Inside the Phillies: Who needs sabermetrics?

Shane Victorino takes his swings as teammates Jim Thome (left) and Chase Utley watch.
Shane Victorino takes his swings as teammates Jim Thome (left) and Chase Utley watch. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)

Phillies evaluate players the old-fashioned way.

Posted: March 02, 2012

CLEARWATER, Fla. - VORP. BABIP. PERA.

They sound like intergalactic words once uttered by Leonard Nimoy on Star Trek. In truth, they are a trio of acronyms created by the sabermetricians of the baseball world.

VORP means value over replacement player. BABIP stands for batting average on balls in play. PERA is the acronym for peripheral ERA.

The most devout sabermetricians will try to tell you that there is no better way in the world to evaluate players than through their convoluted equations.

WAR - wins above replacement. What is it good for?

The Phillies will not tell you "absolutely nothing," but when it comes to evaluating talent, they are much more inclined to rely on human eyes than sabermetric calculations.

"We do utilize some of the information," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said during a recent workout at the Carpenter Complex. "There are times when I think maybe we should use it some more, but, frankly, I have a great deal of confidence in the people that we have hired to help us make some of the scouting and personnel decisions. I err on that side probably because I believe in our people."

The man in charge of number-crunching for the Phillies is baseball information analyst Jay McLaughlin, and he is often assisted by baseball operations representative Chris Cashman. All the sabermetric equations are available to Amaro and his assistants, but they are just not that enamored with a player's WAR, PERA, or BABIP.

"I honestly can't tell you the last time WAR or VORP or any of those things were brought up in a conversation," assistant GM Scott Proefrock said. "We're aware of them, and we understand what they are. It's just not something we find relevant."

Proefrock said the Phillies' primary use for sabermetrics is in determining how other teams may view players.

"From our perspective, it is important that we are aware of those things because there are other clubs that value them more than we do and look at them more than we do," Proefrock said. "So that can give us an indication of what they may think of some of our players and what guys they value maybe even more than we do because of the metrics."

OPS - on-base percentage plus slugging percentage - is the sabermetric equation that has been most embraced by the traditional baseball community. In many places, it has become as common as RBI and batting average.

"I've always been a guy who looked at OPS and on-base percentage," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "I definitely think OPS is really good to look at. I think you gather as much information as you can, and that weighs into who you play and what your lineup is. It plays a little part in it."

At the winter meetings in Dallas, Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland told former Phillies manager Larry Bowa that he had zero understanding of WAR.

"I need somebody to sit down and explain that to me," Manuel said. "I admit that there are some things that I don't understand yet. But if I see something that lights me up, I don't care if it's new or if sabermetrics came up with it. I look at it."

Still, Manuel believes most in his own eyes.

"When you're sitting there and a guy brings up sabermetrics, they don't know nothing about that guy, and that may be the biggest thing," Manuel said. "Sometimes a guy will look at you and say, 'Why did you play that guy, he's 1 for 16 against that guy with seven punch-outs?' But when I've watched that guy, he might be 1 for 16, but nine of those at-bats the guy hit about three or four balls hard.

"Shane Victorino last year, for instance, was 2 for 16 or something like that against Derek Lowe, and before I played him we talked about it. He told me he had a plan for going up there against him, and he stuck with it, and he got three hits."

Amaro agrees that the human element of the game cannot be measured by numbers.

"I believe you can break down and analyze statistics any way you really want, but when it comes to scouting heart and head, you can't do it with sabermetrics," the general manager said. "In our current situation, I feel like talent and production is very important, but I want a player who has a championship-caliber outlook on how to go about his business."

Amaro said statistical analysis should not be a big part of minor-league scouting.

"It's just too difficult to really project what the numbers will say," Amaro said. "I lived it myself. I was a great minor-league player but a terrible major-league player. If you looked at my OPS and my on-base percentage, it was ridiculous. But I wasn't a good major-league player because I couldn't hit a breaking ball. That's something that the scout will find out and see and then you can exploit that area on a guy."

Not every team agrees with the Phillies' method of operation. That's why Moneyball became a best-selling book and a movie that was nominated for six Academy Awards.

Amaro saw the movie.

"I understand Hollywood is Hollywood, but there were a lot of unrealistic things that occurred in that movie," he said. "The thing that bothered me most is I think the fact of the matter was that Oakland had so much success because they had three of the best starting pitchers in the game. I don't know if that was mentioned more than once, if that. A lot of the movie was based around Scott Hatteberg moving to first base, and I don't think that was the reason why they had so much success."

The theory of great pitching winning games is as old as Abner Doubleday, and KISS - keep it simple, stupid - is still the most sensible acronym in all walks of life.


Contact Bob Brookover at bbrookover@phillynews.com or on Twitter @brookob

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