From World Series to the waste bin: The extraordinary rise and fall of Leganés president Jeff Luhnow

Jeff Luhnow, CD Leganes’ new president Sipa US/Alamy Live News

The baseball men sat there, silently seething.

In front of them stood a man in his early sixties with thinning, grey hair with a sketch pad in hand. Behind him on a screen with the lecture title: “Classic Mechanics: A Throwing Model Based on the Construction of the Motions of Great Historic Pitchers.”

The man flicked through his illustrations of some of the great pitchers of baseball past in a vain attempt to convince the baseball men that the mechanics of modern-day pitchers could be fine-tuned for efficiency and, crucially, to avoid injury.

The baseball men sat disinterested and unmoved, bulging arms folded. They’d been in baseball for years, and they weren’t about to start taking lessons in pitching from a cartoonist.

Eventually, the talk reticently drew to its conclusion, and the baseball men filed wordlessly out of the room. Resentment for this most recent waste of time was reserved not for the kindly baseball illustrator but for the man who seemed to have a never-ending list of crackpot ideas. The bespectacled business school graduate who apparently thought he could waltz into one of the sport’s blue-blooded organisations and tell everyone there were better ways of doing it.

But time would prove Jeff Luhnow right. Though his communication was undoubtedly clumsy, many of his ideas proved to be innovative and were adopted by the St Louis Cardinals. Soon, he was put in charge of the Cardinals’ player recruitment and was responsible for a series of drafts which proved to be the most successful in the league.

As the Cardinals and his astute player selections won titles, Luhnow moved on –– to the worst team in the league. The new owner of the Houston Astros had given Luhnow the chance to run an entire baseball operation precisely the way he liked. Powered by Luhnow’s analytical decision-making, the Astros rose from unwatchable laughing stock to the best team in baseball.

But then Luhnow’s world came crashing down as the Astros were engulfed in the biggest cheating scandal in modern-day baseball. Luhnow would pay the price — suspended by Major League Baseball, then sacked on the very same day by the ownership that had once placed complete trust in him.

Left on the outside of baseball once more, Luhnow has since resurfaced in the most unlikely of places — in the southern Madrid suburbs as the newly installed president of CD Leganés.

Jeff Luhnow was born in Mexico City in 1966 to American parents who had been dispatched south of the border by their employer, the advertising behemoth McCann Erickson. Brought up in a football-mad city, it proved a challenge to follow the family love of baseball, but Luhnow and his younger brother would spend hours pitching and hitting in the backyard and found some competitive action in the city’s Liga Azteca youth baseball divisions.

But it was trips to America that would really instil Luhnow’s love of baseball. Summer camps in Texas gave him regular opportunities to visit Houston’s space-age Astrodome. Then later, when Luhnow moved to California to complete his schooling, he would catch as many LA Dodgers games as possible.

By the time Luhnow completed his studies, gaining an MBA from Chicago’s Northwestern University, he had developed a deep knowledge of baseball. His many afternoons spent watching the city’s long-suffering Cubs at Wrigley Field inspired him to produce an academic paper on how to turn the team’s fortunes around.

Luhnow’s MBA naturally led him into the business world, where he joined the management consulting firm McKinsey and Co before setting up Archetype Solutions. One of Archetype’s early successes was producing a subtle intervention that provided customers of tailor-made clothing companies with better-fitting clothes. Archetype’s analysis found small but significant biases in customers’ self-reported measurements. An algorithm was introduced into the manufacturing process that subtly corrected the sizing, making customers happy and clothing companies relieved at not having to constantly process returns.

While Luhnow’s innovative use of data propelled him upwards in the business world, America’s favourite pastime remained just that to him. In fact, it didn’t even cross Luhnow’s mind that his skills would be helpful to a baseball team. Baseball remained a closed shop, with owners largely happy to let the baseball lifers do their thing.

But 2003 would prove to be a seminal year in baseball with the publication of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. The book detailed how the low-budget Oakland Athletics had punched above their weight by exploiting weaknesses in established baseball methods and thinking. Key to the Athletics’ success had been the hiring of a Harvard economics graduate named Paul DePodesta. DePodesta helped the organisation develop alternative metrics that identified players likely to be productive for the team but available on lower salaries due to their underperformance on traditional statistical measures or their lack of visual appeal to the scouting fraternity.

The immediate effects in baseball were twofold. Suddenly there were highly-educated baseball fans with years of experience in business who could now see a route into the game they loved. And now, club owners were scrambling to revamp recruitment and create entirely new analytics departments.

Jeff Luhnow epitomised those in the former category; the St Louis Cardinals’ owner Bill DeWitt Jr was very much in the latter. Through a mutual McKinsey connection, Luhnow was hired by the Cardinals as the vice-president of baseball development in September 2003.

