Examining Organizational Culture That Led To Astros Scandal
As ramifications from the Astros' sign-stealing case continue to reverberate, the autopsy of their three seasons near the top of MLB -- an era defined by their on-field success as much as their analytical ruthlessness -- is well under way. Astros Owner Jim Crane firing President of Baseball Operations & GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch served as a fitting bookend for the club's recent legacy. They notched three consecutive seasons of at least 100 wins, claiming a now seemingly-tainted '17 World Series title, while their organization's culture veered wildly off the rails. The pervasive belief in baseball was that the Astros' all-encompassing investment in analytics came at a price: the human element. "Every time you look at an issue, you have to be able to balance it out from a prism of life experiences based upon the intellectual side and the instinctual side," MLB Network's Dan O'Dowd told THE DAILY yesterday. "In looking at their organization, they were bereft in instinctive intelligence." O'Dowd, GM of the Rockies from '99-'14, added, "They went so heavily on analytics that they lost the ability to have a leadership structure that valued things like trusted relationships, internal lines of communication, creating something bigger than one person."
WHATEVER IT TAKES: The seemingly win-at-all-costs Astros' cheating is widely believed to be indicative of their organization's culture -- devoid of adequate safeguards or checks and balances, long on data, and short on necessary people skills. The Astros were industry disruptors, ramping up their analytics department at the expense of their scouting department. They almost exclusively valued data over instinct or institutional knowledge. The Astros' philosophy was viewed in baseball circles as egregiously off-kilter and they often projected confidence in their approach with some level of arrogance. As MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred stated in his report: "(While) no one can dispute that Luhnow's baseball operations department is an industry leader in its analytics, it is very clear to me that the culture of the baseball operations department ... has been very problematic."
NUMBERS GAME: O'Dowd said an analytics-first approach is only as effective as the health of an organization's culture, which should include widespread respect, cooperation, communication, empathy and vulnerability. How lacking were the Astros in those areas? "By evidence of where they have ended up," O'Dowd said, "they had none of it." The well-respected and almost universally likable Hinch was aware of the sign-stealing scheme but did not act accordingly to stop it. According to MLB's report, Hinch was unwilling or unable to go to higher-ranking executives -- namely Luhnow -- to candidly address the situation. What Luhnow needed, O'Dowd believes, were individuals around him that had a different philosophical view, not an identical one to rubber-stamp his approach.
ALL ABOUT THE PEOPLE: There was certainly jealousy in various corners of MLB over the Astros' success. But for the people O'Dowd respects, the baseball industry at large has long been taken aback by what many viewed as poor treatment of employees as part of the Astros' process. While analytics have changed the game, it is still a people business. One lesson from the Astros' scandal is what could happen when an organization steers too heavily in one direction at the expense of the human element. O'Dowd said an organization's employees are its "greatest asset," not algorithms or modeling. O'Dowd: "There is a danger in our game that we have gone so heavy in analytics, that the people who are running organizations have no -- for lack of a better term -- people skills to recognize how that affects the culture of your organization."