In October 2015, the Phillies were coming off a 99-loss last place season, and most fans blamed the team’s malaise on former general manager Ruben Amaro. They considered him a smug, incompetent idiot whose reluctance to embrace - or even acknowledge analytics - was the primary reason why the team declined so quickly.
Owner John Middleton and recently-hired president Andy MacPhail were apparently among those who believed that the downfall was at least partly due to the rejection of analytics. They were determined to transform the team into one of the most analytically-driven organizations in baseball. Keeping with that mindset, they hired Matt Klentak as the new general manager. Klentak had been working as an assistant GM for the Angels, where he was known as one of the best young, analytic minds in the organization.
Three years later, as the 2019 season opened, the Phillies appeared to be contenders in the National League East. Many pundits assumed that the rebuild was due to Klentak’s analytical approach to team building.
However, if you take a look at the 2019 Phillies’ roster, its difficult to see exactly where the analytics factored in. The team’s biggest off-season acquisitions were Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen, and David Robertson. All five were former All-Stars, and two of them won MVP awards prior to coming to Philadelphia. It didn’t take deep statistical analysis to determine that these might be players worth acquiring.
The All-Star additions didn’t come cheaply either. The free agents were signed to market-value (if not above) deals, and good prospects were dealt in order to obtain Realmuto and Segura. These were precisely the types of deals that Amaro regularly pulled off when he was in charge.
The mid-season acquisitions were in a similar vein. They didn’t make any blockbuster trades, but in acquiring Corey Dickerson, Jay Bruce, and Brad Miller, they added players who had hit 25+ home runs in a single season over the past three years.
That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with that approach. Going after good veteran players is generally a sound strategy. However, I thought the point of bringing in an analytically-inclined guy like Klentak was to discover some hidden gems or value in the margins. If you squint, you might put Drew Smyly in that category, but for the most part, all of the marginal talent the Phillies acquired this year performed marginally.
If Klentak’s analytical approach has changed the minor league system, we have yet to see positive results. Four years is probably too little time to judge Klentak’s ability to grow a farm system, but it early returns have not been encouraging. Adam Haseley and Ranger Suarez were young players who made some positive contributions, but that was about it. The problem was most glaring in the starting rotation where the spot starts by Enyel De Los Santos and Cole Irvin were generally disastrous.
The Phillies have had a long-standing problem with player development, and we haven’t seen gains in that department either. Maybe there was no hope for players like Maikel Franco, Nick Pivetta, or Vince Velasquez, but none of them showed any improvement this season. And in the case of Franco and Pivetta, each took a big step backwards. It’s also a bit troubling when Zach Eflin says the Phillies’ prescribed approach has actively made him worse.
Perhaps there’s still hope for the Klentak era. Depending on how this off-season goes, the Phillies could certainly contend in 2020, and today’s concerns may seem overblown. But as things stand right now, the current general manager doesn’t seem all that different from the old general manager.