The 2012 Houston Astros exhibition season—call it “summer training”—is almost over, but newish team owner Jim Crane and first-year general manager Jeff Luhnow didn’t need to wait that long to start preparing for 2013, which will find the Astros joining the Texas Rangers in the American League West.
Last Thursday, mere hours before saying goodbye to both National League baseball and Hall of Fame announcer Milo Hamilton at the final home game of 2012, Crane and Luhnow closed the door on what has become the Astros’ second-straight 106-loss season by hiring the club’s fifth manager in three years—but the first one of the new regime, which has already purged its scouting staff and traded every player making more than seven figures save for infielder Jed Lowrie.
That new manager is forty-year-old Washington Nationals 3B coach Marquis Donnell “Bo” Porter, a surprising, but ultimately well-received pick.
“My first reaction was that it would be just like the Astros to go out and hire the least interesting, least well-known candidate that we knew about,” wrote Austin Swafford of the ESPN-affilated blog Astros290.
But as Kevin Kaduk of Yahoo! Sports’ Big League Stew wrote, “Over the past few years, Bo Porter has earned the label of someone who might make a great manager one day.”
That day is now here, or so the Astros’ faithful hope. ESPN’s Buster Olney summed it up:
The hiring of Bo Porter makes sense: He’s young, upbeat and energetic, and the team can grow with him as it develops in the years ahead. Plus, the Astros don’t have to pay him much, and he’ll be more open to the heavy dose of sabermetric* tonic prescribed by the front office than a lot of more established managers would be.
(*Don’t know what that means? Keep reading).
Here’s what else you need to know about the twentieth manager in the Houston Astros’ 51-year history:
1. He used to be a Texas Ranger.
Porter’s brief career as a major league baseball player included 48 games in Arlington during the 2001 season.
The high point? A three-run homer in a 3-1 win against the Oakland A’s on July 1, driving in Gabe Kapler and Michael Young. A-Rod went 0-4.
Since then, Porter has managed in the low minors and coached for the Florida Marlins, Arizona Diamondbacks, and the Nationals.
2. He already lives in Houston.
As David Barron of the Houston Chronicle wrote:
As a former select team coach, he knows Houston’s yen for baseball. And as a resident of Fort Bend County, Bo should be able to figure out the best route from home to Minute Maid Park.
Porter’s wife, Stacey Erwin-Porter, is a graduate of Westbury High School, and the couple has established the Bo Porter Self Foundation. Porter also coached a select baseball team, the Texas Hawkeyes, in 2005 and 2006.
3. You won’t hear from him again before October 9.
And perhaps as late as November 2. That’s because Porter is still working for the National League-leading Nationals until they either win it all or get eliminated.
Crane and Luhnow flew to Philadelphia to get Porter under contract (on the same day as that final NL game—you can be pretty sure they didn’t fly United). And the manager didn’t actually attend his own hiring announcement, and he spoke to Houston’s media by phone.
“This is the last time in which I will talk about this topic,” Porter told Bill ladson of MLB.com. “My focus is on the Washington Nationals and our quest to win the World Series title. I didn’t want to do anything that distracts from what we are doing here.”
4. But the Astros wanted him that badly.
The Nationals could have insisted Houston wait until after the season to talk to their guy. Conversely, the Astros could have insisted Porter start the job immediately. Or hired someone who could, or just waited another month to make their move.
But Porter had interviewed with other teams last year, including the Miami Marlins, for which he’d been a coach. It’s been speculated current Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen could get booted after just one year with the team.
“It’s unusual to see the future manager of another team still coaching his original team, and some will question it, but in this case with Houston as dead as the Nationals are alive it seems like the right thing to do,” wrote Jon Heyman of CBS Sports. “Porter wished to see it through in the Nationals’ wonderful season and he may have had an upper hand in negotiations, with the Marlins seeming to loom as a threat to hire him.”
Managers don’t do much in October anyway unless they’re in the playoffs. So essentially, the Nationals are now paying an Astros employee for elite on-the-job training.
The blogger behind Astros County suggested the unusual arrangement was a thing to celebrate, not criticize, as it reflected Crane and Luhnow’s more aggressive and experimental mindset:
So what were the Astros thinking? Why announce that they’ve hired Bo Porter now? Why not wait until after the season to have a press conference? Or at least wait until, you know, the manager you’re hiring can actually make it to the press conference?
You’re living life as a fan of a team with a typical front office. That’s not the Astros…. This is a team that has a Director of Decision Sciences, and whose amateur scouting coordinator has a law degree from Pepperdine…
How long is it going to take us all to realize that nothing happens in this organization by accident?…
5. He’s nicknamed “Bo” because he was a two-sport athlete, a la Jackson.
At the University of Iowa, Porter not only played baseball, but was on the Hawkeyes football team under Odessa native and former SMU and UNT coach Hayden Fry.
“Coach Fry, when it comes to attention to detail, he takes it to the Nth degree,” Porter said during his talk with the Houston media, as posted by MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart.
