Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Actually, it is a popularity contest

Over the course of this past holiday weekend, I spent a lot of time thinking about the Astros. I didn't spend a lot of time actually watching the Astros (barbecues, napping, family time, and whatnot), but my thoughts were certainly on the Astros in light of Evan Drellich's article about the Astros' "radical ways."

In the quick post we threw up on Friday morning, I told you I'd need some time to think about it. Now I have. /cracks knuckles

Anybody surprised by the "radical ways" of the Astros has not been paying attention. Yes, they shift their defense around to try to make more outs which, on occasion, pisses pitchers off. Yes, their minor-league pitchers are on a different schedule than the other 29 teams' minor-league pitchers. Sure, winning 51 games is - in the grand scheme of the standings -  no worse than losing 61 games. And so the Astros ended the 2013 season on a 15-game losing streak that ranks among the most painful things I have ever endured for "leisure" in my entire life (other than, you know, "2011-2013" of watching Astros baseball).  No, you cannot watch Astros games because there is a first-class screw job happening courtesy of the Astros/Rockets/CSN Houston/DirecTV/UVerse/Suddenlink. These are odd ideas to implement in baseball.

The reason you can't see Astros games is because the Bidness Side of the Astros is the mirror image of the Baseball Side: Short term pain for long term gain. This #process has all been undertaken on the premise that it will get better. The minor-league system, depending on who you read and value, ranks anywhere from 1st to 5th in all of baseball. For years the most fun part of writing for Astros County has been the minor-league recaps, because there's so much hope, which is of course different from "promise."

Former Astro/Noted Hater Bud Norris (who, give him credit, went on the record for the piece) said that the Astros are "definitely the outcast of baseball right now, and it's kind of frustrating for everyone else to have to watch it." The second part I'll agree with - the first three weeks of 2014 were equally as frustrating as the last two weeks of 2013. The first part? I'm not so sure. I mean, if you take the time to photoshop Dre 3000 and Big Boi on Luhnow and Reid Ryan, that'd be funny. But what does Norris mean by "outcast?" The Astros (presumably) made serious bids for both Tanaka and Abreu this off-season, and were turned down by both. Who knows how many free agents the Astros approached to better the team this off-season? The three pieces they added to the bullpen included Chad Qualls and Matt Albers - who began their careers with Houston - and Jesse Crain, who has not pitched a game for the Astros*.

*full disclosure: I said on an Astros Boxes podcast that, if the Astros didn't sign Jesse Crain, I would burn something down.

You have already seen Chapman, Clemens, Valdes, Oberholtzer all get shipped back to Triple-A. The Astros have made some fantastic acquisitions (so far) in Tony Sipp and Collin McHugh. Dexter Fowler has shown that he can hit and get on base outside of Coors Field. Tony Sipp and Collin McHugh have been fantastic. But how were they acquired? Trade, signed after being released, waiver claim. Point is the Astros aren't enticing free agents to come to Houston. In the interest of not looking like I'm cherry-picking quotes to fit my points, Luhnow told Drellich that their plan hasn't prevented players from coming to Houston.

Is (our plan) going to change what we're doing if we believe we're doing the right thing? No, it's not going to…We're sensitive to it. If it starts to affect us in a meaningful way that we can't sign players, or players quit, or players don't give us their best effort, then we'll have to address it. As of now, that hasn't happened.

One way of looking at this would be to say that the Astros aren't in a position to need free agents right now. The whole point of the rebuilding process has been to draft, develop, and trade their way into contenders - the Astros aren't going to throw $45m at Carlos Beltran to plug a hole, as the Yankees did. The Red Sox model of 2013 (hit big on a number of free agent signings) would not work in Houston because, if you're a player trying to rebuild some value, doing it in a Red Sox uniform than it is more appealing than in an Astros uniform (see: Sizemore, Grady).

Another way of looking at this would be to take the anonymous quote in Drellich's piece at face value, which, in its entirety, reads:

I don't think anybody's happy. I'm not. They just take out the human element of baseball. It's hard to play for a GM who just sees you as a number instead of a person. Jeff is experimenting with all of us.

