MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Luhnow's hiring of Strom a game-changer

Luhnow's hiring of Strom a game-changer

HOUSTON -- The Astros had won the American League championship an hour or so earlier when general manager Jeff Luhnow happened upon his pitching coach, Brent Strom, in a hallway outside the home clubhouse at Minute Maid Park.

"Strommy, now are you glad you came?" Luhnow asked.

Strom's voice cracked, and his eyes filled with tears as he shook hands with the man who'd brought him back to baseball almost a decade earlier.

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"I was out of the game and working at my wife's dog store in Tucson," Strom would say later. "I didn't know if I'd ever work another day in baseball. I owe Jeff so much."

Of the hundreds of decisions Luhnow made in building the team that won the 2017 World Series, few were more important than the hiring of Brent Strom.

To understand those contributions, here's a good place to start: April 22, 2014.

Right-hander Collin McHugh, a waiver claim from the Rockies the previous offseason, was warming up in the bullpen at Safeco Field after being called up to make what he assumed would be a spot start.

The Astros, at the time in a full rebuild mode, identified McHugh's high curveball spin rate as something that made him worth a look. But that day in the bullpen, Strom saw McHugh throwing mostly sinkers and sliders.

"'Collin, they have seven or eight left-handed hitters in the lineup,'" Strom remembers telling him. "'I really suggest you use your four-seam fastball and your curveball.'"

At that point in his career, McHugh's career numbers with the Mets and Rockies were 0-8, 8.94 ERA.

Curveballs and fastballs? Sure, why not?

That day, McHugh pitched 6 2/3 shutout innings and struck out 12 for his first Major League victory. His Minor League days were over. Four seasons later, he's 48-28 with a 3.70 ERA.

"Now, as I'm telling him to make these changes, I'm thinking, 'Dear God, I hope this works,'" Strom said. "I was scared. But he embraced [what I said] and started throwing elevated heaters, breaking balls, had a good game and kept it up."

Here's Strom's larger point: McHugh is very smart and very analytical, and having had so little success, was open to change.

And then there's the case of Dallas Keuchel, who says he owes his success -- or at least a large part of it -- to Strom.

"My first day in Spring Training with the Astros four years ago," Strom said, "[Luhnow] comes up to me and says, 'Don't forget the guy throwing batting practice on field five.'

"That was Dallas. I went down and watched him throw. At some point a few days later, I said, 'Dallas, let me ask you a question. I don't know you, and I'm not going to try and change you. But are you trying to be somebody?'

"'Yeah,' Keuchel said. 'I want to kind of pattern my delivery after Erik Bedard.'

"'Can I show you what [Clayton] Kershaw does? Can I show you what [Justin] Verlander does?'" Strom says he asked Keuchel. "We started working, and if you look at his delivery now versus then, it's completely changed. Fortunately for both of us, it worked. He embraced it and worked at it, and it seemed to work out OK."

In four years since, Keuchel's 3.15 ERA is the fourth lowest among AL starters, while his 1.14 WHIP is eighth.

Keuchel and McHugh aren't alone. Charlie Morton, Brad Peacock, Chris Devenski and others credit Strom with everything from fine-tuning their mechanics to helping them settle on more effective pitch usage.

But when Strom is asked about any of this, he turns the conversation back to the man who gave him a chance.

"I just think it's a credit to Jeff Luhnow's vision," Strom said. "He actually saw this ahead of time. He leaves no rock unturned for information. All he asks is that you give him a solid reason why you want to do what you want to do. Then he makes the decision."

Funny how things work out. Luhnow met Strom in 2008, when Luhnow was the Cardinals' scouting director, and when Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. got a recommendation from a friend who'd heard one of Strom's pitching clinics.

Strom flew to St. Louis and sat down with both men. In Luhnow, Strom met someone who shared his vision of how a data-driven organization should be run.

When Luhnow was hired by the Astros to be their GM in December 2012, he asked Strom, at the time a Minor League instructor for St. Louis, to join him as Major League pitching coach a year later.

When Strom traveled to Houston, he was unsure if he even wanted a big league job. He was plenty happy helping shape a generation of young St. Louis pitchers, including Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha and Trevor Rosenthal.

But he stepped outside the airport in Houston to find Astros owner Jim Crane waiting for him. That told him how important his hiring was to Luhnow.

"I guess Jeff had convinced him I was the right guy to lead this thing," Strom said. "I wasn't sure I wanted it, but Jeff basically challenged me to see if my teachings could work at this level. Quite frankly, I owe a debt of gratitude to Jeff for bringing me out of my dog store."

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.