How Matt Klentak Plans to Rebuild the Phillies
Matt Klentak agrees to meet me at Citizens Bank Park at two o’clock on a bitterly cold January afternoon. I show up early and kill some time in the lobby. A receptionist cheerily informs me that Klentak’s secretary will come to get me in eight minutes. Not “right away” or “soon” — in eight minutes.
It’s quirkily precise, and I can’t help but ask Klentak about this when I reach his second-floor corner office overlooking the charcoal runway that’s Pattison Avenue. The Phillies’ 36-year-old general manager breaks into a small smile. We’d said we’d sit down at two o’clock, he explains, so it made sense to stick to that plan. And Klentak is all about sticking to plans, particularly the one he and other members of the team’s evolving brain trust have developed to right a ship that lost its way in the wake of the most successful era in franchise history.
Hard to believe, Harry, but the upcoming season marks 10 years since Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels led the then-young-and-hungry Phillies to the franchise’s first post-season appearance since 1993. It was the start of an amazing five-year run of playoff appearances, including two trips to the World Series and one soul-cleansing parade down Broad Street in 2008.
For most of that time, the Phils’ G.M. was Ruben Amaro Jr., who made win-now moves that left hard-to-please Philly fans happy as hell. Right until the joyride came to a jarring end and it became apparent — as has often been the case in the franchise’s 134 years — that the Phillies had no idea how to pivot from one era to the next. Around the league, the team was viewed as its own worst enemy: too stubborn to admit it needed to rebuild, too old-fashioned to embrace analytics even as other franchises were using advanced data to help them evaluate talent.
This was the sinkhole Klentak parachuted into when the Phillies hired him in October 2015, shortly after they finally let Amaro embark on a new career as a first-base coach. Klentak was presented with two enormous tasks: Give the team’s front office a stat-savvy 21st-century makeover, and create a blueprint that would provide the Phils with more than one window of opportunity to contend down the road. In handing the keys to an outsider, John Middleton and his fellow owners were admitting they were tired of being laughed at, tired of seeing whole sections of their beautiful ballpark take on the abandoned-frontier look that had defined the upper levels of the Vet.
For now, Klentak has the team on a strict diet of patience and restraint while he figures out which of its myriad prospects will become legitimate building blocks. It’s not as sexy as being the $120 million mystery bidder for Cliff Lee or as hashtaggable as #TheProcess, the Sixers’ polarizing rebuild. But Klentak takes his cues from other teams that have won titles by playing the long game, like the Kansas City Royals and Chicago Cubs. “Almost without exception, the franchises that have committed to building their team the right way have been rewarded,” he says. “It works, you know?”
Klentak talks about rebuilding the Phillies the way you might describe the steps you take to make breakfast: one logical move reliably following another. This isn’t a strategy shrouded in mystery. The team needed to restock a farm system left barren by trades for stars like Lee, Roy Halladay and Hunter Pence. It had to make smarter draft picks and stick to short-term deals with free agents who might be flipped at the trade deadline for more prospects. If enough of the kids — like ballyhooed shortstop J.P. Crawford, third baseman Maikel Franco, pitcher Vince Velasquez and catcher Jorge Alfaro — turn out to be legit, the team could have its next great nucleus.
“I grew up near Boston, and there are a lot of parallels between the fan bases,” says Klentak. “I think Phillies fans want to see progress.” He’s sporting a checked shirt and a powder blue Phillies windbreaker as he reclines on a navy couch in the corner of his office. “We’ve tried to be very up-front with what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”
He comes off as clear-eyed and realistic, traits that were evident back at Dartmouth, where he played shortstop and earned his economics degree. “When I was a junior, I vividly remember starting to realize that I wasn’t going to be able to play at a professional level,” he tells me. “I was with my dad, and we were talking about what comes after college if I’m not going to be able to play.”
So he started scribbling down ideas: things he liked, things he didn’t, separated into columns. “The business of baseball was the broad conclusion,” he says. He sent letters and emails out into that world, hoping someone would bite. In the fall of 2002, Klentak got a phone call from Theo Epstein, who at age 28 had just been named the new general manager of the Boston Red Sox. (Within a few years, Epstein would end the team’s 86-year World Series title drought. Soon, teams across the league wanted young, analytical G.M.’s to call their own.) Epstein didn’t have a job for Klentak, but he helped him form connections that led to an internship with the Colorado Rockies.
A four-year stint in the league commissioner’s office followed. Through that job, Klentak became friendly with the Cubs’ then-president, Andy MacPhail, who was named president of baseball operations for the Baltimore Orioles in 2007. MacPhail hired Klentak a year later to be the team’s director of baseball operations. The Orioles hadn’t been to the playoffs in more than a decade. Under MacPhail and Klentak, the team retooled, trading established players for valuable prospects.
The Orioles made the playoffs in 2012, 2014 and 2016. But Klentak had headed west before the 2012 season, taking an assistant G.M. job with the Los Angeles Angels. His second week there, the Angels’ brass signed first baseman Albert Pujols to a staggering 10-year, $240 million contract. Before the ink had even dried, advanced metrics showed that Pujols’s legendary hitting prowess was in decline. He hasn’t come close to replicating the numbers that earned him that contract, now regarded as one of the worst in baseball. Klentak learned a valuable lesson: Tomorrow always comes. Plan accordingly.
That same off-season, the Phillies were doing some seriously questionable spending of their own. A rotation of aces couldn’t get them past the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2011 Division Series. The exclamation point was Ryan Howard sprawled on the field after rupturing his Achilles on the final play of the series, a few months before his $125 million extension kicked in. Amaro responded by signing closer Jonathan Papelbon to a $50 million contract.
