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July 5, 2013

Manufactured Runs

Ruben Amaro and the Ryan Howard Reality

by Colin Wyers

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Some baseball teams are disappointing by strange twists of fate. Some are disappointing by design. Not because they’re designed to perform poorly (although that happens, too), but because they’re given expectations contrary to reality, and when reality diverges from expectations, they continue to cling to the expectations.

The 2013 Phillies are a team modestly below .500. Given a preseason forecast of a basically .500 team, this shouldn’t be a terrible shock—baseball is a game filled with randomness, after all. But to view the Phillies as a real disappointment requires you to compare them to their run of excellence from 2007 through 2011, rather than the team they are now. General manager Ruben Amaro’s expectations, then, seem weirdly out of date, in more ways than one. When asked about the player who will most likely define Amaro’s career as a GM, he responded succinctly:

"If Ryan Howard is now relegated to being a platoon player, he's a very expensive platoon player and he needs to be better," Amaro said. "I think he knows it. I know he's struggling, I know he's not happy with his performance—neither are we. I think he's going to be better, but right now, he's just not doing the job."

It’s always wise to be cautious with how one interprets statements from front office personnel. Their job is not to be brutally honest with the media, but to win baseball games. And sometimes that means you put your relationship with a player ahead of being totally forthright with the media.

So let’s concede that Amaro’s private views may not be entirely these. We have no way of knowing for sure. The views expressed here are troubling, though, not just for what they say about how Amaro still views Howard, but for what they say about how Amaro views Amaro.

The issue here really isn’t platoon splits; as Steven Goldman points out, Howard has always had large platoon splits. The issue really isn’t his declining production overall—that’s what most if not all hitters do as they age. And it’s not even the boat anchor of a contract Howard was signed to two years in advance of any actual need to sign him to a new contract. (Although that’s a hell of a list of things to not be the issue.) Ryan Howard is what he is, and his contract is what it is.

The real issue is that Amaro seems to be unwilling to concede the reality of the situation. Amaro signed Howard to a deal based on Amaro’s future expectation of Howard’s value. And even with the benefit of regular old sight, much less hindsight, that expectation was woefully incongruous with the reality of Ryan Howard. But that mistake is in the past. The real issue is that Amaro says Howard “needs to be better,” rather than considering that Amaro needs to do things to cope with the fact that he isn’t and won’t be.

This isn’t an isolated incident, either. When asked last year about his team:

Asked last week what grade he would give Manuel for the 2012 debacle, Amaro replied, "Incomplete."

Amaro's logic: Missing Ryan Howard and Chase Utley for the first 3 months, combined with Roy Halladay's 6-week shoulder vacation, means the team's performance cannot accurately be judged. Not until all of Charlie's "horses" — Amaro's word — return.

Presumably, at full strength.

And again in 2013:

In a 15-minute question-and-answer session with reporters, Amaro said that he still does not know what to expect out of the roster he has built, that it deserves a grade of "incomplete" because of the absences of some of his key players, from catcher Carlos Ruiz, who could return from a hamstring injury as soon as Tuesday, to second baseman Chase Utley, who could be back from an oblique strain before the end of the week, to starter Roy Halladay, who is hoping to return from shoulder surgery at some point in the final two months of the season. But Amaro might be in the minority in his assessment. Over the last week, starting pitchers Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels have both vented some frustration into the public sphere, and on Monday Charlie Manuel suggested that the Phillies might actually be overachieving given the talent level of the players who have seen regular playing time.

When asked about the divergence between the way things have gone and the way he expected them to go, Amaro seems to continually lay the blame on reality, rather than his own planning. If for two seasons your mid-season lament is about the same players not being on the field, you have not been beset by injuries, you have been beset by unreasonable expectations for your players and inadequate planning for backups for them.

So the Phillies have an aging core, and some contracts that handcuff them. It’s a tough spot to be in, to be sure. And 2013 is littered with teams who went all in over the offseason only to have results far underwhelm expectations. But staying the course and hoping that the shores will move themselves into the path of the currents you’re in is lunacy.

Ryan Howard and his money and his platoon splits are a sunk cost. Playing him against tough lefties and building your team and lineup around the idea that Howard is going to return to form is going to the ATM in the casino so you can win back the money you lost at the slot machines.

The Phillies are going to be stuck with Amaro’s biggest mistakes for the near future. What’s worse is that they’re going to be stuck with a general manager who hasn’t learned from his mistakes, and seems not to realize that they’re mistakes at all. Teams have survived bigger mistakes than the contract given to Ryan Howard. But the Phillies may well not survive the sort of man who makes them.

