“We talk internally about being on the ‘bleeding edge,’” Astros GM Jeff Luhnow told the McKinsey Quarterly in June of 2018. The exceedingly collegial two-part interview was a homecoming of sorts for Luhnow, who worked at the management consulting giant for five years before going into the baseball business. “We know we’re going to have some cuts, some nicks, some bruises—because if we’re not, it’s similar to base running... If you don’t ever get thrown out at third, you’re leaving runs on the table. I consider it the same way in terms of how quickly we implement new technologies and try and squeeze out a competitive advantage.”
Baseball is a zero-sum business, Luhnow told the two McKinsey employees asking the questions. “And I know a lot of industries feel that way,” Luhnow says, “where any advantage you gain has to, by definition, come at someone else’s disadvantage.” In this case, though, it’s not just a feeling. “For us,” he says, “we win a game, someone else loses.” This may not strike you as much of an insight, given that baseball, the sport the Astros play, does not allow ties except in the case of All-Star Games that go on too long. But Luhnow’s point isn’t quite as prosaic as it looks at first. He is explaining why the front office he created in Houston, which is by consensus both the best and the most unrelentingly high-handed in the sport, is the way it is, and how it understands what it does.
That zero-sum perspective is, in that sense, a way into why the Astros are where they are right now—in the World Series after another dominant season, but also at the center of an entirely avoidable conflagration ignited by a senior front office staffer who made a point of gloating about the team’s most cynical player acquisition in a way he intended to be hurtful, exacerbated by the team’s decision to baselessly tab the initial reports about the incident as fake news and some unsatisfying non-apologies, and not nearly ended by the decision, on Thursday afternoon, to fire the staffer in question. This is all the same story, really, and so it fits that Luhnow pitches his team’s rise and reign as a sort of business-school case study about not just innovation and efficiency, but the business of dominance.
Luhnow’s point, and the excuse embedded within it, is that to be as brilliant and agile and efficient as the Astros have been the front office must also be harsh in all the ways that it is. Since taking over in 2011, Luhnow has faced down the challenge of building a sustainably great baseball organization out of an unsustainable and mediocre one and conquered it. He built the organization he set out to build as ruthlessly and quickly as he could, and he did it. The idea was to understand more than any other team by reducing the game down to its smallest component parts. Other reductions followed from this—the game into a series of binaries, the broader world into a series of opponents to defeat. From all that rigorously rational reduction, a hierarchy of value emerges that orders what matters and what matters less. No team has ever done this work with more focus or cold acuity than Luhnow’s Astros. And here we all are.
The work of winning baseball games, on the field, is inherently a binary affair, but the team of analysts in Luhnow’s “decision sciences” department, which he has built and turned over regularly—Luhnow engaged McKinsey consultants to audit the team in both 2017 and 2018—since taking over as GM in 2011, necessarily deals in and with considerably more inputs. “We get tens of thousands of rows of data—about every swing, every pitch, every fielder movement,” is how Assistant GM Brandon Taubman explained it to the Cornell Alumni Magazine last spring. “And we need to decide what to do with that information.”
It was Taubman who took care to shout at Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein and two other women reporting in the Astros locker room about how he was “so fucking glad” that the team had acquired closer Roberto Osuna—the pitcher that had just blown Game 6 for his team in the top of the ninth inning before Jose Altuvé won it in the bottom, and whom the team had acquired as a distressed asset of sorts during a 75-game suspension for domestic abuse. It later emerged that Taubman was directing his remarks at a reporter who, he believed, had timed some tweets about domestic violence awareness such that they seemed directed at Osuna.
Before this career-defining act of bellowing dipshittery, Taubman was known, if he was known at all, as one of the senior cogs in the great information machine that the Astros had made. The people that had occupied Taubman’s position in Houston’s front office in recent years have been hired as general managers in Milwaukee and Baltimore; in time, the 34-year-old Taubman would likely have followed suit. The job from which he was fired on Thursday was technically one heading up the team’s pro player scouting; it is a peculiar and telling quirk of the organization that Taubman oversaw no pro scouts in this job. The team no longer employs any, as The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh noted, with that work now entrusted to in-house analysts and the various closely held proprietary methods that the organization has developed.
