Crash Bag, Vol. 102: The Phanatic vs. Mike Trout

Ooh…ahhh…I’ve got an email…oooh…ahh

@GlennQSpooner: “Any chance Phils go out of the org & choose someone w/analytics background as next GM? If so who are some possible candidates?”

I don’t think they’re firing Ruben Amaro anytime soon. I’ve said it a thousand times and I’ll say it again: the current front office regime is not even close to being on its last legs. He’s going to get a chance to fail at a rebuild before the Phillies fire him, and that rebuild isn’t even close to being over. Not even close.

But that’s not the question. I’m inclined to say no, for two reasons. First, the Phillies are something of a conservative organization and second, nobody with an analytics background gets hired as a GM. That’s partially because analytics guys as such, the nerds, haven’t been in front offices long enough to rise to the top. But it’s also because just as a general manager needs a different skill set from a player, he also needs different skills than an analytics guy. A general manager is an executive, an administrator. He runs a wing of a company. So you want him to be open-minded and intelligent and surround himself with people with certain skills, but it’s not necessary for him to have any particular evaluative skills on his own.

The idea that you need a particularly stats-savvy GM is patent bullshit. It’s nonsense built on the oversimplification of how player development works, driven into the popular understanding by baseball executives and baseball media who are afraid of data and social science methods and set out to stigmatize them, or at least cast them as the “other,” and swallowed by fans and, now, movie executives who either can’t tell the difference or don’t care.

Think of the great “stats” GMs of the past 15 years. They’re all either lifelong business guys or scouts. Billy Beane? Former major league player and scout. Paul DePodesta? Former college player and scout. J.P. Ricciardi? Former minor league player, coach and scout. John Mozeliak? Former scouting director. Theo Epstein? Came to baseball ops from PR, like Ed Wade. Ben Cherington? Scout. Jon Daniels? Business guy. Neal Huntington? Former college player and player development guy. Andrew Friedman? College player, business guy.

There is no such thing as a “stat” guy as GM. And that’s fine, because the GM shouldn’t be the person making models or crunching data–there are 500 college seniors from Harvard and Duke and UCLA who go down to the Winter Meetings every year with 4.0 GPAs, minor league stadium ops internships and majors in math or economics who will build those models 60 hours a week for $27,000 a year. What you need from a GM is that he is 1) not completely innumerate or anti-intellectual 2) he can hire manage people who bring him vast quantities of information that varies in form and content, then digest their output and 3) he can hire and manage the various coaches and players who produce his on-field product. The general manager isn’t a number-cruncher, he’s an administrator, a bureaucrat. (Or she, for that matter, because while almost everyone in the upper reaches of baseball administration is male, that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.) In order to see the baseball world in its entirety, you must be able to see all of its avenues and learn to distinguish facts from junk data and real scouting from bunk. Before he worked for ESPN, Keith Law was an MBA, working under Ricciardi in the Blue Jays’ front office as one of the straw men data types the Moneyball movie set up, and you know what he’s doing 10 years later? Scouting, essentially. See the whole field.

Even if this hypothetical dream GM were a little heavier on the qualitative (read: scouting) than quantitative side of things, that’s fine, because that’s where I believe the advantages to be at the moment. Within a few years of baseball’s data revolution, we began to understand the game as a statistical construct pretty well. True breakthroughs, like DiPS theory or Mike Fast’s work on pitch framing, come through for the public once or twice a decade. The area of the market most ripe for exploitation is…well, it’s medicine, frankly. The team that solves elbow injuries in starting pitchers first will rule the world. But apart from that, it’s scouting and player development.

Do you want to know why the St. Louis Cardinals win every year? It’s because they convert on an obnoxious percentage of their draft picks. That’s partially because of good scouting, but also because they’ve been uncannily good at turning marginal prospects into major league contributors. Matt Carpenter was a lackluster college player on his way to eating himself out of the game and now he’s a seven-win player. The Oakland A’s are also especially good at this. Josh Donaldson was a future backup catcher they got for a rapidly breaking Rich Harden and now he’s one of the five best players in the American League. Look at what Milwaukee’s done with Carlos Gomez, or the Braves with pretty much any pitcher. You know why the Kansas City Royals are going on 30 years without making the playoffs, despite having had one of the best farm systems ever created? Player development. The Royals might have scouted better, but they’ve harvested less.

So who might this person be, this master administrator, omnivore of information?