“If Billy Beane ran the Phillies, he would have started trading everyone the moment Howard collapsed in the dirt,” says Jayson Stark, the ESPN senior writer who covered baseball for 21 years at the Inquirer. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, chances are you saw Brad Pitt portray Beane, the Oakland Athletics’ G.M., in the 2011 movie Moneyball.
The small market A’s didn’t have much in the way of financial resources, so Beane sought competitive advantages elsewhere. He regularly shipped out his best players before they reached free agency in exchange for prospects, and he embraced “sabermetrics,” the term coined by writer Bill James for the NASA-like analysis of baseball statistics he began championing in the 1980s. Back then, players were largely evaluated by simple numbers: batting average, home runs, RBIs, wins and losses.
Sabermetrics offered new tools for measuring a player’s ability, from a fielder’s ultimate zone rating to a hitter’s exit velocity and launch angle to a pitcher’s release-point history. And the Phillies, under Amaro and then-president David Montgomery, couldn’t have cared less about them. Amaro seemed to scoff at the fact that his roster was aging even as the results on the field turned ugly. So he threw good money after bad on reclamation projects like Delmon Young and held on too long to assets like Lee rather than admit it was time for a reboot.
“A guy from another team recently said to me, ‘If you get out in front of it and start trading away your veterans, you can do the rebuild cycle in four or five years,’” Stark says. “If you don’t, it can take nine or 10 years. And unfortunately, I think with the Phillies, it’ll be nine or 10 years.”
In February of 2015, ESPN ranked every MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL team by its embrace of analytics. The Phillies were dead last among baseball teams, while the Sixers were number one overall. By the time the Phils begrudgingly set up a one-person analytics office and developed a proprietary information system called PHIL, other teams were carrying analytics staffs of 12 to 15 people. “Every other team had infrastructure in place, and the Phils were starting from scratch,” says Ben Baumer, who compiled the baseball rankings for the ESPN report and spent eight years helping build and run the Mets’ analytics team.
Four months after ESPN released its rankings, the Phillies hired MacPhail as a special assistant to then-president Pat Gillick. The team lost 99 games that season. MacPhail was named president when Gillick retired. Amaro was fired. The Phils, an organization forever gazing wistfully into its past, were ready to get with the times.
Matt Klentak wasn’t sure he’d get the job. He knew MacPhail well, but the team’s brain trust had committed to interviewing a bunch of pedigreed baseball minds, hoping to find its own Theo Epstein. And despite the Phillies’ recent nosedive, the job was still appealing: A 25-year TV deal with Comcast, worth more than $2.5 billion, had just kicked in, and Middleton had telegraphed a willingness to spend that windfall. (Speaking of Epstein, when the Cubs hired him in 2011, they hadn’t won a World Series since 1908. Now they’re World Fucking Champions.)
The phone call from Philadelphia came on a Friday morning in late October. Klentak learned he would be the 11th general manager in Phillies history, and by far the youngest — in a city that’s long on passion and short on patience.
For close to 24 hours, few people outside Klentak’s family knew he was the new G.M. When he woke up Saturday morning, his phone was exploding with text messages. “That was when it sunk in,” he says. “I’ve been in and around most of the baseball decisions that have taken place for the Orioles and Angels over the past eight years. But until you’re in that chair and have to act from that position, it’s a little bit different.”
Once in Philly, he focused on building up the analytics department, something Middleton said he was prepared to spend millions on. So Klentak hired a former Orioles colleague, Ned Rice, as an assistant G.M., and Andy Galdi, a quantitative analyst for Google, as director of baseball research and development. “Ned has a background of understanding how baseball operations departments work,” Klentak says. “Andy can take what he’s learned in Silicon Valley and apply that to the analytics department.”
About 75 feet from Klentak’s office, the department is literally taking shape, as a nondescript conference room is turned into a state-of-the-art space for the crew. (Think floating workspaces and monitors slipping down from the ceiling.) “We’ll have nine or 10 people there this season, but it’s built for growth,” Klentak says. For him, analytics is more a state of mind than a department; he wants the organization to be gathering as much information as possible about everything. So the old-school scouts are working with the front-office nerds, and their combined knowledge is shared with coaches, trainers and other decision-makers.
Klentak insists that he, MacPhail and Middleton are all on the same page; the team could lose 91 games again this season and that would be understandable, so long as the Francos and Odubel Herreras keep maturing and the kids on the farm get closer to the majors. (Minor League Baseball’s website named the Phillies’ farm system the best in the game in November.)
If you want to see the franchise start to spend that Comcast money — and let’s face it, you absolutely do — start whispering 2018 like a mantra. That’s when generational talents like Bryce Harper and Clayton Kershaw could be on the market. And the Phillies will be able outspend the Yankees and every other team, if push comes to shove. “We’re keenly aware of what potentially is coming,” Klentak says in a diplomat’s even tone.
“I talked to one of the Cubs people at the Winter Meetings, and he said, ‘The Phillies are doing exactly what we did,’” Stark says. He thinks that’s true — but only to a point. He names the team’s projected starters and most prized prospects, wondering if there’s truly a Kris Bryant — the Cubs’ MVP third baseman — in the mix.
If we’re being honest, the answer is: Who knows? The Phillies are finally capable of having a conversation about cutting-edge analytics, but to find out whether J.P. Crawford is the next Jimmy Rollins — or Desi Relaford — they have to do the same thing you and I do: wait. And hope. Klentak doesn’t have a crystal ball, so he focuses on what got him here: Stick. To. The. Plan. “We don’t just want to build a team that wins for one year. We want to build something that sustains for a long time,” he says. It ain’t poetry, but it’s something to root for.
Published as “Sports: The Man With the Plan” in the March 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.