Over the last two decades, more or less every big league organization has come to understand the work of building a team as an exercise in balls-to-the-wall arbitrage, with the difference between more and less advanced organizations resolving how much information those teams have and how well they understand it. The resulting asymmetries between a team like the Astros, who pull sophisticated video and tracking data from every minor league game and then parse it to microscopic granularity, and a team like the Mets, with a handful of full-time analytics staffers and no such infrastructure at all in the lower minors, is something akin to the difference in horsepower between the engines in a Ferrari and a lawnmower. Teams can do any number of things with all this understanding, and no team has done more than the Astros—everything from their overhaul of Gerrit Cole’s pitch mix to the player development approach that shaped the team’s unmatched young core is an application of how much the Astros know, and how precisely they know it. Mostly, though, they use all that information and all that understanding in the same way that every team does, which is to get the maximum return on the minimum of investment. Some people will find this more inspiring than others.
Because every team is playing the same game—the Mets’ approach could best be categorized as anecdotal/folkloric and the Royals often seem to just be trying to craft an unusually muscular Christian men’s group, but both at least have analytics departments—the Astros have to take their edges where they can find them. Because this is all happening in the broader shadow of neoliberal capitalism and the consequence-free hothouse micro-economy of baseball, it is all shot through with an intense and unrelentingly paranoid anxiety. In that area, too, Luhnow and the Astros have been industry leaders. Secrecy isn’t really a value, but it’s as essential to what Houston does under Luhnow as any actual core value could be, and in lieu of any actual values to find—efficiency isn’t really a value, either, and neither is leverage—it will have to do.
This organizational dedication to all that proprietary stuff created some problems at the beginning, Luhnow told his McKinsey interlocutors, because players and coaches were initially put off by non-negotiable edicts from above about, say, shifting aggressively on defense. Eventually, Luhnow says, the team brought “our major-league pitchers and infielders into a room and decided to share the data with them, which is a little risky because players leave and they go to other organizations.” Once the players knew enough about what the team was doing, Luhnow observed, they were more inclined to buy in. The key, he says, was to get the players to believe all that secret stuff would help them win. “Then you’re no longer pushing,” Luhnow says. “It’s starting to pull. Once that happens, the sky’s the limit.”
“Amazing story,” the interviewer responds.
For an organization built on the promise that every moment of every baseball game can be fully understood, the Astros sure pivoted to radical subjectivity notably quickly when Taubman’s behavior became public. “Brandon has apologized for inappropriate behavior, and from my perspective clearly something happened that he regrets,” Luhnow said on Houston sports radio Wednesday. “What we really don’t know is the intent behind the comments that he made, and we may never know that. Because the person that made them and the person that heard them have very different perspective.”
But from the first, Trump-scented statement blithely accusing Apstein of fabricating a story through to the heavily qualified semi-apologies and justifications issued by Taubman and team owner Jim Crane through to the desperate cashiering of Taubman, the Astros have not so much failed at taking responsibility as revealed the extent to which they believe that they’re beyond it. No accountability has been taken for the initial statement, which was instantly and easily debunked as a vicious lie; Luhnow said on Thursday that “many” people in the front office had looked at the initial statement, and yet there it still stands. It’s the most serious accusation that can be made against any journalist—The Athletic’s Marc Carig has rightfully described it as an attempted career-ender—but also not one that the team seems to have thought or cared much about.
“They don’t give a shit, to be honest, what people think of them,” one of Luhnow’s former employees told Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik, as related in their book The MVP Machine. “Jeff’s gonna do what he wants to do.” In the book, Lindbergh and Sawchik note that Luhnow was “talked out of” drafting child sex offender Luke Heimlich; his owner backed him on Osuna and the deal got done. Some people left the front office over it, and others took their place.
At every turn, the Astros have been almost poignantly incapable of accepting the possibility that outsiders had any sort of standing that they were bound to respect. All the pettifoggery about the inherent unknowableness of other people and the smarm about the team’s support of worthy charities does not just feel false, but transparently comes from the same place as Taubman’s triumphal dispshittery. This is not about the organization’s refined understanding of the game, but about the simple binaries that it creates. This is the message that Taubman sent to those reporters in the clubhouse that night, and which the team has since reiterated—that his triumph trumped their pain, that his victory fundamentally entailed their humiliation and defeat, that what he did mattered more than what they did. A zero-sum endeavor, with the winners forever indemnified by their winning.
This is not a pathology that’s unique to the Astros, and if it’s unquestionably one that Luhnow brought with him from the world of management consulting, it wasn’t one that McKinsey invented, either. “We’ll be better,” Luhnow said at the end of his apology on Wednesday, “and do better.” All the evidence still suggests that the organization believes the former somehow guarantees the latter. Nothing is fixed.