Hell if I know.

It’s hard to pick out the particular talents of individual front office assistants. I know Dodgers VP Logan White is considered to be one of the best scouting directors in the game, but he’s been in amateur scouting in Los Angeles so long one wonders if the GM’s chair is even an ambition of his. Beyond that, I’m not sure. Maybe you rectify the mistake made back in 2008 and go hire Mike Arbuckle, the scouting director who oversaw the drafting of the entire late 2000s core and Pat Gillick‘s other AGM. It’s also possible that Jerry Dipoto, who’s been serviceable in stints as GM of both the Diamondbacks and Angels, might be out of a job before Amaro is. I think Dipoto’s got the potential to be a very good GM if he ever works for an owner who isn’t a madman on the scale of Caligula.

What I can do is list the organizations I’d like the Phillies to operate like: the Cardinals and the Red Sox above all. The Rangers. The Pirates. The A’s. There’s probably an AGM or director of player development in one of those organizations who’d be worth going after, but I don’t know who right now.

@ethan_witte: “on WIP, the question was actually asked : would you trade the Phanatic for Mike Trout? So….would you?”

Apparently this has turned into a thing. And I love this question, because how you answer really says a lot about you as a fan. On the one hand, you have the best player in baseball, 22 years old and signed to a still team-friendly contract through his prime, and a local boy to boot. Perhaps, one day, the best baseball player of my lifetime. An affable, ever-smiling character who brings you the production of someone like Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez without the weirdness and bullshit. And you could have him for free.

On the other hand, you have the mascot. But not just any mascot, the Phanatic. (turns chair around, sits) Let’s have a conversation, you and I about the Phillie Phanatic. He’s the best mascot for any sports team anywhere in the world. He’s unique, he’s got a specific personality with the hot dog guns and the ATV and the origin story involving the Galapagos Islands. He’s got a mother. He’s great with kids, beloved of adults, entertaining and distinctive without being obnoxious. (I’m looking at you, Dinger.) The Phanatic is a professional, and the other 29 MLB mascots (does every team even have a mascot? I bet the Yankees don’t, because the Yankees are humorless douchebags) are utter bullshit. Gaze upon the Phanatic’s wonderful snout and wit and by comparison every other mascot is a pale imitation, a Vicomte de Valvert. He is as much a part of the organization’s identity as any player, and a reminder of what every lifelong fan knows: we don’t root for individuals, we root for laundry. Even a player as great as Trout fades into oblivion sooner or later. The Phanatic is everlasting.

So no, I would not trade the Phanatic for Mike Trout. And if you have a soul, neither would you.

@gearadelphia: “Will the Phillies give serious consideration to trading Utley at the deadline?”

I can’t say for certain. I’m sure they’ll consider it, because major league front offices at least consider everything, but if Utley didn’t leave last year, I don’t think he’s leaving at all. If the Phillies were willing to trade him, they’d have done so at last year’s deadline, and if Utley wanted to go, he wouldn’t have signed an extension that had the potential to stretch out for five years. Now, Utley has 10-and-5 rights, which means the Phillies couldn’t trade him even if they wanted to, if Utley doesn’t want to go. Maybe something will chance in the next two months, but I think it’s extremely unlikely.

@TyLau27: “If you had the power to change any Phillie’s walk-up music, what would your play be? I give Kyle KendrickBackseat Freestyle’ “

(Looks up “Backseat Freestylin’ ” on YouTube)

Oh, I see. It’s a Kendrick Lamar joke. Personally, I think it’d be funnier to give him “Cups” by Anna Kendrick, but I know absolutely nothing about hip-hop or rap except for what was played on Q102 from 1998-2001, plus like one OutKast album and one The Roots album. But I take walkup music extremely seriously. Extremely seriously. How much is Chase Utley‘s persona enhanced by his career-long devotion to “Kashmir” as walk-up music? That’s what we should aspire to, and it’s why I’m staggered that we’re re-using the same five crotch rock anthems from the 80s as closer entrance music instead of, I dunno, “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” by Johnny Cash. I get that players use walkup music that they like and want to hear all the time, but let’s be honest here. Jocks are the last people on Earth you want choosing music. We need to branch out–use music to tell a story in baseball the way they do in wrestling or theatre. The Braves have an organist named Matthew Kaminski who’s extremely clever with what he plays for visiting players, playfully mocking either their names or their public image–let’s have an independent curator of stadium music instead of what we’ve got now. According to MLB Plate Music, six major leaguers come up to “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons. Five walk up to “We Are Young” by Fun. and Janelle Monae. GTFO.