Months before he got the Astros job, in an interview headlined “Bo Porter, Future Big-League Manager,” Porter also told David Laurila of Fangraphs how Fry influenced him in terms of strategy and on-the-field decisions:
As coach Fry would say, ‘You have to scratch where it itches.’ Playing football for Hayden Fry at the University of Iowa, you learned that if someone shows you something that you can take advantage of — whether it’s conventional or not — you’re doing your team an injustice by not taking advantage of it.
6. His “football mentality” equals “intensity.
“I think people that know my style, I guess intensity is a word that we use, Porter said. “I’m a passionate person.”
In fact, the word intense kept getting thrown around to the point where it became a backhanded slap at deposed manager Brad Mills, a guy who never had a chance to win given the owner, general manager and team he had to work with. As MLB.com’s Alyson Footer tweeted:
So the official word now is Mills wasn’t intense as manager. Interesting. People who actually covered him, or played for him, know better.
— Alyson Footer (@alysonfooter) September 28, 2012
7. He’s a starter manager for a starter team.
Both Luhnow and Crane referred to Porter as a “motivational speaker,” as David Coleman of the Crawfish Boxes wrote. “When you talk about our young players and our system, we need someone with a real specific emphasis on playing baseball the right way,” Luhnow said at the press conference. “We have a lot of young, exciting players who are still learning the game at times at the big league level, and it’s important we have a manager and staff that reinforce that.”
Richard Justice of MLB.com noted that Porter’s patience, ability to work with young players, and, especially, his upbeat demeanor, was a big part of the hiring equation.
“If he spends five minutes with you, he’ll do a great job convincing you it’s the best five minutes of his day,” Justice wrote.
8. The Astros’ sabermetric era now becomes official.
We told you we’d get to this one, right? “Sabermetric” is the word used to describe advanced baseball statistics, as inspired by Bill James and the Society of American Baseball Research, and made famous by the book and movie Moneyball.
There’s more to it than all that, but the point is, when it comes to more progressive thinking, Porter’s youth and inexperience is actually a plus. As Justice wrote:
Luhnow also wanted a guy from the [mold of Tampa Bay Rays manager] Joe Maddon. Luhnow has put together a staff of data-driven analysts who have volumes of material available for the manager if he’s willing to listen.
Some managers are not open to this stuff. They’ve done things a certain way for most of their careers, and that’s that. Maddon, on the other hand, has a voracious appetite for data and has used it to construct lineups, defensive alignments, etc.
As a general manager with another organization said recently, “It comes down to having an open mind and having a reason for doing things.”
“Bo understands and appreciates the effect technology and the analytical side has had on the game,” Luhnow said, according to Coleman reported. “He wants to not only accept it, but take it and let it impact the organization. I think he will help us continue to apply some of the things we’ve been working on.”
9. If it could happen to the Nationals, it can happen to the Astros.
There’s probably not another team in baseball that is better preparation for the Astros than the Nationals, a team that, prior to this year, hadn’t had a winning season since 2003, when they were still the Montreal Expos.
“After losing 205 games in 2008-09, after all, the Washington Nationals looked a lot like the Astros look now,” wrote the Chronicle‘s Barron.
Indeed, as recently last year, even after piling up high draft picks and a few key free agents, the Nats were still not seen as NL East contenders. Now, depending how their last three games go, they’ll finish as the best team in the National League, while the five-time NL East champion Philadelphia Phillies aren’t in the playoffs.
Remember that the next time your friend the Rangers fan predicts the ‘Stros will never catch up in the AL.
10. “Wait ’til next year” still means wait until 2015.
“Few players on the team’s current roster are likely to be part of the next winning Astros team in 2015, 2016 or whenever ‘next year’ arrives,” wrote Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated.
But according to the Chronicle‘s Zachary Levine, it doesn’t sound like Crane and Luhnow want to be rebuilding for that long:
While team owner Jim Crane asked fans to be patient with Luhnow when the general manager took over in November, there was a decidedly different tone from Luhnow on Porter.
“Patience is an interesting word because patience means it takes time,” Luhnow said. “One of the reasons we’re hiring Bo Porter is that we’re working as hard as we can to minimize that time.
In other words, the pressure’s on. As Jerome Solomon of the Chronicle wrote, it’s possible that Porter—and Luhnow for that matter—won’t get to enjoy the winning team they laid the groundwork for.
“It’s probably a good thing Porter already lives here, because history says his expiration date [on] his managerial milk cartoon [sic] is sometime in 2015 … if he’s lucky,” Solomon wrote, referring not to the Astros’ recent era of high turnover, but the history of MLB managers who took over such horrific teams.
Still, Swafford of Astros290 also recognized the more optimistic picture, one in which it doesn’t even matter how well Porter manages. In truth, it’s all about the draft picks, and the prospects, and the players that the Astros have acquired in all those trades the past two years.
“Young players becoming superstars is the best way for a manager to look good, whether he is or not,” Swafford wrote.