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More on the Phillies’ Approach to Data-Driven Analysis

Posted By Bill Baer On March 29, 2013 @ 2:03 pm In MLB,Philadelphia Phillies,Sabermetrics | 34 Comments

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.


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