So it’s probably time to actually answer your question. A little over two years ago, I suggested that Jonathan Papelbon use “Ebolarama” by Every Time I Die as his entrance music and I stand by it.

@AntsinWA: “when does your book come out, and where can I purchase it?”

Why yes, I will take an opportunity to promote my work. You can purchase Philadelphia Phenoms: The Most Amazing Athletes to Play in the City of Brotherly Love at the Amazon link I provided. It comes out Nov. 4, but by all means, pre-order it. I imagine I’ll be doing more publicity for it as the release date approaches, so stay tuned.

@maximum_hog: “Is there any ground that does not have the standard ground rule double rule?”

No. Every park has its own published ground rules for its own particular quirks: the home run line in center field in Boston, what you do on a ball off the catwalks in Tampa, what you do on a ball off the flagpole in Houston, but a ball that bounces in fair territory, then goes into the stands is a double in every park I’m aware of at any level.

@UT26: “In honor of Josh Beckett: What extraordinary achievement or event do you most hope to witness in person at a baseball game?”

I don’t go to a ton of live games. That wasn’t a big thing for me as a kid, and even now, I live near a AAA stadium and a Big Ten stadium, but neither the Columbus Clippers nor Ohio State has anyone I’m really interested in seeing. Nevertheless, I’ve seen some cool things–In 2011, I witnessed the Opening Day comeback and walk-off against Houston and the game where Wilson Valdez pitched. Those two stand above anything else I’ve seen.

I’d love to see a perfect game or even a no-hitter in person, or see a player hit four or even three home runs. But what I really want to see is a championship win–and I know this is a big ask for baseball, so I’d settle for it in any sport. I’ve seen a team I have a serious emotional investment in win a championship three times: the Phillies in 2008 and South Carolina baseball in 2010 and 2011. And every time I watched on TV with people who did not give a shit about baseball in general and the team in particular. (In a cruel irony, I watched the Phillies’ World Series win from my dorm room at South Carolina and the USC wins from bars in South Jersey, so it looks like I got it backwards.) At this point, I’d settle for seeing it at a bar with other like-minded fans. My best sports fan memories are the 2010 NLDS win over Cincinnati and South Carolina’s second win over UVA in pool play at the 2011 CWS, which I watched with other fans of my team. That was just incredible, and I get weepy thinking about what it’d be like if those games were for all the marbles instead of just advancing a round.

I will say this: I’m going to be at the last two rounds of the College World Series, but in a professional capacity. Which means that if USC wins it all, I will be in the building, but in the press box and therefore sober, segregated from other Gamecock fans and unable to cheer by the decrees of professionalism. I mean, it’d still be great, but it wouldn’t be the fan experience I was looking for. Which, I guess, is the tradeoff you make occasionally as a professional sports media person.

@FelskeFiles: “Have you ever eaten cat food? If not, what’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?”

My cat believes all food is cat food, so in that sense, yes. Politicians who tut-tut the “culture of entitlement” have no idea what that term really means, because you don’t know the “culture of entitlement” until you’ve watched my cat watch me eat cheese or chicken.

The weirdest thing I’ve ever eaten is calamari, or really any kind of seafood, because fish are creepy and mollusks are terrifying if you think about them long enough. But it’s socially acceptable to eat those. Rabbit, maybe? I’ve eaten rabbit, and it’s like chicken but substantially worse in every way you can imagine. I’m really not a picky eater at all, but I guess I just don’t have a ton of experience with the truly exotic.

@andymoney69: “Philadelphia loves an underdog. which would be a better match, Balboa vs Creed or Eskin vs Papelbon”

Howard Eskin’s fought someone, right? He has to have either punched or been punched. Anyway, Balboa vs. Creed, which, if you watched Rocky, actually was a fantastic bout, and while I bet Howard Eskin would do better in a punchfight than your average skinny, fur coat-wearing 63-year-old, Jonathan Papelbon is 6-foot-4, 215 pounds and 33 years old. Papelbon might not be able to spell his own name, but he would destroy pretty much any member of the sports media in physical combat.

One last one.

