More on the Phillies’ Approach to Data-Driven Analysis

The Inquirer’s Matt Gelb has a great piece up on Philly.com, going in-depth with lots of quotes on the Phillies’ approach to statistical analysis. It confirms the short sound bites and anecdotes we’ve been hearing throughout the off-season.

I won’t excerpt too much of it, since you should reward Gelb’s hard work with a click-through, but I do want to highlight the current roles of two people the Phillies hired to do analysis:

In 1984, the Phillies hired a University of Delaware graduate who majored in computer science and served as the baseball team’s statistician for four years. Jay McLaughlin was 21, and his primary task was to interpret data from a computer system called Bacball.

[…]

McLaughlin, 50, is in his 29th year with the organization. His title is baseball information analyst. Unlike most analysts across baseball, McLaughlin’s duties rarely involve the use of advanced metrics. He manages the front office’s technology, serves as press box announcer during home games, and inputs play-by-play data into the team’s internal system.

And…

The Phillies hired Chris Cashman in 2011 to work with McLaughlin as baseball operations representative. Cashman, 27, graduated from St. Joseph’s University with a degree in marketing and started as an intern in the Phillies ticketing office.

His daily responsibilities include manning the stadium’s radar gun behind home plate at Citizens Bank Park.

This makes me think of the food industry, highlighted by the book “Salt, Sugar, Fat” by Michael Moss. He was recently on The Daily Show and explained that businesses have become very scientific in their approach to creating new products. So scientific, in fact, as to drill down to the compositions that create a “bliss point” during consumption.

Imagine two competing soda companies: one uses a scientific approach, the other uses an approach that is more or less holistic. When the CEO of the holistic company notices the quality of his company’s products declining, resulting in falling profits, and the quality of scientifically-oriented companies surging due to freely-available analytic methods, wouldn’t it be in his company’s best interest to at least inquire into that new paradigm? Evolve or be trampled by those evolving behind you.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many penalties for failing to evolve in baseball, particularly for the Phillies. Sure, their home sellout streak was ended last year, but they still boast one of baseball’s biggest payrolls, they remain one of baseball’s most popular teams, and they have a TV deal soon to come. If the Phillies lose otherwise winnable games because of their refusal to evolve, it’s water off a duck’s back to the Phillies front office.

Having a data-driven approach in baseball doesn’t even necessitate accepting Sabermetric tenets. You can utilize database upon database of incredibly detailed baseball information, but you need not think that a pitcher has little control over his .375 BABIP or that wOBA is the best all-around offensive metric. So, I am not advocating that the Phillies’ front office should be littered with the Sabermetric thought leaders of our day (though I wouldn’t complain); rather, just a willingness to approach problem-solving objectively with recognition of the shortcomings of humans — their eyes, their memories, their biases. Scouts are great and they do get a lot of what statistics can’t tell you, but they can only do so much. For as often as traditionalists have accused Saberists of thinking stats are the be-all, end-all, it does seem like the Phillies see scouting as the be-all, end-all. Both extremes are narrow-minded and wrong.

As Gelb points out (but doesn’t state directly), it’s baffling that the Phillies haven’t looked at what made them so successful in the 2003-09 era — investing in the draft, focusing on efficiency (drawing walks, stealing bases), getting cheap free agents on the rebound at a bargain, and so forth. The Phillies’ approach under Amaro has changed to throwing money and prospects at problems and an increased reliance on veterans, which has weakened them both in the present and in the future.

What is baseball’s “bliss point”? Many teams are hard at work answering that question. The Phillies are not, choosing instead to haphazardly add spoonfuls of sugar to a bad recipe.

Leave a Reply

*

34 comments

  1. EricL

    March 29, 2013 02:12 PM

    From head statistician when they were using then cutting-edge evaluation methods, McLaughlin has worked his way up to press box PA announcer and data entry clerk. I find that amazing in a sad, horrific way.

  2. Richard

    March 29, 2013 02:17 PM

    I don’t really like the business analogy, but I take your point.

