Five years ago, during the most uncertain transition of his tenure as owner of the Eagles, Jeffrey Lurie reached for the shiny object.
You could hardly blame him. Andy Reid’s time as head coach had come to an end, and with it one of the most tradition-bound runs in the NFL. It was successful, to be sure, but finally fell inward under the weight of doing the same things the same way for too long.
The shiny object was Charles Edward Kelly, a 49-year-old college football brainiac, who led the Oregon Ducks to a 46-7 record in his four seasons as head coach, including a BCS bowl appearance each year.
It wasn’t just the gaudy record or postseason success that made Kelly attractive to Lurie — and a lot of other NFL teams — it was his methods that made everyone wonder if he had unlocked some secret door to the game of football.
He preached the gospel of a relentless pace, and a read-and-react offense that forced opposing defenses to show their weaknesses before the play took shape. Man, it was exciting for a while; until Chip Kelly, at least among the sharks of the NFL, was revealed to be no more than a shiny object.
Organizations tilt too far in one direction sometimes and require course corrections. It happens all the time. And the reason you are reading about the Eagles in this space devoted to the national pastime — which is baseball, for our purposes, and not texting while driving — is that they offer a handy example for the Phillies, who are navigating their own course correction at the moment. The trick is to find the shiny object.
There is no question that the Phillies for most of their history, and certainly since the ownership era that spanned the Carpenter family and continued with the Bill Giles-Dave Montgomery-administered groups, were not at the forefront of modern baseball thought.
Instead, they were at the forefront of the most hidebound philosophic approaches to the game, an organization built on scouts who judged players with their gut feelings, and often with guts ample for the task. The Phils believed in playing hard on and off the field, and were reflective of farm directors and general managers like Paul Owens and Dallas Green, men whose analyses might have required a stopwatch, but not necessarily. (It was interesting this spring to read that the Nationals sent home a top pitching prospect caught breaking curfew to spend time with a visiting girlfriend. The old Phillies wouldn’t have sent him home. They would have promoted him on the spot.)
Change from those familiar ruts was a good thing for the Phils, and became more than a theoretical goal when principal owner John Middleton emerged from the murky shadows and demanded some modern thinking around here. It didn’t take long for the pendulum to swing, which is what happens when the billionaire in charge starts making demands. People tend to listen.
Very quickly, Andy MacPhail replaced Pat Gillick, and he hired 35-year-old Matt Klentak as the general manager, and, now the Phillies have cast their on-field fate with Gabe Kapler, the 42-year-old manager who is nothing like we’ve ever seen before. Look at the organization’s front-office staff and you will find a baseball research and development analyst, a baseball information analyst, an advanced scouting analyst, and a mental skills coach. It’s all good and all very exciting and very cutting edge. During spring training, Kapler did some very non-traditional things, like swapping his corner outfielders during an inning. It made sense, but does it make a real difference?
The organization put its analytics to work deciding that J.P. Crawford was ready to replace Freddy Galvis at shortstop, that Rhys Hoskins would be fine learning to play the outfield, and that Scott Kingery was worth a $24 million contract before taking his first major-league at-bat. Maybe so, maybe all of that, but predicting the future probably isn’t any easier with a computer than it is with a stopwatch.
That’s not to say the Phillies aren’t doing the right thing. They are. But the problem with a pendulum is when it gets too far away from the center. Middleton instructed the organization to reach for the shiny thing, and, boy, has it ever.
The overall success and failure in years to come won’t hinge on defensive shifts or advanced swing planes or the exhortation to “be bold,” however. It will be about whether the minor-league system, supported at its core by scouts watching baseball games, will locate enough talent to build a winner. At the moment, you can break down the Phillies with a Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil, an advanced analytics program, or the Hubble telescope and learn that the team doesn’t have enough quality starting pitching to compete seriously. Being bold will not alter that. Better pitching will.
John Middleton wanted a thoroughly modern baseball franchise and that is what his employees have provided. Being careful about what you want is good advice, though. Shiny isn’t always the whole answer. Sometimes it’s just shinier.