On Leadership

The Phillies dropped yet another game yesterday, losing 4-3 to the Atlanta Braves for a series sweep. They have won 10 of their last 35 games dating back to June 1 and the frustration is reaching a boiling point, both with the players themselves and with the fans. Jonathan Papelbon threw a chair into his locker, Shane Victorino was pulled from the lineup because he was frustrated with his own play, and then you have this from Jimmy Rollins yesterday:

This isn’t a big deal, even though it will likely be the big story between now and when the Phillies return from the All-Star break. Columns may be penned, tweets may be sent, and fans may take to sports talk radio incensed about the team’s lack of leadership and lack of accountability, but none of it means anything. The biggest mistake Rollins made wasn’t walking out and avoiding accountability; it was making the job of the writers covering the team more difficult. Without any useful quotes from Rollins, they will be forced — forced! — to talk about Rollins’ selfish attitude and inability to be a team leader.

It’s funny how, a few years ago when the Phillies were winning, Rollins’ attitude was seen as a positive to the team. He went out of his way to trash-talk the Mets and predict how well his Phillies would perform in the coming season. He went on The Best Damn Sports Show Period and called Phillies fans “front runners”. Shane Victorino’s high-octane, no-holds-barred personality was seen as an asset to the team as well. Ryan Madson‘s temper tantrum after blowing a save in San Francisco, where he kicked a metal folding chair and broke his toe, was seen as cute (and dumb). Winning colors everything; likewise, so does losing.

Rollins and Victorino aren’t much different now than they were a couple years ago. They have aged, battled injuries, and are not performing at the level they did when the team was winning. Those are the most significant differences, and all are reasons why the Phillies find themselves at 37-50 in last place in the NL East. They didn’t forget how to be leaders, or be positive. They didn’t all of a sudden turn cancerous towards their teammates. They started declining and the rest of the team was worse for it. That’s it. There’s no narrative behind it, and there’s no need for leadership or accountability to enter the picture because it’s irrelevant.

Here’s the important thing: the 2012 Phillies aren’t doing a very good job of outscoring their opponents, a critical factor in winning games. This chart shows the relationship between the Phillies’ run differential (runs scored minus runs allowed) and their winning percentage, going back to 2000.

The data:

Win% Run Diff.
2000 .401 -122
2001 .531 27
2002 .497 -14
2003 .531 94
2004 .531 59
2005 .543 81
2006 .525 53
2007 .549 71
2008 .568 119
2009 .574 111
2010 .599 132
2011 .630 184
2012 .425 -28

Twelve seasons isn’t a huge sample size, but the chart is meant more for illustrative purposes anyway. When the Phillies outscore their opponents, they win more games. This is the case for every team in every year since the game was invented, and tells you more about a team’s success and failure than would the presence or absence of leadership and accountability. In 2000, when the Phillies struggled, had no leadership, and had to trade a franchise pitcher in Curt Schilling, they were outscored by 122 runs and barely won 40 percent of their games. In 2002, when Scott Rolen was becoming a problem and the team had no leaders stepping up, they scored about as many runs as they allowed and as a result won about as many games as they lost. Finally, this year, when Rollins and Victorino are insatiable clubhouse distractions, the Phillies have been outscored by 28 runs through 87 games (putting them on pace for a -52 differential) and have only won 42.5 percent of their games as a result.

As a fan, it’s great to get emotionally invested in the storylines — that’s what makes rooting for these teams so fun. You ride out the low times and enjoy the high times and you can’t enjoy one without the other. And there’s certainly some fantasy involved on the part of the writers, but it is also good to be able to separate fantasy from reality. The claims of a lack of leadership and accountability are post hoc rationalizations for the Phillies’ failures. They wouldn’t exist if Rollins and Victorino were acting the same exact way and putting up the same exact numbers, but had better production surrounding them. Winning and losing shapes our perception of teams and players.

It is also important to notice that the players on these losing teams — not just the Phillies — who are castigated as poor in the clubhouse are never identified as such prior to the season, or at any time before that. Only after stuff hits the fan do we learn who the culprits are, which tells you all you need to know about the latest batch of diagnostics. Should Rollins have faced the media? Absolutely. What he did was immature and he neglected to do his job as an employee of the Phillies. In the big picture, though, 2012 is a lost season. Put the pitchforks away and turn your attention to the moves the Phillies can make between now and next April to put them in a position for a successful 2013 campaign.

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