    Honestly, one obvious reason the Phillies have remained resistant to sabermetrics has been they have remained successful. You mentioned some of the reasons why there aren’t many penalties for the Phillies as an organization for not adapting. But you failed to mention that they had the best record in baseball in both 2010 & 2011. And it’s pretty easy to write off last year’s poor performance as due to injuries and bad luck. So they’ve dug their heels in, rather than ensuring that they maintain their success.

    Frankly, I think the on-the-field team is going to surprise people and make the playoffs. And that would be great, but I can’t think it would do anything to change the F.O.’s POV on this stuff. Unless, perhaps, one of the reasons for a strong season is a solid year from the offense (led by Utley, Howard, and Brown), which includes an uptick in the team OBP. On the other hand, even if that were to happen, one can easily imagine the higher OBP being ignored as a key factor.

    (Btw, I think the term ‘data-driven’ is misleading here. The Phillies likely have piles of data – scouting reports involve data – they just aren’t, so we gather, on board with certain concepts, such as the value of a walk.)

  3. Dan

    March 29, 2013 02:22 PM

    One could argue that the Phillies’ problems started even during the 06-09 era when Gillick was here. The difference was that the major league roster was already so good, there wasn’t a ton of room for him to screw up.

    The core of the Phillies’ roster in its glory days was built under Ed Wade, but really under the direction of Mike Arbuckle. Gillick made some nice moves to snag Victorino, Werth, and even Moyer, but the majority of the homegrown talent (Utley, Howard, Rollins, Hamels, Myers, Ruiz) came from Arbuckle.

    The thing is, the Amaro and Gillick rely on scouting … but is their scouting even all that good, or better than anyone else’s?

  4. Scott G

    March 29, 2013 02:36 PM

    I love the discussion of Young’s RBIs at the end of the column.

    Robin or Cheesecrop, are you out there? Turns out batting after Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera presents you with an incredible amount of RBI opportunities, which can skew your abilities…

  5. Jesse

    March 29, 2013 04:50 PM

    Re Dan’s point:
    I just had a conversation about the problem with young Phillies players not coming up *because* the team was so good from 2007-2011. We had to trade our top AA and AAA position players (no excuse for trading away pitchers) as they couldn’t develop as bench or spot players and their value was being wasted. So since we had a front office shift, the team as built by Gillick and Amaro is going to look so different than the team as fielded by Gillick and Amaro which was not built by them, and it would be difficult for folks who inherit a very good team to keep a good farm system.
    My theory in all this is that long-term success which bookends a Front Office change is going to be a harsh wakeup when the success fades and there’s nothing to replace it. I wonder how generalizable this is, or just an esoteric assumption based solely on the Phillies.

  6. GB

    March 29, 2013 05:49 PM

    Successful? Since 1984, the Phils have had, what, 7 great seasons? 1993 was a sole oasis amongst a great wasteland from 1984 to roughly 2003.

    Sure, since 2007 the Phils have moved into a different tier in the baseball world, but as noted above that success was built upon high draft picks, good complemental drafting, good talent development and the ability to identify/acquire cheap talents to support that core other teams overlooked/ignored…

    Do the Phils really drink so much red koolaid that they do not understand that reality or believe the good times will last forever and their work was done?

    There may not be immediate consequences to running the team according to stone age strategies since the core is hanging on for a bit longer, but certainly they must know that throwing money/prospects around will eventually doom them especially when those decisions are being made in the equivalent fashion similar to wearing a blindfold when picking players or flipping a coin or selecting only guys whose names they recognize…

  7. Cheesecrop

    March 29, 2013 07:20 PM

    By Scott G | @_Scott_G | on Mar 29, 2013

    I love the discussion of Young’s RBIs at the end of the column.

    Robin or Cheesecrop, are you out there? Turns out batting after Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera presents you with an incredible amount of RBI opportunities, which can skew your abilities…
    ———————————————
    I glanced at the article. I never specifically said that R.B.I. opportunities didn’t differ from one spot in the order, as compared to another.

