HOUSTON — The finish line for the World Series is Minute Maid Park, where the Houston Astros have celebrated pennants and raised a championship banner. It is also where they once operated a sign-stealing scheme that, for some, will always cast suspicion on their enduring supremacy.
Jeff Luhnow, their former general manager, cannot worry about that now. From December 2011, when the Astros were baseball’s worst team, to January 2020, when the scandal brought him down, Luhnow built the team into a powerhouse. When the Astros started this postseason run, the one that could finally validate them as the era’s premier team, Luhnow was in Accra, the capital of Ghana, searching for soccer talent.
“There’s 54 countries in Africa, and all of them, I think, have football as their number one sport,” Luhnow said Saturday. “So, there’s plenty of opportunity to go where the others haven’t been before.”
Luhnow spoke by phone from his office at Estadio Municipal de Butarque, in Madrid. He is president of Leganes, a soccer team in Spain’s second division, which was preparing for a game with Ponferradina. He has conquered unexplored terrain before, and the sport and team he left behind still bear his imprint.
The Astros returned here Saturday for Game 6 of the World Series, needing one victory over the Philadelphia Phillies for their first title since 2017. That was the year their hitters got signs, in real time, from the banging of a trash can in a dugout tunnel. The Astros’ owner, Jim Crane, fired Luhnow and Manager A.J. Hinch after a damning investigation by Major League Baseball.
For Luhnow, it marked the end of one of the more fascinating and impactful front-office tenures in major league history. With a background in business and consulting, he came to baseball in 2003 with an outsider’s perspective and a disrupter’s hubris. The book “Moneyball” was captivating executives at the time, and Luhnow — first in a scouting role with the St. Louis Cardinals, and then with the Astros — built aggressively on the principles of finding and exploiting the inefficiencies in a hidebound industry.
“The culture of the Cardinals when I was there was definitely one of: We’ve got to get the most out of what we have and we’re open to new ideas,” Luhnow said. “I brought a lot of the same people to Houston, and we were able to do it there as well. And when you have a culture of continuous improvement, where everybody’s open-minded and you really let the facts drive the decision — not opinions — it leads to breakthroughs. And I think we had quite a few.”
Luhnow’s early Astros teams lost prodigiously, reaping the rewards then in place: the highest draft picks and the biggest budget to spend on amateur talent. The strategy — neutered to some extent by the new collective bargaining agreement — has been imitated by other teams, but none have produced the sustained success of the Astros.
Much of the reason goes far beyond so-called tanking. The Astros became the industry leader in integrating analytics into player development; they were filming bullpen sessions and batting practice before most other teams had even considered the benefits.
The emphasis on teaching prospects specific, data-driven ways to improve is reflected now in the team’s extraordinary pipeline of pitching talent. The Astros have replaced expensive imports — Charlie Morton, Gerrit Cole, Zack Greinke — with comparable production from homegrown talent, much of it from Latin America: Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Bryan Abreu, on and on and on.
“I think we’re seeing a result of the next big thing, which really started in the 2015 era,” Luhnow said, “which is player development and teaching young arms pitches that are going to work in the big leagues and keeping them healthy and developing young arms so that you have not only starters but bullpen arms that can do exactly what they’re doing right now.”
None of that, specifically, may translate to finding better players for his soccer teams — but Luhnow believes the spirit of curiosity will. His Houston-based company, Blue Crow Sports Group, has invested $80 million in eight soccer teams spread across Spain, Mexico, United Arab Emirates, the Czech Republic and Africa.
Through analytics and innovative scouting, he said, the goal is to build another high-level farm system in a different sport.
“The idea is to have all those teams kind of move up the ladder but really also have an elite player-development system from top to bottom so we can develop the best talent,” Luhnow said. “Whether it’s from Mexico or Spain or Czech Republic or Cameroon, we want to just develop a pipeline of elite talent that we can use on our own teams to have success on the pitch and also can use to sell to other teams and take that money and reinvest it in our infrastructure.”
In Houston, meanwhile, the Astros continue to benefit from the talent obtained by Luhnow and his staff. Only seven of the 26 players on this World Series roster have been acquired since Luhnow left — three reserves (Mauricio Dubón, Trey Mancini and Christian Vázquez) and four relievers (Rafael Montero, Héctor Neris, Will Smith and Ryne Stanek).
Luhnow’s successor, James Click, keeps a lower profile; he declined an interview request after the Astros’ no-hitter in Game 4, saying that he doesn’t talk after games because he doesn’t play. But Luhnow praised Click for keeping a good thing going.
“The day he took over the team, that was his team,” Luhnow said. “And he could have very easily done what a lot of general managers do and trade away the guys that aren’t yours, and bring in guys that you can say, ‘OK, these are my guys, this is my team.’ He didn’t do that. Why? Because he’s smart and he realizes that there was a lot of talent on the team.”
Click — whose contract is expiring — presided over contract extensions for starter Justin Verlander, first baseman Yuli Gurriel and closer Ryan Pressly, and he has made important in-season moves. Luhnow said he had enjoyed following from afar, but he conceded that nothing the team did now will change the minds of many fans about the Astros’ legitimacy.
As for his own role, Luhnow has maintained a nuanced stance. He has never been shamed into saying he is sorry for a transgression he insists he never made. A qualified apology may never satisfy his critics, in and out of baseball, but it is authentic to an executive who has always followed his own path.
“I was in charge of the organization, and I should have known — and had I known I would have stopped it,” Luhnow said. “That’s as far as I will ever go, because that’s the truth. I’m not going to admit I knew something I didn’t know, and I’m not going to apologize for something I didn’t do. I was punished because I was the general manager, and I understand that
“Life’s not fair, and this wasn’t fair to me. But it is what it is, and I’ve moved on. I’m very satisfied with what I’m doing right now, and I’m very happy to see the Astros having success.”