jeff luhnow, annotated

cards vs mets; it's looper's rotation turn, but according to derrick goold he'll throw vs minor leaguers today so that the relievers still fighting for roster spots can get some innings in the big-league game. goold says chris narveson may start the game today; if he throws well, maybe one of the many teams still looking for a #5 starter will snap him up. for narvie's sake, i hope so. i would have preferred that he be given a chance to win the #5 slot in st louis; but that didn't happen, and it ain't a-gonna. this guy is 25, he's put in his time and fought back from injuries; he's earned his shot.

the game will be on mlb.tv; here is the gameday link. by the way, i've been lifting the gameday urls all week from liam's blog, without even so much as a thank you. so ---- thank you liam for compiling that list.

i had an e-mail exchange this week with cardinal front-officer jeff luhnow, whose official title is "vice president for amateur scouting and player procurement"; he's more or less got the job that long ago used to be called "farm system director." luhnow has run the last two drafts for the cardinals; those two drafts have produced 8 of the 10 guys on baseball america's list of the top prospects in the cardinal farm system. he's the cards' designated "moneyball" guy; comes from a business background, not a baseball one, and is helping the st louis organization integrate data-based analysis into some of its personnel decision-making processes.

jeff agreed to answer some questions by e-mail, and i kept `em pretty easy --- i was as curious to find out about him, frankly, as about the players in the system. i've got a few comments on these responses at the end of the post. my thanks to jeff for taking the time to answer these questions.

What's the most rewarding part of your job? And what's the part that most makes you say through gritted teeth: "I'll do that because they pay me to do that, but I sure don't like doing it."
For me the most rewarding part is watching the players get better and have success on the field. When I watch our minor league games, I focus more on each individual player and what they did than I do on the score of the game. If they play sound, fundamental defense and take quality at bats, I'm happy. If they make the adjustments that the coaches have discussed with them and they get that extra base hit, or strike out that next batter, then I'm delighted.

The hardest part of my job is telling a player that he no longer fits into our plans. It doesn't matter how many times you do that, it's always heart-wrenching to see the disappointment in their faces. I wish they could all make it, but that's far from reality. I try to make sure we are fair to everyone, make decisions in a way that utilizes all the available information and perspectives, and maximizes the benefit to our organization.

What's the most painful lesson you've learned so far in this business?
Much as we try to make it so, life in baseball is not always fair. There is a lot of talent in our organization. The scouts do a tremendous job of identifying young men who have the potential to succeed in professional baseball. Oftentimes, what separates those who achieve their potential and those that fall short is simply the opportunity. The opportunity is scarce and valuable, and determining who gets those plate appearances and those innings is an important decision. There are tons of guys in the minors who never get the opportunity to prove themselves in the big leagues, and some of those guys would have success. It's impossible to always make the right decision, and that is a painful realization that drives me to agonize over every decision.

Describe how you'd spend your time in a typical workday during the season, post-draft --- ie, July / August / September. Who are you talking to, what are you reading? What percentage of your time are you spending watching tape? consulting with your analysts and software guys? talking to scouts? watching baseball games in person?
There is no such thing as a typical day, either before or after the draft, except that they are long, typically involve at least one or two games, travel and plenty of time on the phone, responding to e-mails, and thinking about baseball. During the season, I am addicted to MiLB.com and check the in-game box scores as often as I can to get game updates, despite the fact that the managers send me a game report soon after the games. In the past, I have visited most of the minor league clubs during the season, and this year I will visit all of them at least twice to see the players and meet with the staff. The summer is also a great time to see the amateur prospects for the following year using wood bats and playing against tough competition. It's also a busy time for international scouting, as the new crop of eligible international free agents becomes available to sign pro contracts. On top of all that, I keep tabs on the research we are doing and, of course, I keep up with the big league club and all the possible player moves.

How often do you see each minor-league team play during the season? Are there particular farm teams / players from other organizations that it's important for you to see? Under what circumstances?
We have a pro scouting department that covers the other organizations. It's hard enough keeping track of our 10 teams --- yes, 10. One big league club and nine minor league clubs makes for quite a few players. Of course I see other clubs throughout the season and will take notes on their players, but I don't take special trips to see other clubs. My goal is to see each team twice, if not three times, during the season for a homestand so I can see most of the pitchers and at different times.