    I will still contend that you have to cash in on the opprtunities when presented w/them. As I noted w/the steals of home piece on the Longenhagen page, an R.B.I. is a measure of production (perhaps not The best, as it is clear) but it Is a measurement. :)

  8. Bill Murphy

    March 29, 2013 10:48 PM

    Victorino was a Wade acquisition

  9. Ed Goldman

    March 30, 2013 08:48 AM

    I do understand the need to develop your own prospects to keep a good team competitive in the future, as compared to giving away prospects for established free-agent veterans. However, other than trading Michael Bourne to get Brad Lidge (which I would do again in a heartbeat), name me any of the “great” prospects the Phillies gave away that have yet to amount to anything in the majors? Kyle Drabek: can’t miss (but so far has missed). Michael Taylor: missed. Which prospects do the Phillies regret have given away to get already-for-prime-time players? Yet having gone the veteran route, the Phillies did receive prospects Phillipe Aumont, Tommy Joseph, and Ethan Martin. Aumont has pitched in the majors and may be a major component to the bullpen. Tommy Joseph is likely the heir-apparent to Ruiz at catcher, and has moved ahead of drafted prospect Sebastian Valle. Martin is now one of the top pitching prospects in the Phillies minor league system. Where’s the downside in getting established stars with prospects thrown in instead of waiting for drafted prospects to make a contribution on the major league club. Because the Phillies have done well in the last eight years, they always draft near the bottom of the first round and subsequesnt rounds, so they are not going to draft the can’t miss prospects like Mike Trout, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, and Wil Myers. You have to stink for a long time to get a shot at these guys.

  10. hk

    March 30, 2013 09:44 AM

    1. On most prospect lists, Travis D’Arnaud is in the top 10-15 and Jonathan Singleton is in the top 25-40. I understand that being on the lists does not guarantee that they will amount to anything in MLB, but you shouldn’t overlook them in a conversation on players the Phils have traded away.

    2. Trout was actually picked 25th in the 2009 draft, 2 picks ahead of the pick that the Phils gave away when they signed Raul Ibanez as a free agent. That pick was used by Seattle to take Nick Franklin, who is generally regarded to be a top 50-75 prospect in MLB.

    3. In addition to drafting late in the 1st round, the Phils have also relinquished a few 1st round picks when they signed Ibanez and Lee, plus they squandered one when they rushed to sign Papelbon. This has clearly hurt the team’s ability to restock the farm system.

  11. joecatz

    March 30, 2013 12:53 PM

    I think a key point that gets overlooked when analysing the Phillies lack of sabermetric inclined analysis is that we all just tend to assume that they’re looking the other way because they dont believe its worth using.

    I don’t agree with that at all. I firmly believe that Ruben Amaro is too smart a person to honestly believe what he says in public about sabermetrics.

    He is however, smart enough to know that the second he puts a sabermetric team together, the second he validates it, that it will WORK, it will have VALUE, and ownership will realize that he’s not a sabermetric GM and he’ll be out of a job. therefore he downplays it, shrugs it off,etc… and will continue to run this team as if it was 1988 with more payroll and deep pockets cause thats what he knows. and hes actually pretty good at that part of it, regardless of what most people say. he’s made one bad trade, guessed wrong on one contract extension, but other than that, all hes done is headed an organization that has gone 373-275 under him, with 4 playoff appearances in 5 seasons, that sold out every game for most of that time.

    Welcome to business 101 kids.

  12. joecatz

    March 30, 2013 12:54 PM

    HK,

    when Darnaud was traded no one cared. We got Roy Halladay and kept Domonic brown, that was a phenomonal trade.

    The only deal Ruben made that he shouldn’t have made, from a prospect give standpoint was the pence deal. thats it.

  13. EricL

    March 30, 2013 02:04 PM

    all hes done is headed an organization that has gone 373-275 under him, with 4 playoff appearances in 5 seasons, that sold out every game for most of that time.

