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March 30, 2013

BP Unfiltered

The Phillies and Scouts Without Stats

by Ben Lindbergh

On Thursday, R.J. Anderson posted about a pair of Washington Post stories on the Washington Nationals’ analytics department. The Nats don’t have the most analytics-intensive front office out there; even their head stat guy acknowledges that they’re a “scouting-first organization.” But they do have a GM who pays lip service to the value of sabermetrics, a budget that allows them to build databases, and at least a couple of full-time employees doing the things analytics-heavy organizations do. As Post author Adam Kilgore put it, while they may be “scouting-first,” they’re not “scouts-only.”

On Friday, we learned what “scouts-only” looks like, courtesy of Matt Gelb’s profile of the Phillies front office in The Philadelphia Inquirer. No one was about to confuse the Phillies for the Rays before Gelb’s article (which you should read in full) appeared, but even so, the piece contains some tidbits that are guaranteed to cause a few facepalms. There’s Ruben Amaro saying “I don’t care about walks, I care about production.” There’s Amaro pointing out that Delmon Young drove in more runs than anyone on the Phillies last season. (Well, yeah; no one on the Phillies was batting behind Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, two guys who not only hit, but also take a walk once in a while.) There’s the revelation that the team’s evaluation of Young “relied on seven-year-old scouting reports from the outfielder’s days as a Tampa Bay farmhand.” (Two of Amaro’s current assistants were with the Devil Rays when Young was drafted.) And then there’s this:

Fewer and fewer teams value their scouts' evaluations as much as the Phillies do. That is where the Phillies seek their competitive advantage.

"We think we have one of the best, if not the best, group of scouts in the game," said [Scott] Proefrock, an assistant general manager. "We lean very heavily on their experience, their contacts, their different expertise."

Later in the article, Phillies director of pro scouting Mike Ondo divulges that he “oversees 14 scouts at the major- and minor-league levels,” which Gelb says is “no more or less than the average team.” So the Phillies don’t claim to have more scouts than other teams. They just believe they have better scouts. And it’s possible that they do have better scouts; maybe Amaro is receiving more accurate scouting information than any other GM. But how much more accurate? So much more that the Phillies have a competitive advantage over other teams, despite neglecting (if not outright ignoring) an area that most clubs think can confer a competitive advantage of its own? I don’t buy it.

“You want to find someone you like better than the team that has him,” Proefrock says. Sure. But you also want to like him better for the right reasons. If you like him better because you think his RBI total is more relevant than his walk rate, you might be the one whose evaluation is off.

Look: players don’t have to take walks to produce. Teams don’t have to study stats to succeed. But it’s a heck of a lot harder for them if they don’t. It’s tough enough to compete with 29 other teams when you have the same data at your disposal. Why hamstring yourself by working with incomplete information? Compare the Phillies’ approach to processing scouting information…

"You can't quantify the information," Ondo said. "It comes from different opinions. Let's try to figure out what's right. The only way you're going to find that out is by talking and observing."

…to the Nationals’ approach to the same problem:

“There’s a lot of information in scouting reports,” Mondry-Cohen said. “Part of it’s text. Part of it’s numeric. There’s kind of different ways to read and interpret a scouting report and to combine it with performance data.”

All else being equal, I’d expect the multidisciplinary method to provide better results over the long run. The Nationals, like just about every other team, are exploring ways in which analytics can augment their scouting strengths. If the picture Gelb paints is accurate, the Phillies are content to be behind the analytical eight ball.

In the last line of the article, Proefrock says, “As long as Ruben is in charge, I don’t think that is going to change.” Of course, Amaro won’t be around forever. But even when the Phillies front office finally, inevitably joins the 21st century, under Amaro’s successor or his successor’s successor, it’s going to take years for them to catch up to the earlier adopters. They've succeeded without sabermetrics before. But winning without stats isn't as feasible as it once was.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Scouting,  Sabermetrics,  Phillies Nationals

10 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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SaberTJ

It's astounding to me that a muli-million dollar company is not doing its best to adopt "best practices" of similar organizations. It's one thing to think you hire better employees, but if your methods are decades behind it won't matter.

Mar 30, 2013 09:00 AM
rating: 3
 
Broken Arrow

As someone who follows the Phillies, the Gelb article makes me want to bang my head against the wall. I count myself as a fan of their approach to development (high ceiling, tools-first draft methodology), but the notion that they're not using advanced metrics in decision-making, to supplement their scouting is absolutely maddening. The crazy thing is that Amaro probably actually believes that his scouting department is better than the rest. Watch or read any interview with him and he comes across as the most arrogant, least humble, over-confident, bordering on pompous GM out there. And then there's the Ryan Howard extension.

Mar 30, 2013 09:15 AM
rating: 3
 
mwright

It is about time the industry recognizes that Ruben Amaro is a genius for spotting scouts who, in turn, are geniuses at spotting talent. Ruben has an inate ability to find these superscouts, lock them up under favorable long-term contract and turn them loose on the prospects of the Western Hemisphere. It is a competitive advantage that no one else has caught up with and, when the rest of the industry finally realize what fools they have been, it will be too late for them to catch up.

Mar 30, 2013 13:41 PM
rating: 3
 
dianagram

Amaro is also the one who gave Ryan Howard, the epitome of an "old player skills" athlete, 5/125 beginning in his age-32 season.

Mar 30, 2013 19:49 PM
rating: 2
 
ethanwitte

While Amaro and the Phillies do receive their fair share of criticism for relying too heavily on scouts, I will defend them on one point. In the megatrades they have done in the past few years, which of those prospects have the Phillies actually regretted trading? Yes, Singleton and d'Arnaud may come back to haunt us, many of the other players were correctly identified as people they could afford to give up (Carlos Carrasco, Michael Taylor, Lou Marson, and Anthony Gose, to name a few). Have to give some credit where it is deserved.

Mar 30, 2013 20:04 PM
rating: 1
 
cdt719

But if the argument is that the scouts identified that those players weren't very good, the question is why were those players drafted in the first place. The best prospect so far drafted since Amaro became GM is probably Jonathan Singleton, and they traded him and a few other players for 3 wins worth of Hunter Pence.

Mar 30, 2013 23:16 PM
rating: 1
 
tbwhite
(361)

Gose debuted in he majors at age 21, and as he is still just 22 this season, I think it is a bit premature to write him off. Gavin Floyd has been a solid pitcher for the White Sox for several years. Let's not forget Gio Gonzalez. Both he and Floyd were traded to the White Sox for Freddy Garcia, that worked out well.

Rube traded Cliff Lee to the Mariners for nothing, where were the great scouts then ?

Mar 31, 2013 10:22 AM
rating: 1
 
philly

The Lee trade is particularly apt because the Phils claimed that having Benny Looper from the Ms was going to allow them to identify kep players from the Mariners farm system.

I suspect using Profrock and Braun's 7 yr old scouting reports of Delmon Young will work out just as well.

Mar 31, 2013 12:38 PM
rating: 0
 
swarmee

I can't really complain about Delmon Young at less than a million. If they had paid him $5M or so, like some teams have done with fungible players, then I could see it.

Mar 31, 2013 13:20 PM
rating: 0
 
tbwhite
(361)

The Phillies are the proof of Pat Gillick's genius. That he was able to win a World Series with that organization is simply remarkable. It is an in-bred organization that interprets criticism of themselves as proof that they are right and know better than anyone else.

To me the move that defines the franchise was the hiring of Gary Mathews as an announcer. If you listened to a Phillies game during his first season it was remarkable, he was simply the worst announcer I have ever heard, completely incompetent. But he was one of their 'guys' so despite the criticism of Mathews, they brought him back and keep on bringing him back. To Mathews credit he has worked hard, and has improved a lot, but he still stinks. Anyway, in a nutshell that's the Phillies: a retirement home for guys they like and no else wants.

Final point, while Gillick was the guy who got the team to the Promised Land, the demise of the Phillies began in November 2008 when Mike Arbuckle left, the farm system has been in a free fall since. When the Bill Giles Era finally ends it will go down as decades of futility, 1993, and a few years of Pat Gillick.

Mar 31, 2013 10:38 AM
rating: 2
 
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