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BtB Jeff Luhnow Interview

This story originally ran in April, 2009. Bumping it as Luhnow has now accepted offer to join the Houston Astros as General Manager. This is great insight into what should be a good hire for the team. Check it out:

For those of you who don't know, Jeff Luhnow is the VP of Amateur Scouting and Player Development for the St. Louis Cardinals. As you'll read from the interview, Jeff comes from a business background, and among other things has had a hand in integrating data-based analysis into some of its personnel decision-making processes in the Cardinals' organization. He was over the '05-'08 drafts, which included highly-regarded prospects such as Colby Rasmus, Brett Wallace and Chris Perez.

Jeff was nice enough to agree to a little Q and A before the Cardinals kicked off their season. The questions are a group effort from the BtB staff sent over email, so I hope you don't mind if they are a little scatter-barrel.

Because of your business background, many inside the industry may have initially viewed you with suspicion. Yet under your watch you have taken the Cardinal farm system from mediocrity to being accepted as one of the top third in baseball. Do you at all feel vindicated with what you have been able to accomplish in the relatively short time you have been in your role?

I am pleased that our system is developing players with Major League potential and it is nice to get the acknowledgment from industry trade publications and analysts who study these areas. There are many people who deserve the credit for this… starting with our ownership group for identifying scouting and player development as critical areas and funding the efforts… to our scouts who spend countless hours looking for players all across the globe… to our coaches who shape the players and help them reach their potential… to our trainers and medical staff who keeps everyone healthy… to our front office staff that does a tremendous amount of ‘behind the scenes’ work to keep the trains running on time and is constantly developing tools to help our scouting and development efforts.

It has been a privilege for me to not only be involved in these areas but also to help shape the direction. I entered the industry with very little baseball experience and quite a lot of other experience that I have used to do my job. There is a steep learning curve in baseball and everyone knows this, so it’s not a surprise that someone who comes in from the outside, especially at a high level, would be initially viewed with some skepticism. I knew this coming in and I also knew the best way to prevent this from being a problem would be to work hard, work smart, listen carefully, and give it my best. Fortunately, I’ve worked with many experienced baseball people who have helped me along the way… people like John Mozeliak, John Vuch, Dyar Miller, Mike Roberts, Dan Radison, Roger Smith, Chuck Fick, Joe Rigoli, Enrique Brito, Charlie Gonzalez and many more that have gone out of their way to answer my questions and help me become a better baseball executive.

What do you feel your greatest challenge is?

The challenge has been, is currently, and will continue to be the same – creating and sustaining a scouting and player development pipeline that can consistently produce Major League players to help the St Louis Cardinals win championships. That is the objective of our scouting, player development, and international efforts. We are on the right path but we cannot let up - one bad year in scouting and development can have a multi-year effect in the future that we don’t want to experience. In a way, that happened to us with a few unlucky and missing draft choices during the early part of this decade and it took us a while to recover.

I'm curious to what role statistics plays in evaluating high school and college players (especially players in smaller programs). Do they correct for level of competition? If so, do they find the corrections pretty accurate? Or is this an area where scouting really comes to the fore?

We rely on many sources of information for all player types. The basis of all our decisions is and will always be the scouting reports we get from our scouts. When we have quality information available in the way of performance histories, we certainly use it to shape our decisions. Of course, the quality of performance data from Division 1 college programs is very good and we recognize it is a strong predictor of performance in professional baseball. We have a sophisticated method of adjusting for quality of competition, ballparks, and other factors that may influence the results. When we move from D-1 to other college levels, junior colleges, summer leagues, and high school leagues, the information becomes less predictive and therefore less useful. We look at if, of course, but the scouting opinions will quickly trump the performance information if there is a conflict.

One of the things that I think helps push sabermetrics (and most innovation really) is openness of information. Do teams/scouts share a lot of information about players/technology or do they keep most of it under wraps?

It really depends on the team and on the individual scout. We encourage innovation and outside the box thinking across our entire organization and our scouts know this, so they are constantly generating ideas about how we can improve. These range from efficiency ideas (one scout recommended we get everyone a AAA card to help save on hotel costs and showed how it would save money) to technology ideas (one scout suggested we share calendars in MS outlook so we could easily see where the other scouts were going to be on any given weekend) to process ideas (one scout recommended we have regional meetings prior to the draft so all the part time guys could voice their opinion in person). We share many ideas amongst our group but we discourage our scouts from sharing our ideas with other clubs.