    Joe, you can’t really give him credit for most of that. He’s been the beneficiary of inheriting a team in a great position, with borderline HoF middle infielders, the best homegrown SP in a generation, a ton of financial flexibility and a relatively deep minor league system.

  14. GB

    March 30, 2013 04:58 PM

    Disagree:

    Misjudged extending Howard, paid thru nose

    Misjudged extending Hamels, paid thru nose

    Pence acquisition was unnecessary waste

    Extending Lidge was awful with his injury history and coming off career year he would never get close to repeating

    Oswalt was not needed – 4 aces was a fun marketing scheme, but did not deliver

    Polanco signing failed

    Wigginton, Nix, Fotenot signings were failures

    Letting Schuerholtz go was a waste

    Trading Lee and then re-acquiring him was silly, paid thru nose

    Having Mike Martinez on a ML roster was terrible

  15. EDGE

    March 30, 2013 05:38 PM

    GB, you really think he over paid for Hamels after seeing what Greike got in the open market and the recent Verlander extension? I think your nitpicking here.

  16. Joecatz

    March 30, 2013 06:17 PM

    Eric, I tank your misinterpreting my opinion vs reality.

    I don’t give him any of that credit. I know it was mostly inherited. Doesn’t change the fact that it happened under his watch. The point I’m making is the only way it’s gonna change is if it seriously implodes to the point of complete and utter disaster. Amaro has a good two to three seasons left of screwing up the organization before the brass even begins to wise up.

  17. Joecatz

    March 30, 2013 06:19 PM

    GB.

    Name another ML team tht didn’t make similar minor mistakes like tht and had anywhere close to our success. No ones perfect but the majority of those moves are neither organization breakers or had long term (or really even short term) negative effects save the pence deal and maybe Howard’s extension.

  18. hk

    March 31, 2013 06:52 AM

    Pencil,

    How did Forbes come to that valuation? Was each team’s payroll going forward part of the equation? Isn’t it at least possible that the team’s value would be higher if they were not hamstrung by the albatross of the Howard contract? Or, did the Forbes article specifically say how positive it is for the team’s value to owe $100M over the next 4 years to a player from whom they should expect ~8 WAR?

    No one is saying Monty and the owners are bad business people, but even good business people make bad decisions sometimes.

  19. YardleyBob

    March 31, 2013 11:52 AM

    Ah sabermetrics. Where to begin? They are a nice addition to a tool bag of scouting tools. There are bits and pieces of info included in sabermetrics measurements that actually rely on traditional scouting abilities….range, throwing arm, where a fielder should have been when a ball was hit in his area, should he have gotten to it, should it have been a hit, etc. all subjective things that if you asked ten scouts, five might answer one way and the other five would answer the other way. Work ethic. Drive. Desire. Baseball IQ. Age. Are also all things that are difficult to factor in when being analytical and attempting to project probability.

    For better or for worse this is pretty much the way it has been done and the way it will be done with the Phillies. You have to remember things like hitting lefties and providing poor defense over the course of 162 games will not hurt you as much as some sabermetrics pundits will like to point out. The majority of pitchers being right handed and the probability that a hit ball will be missed or mishandled by a poor fielder enough times over the season to actually have an impact on the W/L totals is inconsequential.

    And for those that like to put Howard down because of his contract-to-WAR value or the fact that his OPS is no longer over 1.000 or that he has had the most opportunities to drive in runs, NOBODY EVER talks about his rate of success in those times of opportunity. Nobody! the guy is paid to drive in runs and he is one of the most successful at driving in runs in the history of MLB. just over the last seven or eight years only Miguel Cabrera and Josh Hamilton have a higher rate of success in RBI opportunities than the Big Piece. So without even discussing the number or amount of total RBI’s not too many other players have been able to sustain a clip of over 18% like Ryan Howard has since 2006. Yet we will only here about the times he comes to the plate with people on base. Those same people will never agree that a lot of other players may only succeed 5-10% of the time in those situations, just that he always has more people on base.

