Whiz Kids: Hiring an R&D Function for the Phillies

Mancrush. - USA TODAY Sports

The Phillies are looking for a statistical guru. Shouldn't they be looking for someone to build a whole analytics department?

It has been suggested that the Phillies are going to hire at least one analyst, a.k.a., numbers nerd/nerdess. Great! But can just one person really do all that needs to be done for a whole baseball organization in terms of number-crunching? Don't they need to hire about a dozen (or more) analysts? And a person to manage and champion the research and development that will be undertaken by these people?

Shouldn't the Phillies be trying to hire...the Whiz Kids? You bet. But hiring the new Whiz Kids is only half the battle.

When you hire a team of analysts to develop proprietary information for the purpose of creating a competitive advantage, you are undertaking research and development. So what the Phillies should be doing now is looking for a manager to run an R&D operation. That is a special challenge.

As Xerox showed in the 70's, you can come up with some great ideas, but if you can't implement them, someone else will, and they will eat your lunch. Knowing how to use the data developed will be important. Smart people in a room can make some great stuff in a lab, but the ideas need to be turned into products that are usable in the field and which are adopted by end consumers.

It is not hard to image the Phillies hiring an analyst and then "considering" the input, but then ignoring it or using it improperly. If that is the case, then there really is no point in making the hire, though there is a benefit in at least having the team dip their toe in the water, even if they run screaming back up to the beach for another few years.

There needs to be an organizational mandate to commit to creating internal, proprietary information via what I described above as an R&D business process. This has to be part of the business plan, and they need to execute on it at all levels based on the information they develop. Otherwise, all the time and effort put into creating internal information for the purpose of developing a competitive advantage is merely mental masturbation, and the analyst(s) might as well just surf porn all day and service the coffee machines in the front office.

Pessimistic as I am on this issue, it is hard for me to imagine the team hiring anybody who would have the gravitas to be able to stand up in a room with Montgomery and Amaro and Proefrock and Sandberg and then say, "Here is what you need to do" and then have all of them go, "Whoa...you're right! We've been fools! Tell us, oh Oracle of the Delaware, how to fix all the dumb things we did before you showed up!"

Nor is Ryne Sandberg likely to say, "Hey, this is my shot to manage, but let me defer in major ways to the nerd. I'll re-jigger my whole theory of bullpennery to match what this new person proposes, even if it means disrupting metric tons of "human factor" from my guys who expect to play "roles" rather than just accumulate outs, regardless of the inning context." I mean, that run-on sentence is probably the least-likely string of phonemes ever to come out of the mouth of Sandberg, even assuming an infinite number of bananas, an infinite number of typewriters, and an infinite number of monkeys writing copy for him.

So I have to assume that they are making the hire in the manner of an alcoholic going to rehab. Not necessarily with reluctance, perhaps, but still probably not with tremendous enthusiasm, either. I also doubt that they will jump into this with two feet. It will likely be an incremental project. I do not see the Phillies undertaking a baseball Manhattan Project, or, if you will, Philadelphia Experiment.

That said, Amaro and Montgomery are not imbeciles, and they clearly see, albeit very late, that they missed the boat on analytics and that now they are getting killed because of it. They realize Phillies are the Third World of sabermetrics, but they probably also realize that this creates an opportunity.

The Phillies now have a chance to leapfrog everyone else or at least to piggyback them. They have a green field to build on, and can potentially learn from the successes and mistakes of other organizations in assembling a team of analysts and then using them proficiently. It is akin to the telecoms approach of the developing world that bypassed copper pairs and went straight to wireless for phone and data services. Sure, the Pirates have DSL, but the Phillies can roll out 4G.

Still, a rollout of really good technology that would allow a leapfrog over a generation of telecom equipment can be managed badly. Having good tools is great, but a poorly-run organization can still botch things.

This is why I would be more comfortable if the first analyst is actually an analyst manager, whose first job would be to hire and deploy a team of analysts. This person should ideally bring in the experience needed for not only generating useful proprietary data, but should also have experience in integrating it into all aspects of the organization, from amateur player acquisition, international player evaluation and signing, player development, advance scouting, roster construction, talent laddering, to budget laddering.

It is not enough to develop the data. The data must be given to front line staff in digestible formats that they can live with and accept. New hires at all levels, whether instructional coaches or managers or scouts -- all of them need to be committed to using the data and implementing its findings and having their performance measured in a way that is linked to their implementation of the R&D in the field.

Rather than looking at R&D as a cost center and approaching it from a penny-wise, but pound-foolish approach, the Phillies ought to spend freely on this area. I have no idea what their budget for the analytics department is or should be. My bias would be to spend heavily on this area. I wouldn't blink at plunking down millions per year.

If the R&D function could save one bad contract every few years or if it could marginally increase the success rate of the player acquisition process, then it would pay disproportionately huge dividends even at five million bucks a year. An expert in this area would cost a fraction of even a middling, fungible middle reliever, but could add value to the team that is worth multiples of that every year. Allocating resources to getting the best talent in this area and comparing the expected returns from it should be compared to the value of an organizational investment alternative such as a Laynce Nix or Mike Adams or Danys Baez. There is no doubt at all where more value is to be had with a lower risk profile.

The market inefficiency is in back office talent compared to on-field talent.

The budget for an analytics department could be stretched by (carefully) farming out basic grunt work to contractors under non-disclosure agreements ("NDAs"). It would be a cheap way to try out lots of people and get a bunch of work done. If the analyst is good, they could offer a full-time gig. There are lots of smart people out there who would kill to do this work.

With this context, and with the likely resistance (or at least "lack of enthusiasm") how can the Phillies best deploy the new analyst(s)?

I do not expect them to develop much that is cutting-edge, intially. There is lots of catch-up to do, first of all, and duplicating in-house what others have is a low-risk approach that would provide significant dividends. Also, the Phillies may be taking a "know thyself" approach. Matt Gelb wrote a piece in March that was great at the time, and which is more interesting in hindsight. It discusses the Phillies developing a new information system in 2011 in conjunction with ScoutAdvisor out of Boston. It sounds from the description like the Phillies are trying to know themselves first.

The article also nicely summarizes other blue sky type projects from other baseball teams, and these descriptions suggest how far the Phillies are behind. The gulf between the Phillies and other teams described in that article reminded me a little of the one separating developed nations and North Korea.

If the Phillies just dip their toe in the water on R&D, it will remind me of nothing so much as a baseball version of the Kaesong Industrial Region where North Korea has limited contact with a modern economy with South Korea. That limited contact does not make North Korea a modern, developed country. And if you don't follow the analogy, the Phillies are not South Korea, folks. On a side note, if the Phillies' limited partners don't in some way make you think of Kim Jong Un, then I'm just not being obvious enough. All of you know already how much pride I take in my ability to make TGP the leader in Google search placement for terms such as: [phillies kim jong un].

Still, the noises and rumblings about "Saber something or other" coming from the front office in Philadelphia are at least somewhat less bad than what we've been hearing before. At least there is actual talk of hiring someone to engage in these eldritch arts on behalf of the Phillies. That is progress, of a sort. Not enough, and not fast enough, but it is something.

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