Class of ’89 | Before fantasy sports became readily available to anyone with an Internet connection, Jeff Luhnow W’89 EAS’89 would spend hours combing through the Tuesday edition of USA Today and inputting baseball statistics into his own spreadsheet. As the commissioner of a fantasy league that began in 1989, he’d then fax reports to his friends from Penn as well as his fellow Rotisseriepioneers. It was a tedious process, but worth it—and not only because his team’s name could usually be found near the top of the league’s standings.
“I probably won the league about four times in the 10 years I did it,” Luhnow recalled. “It was fun back then. If you had to punch in every player in the National League by hand, you got to know them pretty well.”
Luhnow had to give up his spot 10 years ago when fantasy morphed into reality and he joined the front office of the St. Louis Cardinals. Eight years later, during which time the Cards won two World Championships and their farm system became one of the best in baseball, he was hired to be the general manager of the Houston Astros—with the task of turning the worst team in Major League Baseball into a winner.
So far, the fantasy-general-manager-turned-real-life-general-manager is off to a promising start, even if the Astros did sputter to the worst record in the Majors for a second straight year in 2012 (and now that they have moved to the more challenging American League West, their task will not be any easier).
“I think our farm system has gone from being in the bottom quartile to the top 10 in the course of one year,” Luhnow said by phone a couple of months before the 2013 season was slated to open with his Astros taking on the Texas Rangers. (Baseball America’s Jim Callis did, in fact, recently rate the Astros’ minor-league system No. 10 in MLB.) “That, to us, was a huge success. Dealing with the losses was a lot more bearable knowing that we’re doing things to minimize the amount of time that’s going to continue to happen.”
While the massive rebuilding project of such a lowly team is not easy, it’s a job well suited to Luhnow, who is a part of the new breed of baseball executives that focus on data-driven analytics over the first-hand observation and informed projection favored by old-school scouts. He was hired by the Cardinals a few months after Michael Lewis published Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, the 2003 book on the Oakland Athletics’ use of sabermetrics (the specialized analysis of baseball statistics that measure in-game activity) to find overlooked players and field a competitive team despite severe financial limitations.
But as in Moneyball—the movie version of which featured Brad Pitt as Athletics general manager Billy Beane and Jonah Hill as his nerdy assistant general manager—Luhnow noticed a push-and-tug between the grizzled traditionalists and the highly educated Young Turks with their computers and newfangled philosophies. The latter believe that “people tend to rely on their own memories more than they really should,” Luhnow notes. His own position in that debate can be gleaned from the nicknames he was given, such as “The Accountant” and “Harry Potter.”
“I thought it was all in good fun,” says Luhnow with a laugh. “Before I got Lasik, I wore glasses and kind of did look a little like Harry Potter. If I could have had a magic wand and made things happen and produce good players, I’d be happy with that.”
Being able to laugh off those jokes certainly helped Luhnow fit into the baseball world and rise through the Cardinals system, where he helped draft and develop a wealth of talented and productive players. Eventually he landed the coveted job with the Astros—a remarkable achievement for someone who never coached, managed, or even played baseball beyond high school. Luhnow took pains not to offend those who came before him because, he says, “baseball is a game that’s been around for a while and it’s not the best environment for rapid change.” And he always took the scouts’ ideas into consideration, trying to combine what they saw with what the computer spit out.
“To be honest, I think it was a little hard for him to move into an industry like baseball, which is a very insular, old-boys club,” says his younger brother David Luhnow, a Mexico-based journalist for The Wall Street Journal. “He was trying to do a lot of different things, and a lot of people didn’t take it that well in the beginning.”
It didn’t surprise David, though, that his brother managed the rocky transition well. While David sees himself as the emotional one of the family who in the same position might have felt like a victim—and suggests that their older brother, Chris Luhnow WG’91, would have likely lashed out at everybody—Jeff was always the calmest and most rational brother. And he wasn’t about to give up on a sport that meant so much to him.
As American kids growing up in Mexico City (where their parents ran a publishing business), David remembers finding new and interesting ways to play sports, since Mexico City “was not exactly a place that had a lot of green sports fields.” They played soccer and broom hockey and baseball on the street, using an old tennis ball as a baseball and stopping only for passing cars. In Little League, Jeff flashed some talent, and he was always able to hit the curveball, which helped him play for his high-school team at the American School Foundation in Mexico City.
Being able to speak Spanish fluently could only be a plus for a future MLB executive, and Jeff’s baseball savvy also grew during the many summers he crossed the border into Texas and drank in some minor-league games. At Penn, Jeff’s love for the game kept on growing. He frequently took the subway to catch Phillies games at Veterans Stadium, and went to his share of Penn baseball games, too. After earning a dual degree in economics and engineering from Penn, Luhnow took an engineering job with Gore-Tex, went to business school at Northwestern, and worked as a management consultant for Chicago’s McKinsey & Company, where he says he “learned how to solve complex problems for big companies, which was a skill that has served me well throughout my career.”
At McKinsey he also met someone who had a close family tie to Cardinals owner William DeWitt Jr. After spending a few years working for Internet startups on the West Coast with his brother Chris, Luhnow was recruited by DeWitt, who wanted someone outside of baseball to take advantage of the changing technology and available data. And the rest is history … in the making.
—Dave Zeitlin C’03