, it might seem lame to be the last person to comment on a story, but it does come with a certain advantage as well. I submitted another version of this column with all of the vitriol I could muster on Monday. It seemed a lot like the kind of thing a jilted lover would write and then throw into their recycle bin at the last minute. Take away the romantic overtones and that has been what this year has been about for Astros fans. People find themselves in two camps and both camps are on varying levels of upset.

I have found myself defending the Luhnow administration throughout his tenure as general manager. I defended him when the team lost 100 or more games for three consecutive seasons. I defended him when the payroll dipped to an embarrassingly low $12 million dollars last season. Heck, even seemingly silly things like the piggyback system used in the minors got defended by myself and others.

Why would we do such a thing? Simply put, those of us that believed in analytics were left wandering in the wilderness by previous regimes. Listening to most Astros general managers discuss anything usually required Pepto Bismol or a whole canister of aspirin. So, seeing someone so invested in analytical research and methods seemed like a breath of fresh air. In many ways, it still is. Yet, the decision to fire Bo Porter on Monday seemed to be another gaffe in a long line of gaffes this season.

Why is it is a gaffe if it was ultimately the right decision according to most observers? It's all about timing. The same was true of their inability to sign Brady Aiken and the fact that their database was hacked. All of these things could be explained off in a vacuum. Put them together and you get the picture of an organization that can't seem to get out of its own way. A national reporter said that Porter and Luhnow weren't getting along and Porter is out the door less than a week later.

Of course, part of my disappointment comes from the fact that I am tired of the same old excuses for firing a manager in the middle of the season. I'll bet the cash in my wallet that Tom Lawless is not going to be the next manager. If Tony DeFrancesco couldn't get a look after going 15-15 on a 56-win team then I'm not sure what Lawless can do this month to get the gig. It's nothing against any of them, but most of the time, interim managers are not really considered legitimate candidates (Cecil Cooper notwithstanding).

My other favorite excuse is that you get a jump start on interviewing candidates. Sure, they hired Porter in September of 2012. Look how that worked out for them. Most of the candidates that you could interview now could be interviewed in October or November. This is particularly true if you are looking for a first time manager as the Astros have done every time except twice since Bill Virdon (Jimy Williams and Phil Garner in the early '00s).

Of course, Luhnow mentioned the last wonderful excuse. He wanted to change the culture of the clubhouse and apparently it couldn't wait another minute. The current Astros were on pace to win about 70 games. You could claim that Bo Porter was not ultimately responsible for the nearly twenty game improvement, but he could hardly be considered a hindrance. What would 30 days cost you really? Seems that a number of Astros have thrived under Porter. Of course, some haven't. This is how things work.

The flip side comes in the one factor that the new regime never seems to consider: perception. I suppose you can't fit perception into a flow chart or a spreadsheet. There isn't a fancy formula that can calculate its ultimate effect. As someone that loves statistics, I certainly understand this philosophy, but it doesn't make it any less wrong.

Perception affects how many paying customers you'll have. Perception affects how many veteran players will choose Houston as a destination. Perception affects how many coaches, scouts, and other career baseball people will consider working for you. Firing Bo Porter may make you feel better, but doing it now makes you look thin-skinned. It makes you look petty. It makes you look insecure. If you did it at the end of the season, then it could be sold as irreconcilable differences.

I had a boss once that used the phrase "it matters" as his mantra. I always thought he was a tool, but the phrase actually works. A lot of the things that people over at Crawford think don't matter really do matter. How you treat people matters.

You can't demand that employees collaborate with you and then hang them out to dry. That's essentially what happened with the Mark Appel situation and that seems to be the one situation everyone points to with the decision to fire Porter. All he did was try to smooth over the situation with his players even though he wasn't informed about it in advance. Could he have been more supportive publicly? Sure. It would have happened had he been included from the get-go about what was going on.

On Monday, I was livid because a regime I had constantly defended had made it nearly impossible for me to continue to do so. Now, I'm just disappointed. I still believe firmly in analytics and careful analysis. Heck, I'll even call it decision science. I just wish it led to better decisions.

The consolation is that other organizations are also doing this and they don't seem to get in their own way every other week. So, maybe the Luhnow administration will grow from this experience. Maybe he will eventually get flushed if and when the team continues to underwhelm. Managers are hired to be fired. The same is also true of general managers.