CLEARWATER, Fla. — Rhys Hoskins studied business administration in college, learning the driving forces behind a market and why it reacts in certain ways. The son of lawyers, Hoskins has a thirst for information. Phillies manager Gabe Kapler calls him an intellectual. Hoskins enjoyed learning about the little things, such as the subconscious effects that marketing can have on consumers.
“Things that I think we always kind of knew,” Hoskins said. “But to have someone explain it to us is pretty cool to see how that unfolds.”
Hoskins did not know it then, but his time in the classroom at Sacramento State, where he spent three years before being drafted, helped prepare him for this spring, when the Phillies, in Kapler’s first year, went all in on the use of analytics. They had statistical analysts in the dugout. They carried an extra arm in the bullpen. They batted the pitcher eighth. They told players how they fared in statistical categories that they didn’t know existed.
Perhaps most important, they hired Sam Fuld, who played eight years in the majors and was among the first players to embrace analytics. As the major-league player information coordinator, Fuld will be responsible for taking information and making it digestible for the players. He will be a liaison between the front-office wonks and the clubhouse. Fuld is like those professors Hoskins had in college, the ones he said helped explain the things he “always kind of knew.”
“I think a lot of the times, the information can get overwhelming. It’s hard to sift through and pick ‘OK, what’s important for this game?’ ” Hoskins said. “To have Sam, he’s recently out of the game, kind of act as that bridge just makes it so much easier on us players. That’s what he does. He sifts through that and kind of makes decisions for us. There’s not much thinking for us. We just can go out and play.”
A perfect fit
Fuld last played in the majors in 2015, but he did not officially retire until last November, when he joined the Phillies in a role that seemed to be created just for him.
He always loved statistics, from studying the box scores each morning in the newspaper to reading Moneyball to studying economics at Stanford and interning with a sports data company after his first minor-league season. Fuld is a lot like Hoskins, an intellectual on a baseball field.
Phillies general manager Matt Klentak spent the last three years assembling a baseball think tank. The team’s analytics department was almost nonexistent when Klentak was hired after the 2015 season. The department is run by a former YouTube quantitative analyst and it includes a former Bank of America vice president, an Ivy League-educated baseball writer, and a rocket scientist. The group studies advanced information, finding ways the Phillies can use those numbers to advantage. But they needed someone to deliver it to the players.
And that’s where Fuld entered. Fuld has the credentials to hang in both the clubhouse and the team’s research and development office. He had a successful playing career but also went to Stanford. Who better to deliver that information?
“I think there’s a little more credibility,” Fuld said. “I can appreciate what it’s like to step in the box and understand that some of the things that we may be asking them to do are really, really hard. I think that’s been an issue in the past I’ve seen. Players are told to do something from someone that doesn’t quite have playing experience at a high level and it can be frustrating when you’re told to do something that is really, really difficult. It’s taken for granted sometimes. Hopefully I can relate.”
More acceptance now
The integration of analytics happened organically this spring, Fuld said. It took place in the dugout or in clubhouse conversations. The information, Fuld said, is already much more accepted in baseball than it was a decade ago, when someone would look at you funny if you used a term like “wins above replacement.” The players have been open, Fuld said. The front office met with each player in the early weeks of camp and provided packets with heat maps and spray charts. The sheets included some terms — like weighted on-base percentage — that the players needed Fuld to explain.
“You can’t shove things down people’s throats,” Fuld said. “Whether it’s a second-grade teacher showing someone how to do math or someone doing what I’m doing. It’s better messaged when there’s interest on the other side.”
Fuld will travel this season with the Phillies, but he will not be one of the seven uniformed coaches in the dugout. Fuld and Mike Calitri, who was hired as the manager for advance scouting, will work with the coaches to make sure they are equipped to deliver the information once the game starts. Every coach on Kapler’s staff either embraces analytics or has a deep background using it.
“A lot of the battle is getting the information to the players when it really matters and that’s when you’re on the field,” Fuld said. “You can have all the meetings you want at 1 p.m., but at 7 p.m., when the game really matters, it’s important that they get the right amount of information and the most important information.”
Before spring training games, Fuld handed Hoskins a piece of paper he could fold in half and stick into his back pocket. It was a cheat sheet, something Hoskins would peek at when he was in left field to direct him where to stand for each batter. It is something the Phillies will likely continue through the regular season. The Phillies will play the numbers this season and the sheet was evidence of that. Hoskins could look at the sheet to see where he should stand for a specific batter. Move to your left and expect a line drive or take steps back because a certain batter hits fly balls. The information was being explained to Hoskins. It was as if he was in college again.
“I enjoy the information,” Hoskins said. “The information to me is something that can give us a slight edge. Over a 162-game season, that could equate to two, three, four wins and now we’re in a position where that could mean a whole lot. Anything to give us an edge, we’re going to take.”