The general manager says that he does not “do” five-year plans, and the club president says that he judges his front office’s personnel decisions based on a standard of 30 percent accuracy, and all of a sudden the Phillies’ 35-38 record makes perfect sense. Either that, or Ruben Amaro Jr. and David Montgomery have an incredibly difficult time articulating their expectations for an organization whose five-year stretch of dominance is looking more and more like one of the anomalies that has occasionally interrupted a century of losing baseball.
You are probably well aware of what Montgomery told the Philadelphia Inquirer this morning, and you probably still have the stain on your lap from the donut that you dropped upon reading it. For the unfamiliar, the longtime club president was asked to defend Amaro’s overall body of work, which includes a succession of personnel decisions that have helped swamp the Phillies in what could be an extended period of mediocrity. Montgomery said that the general manager alone should not wear the blame for the current state of things, that the decisions the franchise makes are collective effort. He then qualified his statements with a curious version of, “Hey, nobody’s perfect.”
“God knows we're all trying to bat 1.000 on decision making,” Montgomery told the Inquirer. “The reality is, I think we do better than the .300 standard in baseball."
Maybe he was just being glib. Maybe he thought that a nonsensical baseball analogy was better than a repetitive chorus of, “All is well.” Maybe Montgomery picked up the newspaper this morning and winced when he realized what, exactly, he had said. But when you consider the perceived lack of accountability that, fair or not, has defined this organization for much of it’s history, the last thing the consumer wants to hear is that the Phillies are satisfied with a 30 percent success rate.
While the world championship and the five division titles have ushered in a new generation of fans to Citizens Bank Park, there are still plenty of people in this city who remember when .300 seemed like the benchmark upon which everybody in the organization was judged. They remember when Veterans Stadium was filled to better than 30 percent capacity. They remember when the Phillies would routinely win better than 30 percent of their games. They remember when Brett Myers avoided a domestic violence arrest on better than 30 percent of his road trips. Back then, nobody would have been surprised to read that .300 was the standard by which the Phillies measured themselves. Unlike Jeffrey Lurie’s pronouncement that the Eagles considered themselves the gold standard of the NFL, fans might have viewed Montgomery’s .300 standard as a refreshing breath of honesty and self awareness.
But two things changed after 2008: the expectations and the money the Phillies ownership spent to fulfill them. Montgomery has been the sole voice of that ownership for the last 17 years, a role for which he has displayed a natural feel. Raised in Roxoborough with the accent to prove it, he is a visible figure in the community and a revered one within the organization. Which is why his temporary tone-deafness in the Inquirer interview is so surprising. Nevertheless, it is concerning, at least from the perspective of a fan base that has plenty of justification to wonder whether the Phillies are following in the footsteps of the Cubs, who have spent the last five seasons suffering from the consequences of ill-advised contract signings and personnel decisions. Since their 97-win campaign in 2008, they have gone from 83 wins to 75 wins to 71 wins to 61 wins to a current pace of 66 wins.
While none of us can seriously think that the Phillies are satisfied as long as their employees execute their responsibilities at least 30 percent of the time, the management structure that Montgomery articulates in the Inquirer article is one that would seem to incentivize the lowering of standards.
“Ruben is not making independent decisions,” Montgomery said. “He's going with a pretty good group of eyes who are looking out there at players and making determinations.”
Human nature suggests that as the number of people who bear responsibility for a decision increases, so too does the temptation to evaluate that decision in a manner that reflects positively on the collective. If ownership says, “We like Ryan Howard. Let’s sign him to a long-term contract extension,” and the general manager acts accordingly, and the pro scouts project Howard to grade favorably to the options who will be on the free agent market from 2012 through 2015, and the decision to sign him to a five-year, $125 million extension is made with the understanding that it is the product of the thinking of the group, then the entire group is incentivized to assign a positive grade to the eventual result of that signing.
Compare that scenario with one in which the ownership says to the GM, “We like Ryan Howard and are willing to pay him, but you are the expert, and your job is act in the best short and long-term interests of the organization and prevent fools like us from parting with our money, and you will be judged accordingly.” And then the GM says to his pro scouts, “We’re negotiating with Ryan Howard, so give me our other options, and know that I will use that information to decide whether to meet his asking price, and that ownership will ultimately hold me accountable for my decision, and, thus, I will ultimately hold you accountable for the evaluations that you provide to me.”
The reality of the situation is that the fan base does not know how decisions are made in the organization, and the suggestion that the general manager is not entirely responsible for those decisions supports the old notion that the murky structure of the Phillies silent partnership was a significant factor in their decades of losing. And now that the gold mine of talent that the amateur scouting department unearthed between 1996 and 2002 is losing its shine, the franchise is regressing rapidly to the mean.
This town was not happy with the gold standard, and it certainly won’t be happy with the .300 standard. What’s unclear is how the Phillies are actually judging themselves.