Thursday, July 31, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

The problem with the Phillies, in eight of their GM's words

Ruben Amaro Jr.'s excess of trust in his scouts is the Phillies' fundamental problem.

The problem with the Phillies, in eight of their GM's words

Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro. (Chris Szagola/AP file)
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro. (Chris Szagola/AP file)

Want to know what's wrong with the Phillies?

I mean, really wrong: not like Danys Baez Wrong or Laynce Nix Wrong, but the kind of Wrong that must exist for those kinds of wrongs to continue to repeat themselves. We're talking Decade-of-Futility Wrong here.

Over the last two years, we've examined a number of different manifestations of this fundamental flaw, but we've been limited to using our own words when attempting to explain it, words that are often imperfect (to which frequent readers of this blog can, and, if you scroll down to the comments section at the end of this post, likely will, attest).

So today is an important day.

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Today, we have the ability to relay to you the words of somebody who can bear first-person witness to the errant ideology that has helped the Phillies fall from a World Series champion with a huge head start on the rest of the National League to an overpaid, underperforming collective of aging players that is springing new leaks at a far greater rate than the old ones can be patched.

That person is general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., who yesterday offered a brilliant synopsis of The Problem during a one-on-one interview with Comcast Sports Net's Jim Salisbury. The topic itself -- the likelihood that newly-signed free agent Marlon Byrd would repeat his 2013 season instead of the previous two -- was hardly noteworthy.

The Phillies demonstrated that they believe Byrd will be the player he was last season by signing him to a two-year, $16 million contract. And for all of the tut-tutting that any decision by Amaro tends to prompt from baseball's more progressive analyzers and opiners, there is an argument to be made that the risk the Phillies took was, at the very least, justifiable. While there is plenty of reason to think that Byrd's performance for the Mets and Pirates could prove to be a one-year fluke given his age and his previous association with performance enhancing drugs, there is also evidence that he has turned himself into a different type of hitter, revamping his swing so that he now creates more fly balls, and thus more extra base hits.

The Problem, though, lies not in the justifiability of the signing, but in the method of justification that Amaro says he employed.

"We talked to our scouts about how his swing path and approach changed," the general manager told Comcast Sports Net. "He's worked on it."

And then, the eight words that suggest that, two years into the Decline and Fall, the mindset in imperial palace is the same as it ever was.

Said Amaro: "I have to trust my scouts on it."

There it is. Print it out, highlight it, and hang it on your refrigerator with the 2014 schedule magnet that implores you to purchase tickets. Because here's The Thing: Amaro does not have to trust his scouts on it. In fact, he should not trust his scouts on it. He should listen to them. He should conisder what they say. But he should not trust them to make his decisions for him. Because this is not 1998 anymore, and the way that decisions need to be made in Major League Baseball no longer calls for an exclusive reliance on the expert testimony of three or four men. That is not meant to be a diminution of the abilities of those men. They are skilled people, good baseball men, the kind of employees that every organization needs. Instead, what we have witnessed over the past decade is a diminishment of the culpability of the boots on the ground for the decisions that do not work out.

If Marlon Byrd flops in his second go-around with the Phillies, it won't be for the lack of some critical scouting insight, for some identifiable flaw that somebody missed while sitting behind home plate with a radar gun and a notebook.

No, if Marlon Byrd ends up providing less than $16 million worth of offensive production over the next two years, it will be because the evidence that those scouts provided was misused by the people to whom it was provided, the people who are responsible for deciding what amount of weight to assign to that evidence, the people who are responsible for placing that evidence into the context of all of the other evidence that is available to a major league front office in the year 2013.

See, Amaro should not need a scout who has spent 20 games watching Byrd in person to tell him that the outfielder is hitting more fly balls. All he needs is a laptop and an internet connection. With a few clicks he can see that Byrd dramatically lowered the rate at which he hit ground balls in 2013, from an average of 1.06 per flyball in his three declining years with the Cubs to 0.62 in his breakout stretch with the Mets. With a few more clicks he can view video of any of Byrd's at bats over the last three, four, five years.

Eyewitness accounts are important, but when they confirm everything that the numbers say, those accounts are no longer to credit or to blame. In fact, they probably suggest that the rest of the numbers deserve some credence.

Like, for example, the numbers that say that Byrd was back to being a ground ball hitter in his 115 plate appearances with the Pirates after a July trade (a 1.10 ground ball rate), and that the fly balls that he did hit did not leave the park nearly as often as they did when he was with the Mets (12.5 percent of his flyballs went for home runs with New York, 7.5 percent with the Pirates). And that the percentage of his hits that went for extra bases fell from what would have been a career high of 43 percent to a number much closer to his career average (35 percent). And that when you factor in the rate at which his balls in play landed for its, a rate that tends to normalize over time and was 40 points higher than his career norm during his end-of-the-year run with the Pirates, Byrd was actually closer to the hitter he had been in the 11 years leading up to 2013 than he was in 2013's first four months.

