Jeff Luhnow and the Rule of Thirds

Jeff Luhnow General Manager Houston Astros

Jeff Luhnow
General Manager
Houston Astros


Just read an interesting 11/29/2015 article by Paul Lebowitz for the “Today’s Knuckleball” site, entitled, “How Much Credit Does Luhnow Truly Deserve for Astros Rise?

Here’s the link:

The article delves into the always fascinating intricacies of the perpetual questions which always arise, even if no one writes about them loudly, after three to five years, about how much of the success or failure the new GM is due to his efforts or the state of the team under the previous regime, and how much of the now crystallizing outcome is due to the always odiously elusive factors of good or back luck?

Throw in a few character or personality assertions about how the GM’s ego handles tough questions on sleazy or simply poor decision-making in specific player management situations and all the ingredients are in place for some spirited reader debate on whether or not Jeff Luhnow is doing a good job – or is he being given more credit than he deserves for the Astros’ two-season ascent from three consecutive seasons (2011-13) of 105, 107, and 111 losses?

I would argue that we could debate the merits of Jeff Luhnow as an Astros GM through yet another season and maybe even then, depending upon what the team does in 2016, the same arguments put forth in the referenced article, by Lebowitz and readers themselves, might still be circuitously unwinding toward an eventually polarizing tract. – That being said, should the Astros win the World Series next year, watch the articles shift to “Is Jeff Luhnow Really Worth What the Cardinals Are Willing to Pay to Bring Him Home to St. Louis?”

It’s just the nature of the beast in baseball. Becoming the only still standing winning club, when all the others have been defeated, invariably silences or blunts the arguments about the GM’s contributions to success and simply makes the GM figure attractive to all other well-heeled clubs that want a quick taste of the result.

So far, Jeff Luhnow has done pretty much everything he said he was going to do – and with the full support of club owner Jim Crane. First, he warned us of three to four years of barren shelf MLB talent as the plan to gut the team of veteran mediocre players with salaries that were most often above these guys’ values was coming. Second, the focus would be the restoration of a depleted talent pool at the minor league level. And third, the GM would incorporate sabermetric evaluation into the plan and also use traditional scouting reports into the overall plan for decision-making on talent acquirement at the amateur draft, trading, and free agency gates.

Luhnow did what he said he was going to do. Dumping players that could only help the team keeping playing mediocre baseball and enduring abject failure temporarily for the sake of a future that would begin to turn toward positive results by 2015.

Was Luhnow right in his predictions for some good signs of recovery in 2015? No, he was wrong. The turnaround started earlier in 2014, when the Astros ascended from being the 51-111 club of 2013 to a 70-92 club in 2014. That was a 19-game improvement in one season, folks.

Luhnow was right about 2015 being an even better season, however. The Astros’ 86-76 finish as the second wild card in the 2015 AL playoffs was an accomplishment beyond most our expectations. It also represented at 16 game win plus over 2014 – and a 35-game win improvement in the two years that had passed since the Astros’ descent into it’s all time loss abyss season.

A half century ago, while I was starting my future “day job” as a psychotherapist as the youngest member of the clinical faculty at Tulane Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry and Neurology, my supervising department psychiatrist, Dr. Don Gallant, gave me some advice that has made all the difference in the world about how I’ve gone about my professional life ever since.

Which Way is the Wind Blowing?

“If you want to enjoy your life doing a pretty tough job,” Gallant said, “build your private practice with people who are already on their way to getting well when they come to see you. – And try to stay away from large numbers of new patients who are already on their way to getting a whole lot worse.  – The “already getting well” group will think you are the best thing to come along since sliced bread or Carl Jung. – The “already on their way to the nuthouse or grave yard” group will simply try to take you with them.”

I probably wouldn’t be sitting here this morning, alive and reasonably sane, some fifty years later, had it not been for my old mentor. – Thank you, Dr. Don Gallant. In fact, thank you for inspiring me to the wisdom that you advice is no nugget for therapists alone. It applies to any situation in which we take on a great responsibility to many others – and that certainly includes MLB executives at the presidential or general manager levels.

The Rule of Thirds

Dr. Gallant used to present the truth about working with people in psychotherapy in a most humbling way. Humbling, but true it is – and key to any plans we make for getting anything done with anyone – or any culture of ego-equipped humans who say they want change or a better result with any valued enterprise they may be asking you to engage.

According to Gallant, the Rule of Thirds for therapists works this way:

If you do little more than show up for your patient appointments, and if the people you see in your therapy practice are drawn from of a general population of all people expressing the need for help, … one-third will get better in your company; one-third will stay the same; and one-third will get worse.

The more you act to reach the “willing to get well” group, and actually do apply your skills to the task, the more you will get to taste the experience of success in your work.

If I were to apply the “rule of thirds” model to the matter of Jeff Luhnow’s performance as GM of the Houston Astros, I would make these general statements:

  1. Luhnow walked into a situation that was built by Tal Smith and others as a positive psychological foundation for winning baseball. In spite of the previous owner’s decimation of the talent at the minor league level, the Houston baseball culture wanted “wellness” to whatever was sick about the current situation and was willing to go along with the radical change plan that Luhnow put forth.
  2. Luhnow built his plan on a positive base. There would be no significant inherent resistance to his new program and substantive roster evidence (Jose Altuve, for example) existed that the people running the show prior to his employ had not left him with a totally empty cupboard.
  3. The baseball fans of Houston want winning baseball. They do not want ego struggles for power or wasted time with petty criticisms over “who did what to whom” in spite of our new winning momentum. Luhnow has a fair chance to ride the momentum of Houston’s desire for reaching and maintaining a level of solidarity as an annual contender.

Bottom Line: When you apply a drastic formula for change to a franchise culture that is already basically healthy, but wants change in the direction of again becoming an annual contender, whatever you do, if it’s soundly planned, honestly communicated to the fans, and supported by a helpful, but non-meddling owner, it will probably work. As fans, we are capable of trading our patience for your ability to spell out your long range plan and then produce results on time. So far, by the Astros’ 2015 accomplishments, and only two years beyond their 111 loss, but unsurprising 2013 nadir, the club is doing better to date than most of us had expected – and hope has never been higher for even better days to come.

The great songwriter Hoagy Carmichael wrote an evergreen lyric years ago that best summarizes Dr. Gallant’s thoughts on the “Rule of Thirds”.

Carmichael wrote:

“You got to accentuate the positive; eliminate the negative;

Latch on to the affirmative; and don’t mess with ‘Mr. In Between’!”





3 Responses to “Jeff Luhnow and the Rule of Thirds”

  1. gregclucas Says:

    I saw this article supplied from another source and it is very fair. Not to say that the current Astro regime will not be very successful. We simply cannot assume improvement will continue on a steady pace. Baseball (or all sports) rarely works that easily (see: Rockets as a great current example.) It is also very instructive the article pointed out player drafting, development and even acquisition rarely deals with true super stars. Most are role players…players who have a hot run or players who can play in the major leagues but aren’t all stars.

    The key is making the right calls…whether management is tied to old fashioned physical scouting or the current trend to do things with numbers. Make the right calls and the team wins and whichever method is dominant will get praise.

  2. Shirley Virdon Says:

    Bill, that was a very good analysis!
    Baseball is always unpredictable and that is why we keep watching and 2nd guessing the”managing” of this game that so many of us have learned to love!
    Thank you!

  3. Wayne R. Roberts Says:

    This all may be well and good. However Crane got us into the American League. That is an unforgivable sin. Can Luhnow get us back where we belong?

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