GROSS: Ex-Orioles exec MacPhail is right choice to help Phillies venture into sabermetrics
Monday afternoon's announcement of Andy MacPhail taking over as team president once Pat Gillick retires at the end of the season was about as surprising as a thunderstorm rolling through on a hot and humid summer afternoon.
MacPhail had been rumored to be the Phillies' choice for the job and the announcement was expected to come during the team's current seven-game homestand.
Although during the 45-minute news conference Monday, Phillies part owner John Middleton did reveal something the entire baseball world didn't already know: The Phillies are finally buying into sabermetrics.
Other franchises having been gathering as much data as possible and plugging it into formula after formula for years, and some have gotten very good at it. It's not like it's been a huge secret. You may have seen "Moneyball," a movie staring Brad Pitt that hit theaters in 2011. Based on a book of the same title, the film chronicles Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane's adventures with sabermetrics.
The Phillies remained old school whether they admit it or not. And they weren't fooling anyone.
In February, ESPN ranked the Phillies 122nd — dead last out of all the teams they evaluated — on the strength of their analytics staff. Part of the explanation in ESPN's rankings was, "The Phillies famously disdain analytics: GM Ruben Amaro Jr. bragged in 2010 that his team is 'not a statistics-driven organization by any means' and would likely never have 'an in-house stats guy.'"
That's no longer the case.
After two-straight 89-loss seasons, and now on pace to lose more than 100, the Phillies have no choice but to break out the pocket protectors, tape the bridges of their glasses and start crunching numbers. Better late than never, I guess.
Currently being developed by the organization is PHIL, a proprietary sabermetric system that is slated to be ready for use in September. Analytics is something the ownership knew it wanted to include in its plans, so in going along with the new system, it only made sense that sabermetrics play a large part in choosing a new president.
"It was hugely important," Middleton said. "There's just no way we were going to hire somebody who isn't open-minded and willing to look at every piece of information. You have to be comfortable at looking at anything you can possibly look at to get some sort of edge competitively to make a better decision. So it's just inconceivable to me that you'd hire somebody who just shut out a big chunk of valuable information."
It was made clear to MacPhail when he was interviewed for the job and he seems to be right in line with the ownership's thinking.
"I can assure you as you already probably know that sabermetrics is something of intense interest of the ownership," MacPhail said. "I was quizzed pretty carefully about that When it comes to that sort of thing I believe you look at everything. Absolutely everything. Why would you exclude any information? You're going to try to do every piece of homework you can to push the odds of being successful in your favor. You're going to look at every stat, you're going to look at every formula."
That's something MacPhail has done throughout his career in front offices. His experience includes being vice president and general manager of the Twins from 1985 to 1994; president and CEO of the Cubs from 1994-2006, including 18 months as general manager; and president of baseball operations for the Orioles from 2007-2011.
The Phillies have long gone with the idea that the best way to assess talent is with eyes and instincts while watching players. That should still play a part in decision making and some teams have gone too far in discounting the human element, because a good balance can prove to be extremely successful.
And that's why in choosing MacPhail, the Phillies couldn't have found a more perfect fit. He's the ideal blend of the approach the Phillies have had for years and the analytics that have taken sports by storm.
"I'm hardly the guy who is a sabermetric genius but you're going to hire people around you and you have the young kids come in to explain to you what it is, why it's important and then you make the judgement of just how much weight you're going to put in it," MacPhail said. "The more experience you have with it and the more you get a better sense of which formulas really are predictors of performance and which ones aren't, it's knowledge that accrues over time. But I think it's absolutely essential that you marry that with the best human intelligence you can."
He probably didn't even realize he did it, but MacPhail also criticized how the organization operated for so long when asked if there was a specific moment he felt he needed to adapt and embrace analytics.
"I'm always amazed that more people don't do this because even if you were a skeptic, you need to understand that stuff just to know how your opponents were thinking," MacPhail said. "It has always been part of everywhere that I've been. It's obviously become more sophisticated over time. There is a lot of stuff I don't understand. I used to make poor Ned Rice in Baltimore come up and explain everything to me. I would say 'What about this nonsense?' And he would explain to me that I was old and dumb and needed to understand these things."
Just like the rebuild itself, results from the sabermetrics approach take time. Even though PHIL will debut in September, it will not guarantee instant success. MacPhail was hired by Baltimore in 2007 and it wasn't until after he left in 2011 that the Orioles reaped the benefits. It took four years until they made any improvement in the standings and clinched a playoff berth, although they've now done so two of the past three seasons.
No matter how long it takes, one thing is certain: Taking a more balanced approach and welcoming the plethora of information the Phillies will begin to gather and evaluate will do nothing but help a franchise that's in desperate need of any assistance it can get.