  20. Shine Box

    March 31, 2013 12:52 PM

    Very much enjoyed that article and most of the comments too. Happy Easter.

  21. Phillie697

    April 01, 2013 03:02 PM

    @cheesecrop,

    Someone who turns 20% of his at-bats with runners on base into an average 1.7 RBIs per such at-bat, and had 300 such opportunities to do so, would have 102 RBIs.

    Someone who turns in 40% of his at-bats with runners on base into an average of 1.1 RBIs per such at-bat (because the hitters in front of him suck and don’t get on base as often), and had only 200 such opportunities to do so, again, because his teammates suck, would get only 88 RBIs.

    So the guy with TWICE the ability to cash in just ended up with less RBIs. This “cashing-in” logic is BS.

  22. Phillie697

    April 01, 2013 03:05 PM

    EDGE,

    Again, I point you to something I said earlier in another comment section.

    Cole Hamels, 6 years, $144M.

    Jered Weaver, 5 years, $80M.

    Nuff said about overpaying Hamels.

  23. EDGE

    April 01, 2013 03:43 PM

    The Weaver deal was back 2011. The Giants gave 6 years $127M to Cain in 2012, they set the market for Hamels. You should compare it to the contract not Weaver’s. All I’m saying is if Hamels hit the open market I’d guaranteed you’d have a heart attack over that contract.

  24. Phillie697

    April 01, 2013 03:50 PM

    @EDGE,

    What prevented us from re-signing Hamels in 2011?

  25. EDGE

    April 01, 2013 10:59 PM

    How do you know he wasn’t waiting for someone to set the market for him? Weaver gave a home town discount which was well documented at the time.

  26. Phillie697

    April 02, 2013 10:36 AM

    When you are critiquing a GM’s track record, they are SUPPOSE to be smart about doing what they are doing and get a Jered Weaver to sign such a contract. I’m not going to sit here and make all kinds of excuses for RAJ when someone else obviously better than he is at his job got it done.

  27. EDGE

    April 02, 2013 03:42 PM

    Yea the Hamels extension put him over the top as a horrible GM. If you honestly think that because he couldn’t get Hamels to sign a deal similar to Weaver that makes him a bad GM than I don’t think you are going to like any GM that runs this team. I mean that same great Angels gm grossly overpaid for Hamilton and Pujols. Maybe you should send in your resume.

  28. Phillie697

    April 02, 2013 04:35 PM

    Hamilton and Pujols were free agents. They weren’t around 2011 for the GM to sign. We could have given Hamels an extension as early as 2009.

  29. EDGE

    April 02, 2013 05:49 PM

    You would feel comfortable giving him a extension in 2009, the worst year of his career. Hamels would decline that, no way he would sell himself short. He also started the year in DL with elbow soreness. Most GMs would wait and see to assess how he came back after that.

  30. Phillie697

    April 03, 2013 11:20 AM

    There was a LOT of time between 2009 and 2011. What was RAJ doing? Taking a nap?

  31. EDGE

    April 03, 2013 05:36 PM

    He was trading away prospects and weakening the farm system. The Oswalt and Pence trades have 10x the negative effect in comparison to the Hamels extension.

  32. Phillie697

    April 04, 2013 11:13 AM

    That too, but $40M could have made up for some of those mistakes. Instead, we had to gave it to Hamels. It’s all related.

  33. EDGE

    April 04, 2013 04:49 PM

    $40M over 6 years is about $7M year. I don’t think that’s nearly enough to revamp this roster. If anything, Amaro would’ve used that to sign Wiggington and Nix type players. He wasn’t going to expand his amateur signings, that’s a whole different budget. Complaining about the Hamels extension is nitpicking, which was my original point.

  34. Phillie697

    April 04, 2013 05:16 PM

    $7M a year in the hands of a smart GM is about 3 wins. Of course, in the hands of RAJ, we’d be lucky if we get replacement value. But isn’t that another problem with RAJ as well? He makes mistakes big AND small.

Next Article2013 Bold Prediction: Ryan Sommers