Mere days after reports of tension between Astros manager Bo Porter and general manager Jeff Luhnow surfaced in the press, Houston has given Porter his walking papers. The dismissal comes with just 24 games remaining in the Astros' season and represents yet another the crack in the armor for an organization that seemed to be making all the right moves in its rebuild coming into the season but has experienced numerous setbacks as the season has progressed.
With regard to Porter and the team on the field, the Astros did indeed improve this season, and dramatically so. After 111 losses in 2012, Porter’s first season as a major league manager after six seasons as a coach with the Marlins, Diamondbacks, and Nationals, Houston is on pace for just 92 losses this season. That's still a lot of losing, but it's also a nearly-20-game improvement over last year and would be the Astros' best record and first finish above last place (thanks to the cross-state Rangers' disastrous season) since 2010.
What’s more, though Luhnow was said to have been very critical of Porter's in-game management, Porter's Astros showed big gains in two manager-dependent areas this season. Last year, the Astros were fifth in the majors in stolen-base attempts but 27th in stolen-base percentage with a dismal 64-percent success rate. This year, the Astros are picking their spots better, ranking eighth in both steal attempts and percentage with a solid 78-percent success rate. Similarly, last year, the Astros led the American League in sacrifice bunt attempts and the majors in sacrifice bunts by position players, anathema to a sabermetrically-minded organization like Houston. This year, Houston is tied for last in the majors in sac bunt attempts (with the White Sox), and only the Athletics and Nationals have asked non-pitchers to bunt fewer than the Astros' 13 times.
Given the combination of a nearly 20-win improvement, those drastic improvements in easily measured strategies, and the general sense that Porter was liked and respected by his players, the Porter firing comes as a surprise, or it would have if not for the reports of discord in the team’s front office.
Despite that improvement on the field, things have not gone well for the Astros this year. Most significantly, they completely botched having the first overall pick in June’s amateur draft, trying to leverage top pick Brady Aiken’s problematic physical to lowball Aiken and redistribute the allotted bonus money to two lower picks, only to lose all three when Aiken refused to sign. That sequence of events not only cost them the top pick (they’ll get a compensation pick next year that will be the second overall), but also may have undermined their credibility in future negotiations with draft picks.
On top of that, last year’s top pick, Mark Appel, got off to a disastrous start to his first full professional season, posting a 9.74 ERA in 12 High-A starts, then became the subject of some discontent in the Astros' clubhouse in late July when he was promoted to Double-A despite that performance and brought to Houston to throw a bullpen session for major league pitching coach Brent Strom in conjunction with the promotion. According to reports, many Astros players objected to what they saw as special treatment for Appel, and Porter's ability to quell those objections was undermined by the fact that he was not given advanced notice of Appel's session with Strom. That incident reportedly widened a growing rift between Porter and Luhnow, as reported by FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal on Friday (Porter and team owner Jim Crain subsequently denied having a discussion about Porter’s relationship with Luhnow).
On top of those two notable missteps by the front office, the team has seen 2012 top pick Carlos Correa suffer a season-ending fibula fracture in late June. Slugging outfield prospect George Springer, after some initial success in his major league debut, saw his strikeout rate skyrocket and has now spent the last month and a half on the disabled list with a quad strain. Fellow prospect Jonathan Singleton, who was signed to a five-year extension before being called up in early June — a negotiating tactic some viewed as predatory particularly given Singleton’s history of recreational drug violations — is hitting .178/.292/.356 thus far in the majors.
Other things have gone well for Houston. Second baseman Jose Altuve has been an MVP candidate (and been largely responsible for the team’s stolen base totals). Dallas Keuchel and rookie Collin McHugh have had breakout seasons in the rotation. Slugger Chris Carter has had a monstrous second-half. The overall sense of optimism surrounding the team, however, has dimmed, and there’s a sense that the heat is being turned up on Luhnow and his staff. Firing Porter removes a layer of insulation.
To replace Porter and bench coach Dave Trembley, who was also let go, Houston promoted Tom Lawless and Adam Everett, both of whom were roving infield instructors for the organization. Lawless had filled in for Triple-A manager Tony DeFrancesco while the latter was on medical leave earlier this season and had managed in the lower minors for the Astros from 2009 to 2011. Everett had been in Cleveland’s front office as a special assistant to baseball operations for the last two seasons before joining the Astros this year. This is the first major league coaching opportunity for either man. The Astros are expected to look elsewhere for a permanent replacement for Porter, who was the youngest manager in the major leagues and now passes that distinction on to the Marlins' Mike Redmond.