The Phillies and Sabermetrics
A friend of mine works at a hot dog slash burger joint in Chester, PA. I stopped by one day to taste-test the goods, and he recommended a special sauce they have. So of course I tried it and liked it. When I caught up with him later, I asked him what was in that sauce.
“I have no idea,” he said.
Interesting that the business does not even let its employees know what is in the sauce, like the recipes for KFC or Coca Cola.
Why do I bring that up? Apparently, the Phillies don’t utilize statistics in player evaluation. From Doug Miller on MLB.com:
“I think defensive statistics are the most unpredictable stats there are,” says Charley Kerfeld, a former big league reliever who now serves as a special assistant to Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr.
“And since I’ve been here, we don’t have an in-house stats guy and I kind of feel we never will. We’re not a statistics-driven organization by any means.
“I’m not against statistics. Everybody has their own way of doing things. But the Phillies believe in what our scouts see and what our eyes tell us and what our people tell us.”
I’m skeptical as to Kerfeld’s honesty here, though he is certainly correct about the uncertainty of defensive metrics. For the same reasons that Coke and KFC and my friend’s burger joint don’t want us to know their secret ingredients, neither do the Phillies want everyone to know their thought processes in player evaluation. Such publicity would adversely affect them particularly in trades and drafting.
For instance, imagine Franklin Gutierrez — the slick-fielding center fielder for the Seattle Mariners — is on the trade market and the Phillies and the Boston Red Sox are the finalists in the sweepstakes. If the Red Sox know that the Phillies are proponents of defensive metrics, then they know that the Phillies may be willing to get into a bidding war for Gut’s services. So, the Red Sox wouldn’t jump out with an offer; instead, they would wait for the Phillies to do so.
Similarly, imagine the Phillies are trying to trade Jimmy Rollins. He is known more for his glove than his bat (sans 2007). The Phillies, by publicizing their use of defensive statistics, may alienate potential suitors because they realize that the Phillies could be valuing Rollins more highly than other teams and thus would not be willing to submit an offer or engage in a bidding war.
Simply put, teams do not want anyone to have access to their thought processes. If anything, Kerfeld is likely running a misdirection. That’s because the Phillies have consistently been among baseball’s elite defensive squads going back to 2002.
Note that the UZR data on FanGraphs only goes back to 2002.
It’s highly unlikely that the Phillies lucked their way into teams as consistently elite as their defensive squads have been. That’s not to say that, secretly, Phillies officials are poring over UZR and plus-minus data. Instead, the Phillies likely use a little of everything to various degrees. They probably do consider the word of scouts highest, then video scouting, and various sets of defensive data whether it’s UZR, +/-, PMR, or their own brand.
Another Sabermetric principle is that walks have value. The Phillies, since 2002:
From 2002-07, the Phillies were either first or second in the NL in drawing walks. They can thank Bobby Abreu for that, of course. But again, it’s highly unlikely they just happened to find walk-prone hitters like Abreu, Pat Burrell, and Ryan Howard on the team.
I’ll conclude this with perhaps the most damning bit of evidence that the Phillies are Sabermetrically-inclined: base running.
According to EQBRR on Baseball Prospectus, the Phillies ranked first in all of baseball in 2006 and ’07 (13.3 each), second in ’08 (13.4), and sixth in ’09 (0.5). Last season aside — likely caused by Jimmy Rollins’ down year which cut his base running opportunities significantly — the Phillies have been not only elite but once again consistently elite. It’s one thing to have a fluke season here and there but the Phillies are incredibly consistent.
Sabermetric studies have shown us that the “break-even” point in stolen base success rate is close to 75%. The Phillies’ success rate on the base paths will astound you:
- 2004: 79%
- 2005: 81%
- 2006: 79%
- 2007: 88%
- 2008: 84%
- 2009: 81%
Once again, not just elite, but consistently elite.
Of course we don’t know for sure, but I’d be shocked if the Phillies weren’t heavy proponents of Sabermetrics. They show all of the symptoms. You’ll know for sure if you ever see Amaro sporting a pocket protector or using a slide rule.