Luhnow’s arrival inevitably caused friction in the organisation with those who had been happily doing it their way for years. But with the backing of the owner, Luhnow’s influence grew, and many of the ideas that had been met with hostility eventually became standard practice. Luhnow was an early proponent of extreme defensive shifts — moving fielders far away from their traditional positions — based on data analysis of the specific batter they were facing. Managers had been reluctant to adopt the strategy, but over time it became standard practice across the league.

Even Luhnow’s cartoonist, dismissed out of hand during his presentation, was vindicated. His ability to identify pitchers at greater risk of injury led to him becoming a pitching consultant for around a dozen teams in the MLB.

But it was consistent recruitment success that had marked Luhnow out and turned heads around the league. Luhnow had hired Sig Mejdal, a biomathematician who worked at NASA optimising astronauts’ sleep patterns, to help him with draft preparation. Mejdal and Luhnow’s analysis gave the Cardinals an edge in the early rounds and the ability to keep finding value even in the very late rounds of a draft.

That ability was particularly desirable to teams looking to rebuild. And there was no team in baseball in more need of reconstruction than the 2011 Houston Astros.

Despite being the worst team in baseball, the Astros were bought for $680m by the logistics and shipping magnate Jim Crane. Crane immediately contacted Luhnow with a view to him becoming the Astro’s new general manager. So enticed was Luhnow by the prospect of running a baseball team entirely by his own methods that he immediately sent Crane a 24-page dossier setting out his vision. When Luhnow met Crane, he asked him what limitations would there be on his management. Crane slid a piece of paper across the desk, completely blank on both sides.

The Astros began a new chapter, but Crane and Luhnow were smart enough to know that in the short-term, the Astros would get worse, not better. Building a winning squad through the draft would take years, and the emphasis on the future meant that anyone of value on the Astros roster would be sacrificed to accumulate future draft picks.

Luhnow had taken over a team that had lost 106 games. In 2012, his first season, the Astros lost 107. In 2013 they lost 111. By the beginning of the 2014 season, the Astros had become quite literally unwatchable, with one game registering a 0.0 Nielsen rating — a figure that meant the TV ratings provider couldn’t detect that anyone had tuned in to watch the game at all.

Still, Luhnow and Crane held their nerve, and 2014 was to provide some hints of a recovery and a famous magazine front cover that more than hinted at a brighter future for the Astros.

In that same early-season where fans could barely bring themselves to watch, a Sports Illustrated journalist named Ben Reiter embedded himself with the Astros. Wowed by Luhnow’s analytical processes and how the Astros had restructured, Reiter returned to the magazine to produce the article. His editors were so persuaded by the piece that the entire front page of the 30th June 2014 edition was dedicated to it, with the boldest of headlines — “Your 2017 World Series Champs: An Unprecedented Look At How a Franchise Is Going Beyond Moneyball To Build the Game’s Next Big Thing.”

The cover drew a fair amount of derision, and popular culture had long since decreed that appearing on the front page of Sports Illustrated was more of a curse than a blessing. But it was a prediction that would come true and, for all the analytics and data science behind it, in the most emotional of ways.

The intervening years had seen the Astros improve, but 2017 was proving to be the best yet. By the end of August, the city of Houston was abuzz as the Astros led their division, already almost guaranteed a play-off spot and with a real shot at a World Series win that October.

Then, disaster struck as Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas and Louisiana causing catastrophic flooding and damage on a par with that of Katrina in 2005. With much of Houston underwater, the Astros were forced to play home games on the road until the authorities deemed it safe enough to return to a city in desperate need of a morale boost.

Wearing patches on their shirts in support of the victims of the hurricane, the Astros blazed through the rest of the regular season and through the play-offs. In a decisive game seven, the Astros beat the LA Dodgers to win their first-ever World Series title. Just three years after three straight 100-loss seasons had made them the worst team in baseball, Luhnow’s rebuild had propelled them to the very pinnacle of the sport.

Luhnow’s work had laid the foundations for sustained success. The Astros reached World Series again in 2019; once more, the series went to a decisive game seven. This time it wasn’t to be, as the Washington Nationals prevailed, but the Astros were now consistent contenders, as Luhnow had envisaged all along.

But that game would prove to be Luhnow’s last in baseball.

“The Astros stole signs electronically in 2017.” 

The headline of the article in The Athletic on the 12th of November 2019 was as matter of fact as could be.

Sign-stealing — figuring out the signal that a catcher gives to his pitcher in order to provide the batter with knowledge of what type of pitch to expect next — was almost as old as baseball itself. Done organically, it was a legal and accepted practice – almost an art – that mainly came into play when a batting side had a runner on second base. From there, the runner had the perfect view of the opposing team’s catcher, and if he could decode the signals, he could let his own batter know if the next ball was likely to be a fastball or a slower changeup.

But sign-stealing by any other method was illegal and frowned upon, and using electronic equipment to convey information was explicitly prohibited by MLB rules. That did not stop rumours of the practice swirling around the league. 