What qualities do you look for in a scout?
To be a scout for us the person must be organized, have a strong work ethic, be extremely knowledgeable about baseball, and have a good eye and gut. The eye can see the tools, the bat speed, the movement on a fastball; the gut tells them if this guy is a player. I like it when my scouts say "I have to have this guy!" and go out on a limb for a player because they see a future big leaguer. Of course, then I need to understand why . . . .

Do you get an off-season?
What's that? I do take a vacation with my family every year for Christmas and New Years, and typically I squeeze in a few days here and there at other times of the year . . . but there are no weekends in baseball, nor is there really an off-season. We go from Spring Training to the regular season, to instructional ball, to winter ball, back to Spring Training. It's a grind, and only people who have a real passion for the game can survive.

When I talked to Sam Walton, the author of Fantasyland, last month, he made this statement: "When you talk about the free-agency era in baseball, I think the biggest catalyst for change has been fantasy baseball." He thinks, in essence, that Rotisserie baseball ushered real-life baseball into the sabermetric era --- and I'm inclined to agree with him. Agree / disagree?
I'm not buying it. Bill James is not a fantasy guy, nor is MGL, Tango or any of the other titans. Branch Rickey wasn't thinking about fantasy baseball when he came up with his formula which was published in Life magazine in the 50s. Fact-based analysis is a part of all other industries . . . why should baseball be any different? Now, fantasy baseball did pique many people's interest in the numbers behind the game, and that is a good thing.

Are you still in a fantasy league? (if "yes" --- Who else is in the league with you? What's your team called? How'd you do last season? Which rival are you determined not to finish behind this season?)
No, I stopped doing fantasy baseball when I started working in professional baseball. I had a very good record for the 10 years I did compete. I got Pujols for $10 in a keeper league during the spring of his rookie year, Piazza for $10 in a keeper league during the spring of his rookie year, and Percival for $1 his first year in my AL keeper league. Those were my best acquisitions.

Among Moneyball, 3 Nights in August, and Fantasyland ---- which one most often made you think, "Bingo, this writer gets it"? And which one most often made you roll your eyes and say, "Puh-leeease . . . . . ." ?
All three of those books were well written and thoroughly enjoyable. Speaking of fun books to read, have you read those two books: "Why Do Men Have Nipples?" and "Why Do Men Fall Asleep After Sex?"

Will you be attending the SABR Convention at the Adam's Mark in July? Any subjects you're particularly keen to see the latest research on?
I keep tabs on the SABR research. I don't know if I will go in July because I know how busy I will be. Someone in my front office group will likely go. I'd like to see more research that is based on video analysis rather than strictly stats.

Back in 2004, you e-mailed Brian Gunn at the Redbird Nation blog to solicit fans' input on what a fair contract offer to Edgar Renteria might be. Do fan expertise and fan opinion still inform personnel decisions in any way? If so, how does the organization gather that input?
Any input is valuable if the person puts some thought behind it. I read the blogs and message boards all the time and there is tons of good stuff in there, mixed in with some "puh-leeeease" stuff as you call it. The Renteria responses were mostly very thoughtful.

Does winning a championship change the organization's priorities at all? Does it relieve some of the pressure to win a championship in the short term? Or does it have the opposite effect --- raise expectations and intensify the short-term imperative?
Ask the fans that question, and I think you will have your answer. The only thing I can say is nobody in the front office, on the field, or out scouting is working less this year than last year. In fact, we are doing more.

To what degree, and in what way(s), were you involved in this off-season's roster rebuild? What's the best personnel decision the Cardinals made this off-season (and "best" can mean either an acquisition or a decision not to acquire).
I don't talk about the players on our big league club. Those are questions for Walt and Tony. All the people on the baseball side of the front office contribute to the moves we make. I know our scouts are happy we have Kennedy back.

It seems as if there are competing objectives in the Memphis outfield. You've got the "bench depth" guys --- Marrero, Ludwick, Negron, possibly Schumaker and/or Rodriguez --- who are major-league ready but have reached their ceiling, developmentwise. Then there's another group of guys who've put their time in at Double A and have a shrinking development window (Gorecki, Stavinoha, and Haerther). Plus you've got a couple of special cases (Amaury Marti and Rick Ankiel). That's as many as 10 outfielders for 3 slots at Triple A. How will the playing time be divided up? Will one objective --- depth vs development --- take priority over the other? If so, who decides which one takes precedence?
I spend many hours every day dealing with that issue. The answer will be unveiled over the course of the next few weeks. There is no obvious easy and right answer. We will try to strike the best balance between development and providing insurance for St. Louis.

