Why Ruben is misfiring on talent

Posted: August 13, 2013

WE NEEDN'T stray outside the Phillies' orbit to remind ourselves of the trouble with judging talent evaluators based on their comments to the media, but old friend Doug Pederson offered a textbook case study a couple of weeks ago when he labeled Alex Smith the best quarterback in the NFL. Smith, of course, is Pederson's quarterback, which is why we should not hold him to his assessment 3 months from now when the Chiefs are averaging 5.4 yards per completion and wondering whatever became of the two-deep zone.

One of the fundamental laws of dealing with the media: If you can't be with the one you love, pretend to love the one you're with.

Unfortunately for Phillies fans, there is little reason to think that Ruben Amaro Jr. was utilizing the diplomacy of flattery on Friday when he told reporters he believed Delmon Young was a better baseball player than the one he had just jettisoned from the RMS Phi-tanic. In fact, all of the information to which we are privy suggests the Phillies were quite confident in Young's ability to help the team contend, from the $750,000 major league contract they bestowed upon him ($750,000 more than any other contender offered) to their decision to list him first on the depth chart in rightfield.

"Honestly," Amaro said, "I think that Delmon's a better offensive performer than he performed for us."

And that should honestly concern any Phillies fan who thinks that the last 2 years will prove to be a minor smudge on the otherwise storied career of one of baseball's great organizational architects. Because the only evidence that Delmon Young is a better offensive performer than he performed for the Phillies are the 7-year-old scouting reports that the club included as part of its consideration before signing the former top prospect. Rational thought suggests that the 7 years of results that the player had compiled since the writing of those reports should have taken precedence. If they had, the Phillies would have been well aware that they were signing a player who hits for average power, who plays below-average defense, and who does not reach base nearly enough to make tenable his abilities in the first two departments.

Read this paragraph slow, because it is the most important: The Delmon Young the Phillies saw this year is the Delmon Young that the Phillies decided was worthy of a contract. He drew walks at a slightly higher rate (4.8 percent of plate appearances in 2013, compared to 4.1 percent for his career) and he hit home runs more often (one every 34 at-bats in 2013, compared to one every 37.7 at-bats in his career), which helped counteract a strikeout rate that jumped from 17.5 percent of PAs to 23.7 percent. Otherwise, he was close to the player he had been over the course of seven major league seasons, and he was almost exactly the player that he was in the two seasons that immediately preceded the Phillies' decision to sign him.

* Batting average: .267 in 2011-12, .261 in 2013.

* On-base percentage: .299 in 2011-12, .302 in 2013.

* Slugging percentage: .403 in 2011-12, .397 in 2013.

* Home runs: 30 in 1,111 plate appearances in 2011-13, eight in 291 plate appearances in 2013.

This wasn't caveat emptor. This was caveat stupor. This was the Phillies looking at an ounce of potential in a gallon of reality and exclaiming, "So you're telling me there's a chance!"

Really, though, this is not about Delmon Young. The signing itself did not warrant outrage. The Phillies' $750,000 gamble was only $200,000 more than the amount they saved while Carlos Ruiz was suspended without pay for the first 4 weeks of the season. They were short on righthanded power, and Young was about as good as they could do for the amount they ended up spending. No, this is about the hubris Amaro and the Phillies displayed when they ignored the numbers that Young had accumulated in 7 years of performance against actual pitchers and instead penciled him in for a season that was commensurate with their evaluation of his abilities.

If we were talking about a one-time error in judgment, it would not warrant this level of inquiry. But the decision to designate Young for assignment on Friday came 2 days after the Phillies did the same with Laynce Nix, who did little to alter his reputation as a part-time player who hits home runs and not much else after Amaro and Co. gave him a 2-year contract before the 2012 season. It came in a season where Michael Martinez reached 2 years of major league service despite a career batting line of .191/.240/.269 (to go with his average baserunning and defense). It came in a season when the Phillies signed Chad Durbin to a major league deal despite his diminishing stuff. It came 1 year after they did the same with Chad Qualls, 2 years after they gave 2 years to Danys Baez. These were all relievers in their 30s with declining strikeout rates who ended up performing as those types of relievers tend to.

The Phillies take a sort of petulant pride in being an organization that prioritizes scouting over numbers, but shouldn't a good organization first and foremost prioritize reality? Or at least the closest approximation of reality that one can create using the two aforementioned tools? Nobody is arguing that a GM should make personnel decisions with numbers alone, just that he shouldn't accept the opinion of a subjective human being in spite of an accounting of what actually happened. A human being might say that the combination of Young and Nix makes for a better rightfielder than a combination of Nate Schierholtz and John Mayberry Jr. or Nate Schierholtz and Darin Ruf, but the numbers say otherwise (although not to the extent that Schierholtz has shown for the Cubs this year).

The danger with favoring the subjective over the objective is twofold. First, it allows for wishful thinking, and the talking of oneself into suboptimal decisions. Second, it allows narrative a far greater voice than it deserves. Maybe the Phillies weren't thinking about parting ways with Domonic Brown this offseason as some national reporters speculated, but given their history, it would make sense if they allowed a perception of Brown as an injury-prone, lackadaisical prospect to overshadow the fact that he had actually been a more productive hitter than Delmon Young over the previous couple of seasons despite far less-enviable circumstances. Maybe the Phillies aren't as bad as they have played since the All-Star break, but they were never good enough to warrant their history as a good second-half team being factored into the front office's decision-making before the trade deadline, as Amaro suggested on a couple of occasions.

Subjective observations and objective data are not natural opponents. They are yin and yang. There is no need for the derision that sometimes leaks into the voice of "old-school" GMs like Amaro when confronted with foofy concepts like "walks" and "numbers." But because we apparently must choose sides, let the record reflect that Amaro thought Delmon Young was a better hitter than he showed during his time with the Phillies, while the numbers said otherwise.


On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy

Blog: ph.ly/HighCheese

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