If you’re at all familiar with the way the Phillies’ front office operates, you probably understand that Ruben Amaro Jr isn’t exactly a disciple of sabermetrics.
And if you’re at all familiar with me and my poor excuse for writing, you’re at least half-aware that I tend to favor empirical, data-driven analysis when it comes to baseball.
This morning, a Bob Brookover piece titled “Inside the Phillies: Who needs sabermetrics?” rekindled the age-old stats vs scouting debate, practically leaving my Twitter feed in shambles. In short, the Brookover article provides some insight into what the Phils think when it comes to statistical analysis. A handful of quotes from different Phillies personnel included things like, “You can break down and analyze statistics any way you really want, but when it comes to scouting heart and head, you can’t do it with sabermetrics” and “[WAR and VORP] are just not something we find relevant.” Yeesh.
Even though I have my own reservations concerning those all-encompassing value metrics, I don’t particularly identify with a “we completely ignore that kind of stuff” outlook. Naturally, I cringe at the thought of a lack of a competent analytical department within the Phillies’ organization. It seems so—for the lack of a better word—stupid that a team could continuing doing business without acknowledging some of the most basic advances of the game. Why is it that my favorite team has to be the one that appears so stubbornly archaic? But over the last year or so, I’ve come to foster an acceptance for the way the Phils operate. Not embracement, but acceptance.
I’ll begin by saying this: my biggest grievance with the sabermetrics community is its general attitude towards the behavior of front offices. Far too often, I find that with a little rudimentary math and a lot of arrogance, saberists—internet bloggers—will firmly conclude two things: a) they know more about player X than those who do this stuff for a living and b) these half-witted GMs don’t have the capacity to understand their analyses. This leads to a culture of skeptics reflexively crying “overpay!” whenever news breaks of the latest free agent signing. I believe this is an unfoundedly elitist outlook on the complex business of baseball. I am not suggesting that general managers are infallible, hyper-rational beings of the homo economicus species, or that the markets in baseball are even close to perfectly efficient. Rather, I ask that we take a different approach to looking at the way in which our favorite team behaves. What have the Phillies done to attain this level of success?
Through the merits of excellent scouting, the organization developed a core group of players that allowed the club to become competitive. From there, the front office took over and spent on free agent talent to complement the existing group of players, forming a team that eventually brought a championship to the city. I’d wager that this is good formula for building a team, given our financial resources. The last half-decade has seen our team bring in unprecedented amounts of wealth, most of which has been promptly reinvested back into the team. The Phillies are a big market team, and they have demonstrated that they are going to act accordingly.
One of the most basic ideologies of sabermetrics is that efficiency is to be strived for; that is, maximizing value while minimizing costs. In principle, I wholeheartedly agree with the notion. It’s a lesson from economics 101, and it’s why Moneyball appealed to readers that cared little for the game of baseball—it’s simply good business. Yet, to me, it seems as if many fans are stuck on the efficiency part of the equation only. There are many more things that go into baseball operations aside from the objective of “efficiency”, and “making money” is certainly one of them. I ask that we try to remember that making money is a good thing, and that the Phillies really damn good at it. We have money to spend. We’re not the Rays or the A’s or the Royals. We can afford for a free agent deal to go sour here or there. We can afford to ship a few good prospects out of town if we’re looking for a current, proven major-leaguer. We can pay top dollar for a closer who is less volatile and more proven than his cost-controlled alternatives. We get to have nice things.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if we spend, on average, a little bit more for an additional win than the rest of the market does. I don’t really care where we rank on Fangraphs’ list of $/WAR, or whether fWAR claims that Ruben Amaro is a bumbling idiot. This is not to say that I don’t have some pretty major issues with how the Phillies have handed out contracts. But until it becomes an actual, legitimate issue, I’m going to stop worrying and enjoy this historical run of success.