HOUSTON (AP) — The analytical approach to stocking the roster helped the St. Louis Cardinals win the World Series in 2011 and is starting to pay off for the first-place Houston Astros.
And now the work of Jeff Luhnow is at the center of a federal probe, with the FBI investigating his old team for allegedly trying to steal fresh secrets from a man who left for Houston after clashing with some old-school idealists in St. Louis.
It’s an ironic if unsurprising twist for a former baseball outsider like Luhnow. Ironic because the Cardinals are consistently one of the best teams in baseball and the Astros are only now climbing out of a historic stretch of awful play. Unsurprising because the 49-year-old Luhnow has long been viewed as a bright, young mind in the sport.
Luhnow is a U.S. citizen, but he was born and spent 15 years of his life in Mexico City after his parents relocated there for work. He speaks Spanish like a native and those unfamiliar with the salt-and-pepper-haired executive are often caught off-guard by his ability to switch seamlessly between English and Spanish.
Luhnow in no way fits the traditional mold of a baseball front-office employee. He didn’t play, coach or manage. He wrote a paper in school about how the Chicago Cubs might win the World Series, but that was years before he ever came close to working for a team.
He graduated from Pennsylvania with a dual bachelor’s degree in economics and engineering before getting his MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. Luhnow founded Archetype Solutions, a data analytics company, and was the company’s president and chief operating officer before moving to baseball.
He was a general manager before joining the Cardinals, too, but it was far from any baseball diamond. It was with a discount company called Petstore.com.
Luhnow worked for several years at a global consulting firm, McKinsey, after leaving behind the world of dog bones and kitty litter before joining the Cardinals as vice president of baseball development in 2003. He kept busy in the Dominican Republic, rising quickly. When he was promoted to vice president of amateur scouting and player development in 2006, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote the following: “If you aren’t familiar with Jeff Luhnow, then remember the name. Why? One day he’ll be running the Cardinals.”
That doesn’t mean it was all smooth sailing in St. Louis with a manager at the time in Tony La Russa that was none too fond of the sabermetric approach that Luhnow so coveted.
But the divide created by the two different approaches didn’t keep Luhnow from building a team at the same time he built his name in baseball circles. His 2009 draft was considered his best with the Cardinals and included Matt Carpenter, Shelby Miller and Matt Adams. That draft paid dividends for the Cardinals after he left, and 16 of the 25 players on the 2013 World Series roster, including Carpenter, Miller and Adams, were drafted when he was in charge of player development and scouting.
“He really had his own little department,” Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said Thursday. “He did interface with the baseball ops people. It was a new initiative for the Cardinals. It was really a blank slate.
We were starting from scratch ... to see if we couldn’t be a leader in this field. It was looking at everything out there, it was not trying to emulate Oakland or maybe others were doing. At the very start we wanted to do it as a Cardinal model.”
Jim Crane grew up in St. Louis and was a longtime fan of the Cardinals, who have 11 World Series titles. When he bought the Astros in November of 2011, his first big move was to fire general manager Ed Wade. The second? Lure Luhnow away from the Cardinals to be his GM.
Luhnow was in St. Louis when the team built a computer database called Redbird and where he first hired Sig Mejdal, a former NASA employee, as director of amateur draft analytics. Mejdal joined Luhnow in Houston in January of 2012 with the unique title of director of decision sciences, and the pair and the rest of the staff made the Houston version of Redbird and called it Ground Control.
Luhnow had fond memories of the Astros after he saw his first major league games as a child with his family in the Astrodome. Crane loved the way Luhnow built and cultivated the St. Louis farm system and wanted him to do the same in Houston.
When Luhnow was hired he said he was most interested in the job because he agreed with the plan.
“It doesn’t steal from the future to make things a little better in the present,” he said then. “It builds this organization for sustained success. We want to create a winner that lasts and we want to do it the best way possible.”
Luhnow took over after Houston went 56-106, just six years after reaching the World Series in 2005. At the time it was the worst record in franchise history, but things got even worse from there with the team losing 107 games in 2012 and finishing with a record 111 losses in 2013.
But wins and losses didn’t tell the story of the real progress the Astros were making under Luhnow. With the first pick in the 2012 draft the Astros got high school shortstop Carlos Correa and added pitcher Lance McCullers later in the first round. That year they also snagged a slugging outfielder in the seventh round named Preston Tucker.
On Thursday, when the Astros visited the Colorado Rockies, Correa and Tucker were in the lineup and McCullers had nabbed a spot in the starting rotation.
Crane had complete trust in Luhnow and believed in how he was building the team.
“We knew eventually it would work,” Crane said recently. “It’s just maybe a little sooner than we thought. When we started we didn’t have much. We had a poor minor league system. We had a poor big league team, so to do it halfway would have never worked. So it’s nice to see some results come through.”