It wasn’t that long ago, at least not the way baseball keeps time, that the Philadelphia Phillies were one of the most hide-bound organizations in the major leagues, a throwback even during eras when nearly every team still adhered to the mossy truths that defined the game.
The Phils were suspended in the amber of tradition, which was familiar and comforting, but not so good recently for keeping up with teams that were having success by mixing the age-old reliance on gut decisions with a heavy dose of science.
There was a guy in the manager’s chair once who, when informed of some finding put forward by Bill James, a father of baseball analytics, responded by saying, “Where did he play?”
Well, you have probably noticed that things have changed quickly around here. Next season, the Phillies will have a guy in the manager’s chair who speaks fluently about run-expectancy tables and the use of Diamond Kinetics and Trackman to chart how players are performing. Maybe it’s not always more effective than merely watching them closely and then spitting on the ground, but there’s no going back.
In Gabe Kapler, the Phillies also have a fitness-obsessed manager who is their first to pose in a skimpy leopard-print bathing suit, and whose blog has extolled the testosterone-building advantages of exposing a male’s nether regions to UV light. Neither of these is something one had to report about Charlie Manuel.
“As we try to move the needle here and as we try to move this organization forward, there’s an element of risk, and new behaviors and trying new things that is inevitable,” general manager Matt Klentak said. “We can’t project exactly the way the next few years are going to play out, but, boy, oh boy, it’s going to be fun.”
In any case, it will be different, far different from how the Phillies have operated for nearly all of their 135 seasons. The leap from the past to the future is chiefly the work of one man, principal owner John Middleton. He’s the one who went outside the organization to hire Andy MacPhail as the team’s president in 2015 and directed him to seek a young, analytics-driven general manager, which turned out to be Klentak. And now Klentak has hired a manager to further the process in the clubhouse, so that the organization is being remade not just from the top down, but from the bottom up.
How will it work? Even Middleton doesn’t know for sure, but he is certain it will work better than maintaining the methods that walked hand in hand through the decades all the way back to the Carpenters. And if it involves the risk of taking on some unique personalities and trying different things, so be it.
“Is it risky? Yes. But what’s not said enough is that it’s risky to not take those risks in a competitive world that’s changing all the time,” Middleton said Thursday after Kapler’s introductory press conference. “I was a CEO at a very early age, coming out of business school, and I took over a company that was worth $7 ½ or $8 million in two declining industries, and 27 years later, I sold it for $3 billion. You don’t do that by not changing the culture.”
As Middleton’s seat at the table increased over the years – he joined the Phillies ownership group in 1994 – so did his determination that the organizational culture had to be brought up to date. The hiring of Kapler isn’t the culmination of that process, but the new manager’s ideas will probably be the most visible public manifestation of it for a while. Middleton sees the changes everywhere, however.
“When you sit in a draft room and you listen to Johnny Almaraz (the team’s director of amateur scouting) and he turns to one of these analytics guys and says, ‘What’s the probability of this guy projecting as a major leaguer?’ and the guy is typing on his computer and says, ’75 percent,’ and you’re watching a guy like Johnny buying into it, and you’re watching these two parts of the organization come together,” he said. “We weren’t doing that two years ago, let alone 30.”
Middleton has struggled with remaining patient, particularly as the Phillies came out of the gate very poorly last season. He wanted to do something, but throwing money at the problem of losing baseball games is a short fix. If staying positive during losing required an example for guidance, there is always the Houston Astros.
“I go to the owners meetings and people who have been through this like (Houston owner) Jim Crane would say, ‘Stay the course.’ He said, ‘No matter how bad you think it is, we had three seasons losing 108 games. John, you’re not that bad.’ And I said, ‘Well, we might be this year,’ ” Middleton said.
It turned out they weren’t quite that bad, but there is a long way to travel between where the Phillies are now and where the Astros have gotten themselves.
“I think one of the things people don’t talk about enough is the emotional impact of losing. I hate it. I’m embarrassed by it. I don’t like looking bad in anything I do,” Middleton said. “Part of the discipline is knowing you can suck it up and tough it out.”
Middleton made the decision to push for the modern, analytic course, even though it represented a radical departure for the organization and an uncertain timeline for success. He has his GM and manager in place now, and he is quite sure they have been put upon the correct path.
Whether these are the right guys to go down that path will be determined later, however. That’s the rub, and even in the old days, when men spit on the ground and went by their considerable guts, it was always the rub.