But the point is not what the numbers say about Byrd, because the numbers still say that, even with the Pirates, he was a hitter whose production would have made an $8 million salary seem reasonable. The point is that the Phillies still seem to be operating with the philosophy that the subjective opinions of their personnel men are the most important variable in deciding a player's value.

And that brings us back to the problem, which is that the Phillies continue to take a microscopic approach to decision making when real value in the current landscape of baseball is determined through the interpretation and manipulation of its macroscopic trends. It is a philosophy that manifests itself at every level of the organization. A keen scouting eye is far more important at the amateur level than the professional level given the lesser amount and relevance of data and video that is available.

Still, it is not hard to imagine the importance of utilizing things like historical success rates at specific draft positions (what does the data say about the kinds of players drafted in the supplemental round who end up experiencing major league success?), for specific player profiles (all other things being equal, what does the data say about the career probability of a hard-throwing college pitcher who is drafted in the late first round versus a toolsy but raw high school position player?) when formulating a strategy for the amateur draft.

Baseball decision making in the era of big data is as much about interpreting and utilizing probabilities as it is about individual judgments about a player's abilities.

The vast array of tools that are at the disposal of every personnel evaluator, professional or armchair, has leveled the playing field when it comes to grading out physical talent. Everyone sees the same numbers, the same games, the same video. Anybody who had watched a healthy amount of Padres and Rangers baseball over the previous five seasons could have told you that Mike Adams had the talent of a premiere setup man. The decision on what kind of contract a team should have been involved a host of variables that had nothing to do with the scouting report on him.

What did the the historical data say about the likelihood of a reliever fitting his profile sustaining his production through two years? What did the market say about the other relievers who were commanding less money? What was the likelihood that spending that money on two $3 million relievers or three $2 million relievers would have yielded as good or better results?

Therein lies the fallacy of judging Marlon Byrd's contract based on how much he was worth.

A player is worth whatever somebody is willing to pay him. Gold was worth $1900 an ounce at one point. It is now worth $1200. When purchasing a precious metal, an investor does not send a representative to a bank with a touchstone and then make his decision to buy after getting a phone call that says, "Yep, that's gold." That's what general managers are: investors. They make their purchases by weighing current market value against future expected value. And if they make the wrong choice, it is their interpretation of the evidence that was at their disposal that is to blame.

The Byrd deal cannot be measured against some unchanging baseline.

Factors include the likelihood that the Phillies are a World Series contender with an $8 million Marlon Byrd in right field versus the likelihood that they are a World Series contender with that $8 million spent elsewhere, and a lot of that depends on what the $8 million would have gotten you on the market, which we will not know until the market is closed but which the Phillies front office is responsible for predicting.

What is the probability the Phillies could have gotten as much, or more, production at an equal, or lesser, price had they waited and tried to sign a right-handed bat like Mike Morse or Chris Young and then paired him with a left-handed bat, or if they'd spent $8 million more than whatever they are going to spend on a starting pitcher while throwing Darin Ruf and a left-handed bat out there and saying, what the hell, at least we'll have $8 million more to spent next offseason if it doesn't work. Of if they'd spent $8 million more on an upgrade in center field.

Don't misinterpret any of that as suggestions for what the Phillies should have done. They are examples of different things that they could have done, but did not do, and when the end of 2014 rolls around the wisdom of what they ended up doing will be dictated by those decisions.

The Phillies like to say that they are a scouting organization, and if they really mean it, then it is a recipe for failure, because the great organizations in the current baseball landscape are decision-making organizations, the ones who put as much time and effort into evaluating the paths that they can take as they do evaluating the players who represent those paths.

Maybe the Phillies are not what they appear, or what they portray themselves to be. Maybe the offices and board rooms at Citizens Bank Park really are a thriving hotbed of intellectual curiosity, where smart men and women armed with reams of evidence make compelling cases for the wisdom of various policy decisions, and maybe the men that end up making those decisions do so only after considering all of those cases and putting them into the context of their prospect for contention next year and the year after and five years down the road.

The problem is that many of the decisions that end up getting made, and the public defenses of those decisions, suggest that there is little science behind them, that the governing strategy is to plant a tree for shade whenever the sun moves and then hope that the forest ends up looking alright.

Maybe Marlon Byrd turns out to be a productive player, and maybe the Amaro will find enough money to cobble together a rotation behind Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, and maybe an offense that once again has found a way to get dramatically older will finally spend an entire season on the field together, and the minor leagues will well into a reservoir of talent. Maybe 2014 will end with Amaro and David Montgomery crowd surfing down Broad Street on top of the outstretched hands of millions of grateful fans while Chip Kelly and Sam Hinkie watch from their offices and think, "Enough with all of our hocus pocus, from now on we're just going to trust our scouts."

Right now, though, it's hard to escape the feeling that the Phillies are still well down a road that should no longer be traveled.

Get the full High Cheese experience at PhillyDailyNews.com.

David Murphy Daily News Staff Writer
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