Phillies following wrong swing path

Posted: November 15, 2013

TODAY IS an important day.

Today, we have the ability to relay to you the words of somebody who can bear first-person witness to the errant ideology that has helped the Phillies fall from a World Series champion with a huge head start on the rest of the National League to an overpaid, underperforming collective of aging players that is springing new leaks at a far greater rate than the old ones can be patched.

That person is general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., who in an interview with Comcast SportsNet on Wednesday offered a brilliant synopsis of The Problem when discussing the 2-year, $16 million deal he gave Marlon Byrd. While there is plenty of reason to think that Byrd's performance for the Mets and Pirates could prove to be a 1-year fluke given his age and his previous association with performance-enhancing drugs, there is also evidence that he has turned himself into a different type of hitter, revamping his swing so that he now creates more fly balls, and thus more extra-base hits.

The Problem, though, lies not in the justifiability of the signing, but in the method of justification that Amaro says he employed.

"We talked to our scouts about how his swing path and approach changed," the general manager told CSN. "He's worked on it."

And then, the eight words that suggest that, 2 years into the Decline and Fall, the mindset in imperial palace is the same as it ever was.

Said Amaro: "I have to trust my scouts on it."

There it is. Print it out, highlight it, and hang it on your refrigerator with the 2014 schedule magnet that implores you to purchase tickets. Because here's The Thing: Amaro does not have to trust his scouts on it. This is not 1998 anymore, and the way that decisions need to be made in Major League Baseball no longer calls for an exclusive reliance on the expert testimony of three or four men. That is not meant to diminish the abilities of those men. They are skilled people, good baseball men, the kind of employees every organization needs.

But if Byrd flops in his second go-around with the Phillies, it won't be for the lack of some critical scouting insight, for some identifiable flaw that somebody missed while sitting behind home plate with a radar gun and a notebook. It will be because the evidence that those scouts provided was misused by the people to whom it was provided, the people who are responsible for deciding what amount of weight to assign to that evidence, the people who are responsible for placing that evidence into the context of all of the other evidence that is available to a major league front office in the year 2013.

With a few clicks of the mouse, anybody can see that Byrd dramatically lowered the rate at which he hit ground balls in 2013, from an average of 1.06 per flyball in his 3 declining years with the Cubs to 0.62 in his breakout stretch with the Mets. With a few more clicks they can view video of any of Byrd's at-bats over the last 3, 4, 5 years. But the point is not what the numbers say about Byrd, because the numbers still say that, even with the Pirates, he was a hitter whose production would have made an $8 million salary seem reasonable. The point is that the Phillies still seem to be operating with the philosophy that the subjective opinions of their personnel men are the most important variable in deciding a player's value.

And that brings us back to the problem, which is that the Phillies continue to take a microscopic approach to decision-making when real value in the current landscape of baseball is determined through the interpretation and manipulation of its macroscopic trends. It is a philosophy that manifests itself at every level of the organization. Baseball decision-making in the era of big data is as much about interpreting and utilizing probabilities as it is about individual judgments about a player's abilities. The vast array of tools at the disposal of every personnel evaluator, professional or armchair has leveled the playing field when it comes to grading out physical talent (we're talking mostly amateur scouting here). Everyone sees the same numbers, the same games, the same video.

Anybody who had watched a healthy amount of Padres and Rangers baseball over the previous five seasons could have told you that Mike Adams had the talent of a premiere setup man. What did the the historical data say about the likelihood of a reliever fitting his profile sustaining his production through 2 years? What did the market say about the other relievers who were commanding less money? What was the likelihood that spending that money on two $3 million relievers or three $2 million relievers would have yielded as good or better results?

Therein lies the fallacy of judging Byrd's contract based on how much he was worth. A player is worth whatever somebody is willing to pay him. Gold was worth $1,900 an ounce at one point. It is now worth $1,200. That's what general managers are: investors. They make their purchases by weighing current market value against future expected value. And if they make the wrong choice, it is their interpretation of the evidence at their disposal that is to blame.

The Phillies like to say that they are a scouting organization, and if they really mean it, then it is a recipe for failure, because the great organizations in the current baseball landscape are decision-making organizations who put as much time and effort into evaluating the paths that they can take as they do evaluating the players who represent those paths.

The problem is that many of the decisions the Phillies end up making, and their public defenses of those decisions, suggest that there is little science behind them, that the governing strategy is to plant a tree for shade whenever the sun moves and then hope that the forest ends up looking all right.

On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy