Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Cole Hamels decision, and how a modern baseball operation would help the Phillies make it

A follow up on yesterday's column urging Phillies regime change, specifically with regard to Cole Hamels.

The Cole Hamels decision, and how a modern baseball operation would help the Phillies make it

(Eileen Blass/USA Today Sports)
(Eileen Blass/USA Today Sports)

Let’s follow up on our column/manifesto that ran in yesterday’s Daily News, which suggests a remodeling of the baseball ops side of the Phillies organization, starting with a new president from outside the organization with the big picture analytical ability and expertise to build a modern baseball program. In other words, baseball’s version of Sam Hinkie.

The vast majority of feedback I received from the fan base concurred with the overarching point, but a small segment took umbrage with my citations of some of the academic expertise present in other organizations, reading them as a suggestion that the Phillies fire all the scouts and replace them with computers.

That wasn’t my point, and, frankly, such reactions are indicative of the kind of defensive mindset that, consciously or not, pervaded the organization back at the peak of the hoopla surrounding Moneyball and helped leave it where it is now, which is scrambling to catch up.

I wrote about this topic many times during my first few seasons covering the team, when the praise heaped on Billy Beane for his progressive evaluation led to what can best be described as a reactionary mindset amongst amongst the traditional baseball set and many of the writers embedded within.

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The result was a sort of pendulum effect as traditionalists and progressives swung further to their respective ends of the spectrum with each suggestion - explicit, implicit, or imagined - that their method of doing things was not the wisest.

The Phillies’ World Series victory in 2008 created a perfect environment for an institutional arrogance to creep in. Billy Beane’s way of doing things might lead to Hollywood blockbusters, but our way of doing things leads to championships. That sort of thing.

Thing is, the rise of the machines was mostly a figment of the imagination of the establishment, born of a self-preserving reaction to the suggestion that there existed an important skill set that the establishment did not possess.

Acquiring that skill set would force the establishment to look outside of itself, which would mean creating room to accommodate that skill set, which would threaten to displace an existing member of the establishment. It happens this way in every industry. There is a reason they call it disruption. You either accommodate it, or you end up making an ass out of yourself on election night as you babble about poll numbers derived from outdated methods.

The irony is that the so called “revolution” was actually a simple extension of the traditional tenets of baseball. At some point, way back when, somebody decided to figure out the probability of a batter getting a hit each time he stepped to the plate. Thus was born Batting Average.

At some point, somebody realized that a hit worth four bases was more beneficial than a hit worth one. Thus was born the tabulation of Home Runs. Baseball has always placed a heavy emphasis on the quantification of performance. The more home runs a player had hit in his previous at bats, the higher the probability that he would hit them in his future at bats. The only thing that changed was the precision of those measures of probability and performance.

Building a baseball team has always been predicated on the concepts of probability and risk. What is the probability that Player X produces Positive Event Y (a hit, a home run, a strikeout of a batter), and what is the risk that he produced Negative Event Z (an out, a defensive error, a walk of a batter)? The only thing that has changed is the precision of our measurements of risk and probability, and our understanding of how to weight the importance of them.

The study of advanced analytics were never about plugging variables into an equation and making a decision based solely on the result. It was about allowing decision-makers to consider every possible piece of relevant information while making their decisions. In addition to all of the scouting reports that our department has compiled on a player on a player, here is all of the relevant statistical information that our department has compiled on said player.

The problem the Phillies face is a problem that a number of major league teams face: they are just now starting to build an infrastructure that some of the more progressive organizations have been building for a decade. And the man in charge does not have a background that suggests he is well-suited to identify what, exactly, he needs to build.

It is my belief that macro-analysis plays a much more important role in the success of an organization than micro-analysis. Micro-analysis, the quantification of individual events and performances on the baseball field, is the kind of stuff that once served as the flashpoint for battles between traditionalists and progressives. WAR or RBI, etc. Macro-analysis, on the other hand, involves the quantification of long-term risk and long-term probability and the assignment of long-term value to assets.

Over the next decade, the most successful organizations will be the ones who have the most proficiency in projecting a player’s career trajectory, evaluating injury risk, maximizing injury prevention, and forecasting free agent and trade markets.

Case in point: Cole Hamels is 30 years old, and in the midst of his most dominant season as a major league starter. His contract allows him to be traded to a number of teams who have the resources and motivation to acquire him. Should the Phillies trade him, or should they hold onto him?

In making that decision, it would be helpful to know the probability of a 30-year-old lefty with X physical history and Y arsenal of pitches and Z fastball velocity and A mechanics avoiding major injury through his 31 and 32 and 33 and 34-year-old seasons.

And it would be helpful to know the value that such a pitcher would command this offseason, and next trade deadline, and the following offseason.

And it would be helpful to know the probability of the Phillies contending for the playoffs 2015, and 2016, and 2017, and 2018, and it would be helpful to know the probabilities that Prospect X and Prospect Y and Prospect Z are successful major leaguers, and it would be helpful to know the probability of success of a prospect at Position X who is Age Y with Skill Set Z compared with that of a prospect at Position A who is Age B with Skill Set C.

And it would be helpful to know the likely going rate for Starting Pitcher X in each year’s free agent market, and the probability that Starting Pitcher X, who is in his first year of arbitration with Team Y, reaches the free agent market in three years.

This is the kind of information that a modern baseball general manager needs to have at his disposal as he charts the wisest course for his organization over the next one, five and 10 years. It is the kind of information that takes years of time and high levels of expertise to develop.

Every day that passes leaves the Phillies a day further behind.

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