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Method to Luhnow's madness
Any time a club tries something new, people react. Sometimes they overreact. And sometimes they spread misinformation.
The Astros frequently embrace new ideas under general manager Jeff Luhnow, a strong proponent of sabermetrics. Some of those ideas are quite unusual. But the things a reporter hears . . . well, not all of them are true.
I recently called Luhnow after I heard something in scouting circles that I found difficult to believe — that the Astros are instructing their minor leaguers not to swing at any 3-2 pitch.
“I don’t know where that came from,” Luhnow said, chuckling. “I heard that as well. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Our approach is the same top down. It’s driven by our hitting coach, John Mallee, and (assistant coach) Dan Radison. We want (hitters) to swing at pitches they can do damage on.
“Obviously, if you’re one ball away from getting a free pass, it’s a little different than being three balls away from getting a free pass. We’re not going to chastise a player for taking a borderline pitch that had they swung at, it probably would have been a weak groundball.
“There is a philosophy that is probably a little more lenient toward taking on that 3-2 count. But no way are we mandating that people take on 3-2 counts. That’s ridiculous. That would be destroying value. We’re smarter than that.”
OK, let’s get to something that the Astros actually are doing — using a pair of starting pitchers in each minor league game, and a total of eight per club.
The first starter generally throws five innings or 75 pitches. The second then replaces him, sometimes followed by a closer.
Critics of the plan say that it does not allow pitchers to build arm strength or learn how to pitch into deep games. But Luhnow said the Astros eventually will transition back to traditional five-man rotations, first at Triple A before the June draft, then at the lower levels.
Two Triple-A starters, left-hander Dallas Keuchel and righty Paul Clemens, graduated to the majors shortly after the season began. A third, right-hander John Ely, underwent Tommy John surgery.
“Basically, the argument for having eight instead of five (at Triple A) is dissipating quickly,” Luhnow said. “I still think there’s value in minimizing pitch counts early in the year just from an overall maintenance and health perspective.
“We do want them to experience going through the lineup a third time. We want them to get the sense of what it takes using that third pitch, mixing it up a little bit more, maintaining your command late in the game. They will get that.”
One benefit to the “tandem” plan is that starters learn to prepare as relievers — an advantage when they are promoted to pitch out of the major league bullpen, as Clemens and Keuchel were earlier this season.
Another advantage, Luhnow said, is that minor league innings are distributed to the pitchers that the organization values most.
“What ends up happening at the minor league level is that middle relievers who are reliable minor league middle relievers but are not prospects end up accumulating a whole bunch of innings over the course of the year to help clubs win ballgames,” Luhnow said.
“By forcing a tandem system, you’re basically saying, ‘These eight guys are the priority guys, plus one closer.’ To a certain extent, you’ve got a little more top-down control over how innings in the minor leagues get allocated. You know that those eight guys plus the closer are going to get the innings that they need.”
As part of the system, the Astros award letter grades to their starters after each outing, as if they were still in school. Luhnow said he developed the concept when he was the Cardinals farm director and Dyar Miller was his pitching coordinator.
What determines whether a pitcher gets an “A” or an “F?”
Allow Luhnow to explain.
“There are two things we need to see,” Luhnow said. “We need to see their effectiveness. Effectiveness is judged by the manager and pitching coach. Did they use their changeup? Did they use their second pitch? Did they have command of their fastball? Those are the things that you see as a manager or pitching coach that you might not pick up from just reading a boxscore.
“Also, we rely on an assessment of their health. If you’re getting consistently a high GPA on pitching and on health, we’re going to allow you go deeper into games, pitch more innings. It’s a way to control how much rope we give the guys. It’s also a way to understand the variability of a pitcher’s value (from start to start).”
Luhnow said the grades help the Astros make better decisions on whether to extend their minor league starters in games or promote them to the next level. The system, however, is not used at the major league level.
When I first heard about the grades, I immediately thought of a potential flaw: What if a pitcher gets down 4-0 in the first inning but ends up completing six, allowing six runs total? Does he get credit for saving his bullpen?
“Absolutely,” Luhnow said. “Every pitcher has bad innings. If they can recover from it and give you four quality innings after that . . . it’s like on a final if you miss the first question and get the next three right, you might not get an A, but you might get a B.”
It’s different. It’s unusual. But like most of Luhnow’s ideas, it’s rooted in a certain logic.
Luhnow obviously will bear responsibility if some of his methods fail. The methods that actually exist, that is. Not the ones that people imagine.