This past July, during an audience Q&A following his address to the national convention of the Society of American Baseball Research here in Philadelphia, Phillies team president Dave Montgomery was asked whether, in light of the Phils’ second straight subpar season, it might be time for the organization to take a look at something it has long resisted: advanced statistical analysis.
Montgomery, in the Q&A and an interview afterward, replied that contrary to the belief of many, the team does actually give some consideration to advanced stats. He said the Phillies’ front office has three employees in its player personnel department who have statistical evaluation as part of their portfolio, although no one employee does the work full-time. Montgomery added, however, that “character” plays a major role in the team’s personnel decisions.
I thought of that exchange this week when the news broke that the Phils are ready, it appears, to at least dip a toe into the water of advanced analytics. General manager Ruben Amaro said in an interview with CSN Phllly’s Jim Salisbury that the team plans to make some changes in the way it evaluates players, a move which could include the addition of an analytics expert.
“I think we’re doing some stuff analytically to change the way we do some evaluations,” Amaro told Salisbury. Amaro added that the Phillies “will continue to be a scouting organization,” but that “we owe it to ourselves to look at some other ways to evaluate.” He also said that the front office may hire someone from an analytics background, but that no decisions have been made.
Even though Amaro promised that any changes in the team’s player development approach will be “pretty minor,” the news may gladden the hearts of the segment of Philly fans frustrated by the organization’s refusal to embrace some of the newer thinking in the game. The team has also been pilloried frequently both locally and by some of the more savvy members of the national baseball media, for moves like the Ryan Howard contract extension and the free agent signing of Delmon Young.
Phillies fans shouldn’t get their hopes up. Because even if the Phillies bring in a solitary sabermetrics guy with a loud voice in the front office, all they’d be doing is boldly embracing the cutting-edge, futuristic concepts of 2002.
Just look around baseball in order to see why. The brightest, most forward-thinking organizations in the game today–I’m thinking the Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays, Pittsburgh Pirates and Oakland A’s–don’t just employ an analytics specialist. They have an analytics department. The Rays, according to a report this week, have nine full-time employees dedicated to working on analytics, which is a big reason they’re a perennial contender despite never having any money. These teams aren’t just analyzing stats–in many cases, they’re coming up with new, proprietary stats of their own.
These teams are hiring executives away from Wall Street, from Silicon Valley, from Baseball Prospectus and even occasionally from home-brewed baseball blogs. And as the Pirates, A’s, Rays and Red Sox showed in making the playoffs this year, this is a strategy that gets results, even for clubs who have been awful for an extended period of the time. The long-lowly Houston Astros, helped by an influx of talent from three separate trades with the Phillies, are in the early-to-middle stages of a similar makeover now.
But it isn’t just stats. The paradigm of the book and movie Moneyball–brilliant young stat guys vs. clueless old scouts–is long outdated; in 2013, most smart organizations listen to both their scouts and stat gurus, among other viewpoints. At this point, a lot of scouts know stats, and even some statheads know scouting. What teams like the Rays and Pirates are doing is embracing the Moneyball concept of exploiting inefficiencies in the market and taking advantage of asymmetrical information.
(Sam Hinkie, in his first season as general manager of the Sixers, is among the first to attempt something similar in the NBA. And while Eagles GM Howie Roseman is occasionally mistaken for a stathead–due perhaps to his nerdish demeanor and his not having played professional football–that’s really not his background at all.)
The idea, if you’re a modern, smart baseball organization, is to gather as much data and information as possible from all sources, and use that knowledge to outsmart the opposition in making wise trades and free agent signings, while also unearthing future stars in Japan, the Dominican Republic and even the benches and double-A rosters of other teams.
Are the Phillies willing to do anything like that? It sure doesn’t sound like it.
The Phils’ emphasis on scouting and “character,” as indicated by what Montgomery said, is one that dates back to long before Amaro’s appointment as general manager. Meanwhile, the Amaro M.O. for much of his tenure has been to trade minor league prospects for big names, while also signing veteran free agents with little regard to age or state of decline. This strategy served the team well for a long time, but has left the club with an overpaid, aging roster and a less-than-stellar farm system.
For the Phillies to do enough with stats for it to matter would essentially require upending the way the team has done business for decades. It’s difficult to imagine the Phils going to anything resembling a Rays-like model for as long as Amaro is the general manager, and probably for as long as Montgomery and the other owners are in charge.
So the issue isn’t just that the Phillies might hire a stat guy. The questions fans should be asking are, are they hiring the right stat guy? If they do, are Amaro and his top lieutenants going to listen to his recommendations, or is this person going to write monthly reports that nobody reads? When the team has high-level meetings to plot out their offseason plans, is the stat guy going to be in the room? And can one stat guy, even if he’s absolutely brilliant and listened to by the people in charge, successfully outsmart whole teams of them in rival front offices?
The move by Amaro to potentially bring on an analytics specialist is certainly preferable to, you know, not doing it. But I wouldn’t get too optimistic about such a move leading to big changes in how the Phillies do business- or, for that matter, their fortunes on the field.