The Phillies’ search for a new manager kicked into gear this week with Buck Showalter, Joe Girardi and Dusty Baker all taking meetings with the team. One would imagine owner John Middleton was involved, as well as general manager Matt Klentak, who we’ve been told is “spearheading” the process.
Certainly this is a task Klentak would rather not have engaged in. He liked Gabe Kapler and said he was a “fan” of his at the news conference announcing his removal. If it were up to Klentak, Kapler would still be at the helm, an analytically-driven skipper receptive to the numbers and data that the Phillies have spent millions of dollars cultivating over the last two years.
But as we all know, the team has underachieved the last two years and Kapler is gone. And sadly, the city’s confidence in math, numbers, and analytics — items which form the backbone of every good team in Major League Baseball — are gone with it.
Was it really just four years ago that Phillies fans were crying for the team to move on from Ruben Amaro Jr. and a regime that was slow to incorporate analytics into its day-to-day operations? There were hues and cries from all over the city that the Phils were “dinosaurs” in this modern game and that they needed to invest heavily in getting its own analytics department.
So here we are, four years later. The team has done what the fanbase asked. They’ve evolved, moved out of the Stone Age, and never was that more apparent than when Klentak hired Kapler to be his manager. So what happened?
When fans clamored for the Phillies to build an analytics department of their own, it was assumed it would help give the Phils an advantage over their opponents. The hope was that by adding this particular weapon to their arsenal, it would help the Phillies win more baseball games. Unfortunately, from Kapler’s first game with the team until his last, the team’s under-performance, the inability of Klentak to unearth diamonds in the rough or find talent along the margins, and the regression of nearly all the players held over from 2018 has led to an erosion of trust by the fanbase in the overall use of analytics in baseball.
When Kapler pulled Aaron Nola out of the season opener last year against the Braves, it didn’t make sense. Fans assumed it was because of analytics, and when it blew up in everyone’s faces, analytics was the villain. The following series against the Mets, Nick Williams was playing ridiculously shallow in right field and a game-winning triple went over his head. The reason he was in so far? Analytics. Another defeat.
In those first two series, analytics was demonized, and the Phillies never won enough games after that to make it appear as if analytics were giving the Phillies an advantage over their opponents. On the contrary, it has felt as times as if their inability to incorporate the numbers properly have put the Phils at a disadvantage.
Philadelphia sports fans are not against analytics, per se. The Eagles use analytics in deciding when to go for it on 4th down, when to go for two points, and numerous other decisions we probably don’t know about. The 76ers use analytics to gain an edge, and they were one fluke jumper away from making it to the Eastern Conference Finals last year.
The Phillies, meanwhile, gakked away a postseason berth in September of last year, and in struggled under the weight of expectations this year. All the new additions — Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, etc. — combined with analytics, should have made the 2019 season a successful one. Analytics should have allowed the coaching staff to get at least one of their starting pitchers to take a step forward, or allowed them to find some help at the trade deadline. But that didn’t happen.
The front office will tell you the team is better than they were at the low point of the rebuilding years, and of course they are right. But that is also a low bar to hurdle. And now, there is a stark reality facing the Phillies heading into this off-season. The Atlanta Braves and pennant-winning Washington Nationals are both better than them. So are the New York Mets, for the moment.
Klentak and Co. will add some more top-notch talent to the roster this off-season, but will need their analytics department to accurately pinpoint the players they should go after. They will need to utilize the myriad of data at their disposal to gain small advantages, and they will need a manager, coaches and players who understand the data and know how to put it to good use.
Analytics are not bad, but you have to know how to use them to give you those small advantages. We thought that, by now, the Phillies would know how to do that.
So far, that competitive advantage remains elusive.