The dastardly nerds, who as you may have heard, are ruining the integrity, tradition, and fun of the game of baseball, escaped their mothers’ basements on Sunday afternoon for an event at Citizens Bank Park. Before the game against the Mets, manager Gabe Kapler, a delegation from the team’s analytics department, and a group of writers from Baseball Prospectus talked about their lives in baseball while also discussing the Phillies’ recent turn from one of the game’s most tradition-bound organizations to one that’s begun to embrace some of baseball’s more cutting-edge concepts.
In short, it was quite a different vibe from most of the discussion that’s taken place during the current Phillies season.
The event, conducted in conjunction with the SB Nation Phillies blog The Good Phight, was part of Baseball Prospectus’ national series of ballpark events. Defying stereotypes in more ways than one, the afternoon consisted of people who really do enjoy going to games and don’t see baseball as a spreadsheet-based game. Furthermore, the event featured a marriage proposal (she said yes, though unfortunately I had left the media room two minutes too early to see it).
— STEAMED HAM, PH.D. (@dj_mosfett) August 18, 2018
You might think of the event as a traditionalist’s worst nightmare, and not only because Gabe Kapler said “optionality,” a favorite word of Sam Hinkie’s. Even skeptics of analytics might be wise to listen to those at the event, who clearly share with them an abiding appreciation and love of the game.
Up first was the club’s manager himself, Gabe Kapler, who showed up in full uniform in the same room where he normally gives media interviews. He addressed numerous topics of interest revolving around the 2018 Phillies, from explaining analytics concepts to skeptical players to how he communicates with the team’s Spanish speakers (“everybody in baseball speaks a little bit of Spanish”) and the recent procedural move that had Zach Eflin sent down to the minors for 10 days.
Kapler is associated with stat-headedness, but he also played in the majors for 12 years.
“Being a baseball player suited me very well, but I think this job suits me even better,” the Phils’ manager said.
Asked how about he balances his gut with analysis? He called it “a constant wrestling match.”
“If you don’t know where I lean naturally, it’s to use as much objective information as possible to make decisions,” Kapler said. “However, I am coming more and more off of that position as I see more and more in a major league clubhouse, because there is just so much that we don’t know. So on one hand, I think each day lives independently of the next, so if Odubel is 4-for-4 one day, or Ramos is 4-for-4 one day, it doesn’t mean that he’s gonna be successful in the next game. However, I did play, and I do remember that when one day I was 4-for-4 the next day, I had a little more confidence.”
Kapler also shared a philosophy that wouldn’t have been out of place in “Moneyball,” 15 years ago.
“My default setting is going to be, let’s see if we can see a lot of pitches, let’s see if we can walk a lot, let’s see if we can force the pitcher into running a high pitch count and get a little tired, and see if we can hit a home run.”
Kapler went on to note that “it lights me up” that the team has so much diversity, and that the entire infield and catcher of the team are all Spanish speakers. He also talked about how he’s never been ejected from a game, and said that if he ever does, it will likely be in order to prevent an important player from being ejected.
The manager also commented on one of the big criticisms of him, his reluctance to rip players publicly.
“What I’m most proud of is I think we’ve created an environment, and we’ve continued to create an environment, where our players like coming to work every day, and where they feel comfortable being themselves, they don’t feel called out for being a little bit different,” Kapler said. “Different in our clubhouse is not bad. We don’t want everyone to be the same, we don’t want everybody to have the same swing, or the same delivery, or the same personality, or the same baseball philosophies.”
After Kapler spoke, a group of personnel from the team’s analytics department took the podium. The idea that the Phillies would even have an analytics department was literally treated as a joke only five short years ago. Now, the Phillies have nine full-time analytics employees, up from just three in early 2017.
These range from Andy Galdi, who the team hired away from Google two years ago to run the department, to Sam Fuld, a former player who serves as a liaison from the department to the clubhouse.
Then there’s Corinne Landrey, who joined the team as an analyst just one year after being an intern in the organization. When asked how the team deals with resistance from analytics skeptics, she provided a simple answer.
“Our directive is to win games and help our team win games,” said Corinne.
Another analyst, Lewie Pollis, noted that the bane of a lot of anti-analytics types, the shift, is more than 70 years old. After the analytic folks, a panel followed that included several writers from Baseball Prospectus who, among other topics, included an impassioned debate over the prospect of robo-umpires.
I asked the BP panel about how they feel about what the Phillies are doing, analytics-wise.
“There’s only so much that we can publicly guess, because the amount of information these folks have is astronomical. It is insane, and it’s my professional belief that they probably don’t even realize half of what they could possibly do with it,” BP’s Sean O’Rourke said. “I think this team is probably on the right track, they’re in a pretty good space, working with the staff they have, the people that they have right now, specializing in every little area. I think that the Phillies are the team that when they got the new folks in – even towards the end of the last regime, front office-wise – I think they realized, ‘Oh man, we biffed this.’ I think they’re doing really well, but it’s an ever-evolving space.”
What a different five years makes
The event was quite a contrast to another time the Phillies faced an audience of baseball analytics enthusiasts. Just over five years ago, in August of 2013, Philadelphia hosted the annual convention of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), the organization that gave sabermetrics its name. That convention took place at a time when it was clear the Phillies were entering their post-2008 decline, and I covered the event for Philadelphia magazine.
Dave Montgomery, the Phillies’ president at the time and as old-school a baseball man as one can possibly imagine, appeared at that convention and submitted to a Q&A, which mostly consisted of questions about when the Phillies might get on the analytics train. Montgomery’s answers? The team at the time had no full-time analytics staffer, but three people in the front office had analytics as part of their portfolio, and the team, Montgomery said, had started to pay attention to a stat called wOBA (weighted on-base average), while also receiving defensive metrics reports from Fangraphs.
Contrast that to now, when the Phillies have an analytics staff approaching double digits, along with a manager, general manager, and owner who are all firmly on board. On the panels throughout the day on Saturday, there was no mention of wOBA.
For multiple reasons, the analytics wars are coming to Philly about a decade after they came to the rest of baseball – with resistance to them especially strong. It may be a natural old-school tendency among local fans, but it also appears that a lot of people in town spent 4-5 years during the Phils’ lean years not watching baseball at all.
Even so, “Moneyball” was published 15 years ago. The popular Bill James books came out more than 30 years ago. This stuff — both the advanced stats themselves and the notion that understanding of the game can change over time — is far from new. Last Saturday was a reminder that the Phillies are finally moving in the right direction. Better late than never, right?