Phillies continue to rely more on scouting than sabermetrics

Chris Cashman mans the radar gun at Citizens Bank Park.
Chris Cashman mans the radar gun at Citizens Bank Park.
Posted: March 29, 2013

No current general manager in baseball played the game at its highest level more than Ruben Amaro Jr., and it molded how he evaluates talent. For eight seasons, he was a bench player. He earned $1.25 million in salary.

Before that, he was a 23-year-old prospect at single-A Palm Springs. Amaro walked 105 times in 115 games during the 1988 season. He led the California League in walk percentage.

"I don't care about walks," Amaro said in January. "I care about production. To be frank with you, I've said this all along. All of the sabermatricians and all of the people who think they know exactly what makes a good club . . . to me, it's more about run production and being able to score runs and drive in runs."

Amaro said those words during an interview with 97.5 The Fanatic in response to his signing of outfielder Delmon Young. To evaluate him, the Phillies relied on seven-year-old scouting reports from the outfielder's days as a Tampa Bay farmhand. Two of Amaro's assistants, Scott Proefrock and Bart Braun, were members of the Rays organization when Young was selected first overall in the 2003 draft. They vouched for Young's ability.

The risk in adding Young, who was guaranteed $775,000, was minimal. The vitriol it prompted was ferocious. At its core, the Young contract represented how the Phillies evaluate players under Amaro.

Baseball is awash with more knowledge than ever before. The Phillies generated success with willful ignorance of that information. Fewer and fewer teams value their scouts' evaluations as much as the Phillies do. That is where the Phillies seek their competitive advantage.

"We think we have one of the best, if not the best, group of scouts in the game," said Proefrock, an assistant general manager. "We lean very heavily on their experience, their contacts, their different expertise."

There are countless ways to succeed in this game, with no right or wrong method. As the Phillies embark on what could be a transitional season after the disappointment of 81-81, has a lack of statistical curiosity contributed to their precarious position?

The 2012 Phillies scored 684 runs, the team's fewest since 1997. Their batting average (.255) and slugging percentage (.400) were both higher than in 2011. But a .317 on-base percentage was the franchise's lowest since 1991 (.303).

Their injury-riddle roster drew 2.8 walks per game in 2012, which marked the lowest rate for any Phillies team since 1963. Many front offices believe on-base percentage, or a form of it, is the key to unlocking victory. Basic logic dictates it: The lower the rate at which an offense makes its outs, the more chances it has to score. The theory was popularized by the 2003 book Moneyball.

Proefrock would not say whether the Phillies use a proprietary system or metric, the burgeoning trend in baseball, to evaluate players. He insinuated one does not exist.

"I'm not trying to be evasive," Proefrock said. "We are very aware of the advanced metrics. We don't have a formula that spits out a number on every player as part of the decision-making process. We're going to go with the scouts and their opinions."

Once a pioneer

In 1984, the Phillies hired a University of Delaware graduate who majored in computer science and served as the baseball team's statistician for four years. Jay McLaughlin was 21, and his primary task was to interpret data from a computer system called Bacball.

There was a time when the Phillies were at the forefront of baseball analysis. A 1990 Inquirer story labeled McLaughlin "the only computer person employed by a National League team whose sole job is to work on issues related to the playing of baseball."

The Phillies were one of two teams in 1984 to spend $50,000 on Bacball, an early incarnation of Major League Baseball's Pitch F/X system. The program tracked what pitch was thrown, where it was, and what the hitter did. When parsing the data, McLaughlin could formulate reports on what Phillies batters hit against, say, fastballs vs. curveballs or inside and outside pitches. He presented that data to the front office and coaching staff.

McLaughlin, 50, is in his 29th year with the organization. His title is baseball information analyst. Unlike most analysts across baseball, McLaughlin's duties rarely involve the use of advanced metrics. He manages the front office's technology, serves as press box announcer during home games, and inputs play-by-play data into the team's internal system.

He helps organize the myriad scouting reports that filter in from across the country. This spring, the Phillies are implementing a new system through a partnership with ScoutAdvisor, a Boston company that created software "to improve the collection, reporting, and management of data." When searching for a certain player, the program will incorporate every scouting report, a live news feed, video components, and, perhaps, some advanced metrics.

The Phillies hired Chris Cashman in 2011 to work with McLaughlin as baseball operations representative. Cashman, 27, graduated from St. Joseph's University with a degree in marketing and started as an intern in the Phillies ticketing office.