On the scouting side, it’s an interesting dynamic. Scouts in the field spend much more time with scouts from other teams than they do with anyone from our organization. There is a tendency to develop strong friendships with one another and it quickly resembles a fraternity of sorts. Scouts help each other out with scheduling information, travel tips and other tidbits that can make someone’s life easier on the road. The player discussions are a bit more guarded, although they do happen. Any information captured during a game from other scouts should always be taken with a grain of salt…

How would you compare advanced insider sabermetrics to public sabermetrics?

Great question. First of all, I am constantly impressed with the quality of the publicly available research on the game of baseball. It is clear that there are numerous very talented and smart people who study the game and develop amazing and true insights. MGL and Tango’s book is a great example of this, as is the work shared and discussed on their website. I’ve had a chance to talk to and work with both of them and they are first rate baseball thinkers. To me, these two and many more like them are an important part of our industry… both in terms of helping shape the game in some ways as well as generating public interest in the analytical part of the game.

As a baseball club, we read much, if not most, of the thoughtful research done on the topics that matter to us. When we know the people and the quality of the work, we consider the findings useful and may even act on them. However, since we don’t control the work and can’t do the quality checks to make sure the data was clean, the methods were up to our standards, etc, it becomes more difficult to act on the conclusions. That drives us to develop our own capabilities, which we have done for the past six years, since fall of 2003 when I arrived at the Cardinals.

Our analytical group, currently led by Mike Girsch and under the supervision of John Abbamondi, produces very hiqh quality work that is both highly relevant and actionable. When I compare it to the quality of work I used at any of the world class companies that I worked for prior to joining baseball, it is equal and sometimes better. Is it better than the public work done? For our purposes it is, because we trust it more and it helps us answer questions that we need in order to make decisions. Our analytical group includes four full-time, highly experienced employees and a number of other part time contributors. This is what they do, so you can be assured that they do it well.

The study of bio-mechanics recently has come into popularity in the baseball blogosphere. The club hired Jeff Albert, who used to write for Baseball Analysts to be one of their team's hitting instructors, and also Brent Strom, who teaches "classic mechanics", a theory that seems to purport some similar ideas to what we see on some of the blogs. Do you see this sort of research as a way to get a potential edge, particularly when it pertains to drafting pitchers, or even signing Latin American pitchers?

We have a unique mix of instructors and coaches across all disciplines of the game. Our goal is to have the best curriculum and the best faculty in player development so we can maximize each player’s potential. Our scouts believe in each of these players, and it’s our job in player development to turn the raw material that the scouts provide into Major League players. The more efficient and effective we can be at doing this, the bigger edge we might have over other clubs. The curriculum and organization of the faculty starts with our coordinators across each discipline, and we have some of the best and brightest in the game.

Dyar Miller heads up our pitching efforts and does a terrific job of balancing all the points of view and helping shape it into a Cardinal way of developing our pitchers. He works closely with Brent Strom and understands Brent’s passion for studying and teaching the movements, the rhythm, and the tempo that great pitcher’s tend to have that keep them relatively injury free and pitching at the highest level over a long career. Tim Leveque has analyzed literally thousands of current and past pitchers and has developed amazing insights from his work that we use at all levels. Then we have the former big league pitchers, who help our players learn the finer points of competing at a high level – Dennis Martinez, Blaise Ilsley, and Bryan Eversgerd. These guys are at the higher levels because the mental part of the game becomes much more important and there are typically fewer mechanical adjustments being tried. Ace Adams and Doug White are terrific teachers who, along with Tim, are working with the younger players.

Dan Radison heads up our efforts on the hitting side. He is as passionate about hitting as anyone I’ve come across, and spends thousands of hours a season in the batting cages working with the players. He also believes in the value of video as a tool to not only identify areas of improvement, but also as a teaching tool to demonstrate to the players where they need adjustments, why, and how to do it. Jeff Albert is a student and teacher of hitting, as are Mark Budaska, Derick May, Joe Kruzel, and Johnny Rodriguez. I would put our hitting group against any in the industry and feel confident we have one of the best.

