Statheads and Old-Timers Agree: The Phillies Are Toast

A report from the SABR convention in Philadelphia.

You’ve heard of sabermetrics, right? To some, it’s the baseball statistics philosophy of the nerd geniuses who gave us Moneyball, the World champion Boston Red Sox and Nate Silver. To others, sabermetricians are the numbers-obsessed killjoys who take all the grit, hustle and fun out of baseball, and will never TRULY understand the game, because they didn’t play, dammit.

Last Thursday, I spent the day at the annual convention of SABR — the Society of American Baseball Research and the organization that gave sabermetrics its name — which was held at the Marriott on Market Street and continued through the weekend. If I took away anything from the day, it’s just how outdated and dead the whole “stats vs. old school” narrative is. SABR is actually about a lot more than just stats, and what’s commonly referred to “advanced statistical analysis” was actually a very small part of what was discussed there.

SABR, founded in 1971, has long concentrated on fostering further knowledge of the game. That has included new statistical understandings, sure, but even more often, it’s about scholarly study into obscure corners of baseball history. SABR members have done a great deal of research into the Negro Leagues, and more recently into womens’ leagues of the past.  I saw one presentation Thursday that looked into whether or not the Philadelphia Athletics’ Rube Waddell was bribed to throw a game, in 1905, while another considered the burning question of whether or not there were two different major leaguers in the 1880s named George Winkleman.

While there was no one there, of course, who had been following baseball since 1905, the crowd certainly skewed older, with many attendees retired individuals who treat the convention as an annual vacation, one they’ve been taking for years and years. Regardless of age, a lot of the attendees were dressed for a ballgame, wearing the shirts or hats of their favorite team. In all, it was a group of people who just flat-out love baseball.

The stereotype one might have expected to encounter at the SABR convention was of a bunch of  bloggers in their early 20s, toting laptops while arguing about which version of wins-above-replacement (WAR) was more trustworthy. I saw very little of that; a much more common sight at the Marriott was a group of three or four men in their 60s or 70s, standing in a circle swapping stories and trivia questions about specific players and games they remembered from the 1960s. Much as I love modern statistical stuff, listening to old-timers reminisce about the ’65 Dodgers was a whole lot of fun, too.

The convention was brought to Philly by our local chapter, which is named for Philadelphia Athletics legend Connie Mack, and is led by chapter presidents Seamus Kearney and Dick Rosen, coauthors of the 2011 book Philadelphia Phillies: Images of Baseball.

Like a lot of attendees — and unlike a whole lot of media members — Kearney and Rosen aren’t exactly anti-stats reactionaries, they merely approach the game a different way. “I’m not a statistician, I’m a story guy,” Kearney  told me.

SABR comes to a different city each year and the Connie Mack chapter had been pushing for a Philly-hosted convention since 2007, and finally got the word two years ago that the event was coming here in 2013.

It was ironic, of course, that the SABR convention would come to Philly, a city whose home team is perhaps less associated with sabermetrics than any other club in Major League Baseball. But the Phillies welcomed the convention with open arms, signing on as a sponsor, sending team president Dave Montgomery to address the convention and hosting a panel with ex-Phillies players Brad Lidge, Gary “Sarge” Matthews, and Dickie Noles.

The players panel — complete with introductions by stadium PA announcer Dan Baker — was held a few hours before Lidge was honored at Citizens Bank Park. The highlight was when the former Phils closer, who’s so great on the mic that I’d really love to see him pursue a broadcasting career, talked at length about Game 5 of the 2008 World Series.

Dave Montgomery’s speech touched on lots of stories about his years with the Phillies, and afterwards he submitted to a lengthy Q&A from the crowd. When he was asked about whether it was time for the team to further embrace advanced analytics, Montgomery said it was a “misconception” that the Phils ignore statistical analysis, and that scouting and analytics are “not mutually exclusive.”

When I asked Montgomery to elaborate afterwards, he noted that while the team lacks a full-time analytics specialist, it has three employees, as part of the its player personnel department, who study analytics as part of their job, that the team gives consideration to the stat known as wOBA (weighted on-base average) and that the Phillies receive defensive metric reports from Fangraphs. Still, one doesn’t get the sense that stats come first with the club.

“We believe in character,” Montgomery said, “and statistics don’t always show character.”

Speaking on the player panel, Gary Matthews seemed to have even less use for stats.

“I’m not a stat guy in terms of evaluating a player, Matthews said, which to be fair is a pretty standard opinion for ex-ballplayers/broadcasters of Sarge’s vintage. “I look at the heart, and whether you can go to battle with a player.” Lidge appeared to at least be familiar with the debates, a staple of stathead blogs, over proper closer usage and pitch counts.

To briefly summarize the complicated and multifaceted subject: The sabermetrics movement first rose on the margins in the ’70s and ’80s, driven by the ideas of SABR, author Bill James and others. The 2002-’03 Oakland A’s of Billy Beane were the first to successfully apply such concepts to the actual running of the team, instead of relying mostly on scouts.

The A’s success and the publication of Moneyball led other teams to use the concepts themselves, including the Boston Red Sox, who won two titles in the 2000s. The rise of Baseball Prospectus — where FiveThirtyEight wunderkind Nate Silver got his start — and about a thousand baseball blogs also helped analytics gain widespread popularity and acceptance.

The baseball world has in recent years reached a sort of detente in which the vast majority of teams use some combination of scouting and analytics in making player personnel decisions. Some teams — the Tampa Bay Rays being an example — employ either a single analytics expert or a whole team of them, with the goal of developing proprietary statistical models that give the team an advantage over their opponents.

The Phillies, wOBA familiarity notwithstanding, are not one of those teams. Bill Baer’s blog Crashburn Alley, earlier this year, even published a satirical “oral history of the Phillies analytics department.

Under Ruben Amaro, the Phillies do a lot of things organizationally that sabermetric types tend to frown upon, such as “signing declining veterans to huge contracts,” “failing to plan ahead,” “not making any trades at the deadline when you have pieces to sell” and “having Delmon Young on your team.” In fact, there was just one thing that just about everyone I talked to at the SABR convention — statheads and  old-timers, Phillies fans and Phillies-haters — could agree on: The Phillies are screwed.