His daily responsibilities include manning the stadium's radar gun behind home plate at Citizens Bank Park.

"As far as the sabermetric stuff, we're aware of it," Cashman said.

Makeup is key

When Proefrock worked under Atlanta Braves general manager John Schierholtz in the early 1990s, he was shown a diagram of a circle. The top half was labeled "physical ability." The bottom half was "makeup."

"And that makeup is, in my opinion, truly the black box of this game," Proefrock said. "There is no formula that tells you whether the guy has good baseball makeup. That's different from being a nice guy. To me, that is the thing that allows a player to get the most out of that physical ability.

"If you can find a way to quantify it, who knows? That's why the human intelligence aspect of this game is truly the most important part. It's one that is not paid enough attention to, in my opinion."

Mike Ondo, the Phillies' director of pro scouting, said he oversees 14 scouts at the major- and minor-league levels. That is no more or less than the average team. The way the Phillies operate is largely influenced by Pat Gillick, the Hall of Fame former general manager who serves as senior adviser.

"You can't quantify the information," Ondo said. "It comes from different opinions. Let's try to figure out what's right. The only way you're going to find that out is by talking and observing."

Sabermetrics, or the advanced research of baseball, extends beyond mere numbers.

In Washington, general manager Mike Rizzo commissioned a four-month study of the team's medical needs, which led to the hiring of a doctor who analyzes players' blood to determine what nutrients are required to help prevent injury.

The Mets this spring installed a system called TrackMan that uses missile-tracking technology to measure the speed, angle, and location of every batted ball. Seventeen teams use the system, according to the New York Times, and it could finally provide reliable defensive metrics.

Rick Petersen, Baltimore's minor-league pitching coordinator, conducts biomechanical studies of his prospects' pitching deliveries in an attempt to reduce injury.

The Chicago Cubs partnered with Bloomberg Sports in January to develop "a state-of-the-art player evaluation system" touted in a news release issued by the club.

The Houston Astros created a front office position titled "director of decision sciences" and hired a former NASA employee. The Boston Red Sox have employed Bill James, viewed as the father of modern baseball analysis, since 2003.

Proefrock would not detail the Phillies' initiatives, or if any exist.

Power and patience

When the Phillies' offense was at its best from 2006 to '09, the lineup averaged 217 home runs per season. The team hit 158 in 2012. One of the first skills to decline with age is power, and these Phillies are older than their predecessors.

Patience was another characteristic of those teams. From 2006 to '09, no team in the National League drew more walks than the Phillies. Only the Red Sox and Yankees walked more during that span. The Phillies averaged 3.8 walks per game from 2006 to '09, or one more walk per game than in 2012.

This winter, Amaro responded by signing Delmon Young (3.3 percent walk rate) and trading for Ben Revere (5.2) and Michael Young (5.1). They were among baseball's worst in drawing walks. (The league average was 8 percent.) The moves followed Amaro's credo.

When discussing Delmon Young, Amaro said, "If I'm not mistaken, even in a year when he didn't have his best year, he drove in more runs than anyone on our club."

This was true; Young had 74 RBIs, and the Phillies' leader was a tie between Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz at 68.

But that is misleading. Young batted with 415 runners on base in 2012, the 20th highest amount in all of baseball. He drove in 13.5 percent of those runners, which ranked 100th among hitters with at least 500 plate appearances. Using a formula for expected RBI totals given Young's opportunities, just a major-league average player should have amassed eight more RBIs than Young did. If Ruiz batted with the same opportunities as Young, he would have had 31 more RBIs.

"You want to find someone you like better than the team that has him," Proefrock said.

In a time when baseball teams are experimenting with other methods of evaluation, the Phillies trust their scouts to make those judgments.

"As long as Ruben is in charge," Proefrock said, "I don't think that is going to change."


Numbers Crunch

Thanks to all the crunching, there are good numbers and bad numbers to rank the Phillies' production. Here are a few:

Good number: From 2006 to 2009, the Phillies averaged 217 home runs per season.

Bad number: The Phillies hit 158 home runs in 2012.

Good number: From 2006 to 2009, the Phillies averaged 3.8 walks per game.

Bad number: The Phillies averaged 2.8 walks per game in 2012.

Bad number: The Phillies scored 684 runs in 2012, their fewest since 1997.

Bad number: Their .317 on-base percentage was the Phillies' lowest since .303 in 1991.


Contact Matt Gelb at mgelb@phillynews.com.

Follow on Twitter @magelb.

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