The article in The Athletic outlined the scheme that the Astros had used in 2017. Their sources were four people who had been with the Astros in 2017, including pitcher Mike Fiers. The set-up was simple. At Astros home games, a camera was set up in centre-field that focussed exclusively on the catcher. Pictures were relayed to a TV screen positioned in the tunnel just behind the Astros dugout. Players and other employees would watch, and when they believed they knew what pitch was coming next, it was communicated to their man at-bat by loudly banging on the rubbish bin in the tunnel. No bang usually meant a fastball was coming; a bang meant the batter should expect a slower pitch.

The story caused a sensation — a very 21st-century sensation. Within hours of the story breaking, a video was posted on YouTube by an account called ‘Jomboy’ of a sequence of play detailed in the article. To date, the video has over 7 million views.

The incident featured Chicago White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar, who came in to pitch late in a game away to the Astros at the tail-end of the 2017 season. It was gone 10pm on a Thursday night, meaning most of the crowd had gone home, and the stadium was relatively quiet. When winding up to throw, Farquhar noticed a banging sound and felt that the batter he was facing had been unusually alert to what type of pitch was coming. When his catcher called for another changeup, Farquhar again heard the banging, broke off his motion, and went to talk with the catcher. The pair set a trap where a fastball would be signalled but a changeup thrown. Sure enough, the batter swung too early, and the slower delivery struck him out.

Farquhar was livid and let the Astros bench know what he thought. But no member of the press approached him to ask about it after the game, and his teammates put it down as pitcher paranoia. It took two years before reporters putting The Athletic article together finally called him to ask about that night.

The Astros were the perfect target for public opprobrium. Despite the emotional nature of their World Series win, the organisation had gained a reputation as one that would put positive baseball outcomes above all else. They had negotiated contracts in bad faith with some of their draft picks, and several former employees had complained about a toxic workplace culture.

Eyebrows were raised when the Astros signed pitcher Roberto Osuna at the end of a 75-game suspension for domestic violence. For businessmen like Crane and Luhnow, they were simply buying a distressed asset at a low price. Then the matter went to another level when Astros assistant general manager Brandon Taubman ranted bizarrely at three female reporters about the player. Taubman was eventually sacked but only after a series of typically tone-deaf responses by the Astros.

Reviewing tens of thousands of emails and text messages and interviewing 68 witnesses, Major League Baseball’s disciplinary enquiry was thorough. Its verdict, for Luhnow, was stunning. Despite the report stating that there was no evidence to suggest that Luhnow was aware of the scheme, he was suspended from baseball for a year for what had occurred on his watch.

The same day, Astros owner Crane went one step further, firing Luhnow along with the other man punished by the league, the team manager A.J. Hinch. “Neither one of them started this, but neither did anything about it,” read Crane’s statement.Confusingly, the report concluded that the sign-stealing scheme was “player-driven and player-executed”, yet a few paragraphs later stated that it would “not assess discipline against individual Astros players.” The Wall Street Journal subsequently reported that the league had struck a deal with the players’ union that granted immunity to players who testified. 

For some, Luhnow was the fall guy, the man who paid the price for a player-driven scheme in a league that was terrified of punishing players. For others, Luhnow had made his own bed by creating an organisational culture that put the pursuit of a competitive edge beyond all else.

But as the din of the permanently indignant social media debate raged on, one cold hard fact remained — the man who had worked in the sport he loved and won three World Series rings was now a baseball outsider once more.

When Luhnow spoke to KPRC Houston in his first public interview after his sacking and suspension, it was clear he felt his future lay away from the diamond.

“The opportunity to apply business practices, analytics and technology exists in many sports. My skills aren’t stuck in baseball — they could easily be transferred to another sport. I’m considering all my options at this point.” Luhnow went on to mention European football as one area of consideration.

It was a process that saw Luhnow arrive on the southern outskirts of Madrid and the quirky satellite town of Leganés with its streets named after AC/DC and The Scorpions, spectacular sunsets, and a roundabout dedicated to a giant sculpture of the Loch Ness Monster.

The town is also home to CD Leganés, a popular and tidily run club in Spain’s second division, seeking promotion to the top flight they recently played in for four seasons before being relegated in unfortunate circumstances.

For the bilingual Luhnow, the club and the league provided the perfect fit for the Blue Crow Investment Group that he heads. “We believe the league has the most growth potential, with the financial controls and the recent deal with CVC. Leganés has the best combination of what we searched for: location, fans, stadium and growth potential.”

The 99% stake acquired in Leganés made the club the second football acquisition after the purchase of FC Cancún of Mexico’s second division.

Analytics will undoubtedly be a significant part of Leganés’ future. “We want to use technology to create advantages. We have people who have used technology in the Premier League and MLS. Leganés can certainly take advantage of that. We believe football is a little behind in that respect, but that is something that is going to change.”

The new president will be as focused as ever on the process but will hopefully take time to appreciate those incredible sunsets over the Estadio Municipal de Butarque. Preferably without the distraction of someone banging on a dustbin.

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