Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Astros fire Porter and Trembley on Labor Day: Part II

Interesting day in Astros baseball.  As an Astros fan, I am kind of getting sick of interesting, and would take a boatload of boring right now.  Just boring winning, that is all I want.  A boring 100-win season would be great, right about now.

Bo Porters firing has attracted a lot of attention in the Ultimate Astros part of the Chronicle, with a dozen separate articles or photo essays dedicated to either the outgoing manager and coach, the incoming replacements, or future potential replacements.  Since I wrote the brief synopsis this morning, Sports Illustrated has written an article with some opinion, and some various other articles have appeared around the web.  I imagine more will be posted tomorrow as the staff at Fangraphs, BPro or Baseball America come back from their long weekends.

Some have spoken of the curious timing of the firing, with a month to go in what is essentially a lost season and all.  As I wrote earlier, the firing happened on the first off day after the Rosenthal article broke, and that may explain the timing.  That would mean that something happened in the last week or two to make Porter's position untenable - either a single incident or an accumulation of incidents - and the Astros were just waiting for an off day to make it official.

I am always a little suspicious when big news is released on a bank holiday, when media outlets tend to be a little understaffed.  I know that a lot of news around the world that people want hidden is released right before Christmas, for example, when the people who would analyse this would be expected to be taking holidays.  Labor Day may, or may not, be significant.

The Astros were also fortunate to announce the firing on the day that J.J. Watt got paid, and the Phillies combined for a no-hitter.

The opposite explanation, however, is that only a horrible cynic would read too much into the timing.  Who knows.

In bullet-point form, some other thoughts:

Well, I guess we know who is in charge... If there ever was an arm-wrestle between Jeff Luhnow and Bo Porter, we know who has the ear of Jim Crane.  Luhnow wins, hands down.  Interesting, Cliff Corcoran's take is that the firing of Porter may weaken Luhnow et al's position, as it "removes a layer of insulation" - or eliminates a fall-guy - for the future.

Luhnow's meta-message better not get lost in translation...  Cool article on Jeff Luhnow's career prior to baseball, and his work as a management consultant for McKinsey.  The project / grand experiment that Luhnow has steered the Astros toward is all about acquiring elite baseball talent.  The meta-message behind all of that is that everyone needs to be paddling the canoe in the same direction, sending the same message, emphasising the same things, because tiny little things may be the difference between winning and losing.

I would imagine that Luhnow's career would mean that he is highly attuned to who is on board with "the plan", and who isn't.  As Lindsay Naegle answered when someone asked her what she actually produced: "Synergy, and books on how to cheat at Bridge".  Luhnow needs synergy to make this work, and he has spent a career producing it.

Check your egos in at the door...  Also in the previously linked article, much of the decision making seems to be left to computer algorithms.  Or at least, the algorithms influence the timing of the decision / promotion / whatever.  I imagine that there would be considerable resistance to the removal of the "human element" from across the game of baseball, as boatloads of scouts, coaches and cross-checkers in the industry would be proud of the fact that spent a lifetime honing their skills, and really believe in their ability to identify and rank talent.  Being told that your "opinion" is one of a number of data-points that are being assigned relative weights inside a computer  would be potentially crushing on the ego, I would guess.  So one could easily anticipate some tension between the number-crunchers and the subjective human analysts who pride themselves on their skills, gut-feel and nose for the game.  Luhnow doesn't want that tension.

Bo's position was always going to be hard...  Partly because of the losing, partly because of the fact that he was the lubricant between a proudly analytical front office and the human beings running around on the field.  It would be easy to anticipate constant friction between the new and the old, or the numbers and the players.  I would think that in some cases, Porter was simply on a hiding to nothing attempting to manage that friction.  It isn't about whether there is anger and discontent in the clubhouse or not, but rather how much anger and discontent there is, and if it disrupts anything else.  Good luck handling that.

Some gormless sports-writing has attempted to identify the moment...  One article sort-of-kind-of wondered whether the Wesley Wright pitching change in May last year (when Wright was removed prior to throwing a pitch) was a vital data-point in Bo Porter's firing.  Others have talked about the Jed Lowrie incident, which I doubt was significant, because Bo was (in my opinion) just trying to protect his players.  The Mark Appel bullpen incident seems to have gotten a bit of air-time.

But Richard Justice's and Brian McTaggert's articles - granted, which are both from MLB.com, who have a massive vested interest in promoting the game of baseball - both downplay the role of individual incidents (such as the Appel one), and seem to hint (or even overtly state) that Porter's communication style with both his superiors and the players was clumsy or inappropriate at times.  The extension of this thought is that his communication difficulties were perhaps identified early, and he was given an opportunity to redress this, but problems continued.

Porter, if he had a fault that I could see, was a bit full on...  He seemed a little like the Rainer Wolfcastle in the all-night Gym - shouting slogans while Homer was using the abdominator.  I remember cringing a little when I saw a photo of the inside of the Astros' clubhouse, and Bo Porter had put his own quote on the wall.  I thought that was.... odd, especially given how many inspiring quotes from baseball and non-baseball greats would have been available.  Richard Justice confirmed that he seemed to come on a little strong in his article, with the mirrors in the lockers, and the chair-turning and so forth, and that some of his ideas seemed a little infantilising.

I am going to miss Bo's genuine delight when his players succeeded...  If Bo had a strength, it is that he really, really cared for 90% of his players.  Or cared for all his players 90% of the time.  The caveat is in there because he did throw his players under the bus at times, but it seemed infrequent and more out of frustration than anything.

Regardless, Bo seemed to genuinely celebrate Chris Carter's recent hot streak, Jose Altuve's excellent 2014 season or and Dallas Keuchel's filthy May run and breakout season in the video that I saw of many of those highlights.  He always acknowledged the hard work of the coaches and playing staff, and pointed out that the success of the player was well deserved.  I didn't get the impression that he celebrated those exploits because he looked better in winning the ballgame or anything like that - he seemed to have a genuine passion in his players succeeding in the top levels of the game, and being rewarded for their effort and hard work.

I am going to really miss how every other sentence at a post-game press conference started with the phrase "that there... "  Can't really add to that.

I know nothing about this firing, and why it occurred, and this is all just speculation...  The Astros seemed to handle this very cleanly and uncontroversially - at least at this stage.  Porter is obviously upset, but everyone (including Porter) seems to have handled this with class and professionalism to this point.  Perhaps something more specific will come out, perhaps it won't, but at least there has not been weeks of speculation and innuendo, and the parting seems to have been almost surgical.

Please, just make the PR nightmares stop...  I can handle a losing baseball team.  Over 162 games, there is normally enough to celebrate to keep a dedicated fan coming back.  I can't handle a team that is (i) constantly a punchline to a national joke because of the drama and disorganisation or (ii) can't get their own sh*t together.  Good year (thus far) for the Astros at the major-league level, but some big Correa-Appel-Aiken-sized hits elsewhere.  Some of these lie squarely in the laps of the front office, and some of these are random events.  But it is really hard to support a chaotic organisation, even if that is only the perception of the organisation.  Winning cures much, but it may take a while for the reputation of the Astros to recover after some of the cringeworthy events of the last few years.

Well, that got pretty long, didn't it...  I promised wordy, ill-informed analysis once the dust settled, and here it is!!

I am sure that the other Astros County writers are brewing some awesome articles up as we speak, so I will stand aside so that others can hear their thoughts...