The St. Louis Cardinals were ahead of the curve in sabermetric research. But as other teams caught up, the failure to retain Jeff Luhnow seems like more of a mistake than ever.
When Jeff Luhnow, the St. Louis Cardinals‘ vice president of player scouting and development, was plucked from the Cardinals’ front office by the Houston Astros in December 2011, fans likely didn’t think too much of it. And who could blame them? The team had just won the World Series, and emotions were riding high.
But now, eight years after Luhnow left the Cardinals and went on to shape the juggernaut Astros, Cardinals fans are starting to see the hole his departure left behind.
Many members of the Cardinals’ front office didn’t fully embrace Luhnow’s unique approach to analytics, and he became a controversial figure around the organization. But when he delivered results draft after draft, the tide started to turn in his favor. Now, after an Astros championship with Luhnow as the general manager, he seems to be the head architect of baseball success.
But Luhnow didn’t seem to be truly appreciated until he worked his magic with the Astros, transforming them from basement dwellers to World Series champions. The Astros are now the leader in analytics among MLB teams — the position the Cardinals held several years ago.
The Astros have been ahead of other teams when it comes to implementing wearable technology and high-speed cameras to accurately display pitcher mechanics and grips, giving the team the ability to easily spot any inefficiencies a pitcher might have.
For offense, the Astros also use the high-speed cameras along with swing sensors to determine a hitter’s efficiency and effectively train batters who have more holes in their swings. The results on both sides of the ball have been overwhelmingly positive.
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The Astros made another revolutionary change after the 2017 season, reducing their number of minor league affiliates from nine to seven under the theory that it is better to focus their resources around the most promising players. This could lead to an entire facelift to minor league baseball if it catches on.
It would seem silly to give Luhnow all the credit for this idea, but the similar paths to success the Astros and the Cardinals have taken under him by using far-out ideas make it hard to be a coincidence.
While the Astros have flourished under Luhnow, the Cardinals have had a more difficult go of player development after Luhnow’s departure. Rival teams once spoke enviously of the Cardinals’ ability to be ahead of the rest of the league regarding scouting and development. Luhnow’s first three drafts had 24 of his picks make the major leagues, the highest mark in the game.
But it wasn’t just early picks; the Cardinals had an uncanny ability to find major league talent in the late rounds. Under Luhnow, the Cardinals drafted late-round gems such as Trevor Rosenthal, Jaime Garcia, Matt Carpenter, Allen Craig, Kevin Siegrist and Matt Adams.
The Cardinals haven’t had the same type of success in the later rounds after Luhnow left, and the team’s aging core in Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Paul Goldschmidt and Carpenter is a sign that while the team still has some young pieces who could be stars, such as Jack Flaherty, Jordan Hicks and Paul DeJong, it needs to hit on some players in the later rounds to be a dominating, well-rounded team again.
It seemed that the Cardinals’ front office knew that Luhnow’s departure might have meant trouble. In 2015, Chris Correa, the Cardinals’ scouting director, was charged with hacking into the Astros’ database to acquire confidential analytical information that Luhnow had taken to Houston. The Cardinals subsequently lost their top two draft picks, potentially crippling the team if it wasn’t able to work some of its Luhnow-like late-round magic.
The Cardinals are currently atop the National League Central and could make the postseason for the first time since 2015. But while the immediate future looks bright, as the pieces from the Luhnow era gradually fade away from the Cardinals, the team could need to rely more on acquiring players through trade instead of being the traditionally homegrown franchise it was in years past. While this method can work, it is obviously much riskier as it usually requires giving up talent.
Luhnow’s effect on the Cardinals likely wasn’t appreciated by most of the fans, but he appears to have been instrumental in shaping the Cardinals franchise and now the Astros. In hindsight, promoting the cutting-edge Luhnow to general manager and keeping his secrets in-house likely would have been the smartest move. But now the Astros are reaping the rewards the Cardinals once enjoyed. As the saying goes, it’s hard to appreciate what you have until you lose it.