clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

ESPN Calls Phillies Analytics Nonbelievers

New, 140 comments

In their recent rankings of teams by analytical inclinations, ESPN rated the Phillies as not only the least analytically-oriented team in baseball with regard to their decision-making, but in all sports.

The wires! Oh, my! The wires!
The wires! Oh, my! The wires!
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

We've heard it before, from all corners of the internet: the Phillies exist in the dark ages when it comes to exploring and adopting innovative, inventive, and, ultimately, quantitative approaches to managing their organization. Whether they're refusing to trade Cole Hamels for minor league riff-raff, struggling to develop a compelling social media presence, or refusing to sign the latest Cuban sensation, the Phillies constantly find themselves as the punchline of jokes about them not being in step with the rest of the league.

This month's edition of ESPN: The Magazine has been dubbed the "analytics issue," which culminates in the 100% absolute definitive ranking of all "big 4" sports franchises by analytical inclination. The best statement I could find of their methodology is as follows:

ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com unleashed our experts and an army of researchers to rate 122 teams on the strength of each franchise's analytics staff, its buy-in from execs and coaches, its investment in biometric data and how much its approach is predicated on analytics. After looking at the stats, reaching out to every team and dozens of informed sources and evaluating each front office, we ranked an overall top 10 and bottom 10 and placed each team in one of five tiers by sport.

Unsurprisingly, the Phillies did not fare too well in these rankings. In fact, they fared the least well, ranking last not only in all of baseball, but in all of the four professional sports ESPN cares about. They offer the following explanation of the Phillies' ranking:

No team was singled out more often by our sources as stubborn nonbelievers in analytics. Thanks to Bill James and generations of sabermetricians, baseball is further down the analytics road than the other major sports -- which means the Phillies are further behind than any other team in sports.

In 2010, GM Ruben Amaro boasted, "We don't have an in-house stats guy, and I kind of feel we never will. We're not a statistics-driven organization by any means."

Shortly after, Amaro signed slugging first baseman Ryan Howard -- already under contract for the next two years -- to a five-year, $125 million extension covering his age 32 through 36 seasons. Howard was coming off of his fourth straight monster season according to traditional Triple Crown stats, but he didn't rate nearly as well in advanced metrics such as WAR in large part because of his liability as a defender. Giving that much money that far in the future to a large, immobile, power hitter at that age left the sabermetrically inclined scratching their heads.

Howard's production and the Phillies' fortunes have suffered in the years since, and his onerous contract now has the team in a bind.

In 2013, the Phillies hired Scott Freedman as manager of baseball analytics, but Amaro downplayed Freedman's importance, saying, "I don't know if it's going to change the way we do business, necessarily." Although not a programmer, Freedman is described as "a talented individual" and a "creative thinker" by former supervisors Dan Halem (MLB) and Adam Fisher (Mets) respectively. Freedman's ability to pull the Phillies into the 21st century will require more support from upper management than it appears willing to provide.

That's a lot of ammo ESPN had to fire the Phillies' way, but little of it is current. No one who pays attention the the Phillies will argue they are the most analytically friendly team in baseball, but who knew it was this bad that they were the worst front office in professional sports in these definitive, irrefutable rankings?

I'm not here to argue that Ruben Amaro is Billy Beane, Andrew Friedman, or Sam Hinkie in disguise, but I do think that this ranking and accompanying description are unfair. In the first paragraph, they betray that this ranking is not based on their overall standing among sports teams, but their position relative to their peers. As the first sport to publicly fall in line with the big data revolution, baseball teams are likely the most advanced of the four major sports in the amount and quality of data they possess. Even the least progressive teams likely have heaps of data. This ranking, we're told, is not based on that.

Next, we get a quote from Ruben Amaro in 2010. Where were you, dear reader, in 2010? In 2010 I was a college junior, was unable to grow a beard, and held a firm belief that all my life's ambitions would be realized. Let's just say that I've come a long way in my life since that time. I would venture that Ruben Amaro has as well as he has seen his team evolve from perennial contender to the butt of all internet jokes. As evidence, I present these two interviews that our own John Stolnis conducted a year ago with an actual person under the employ of the Phillies whose job description is to engage in baseball-related analytical inquiry and communicate those findings to the decision-makers. In other words, the Phillies have made progress here and are not militantly against the idea of analytics.

Yes, ESPN, we know about the Howard contract. It is not a great contract. My guess is that the Phillies agree that it was not exactly the best decision they ever made. That was also 5 years ago. I thought these rankings represented an attempt to capture the current status of teams.

The best attempt to address the current state of the Phillies is to mention Scott Freedman, the same person mentioned two paragraphs ago. But, ESPN tells us, we shouldn't care about him because Ruben Amaro said in an interview that the creation of an analytics department would not change their approach. As we know, we should take all public comments from front office members at face value.

A more accurate account of the Phillies approach to analytics and statistical information would mention the Roberto Hernandez signing of last offseason, which Amaro attributed, in part, to the findings of his recently-established analytics department. It might also mention the Phillies' publicly expressed interest in using batted ball data to engineer defensive shifts. Additionally, it might include recent reports that the Phillies are emphasizing a different approach at the plate in 2015.

So, fine, ESPN, get a good laugh about the Phillies and their backward thinking, but make sure to include current examples next time, please. We all know that the Phillies are not the Cubs, or Astros, or Rockets, or Sixers, or Athletics, but there has been progress made in their approach to new sources of information. While I do take issue with ranking the Phillies last in baseball (I think the Reds, Diamondbacks, and Twins are probably less statistically-inclined), the real issue I take with this ranking is their reliance on evidence that is between 2 and 5 years old while ignoring more recent evidence that points to a different, less trite conclusion.