That's dramatic, and we'll come back to that towards the end. But then things get strange in Drellich's article: Luhnow - appropriately - wouldn't answer that specific charge...for now, more on that in a minute. Jim Crane said they treat every player with respect and that he supports Luhnow's use of statistics. Okay, let's stop here.

I feel like we're veering back into the old paradigm where the two sides of baseball can't mix: scouting vs. analytics. You can totally have it both ways; Analytics and scouting can mix, and the Astros do both very well. The problem starts with the next quote from Luhnow...

"We're not running for election here; it's not a popularity contest," said Luhnow, who seeks feedback from across the organization but said feelings aren't high on his list of concerns unless they impact outcomes. "We're trying to win big league games, and we're trying to produce major league players in the minor leagues, so if those two results are occurring, that's predominantly what we care about. Now of course, any time you've got human beings involved … you want to understand how they're impacted."

And that's where the Astros problem starts because Luhnow is dead wrong about that. The Astros should absolutely be trying to win a popularity contest. What I'd like to see is Luhnow and the rest of the organization go out of their way to make the Astros the most attractive team in baseball to other players. Houston should be a marquee destination for any player who needs a team. Right now, that's not exactly the case.

The Astros have been very upfront about what the plan all along: short-term pain for (ideal) long-term gain, and the toll it has taken on the fanbase is pretty clear. The Astros are averaging a shade over 21,300 fans per game, which is somehow 11th in the American League. If you take out Opening Day against the Yankees, the Astros are averaging 20,466 fans per game. They've had three home games - two against the Rangers (!) - where fewer than 15,000 fans showed up. And you want to talk about CSN Houston? The only thing you hear about Astros' broadcasts is either (1) another 0.0 rating or (2) how nobody can watch the games.

If you're an Astros fan in Houston or the arcane blackout zone who doesn't have Comcast and you don't feel comfortable trying to scramble your IP address so you can pay $120 to see your local team on MLB.TV, you are reduced to watching the game through others on Twitter, or watching MLB Network during the game in the hopes that they'll cut away from showing the Braves long enough to show a highlight or two. Trying to follow a game that way sucks.

It's far more fun lately, what with winning more often, and all. Springer has sprung, and that's great, but the organization isn't exactly helping. Singleton and Foltynewicz still sit in Triple-A when they're clearly ready for the Majors, and there are a whole train of prospects waiting for the dominoes to start falling. While I understand the business decision behind service time and Super Two statuses, every time Marc Krauss gets a start at 1B another piece of my leprous heart falls off. Dallas Keuchel has become a pitcher you make evening plans around. George Springer is, well, George Springer. Bo Porter brings a fire and intensity to the bench and clubhouse that makes me want to run through a brick wall. It's more fun to watch Porter react to a player when he rounds the bases and heads back to the dugout than it is to watch the player. I might write an actual letter and see if he'll be my daughter's godfather. For the last few weeks the bullpen has made it so that I have pulled out exactly zero hairs in final third of Astros games.

I love that the Astros use as much information as they can about the game of baseball. Ultimately I'm in favor of anything that will make my leisure time more leisurely. But I'm different. You're different, too, if only for the fact that after 324 losses in three seasons you're still reading an Astros blog. We've said this before, the Astros aren't trying to appeal to hardcore fans - we're here regardless.

It is a fact that The Apparatus likes losing precisely as much as we fans do. But Drellich said in the above quote that feelings aren't high on Luhnow's list of concerns. That should probably change. Perhaps Luhnow and the Baseball Side of the Astros leave the "pleasing of fans" to the Business Side. Like "Scouting" vs. "Analytics" playing together well, baseball is a business and the business of baseball has to do with fans coming to the games or watching on television. There's not a whole lot of either going on.

The Astros, and Jeff Luhnow, need to be very careful about their plan for the future. It doesn't matter which anonymous Astro said he felt like he was in Luhnow's own science experiment, that quote is out there now. As Torii Hunter told Evan Drellich, "I don't think a lot of people know that we communicate with each other and all the free agents out there, they communicate with other players." Think about the past three years (yes, even before Luhnow arrived) and tell me that you - Astros fan - don't feel exactly the same way. The Astros need to treat their organization exactly like a popularity contest, to players and fans alike, because if the Astros clinch a playoff spot in front of 18,000 screaming fans, who actually wins?