@nathan_leamer: “I guess asking [you] what [you were] doing instead of watching the Ben Revere home run would be a douchebag question for crashbag?”

I was writing this, believe it or not, with the USA-Azerbaijan soccer game on because ESPN3 shows up on my Chromecast better than for whatever reason. And it is a douchebag question. This was one of the things I wanted to see.

@bxe1234: “Tell us things you think about the CWS”

Well, the NCAA Tournament starts on Friday, but the College World Series proper isn’t for another couple weeks. Aaron Fitt and John Manuel of Baseball America did a great preview podcast, but if you want to see the full bracket, click here.

The actual setup of the tournament sometimes confuses people, so let me quickly explain how it works.

  • As in basketball (well, sort of, anymore), there are 64 teams in the tournament, with a little less than half of the bids going to conference champions, who qualify automatically, and the rest going to at-large teams selected by a committee. That’s where the similarities end.
  • The 64 teams are split into 16 four-team regionals, which are each seeded 1-4 and played in a double-elimination format. If you lose two games, you go home, and if you win two games, you move on. The regionals are always played at the home stadium of one of the teams involved, almost always the top seed, unless the top seed’s stadium isn’t up to snuff.
  • Before the tournament, eight of those regional hosts are seeded 1-8 and paired with another unseeded regional host for the super regional round. Before the tournament, we know, for instance, that the winner of the regional hosted by Oregon State will play the winner of the regional hosted by Oklahoma State. None of the top eight seeds can play each other in that round, called the Super Regional, which is a best-of-three series.
  • The winners of the eight super regionals go to the College World Series in Omaha, where we repeat the process: they’re split into two four-team DE brackets, and the winners of those two brackets play a best-of-three series for the national championship.

If you’re at all interested, you should go read/listen to the previews over at BA, but here are some of the storylines I’m looking at:

  • Cal State Fullerton, who I picked to win it all before the season, had a terrible season. They were crap in conference play, had drama with their head coach and one of their star pitchers, Justin Garza, was hurt for most of the year. They weren’t even going to make the tournament until a surge in the last two weeks. Well, Garza’s back, and between him, former first-round pick Phil Bickford and Thomas Eshelman, a sophomore who almost literally never walks anyone, they have three starting pitchers who are better than any pitcher on about 40 of the 64 teams. Even though they’re the No. 3 seed in the OK State regional, I think they’ve got the starting pitching to win there and, at the very least, put a scare into top overall seed Oregon State in the super regional.
  • Indiana. The first Big Ten baseball powerhouse of my lifetime and by far the best cold-weather team in the game. They’re a national seed with a fairly straightforward path to Omaha, and the middle of their lineup–first baseman Sam Travis, third baseman Dustin DeMuth and catcher Kyle Schwarber, a likely first-round pick I profiled on Grantland yesterday–is as good as anyone’s. They’re a really fun team to watch.
  • Florida. SEC regular-season champions, No. 2 overall seed, and they literally have more pitching than they can use. Senior righthander Karsten Whitson went No. 9 overall in the 2010 draft, didn’t sign, pitched Game 2 of the national championship series as a freshman, missed his entire junior year with a shoulder injury that scuttled his senior season as well, then showed up on Sunday in the SEC title game and pitched like his old self after two years of either being hurt or terrible or both. If he’s back, that could be huge not only for Florida, but for the team that drafts him in the ninth round and gets him to sign under slot.
  • South Carolina. Their regional will be a lot easier if No. 2 seed Maryland burns ace Jake Stinnett against ODU in Game 1, but I’m just sort of naturally inclined to worry about such things. Sorry for my homerism.

That’s all for this week. Tune in next Wednesday when I talk about…whatever you want. That’s what a mailbag column is all about.

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  1. awh™

    May 28, 2014 05:57 PM

    “He’s the best mascot for any sports team anywhere in the world.”

    Yep, and it’s not even close.

    • WayneKerrins

      May 28, 2014 07:04 PM

      Agree. When I lived in the USA for 2 short years I damn near lost control of my bladder when I first saw him smash the Mets helmet in time to New York New York.
      Also guess I got lucky with the 15 or so live games I’ve seen at CBP. Valdez pitching in the early hours was one (like it was for Michael) but Chase’s inside the park HR off the left centre wall was another and that was up there with very few other moments of a sports obsessed 40 something life.

