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Jeff Luhnow, Astros imagine 'What if' with once-released J.D. Martinez

The Astros are atop the AL West and cruising toward the playoffs, but the loss of outfielder J.D. Martinez back in 2014 is a huge "what if" for Houston.

NEW YORK—The job of a major league general manager boils down to the continual making of decisions. When Jeff Luhnow became the GM of the Astros in December of 2011, the goal of his future decision-making, informed by the collective brain power of his scouting and analytics departments, was clear: Transform a deeply moribund club into a sustained contender as quickly as possible, even if it meant enduring painful years in the process.

It is clear, now, that the accumulation of Luhnow’s decisions—such as surprisingly drafting a Puerto Rican shortstop named Carlos Correa first overall in 2012, or hanging on to a once-scuffling sinkerballer named Dallas Keuchel—has worked, perhaps ahead of even the front office’s schedule. The Astros are currently 70–57—the third-best winning percentage in the American League—and hold a four-game lead in the AL West.

“As far as our team performance, it’s fair to say we’re on the upper quartile of outcomes,” said the probability-minded Luhnow on Tuesday afternoon, hours before his Astros ran roughshod over the Yankees by the score of 15–1. “Where we are in that upper quartile depends on how we do this next month, and in October.”

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That Luhnow can mention October with a straight face demonstrates just how well things are going for the Astros, for a change, but that does not mean that every decision he and his analytically rigorous staff have made over the past 3 1/2 years has been the right one. Some are trending in the wrong direction. Rival GMs can’t help but point out that the left side of Houston’s infield could have included both Correa and Kris Bryant, whom the Cubs picked second overall in the 2013 draft after the Astros had chosen pitcher Mark Appel at No. 1. Bryant has become the NL Rookie of the Year front runner, while Appel has a 4.46 ERA in the minors, but he might yet become a big-league ace; that outcome is too early to call.

It is, however, not premature to definitively mark a different decision—one that at the time seemed to carry far less weight—in Houston’s disfavor. It came just 17 months ago, last March 22, when, after shopping him around to all 29 other teams, the Astros released then-26-year-old outfielder J.D. Martinez. The Tigers picked him up two days later. Since then, Martinez has become one of the league’s best hitters: In 246 games, he is batting .302 with 56 home runs and 161 RBIs. This year, he ranks in the AL’s top five in both power categories, with 33 homers and 85 runs driven in. “In retrospect,” Luhnow says, “I wouldn’t make the same decision.”

Many GMs hate revisiting their past mistakes. Second-guessing is easy, and if they need a reminder of them, all they need to do is check the box scores and their Twitter mentions. Luhnow, to his credit, freely talks about his, due both to his commitment to transparency (while it is par for the course for rebuilding GMs to pretend to be trying to win even when they aren’t, Luhnow never did) and as part of an ongoing intellectual exercise to minimize the repeating of them.

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Two springs ago, the Astros felt as if Martinez represented a known quantity. He had been with the organization since it drafted him in the 20th round in 2009, out of Fort Lauderdale’s Nova Southeastern University, and he had been given a fairly extensive big league shot: 975 plate appearances between '11 and '13, during which he’d produced just 24 home runs with a sub-standard .687 OPS. By last spring, even though the Astros were coming off a season in which they’d gone 51–111, they seemed to have a glut of rising young outfielders in the majors and the high minors, including George Springer, Domingo Santana, Robbie Grossman, L.J. Hoes and Marc Krauss. “We didn’t see him making our club that year,” Luhnow says. “He could have gone to Triple A and sat on the bench. But we figured, once we release him, somebody will sign him to a minor-league contract, and he’ll get a better shot than with us.”

During the latter portions of the previous season, though, and during winter ball in Venezuela, Martinez had completely overhauled his swing, changing his focus from hitting down on the ball to striking it with an uppercut. In spring training, Martinez didn’t have much of a chance to display the results; then-manager Bo Porter gave him just 18 at-bats during the 2014 exhibition season, and he hit .167 with no homers. “I talked to some of the scouts that had seen him in the winter,” Luhnow says. “Nine out of ten times, when people tell you that somebody has gotten better in winter ball, it turns out that it’s not true. But you want to find out. So I was a little disappointed that he didn’t get more playing time.” Martinez got that playing time in Toledo, the Tigers’ Triple A affiliate, and in 17 games there he batted .308 with 10 homers and 22 RBIs. He was called up to Detroit three weeks into April, and he hasn’t looked back.

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The Astros, though, have. It is hard not to imagine what Martinez’s bat would look like in the middle of a lineup that has slugged a league-best 169 home runs even without him. Martinez’s sudden and late blossoming, while unusual, is not unique; the Twins gave David Ortiz his outright release in 2002, and the Pirates gave up on Jose Bautista in '08. And Luhnow knows that letting Martinez go for nothing was not the first mistake he has made, nor will it be the last. The idea, though, is to accumulate assiduously far more good decisions than bad ones, and part of that process requires the ability to undertake a clear-eyed retrospective analysis of not just the moves that have worked out.

“This is a game-slash-business of failure,” Luhnow says. “There’s a lot of it. But if you can get a 5%-better hit rate on your decisions versus the next guy, that’s a real advantage. That’s a competitive advantage. That’s all we’re trying to do. We’re not trying to get them all right. We’re trying to get more of them right than our competition.”

As for Martinez? “It happens,” Luhnow says. “I would never root against a guy. I have a good relationship with J.D. and I wish him well. Just not when he plays us.”

The Astros have plenty to root for this season, but even the architects of the game’s most ascendant club can’t avoid asking themselves one of life’s most maddening questions: “What if?”