The unofficial "favorite prospect" of Viva El Birdos last year was Trey Hearne. Derrick Goold notes that Hearne also has fans within the organization --- and that he might even skip high A and start the year at double A. By Trey's own assessment, he doesn't have the most dominating arm in the system; can he pitch in the big leagues anyway? And if so, what assets does he possess to overcome his lack of electric stuff?
Trey is a good pitcher that had a fabulous year. He will be given every chance to continue pitching at the next level and beyond. He will start at Palm Beach, and we will go from there. His best tools are his control and what we call "pitchability." There are guys like that in the big leagues. The bottom line is, as long as he keeps getting guys out, he will keep going. Joe Almaraz and Sig Mejdal both deserve credit for pitching him to me in 2005, and our pitching coaches, Sid Monge and Bryan Eversgerd, deserve credit for helping him get better. I hope he keeps going.

Last year, because of the Anthony Reyes situation, there was a great deal of discussion all season about the organizational preference for the two-seam fastball. When VEB interviewed Adam Ottavino last summer, he said upon joining the Cardinal system he was immediately told to make the two-seamer his primary fastball, pitch to contact instead of trying to miss bats, and strive for groundballs instead of strikeouts. Is every prospect "converted" to this pitching philosophy, or is it done on a case-by-case basis? (If the latter, who determines whether or not to "convert" a given player?) Is there a numerical underpinning for this approach --- ie, is "two-seaminess" a statistically significant predictor of future development? Or is this simply Dave Duncan's preference?
Every pitcher is different. We all know that pitches that have "life," especially "late life," are harder to hit and harder to hit hard (that's a tongue twister). I wish the data we collect and use would differentiate between a 2-seam and 4-seam fastball, but it doesn't. We rely on our baseball knowledge and expertise to tell us that answer. Adam has an electric fastball and big league off-speed stuff. Big league hitters can tee off on straight fastballs and pitches up in the zone, so it's in everybody's best interest to pitch down and have movement on the fastball.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

again, thanks to jeff for taking the time to answer those questions. a few quick reflections:
  • i found luhnow's answer to the hearne question very encouraging, in that the two people who made the case to draft hearne included a "seamhead" (joe almaraz, a longtime scout and, this year, the manager of st louis' rookie-league team at johnson city) and a "stathead" (sig mejdal). i'm happy to see that kind of integration / collaboration, the blending of numerical analysis with old-fashioned scouting. almaraz, many of you know, is the scout who urged st louis to draft jaime garcia in the 22d round in 2005.
  • ditto luhnow's remarks about video analysis in response to the question about the SABR convention. erik's post not long ago on jon jay's swing was in that vein, and extremely educational (erik's got more analysis of that type coming up, by the way). there's a wealth of information to be gained by this, imho. about 20 years ago, bill james attempted to break down the pitching motion into a sequence of discrete acts (about 20 in all) and code pitchers according to how they performed these motions --- eg, height of leg kick, length of stride, arm angle, where they held the hands, where they stood on the rubber, etc etc. he never advanced that project very far, but somebody eventually will --- possibly using something along the lines of the multi-angle sensing equipment that was employed by mlb.com for the "enhanced gameday" feature during last year's playoffs.
  • re the memphis outfield: am i the only one who noted jeff's marked reluctance to dive in on that complicated issue? given his answer to the 2d question of this exchange --- in which he talked about the scarcity of opportunity, and the knowledge that some players fail more for lack of a chance than for lack of ability --- i have to think that the memphis outfield is a core issue for luhnow; indeed, he allowed that he's spending "many hours every day" on it. yet his answer was extremely close to the vest, revealing almost nothing. it may be that the competition over those at-bats is as fierce among different members of the front office as among the players themselves. opinions likely differ about whether first crack at those at-bats should go to guys like ryan ludwick or miguel negron, as opposed to guys like nick stavinoha and cody haerther. then again, luhnow's reticence may simply reflect the fact that the decision remains up in the air, it's a close call, and he doesn't want to prejudice the outcome by revealing where he stands at this particular moment. whatever the case, i think the memphis outfield logjam is a fascinating, and potentially very telling, personnel situation --- especially given the fact that the big-league outfield is old and unstable. keep an eye on who gets the playing time once the season begins, because the way it shakes out might provide us with a clue about where things stand within the organization.
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