I also need to mention Dann Bilardello and Mark DeJohn, two terrific instructors who teach the game the way George Kissell and Dave Ricketts did – two men that are heroes and legends among Cardinal minor league history and helped shape many big league players.

In the Cardinal organization, you see some attempts for rightward shifts in the defensive spectrum. The conventional wisdom says they rarely work, but we see an outfielder attempting to move to 2B, a couple of corner infielders moved to catcher, and even a few catchers moving from behind the plate to the mound. Is this a paradigm the Cardinals are going to continue utilizing, heavily moving forward whenever there is a surplus at one position or a deficiency at another? And do the Cardinals consider third/second base interchangeable defensively?

Several questions and comments in there so let me take them separately.

We are not trying to buck or reverse the defensive spectrum notion. It is something we recognize. Having said that, we want the players to sustain (for as long as possible) the most demanding position that they might reasonably be expected to play in the big leagues. There are organizational constraints and needs that will factor into these decisions as well. Oh, and we can’t forget the desire and will of the player. If they aren’t committed to a position change, it will likely fail. Let’s think about the moves to which you are referring:

Skip (Schumaker) at 2b. There is an organizational need (deficiency at 2b, surplus in the OF). He has experience at middle infield from his amateur days. He is motivated to make it work. We have one of the best infield instructors in the game. Put all these together and it becomes compelling because if it works, it has huge value to the organization.

(Tony) Cruz at C. He has the tools. He’s played the position before. He can hit. He likes catching. We need catchers. He can always go back to 3B later if the opening is there. We have several 3B in the high minors. To me, this was almost a no-brainer.

(Steve) Hill at C. He has experience at this position. He can hit, possibly for a lot of power. It’s hard to see him making it in our organization as a first baseman. We have a glut of outfielders. He has made big strides since we started the transition. He could easily go back to LF or 1B. Again, seems to make sense.

(Aaron)Luna at 2B. He requested to play this position. We need 2b. His upside is an offensive 2b with a high OBP and decent OPS. He stands out more there than he would in the OF.

Motte as a pitcher. Umm…

(Casey) Mulligan as a pitcher. Hitting wasn’t coming around… great arm… wants to be Motte. Still young.

(David) Carpenter as a pitcher. Hitting was slow to come around… older college guy… resisted at first, but now wants to be Motte.

To answer your last question, no we do not see third and second as interchangeable. There are different skills required for each of these positions. Third base is called the hot corner for a reason… quick reaction, quick feet, quick hands and a good arm are required. Second base is involved in some of the most complex plays in the field…especially double plays, and range is more important at this position. In some ways, it’s the SS position for left handed hitters, of which there are so many in today’s game.

One of the things I think the Cardinals are noted for is their ownership of much of their minor league affiliates (though I guess the recent Memphis deal fell through) What difference do you think having the parent organization owning the affiliates makes in terms of player development and/or other components of the major league team?

The Springfield decision was more about the economics than it was about any player development reasons. If you can make a profit with your minor league teams, that profit can be used to help fund several organizational priorities.

As the farm director, the direct ownership does make things somewhat more straightforward. We don’t have to worry about the group changing their affiliation (as happened with Peoria) and we have more influence over areas like field and facility improvements. I will say, though, that we’ve had nothing but great experiences working with the group at Memphis, Quad Cities, Batavia, and Johnson City, and the operating group in Jupiter has been top notch.

Ten years from now, what technology will exist to help analysts gather the data they want, and what questions will we be examining? (Or how much more detailed will our analysis of current questions be?)

The available data has improved. With that, there are opportunities and challenges. The sheer volume of data (multiple pieces of data for each pitch thrown, for example) creates a big challenge in warehousing and managing data and also means you need more sophisticated analytical techniques for extracting the “so whats”. If you do this well, you can gain insights that were unavailable with less granular data.

From my perspective, video is the next frontier and as we get information about where the players were standing as the ball is put in play, we can refine and improve our defensive analysis. On top of that, there are many competing technologies to measure spin, angles, etc for the ball and bat that will someday provide amazing insights. To be honest, I can wait for my i-Phone to have a radar gun app, a better stopwatch app, a video app, and Doppler radar app so I can plan my wardrobe and measure the spin on the ball.