Slowly, Phillies enter analytics era

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Last week, Pat Gillick sat in the lobby of Bright House Field and said the "A" word. He did not scoff. He did not swear. He did not speak in tongues or smoke at the ears. The question was simple: What role will advanced data analysis play during the Grover Cleveland era of the Phillies presidency?

"Let me put it this way: I think analytics certainly have a place," Gillick said. "I think it is something that should be paid attention to, just like all information. All the information that can be gathered that can make you a better team and make better judgment on players, you have to use all of those tools."

Less than 2 years ago, the Phillies began their attempt to build something resembling the analytics departments that teams such as the Red Sox and Rays had spent much of the previous decade building. They hired Scott Freedman, a former member of Major League Baseball's labor relations department, to guide them, adding him to longtime statistician Jay McGlaughlin and a team employee named Chris Cashman. This year, they added full-time intern Lewie Pollis, a Brown University graduate with a degree in economics who has written for Baseball Prospectus and previously interned for the Indians.

Perhaps most significant, the Phillies are investing more than a million dollars in the building of a proprietary computer information system they hope will play a similar role to the Red Sox' well-known Carmine system, serving as a database for scouting reports, medical histories, statistical models, and more.

The Cubs began building their own computer system in 2012, shortly after luring Theo Epstein, the man who built Boston's formidable analytics prowess, away from the Red Sox and naming him president. One of Epstein's early moves was to sign Cuban prospect Jorge Soler to a 9-year, $30 million contract. Compared with the $63 million the Red Sox committed to the signing of Yoan Moncada, maybe you can put a price tag on prescience.

"We haven't gotten to the point where we want to get to yet," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said, "but we are making that transition and adding to our arsenal, as far as information is concerned. It's not the first time we're dealing with it. We've utilized analytics in the past, but we're putting a little bit more emphasis on it and we're trying to be creative with it."

At the same time, the Phillies do not feel as if a dramatic change in organizational philosophy is in order. Gillick pointed to the success of teams such as the Giants and the Royals - last year's World Series participants - as evidence there is still a place in the game for baseball operations departments whose visions are molded by men who have spent most of their careers wielding radar guns and stopwatches instead of spreadsheets and demand curves.

"We won 5 years in a row, and don't consider ourselves an analytic organization," Gillick said.

In fact, the public perception is that the Phillies are whatever is diametrically opposed to an analytic organization. Last week, ESPN ranked all 122 teams in the four major professional sports based on their utilization of advanced metrics. They ranked the Phillies No. 122. While there is a certain degree of irony in ESPN's decision to quantify analytic proficiency in the form of a subjective ranking based on something other than objective data, the outlet's low appraisal of the Phillies at least provides a barometer reading on the conventional wisdom regarding the club. And some progress is evident in the fact that members of the front office chafed at their ranking and defended the steps they've taken to improve their performance in that area. You'd expect the response from a team in slot No. 122 to be more along the lines of, "Whatever, nerds!"

But there is no question the Phillies are in a position similar to American auto manufacturers in the 1970s, when they realized the whole time they'd been sitting back and smelling their exceptionalism, the Japanese had been building innovative management and assembly infrastructures that threatened to leave them perpetually hacking up exhaust.

It remains to be seen how quickly the Phillies can catch up to the years of number-crunching, trend-analyzing and metric-formalizing clubs like what the Cubs and Red Sox already have on their hard drives. What kind of model did the Red Sox use when formulating a bid for Cuban players Rusney Castillo and Yoan Moncada? How about the one that Epstein used when he acquired current No. 2 starter Jake Arrieta for a reliever and a No. 5 starter in 2013? The thing about data are that they beget more data, and the more data they beget, the more accurate models become. There is a reason the Dodgers celebrated their NL West title by paying Andrew Friedman a reported $35 million over 5 years to become their president while luring Billy Beane acolyte Farhan Zaidi away from Oakland to be general manager.

Thus far, the Phillies have opted for a less dramatic transition. Given the polarized response to the methods employed by the Sixers over the last couple of years, it will be interesting to see where the two organizations stand in 5 years, with regard to results, and to perceptions. After all, on the list where ESPN ranked the Phillies No. 122 out of 122, it ranked the Sixers No. 1.

 


Email: dmurphy@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy

 

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