  2. Tim

    May 29, 2014 11:31 AM

    When my brother-in-law posed the Trout for Phanatic question over the weekend, my wife got mad at me for taking a brief moment to ponder it rather than immediately declaring it to be a bad trade. Fair enough. But here’s what I think:

    Let’s start by assuming the Phanatic doesn’t help you win on the field. To date, trying to quantify the effect of him putting whammys on opposing pitchers from the dugout has been one of the holy grails of sabermetrics (slightly higher priority than quantifying clutchiness), and so far, the jury is still out. Though I consider it highly probable that he probably cost the Dodgers some wins in the 80s by enraging Tommy Lasorda so much that he made some rash strategic decisions.

    Trout, on the other hand, does help you win on the field. Assuming some kind of best-case scenario for his full career (putting him somewhere in the realm of Rodriguez or Bonds), he could conceivably help the team win an extra 100 or more games over the next 20 years over replacement level.

    But really the reasons those wins are worth good money (6 million bucks) is because they increase fan enjoyment (winning makes fans buy more tickets/merchandise/watch more tv), so that’s kind of your bottom line from a fan’s perspective. So Trout’s got major fan entertainment value.

    And compared to Bonds and Rodriguez, Trout doesn’t lose entertainment value by being sullen or crazy (though I consider it a given that those qualities developed during Bonds and Rodriguez’s careers due to the pressures of being the greatest, and what it does to the human mind to strive in the way they strove, but that’s another topic).

    And Trout is worth at least slightly more in fan enjoyment value to the Phillies than anywhere else due to his being a local boy who’s made good (though that can be a double-edged sword as Joe Mauer might tell you). Of course, so is the Phanatic, even though we all know he was born on the Galapagos Islands. At this point, he’s basically a native, so Angels fans probably wouldn’t enjoy him as much.

    Of course, this all assumes that the Phillies keep Trout for his entire career after the trade (far from a given), but we’re working on best-case scenarios here.

    Now the Phanatic also has major fan enjoyment value. I go to a fair number of games every year. Lately many of those games have been bad, because the Phillies are bad. But even in those cases, the Phanatic ALWAYS improves those games with his capering, because he’s truly the best. So I’m paying good money to go to games, and even when the Phillies stink it up on the regular, I know for a fact that the Phanatic will provide me some enjoyment, even if just for a passing few minutes. That’s huge.

    I was originally going to put some arbitrary numbers, like Trout is capable of 10 enjoyment units per year above replacement, but screw that. Suffice it to say that in a best-case scenario over the next 20 years, Trout is capable of providing HUGE fan value to the team through his winning ways, his localness, and (assuming he doesn’t go all A-Rod on us) good personality. Probably even more enjoyment than the Phanatic, at least during his peak years.

    But we all know that the Phanatic has a unique aging curve – he’s all peak. And I’m fairly young, so I’ve probably got 50 years of going to games left in me. While the Phanatic might not create as much enjoyment per year as a 10-win player like Trout (especially since he only affects home games), he can more than make that up when he keeps producing high enjoyment value long after Trout (again, all best-case scenario) gets enshrined in Cooperstown.

    So just selfishly speaking, it would probably be a bad trade. Plus, I have to think of posterity. While I would love for my (as yet nonexistent) kids to grow up watching Trout in a Phillies uniform, I’d love even more for them to take their kids to see the Phanatic.

    A few more things to consider: based on the track record of the other MLB teams, developing a home grown talent mascot like the Phanatic is just about impossible, so it’s a given that he’s fairly irreplacable (and don’t make me laugh by suggesting the Angels throw in the rally monkey or one of their minor-league mascot prospects in the trade Maybe mascot development is the next great market inefficiency, and god-speed to any team who can figure it out. But as of right now, the Phanatic is clearly a historic talent.

    Also, it would assume the Phanatic would waive his no-trade clause, as he clearly has 10-5 rights (and I know his mom lives here, so he might not agree to it). Plus, would he really want to be the Los Angeles of Anaheim Phanatic?

    Now, if you’re an out-of-market fan, you might not agree with this. If you’re not attending games in person, you really don’t get that full enjoyment value from the Phanatic, so I wouldn’t blame you for wanting to pull the trigger on Trout. But the team has to think of the local fans first (since they pay most of the bills through tickets/merch/RSN subscriber fees/those floppy green Phanatic hats).

    So there you go. While the front office should consider it, as they should any trade, it would ultimately be a bad move for the team to make.

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