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

Related Content:  Ryan Howard,  Phillies,  Ruben Amaro

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

BP Comment Quick Links

kcboomer

Brutal article, but sometimes you have to call them like you see them.

Jul 05, 2013 15:31 PM
rating: 10
 
Sharky

Brutal but entertaining.

Jul 05, 2013 18:41 PM
rating: 8
 
mwright

Hit it on the head with this piece.

Jul 05, 2013 19:53 PM
rating: 6
 
Johnston

You nailed it. Good job.

Jul 05, 2013 21:38 PM
rating: 6
 
AciDjAzz

It's called being delusional, and he certainly is in that state of mind, that's for sure.

Jul 06, 2013 00:50 AM
rating: 5
 
bflaff1

The Phillies intentionally hedged this offseason, neither reloading nor rebuilding. They made a few low-cost investments, avoided any big splashes, and waited to see if the veteran core - one year removed from THE MOST WINS IN FRANCHISE HISTORY - could bounce back. The fact that they haven't wasn't unexpected - the offseason moves (or lack thereof) should have made that clear. But it's not at all unreasonable to give that group a second chance.

Guy who doesn't learn from mistakes? How many guys on the team got massively overpriced contracts after Howard's? How many free agent bombs detonated on his watch? The Angels doubled down on Pujols by signing Hamilton. Now both are gagging on the field for the next eight years and you think Amaro has a problem?

Yes, Amaro has mistakenly given low dollar contracts to fringe ballplayers we could have reasonably expected to be terrible. Yes, Amaro has mistakenly relied on guys we could reasonably expect to be washed up. Yes, Amaro has made trades that looked bad at first glance, and still look bad today. Yes, Amaro has gone into a season without quality Plan Bs at positions that were known to be iffy. But the point is, so does every other GM if they stick around long enough.

The easiest parlor game is to pick a team with a losing record and LOL at the moves they made to get themselves there.

If you can contrast Amaro's hedging with that of other GMs who saw their offseason plans fail to impress, and - contra Amaro - they're all proactively making moves to sell the farm, let the vets ride the pine, etc., then yes, you're on to something here. But it's pretty quiet out there.

So the question is, what makes Amaro so worthy of derision if he's just like every other member of the club?

Here's Brian Sabean, owner of 2 of the last 3 WFC rings, blaming reality on June 25th:

“A lot has happened with injuries, poor play, not performing up to expectations.”

Better not stand pat, then.

"The Giants are preaching patience, even as they flirt with a losing record."

Fair enough, genius, but you've gone 1-9 since that interview! Learn from your mistakes already.

Jul 06, 2013 13:40 PM
rating: -2
 
jrbdmb

Did you even read the article? The criticism of Amaro isn't the poor moves, but that he has yet to acknowledge that his expectations were incorrect year after the fact. Amaro still seems to think that Howard will once again become the Howard of 2009, and does not seem to grasp that you had better make plans for (and not be surprised by) injuries on an aging roster.

Jul 07, 2013 08:33 AM
rating: 2
 
bflaff1

Amaro says Howard needs to play better (duh) and from that you extrapolate that he "still thinks Howard will once again be the Howard of 2009"?

And then you ask if I've even read the article? That's very clever.

As I originally stated, Amaro's offseason strategy this year was to hedge - not selling off prematurely in case the vets still had a run in them, and not going all in in case the vets were really toast. I don't see any problem with that, and the moves are hardly as obvious as everyone here seems to think they are.

Jul 07, 2013 20:41 PM
rating: -3
 
Behemoth

The flaw was in repeatedly relying on a bunch of injury-prone players, and then being shocked when they break. It's fine to look at giving the players one more go before tearing it down, but you might want to invest in, say, a really solid utility guy or two, because they'll get a lot of work on that roster. Having some solid backups would be good as well.

Jul 08, 2013 07:58 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

"Amaro says Howard needs to play better (duh)"

But it isn't duh. Ryan Howard had a preseason PECOTA projection of a .289 TAv, he's put up a .283 TAv so far this season, it's not like he's wildly underperforming a reasonable expectation for performance. This is very likely Who Ryan Howard Is Now, a good but unspectacular (and incredibly overpaid) first baseman with a dramatic platoon split and knee problems that mean he's likely to miss some time.

So insisting that Howard needs to play better is irrelevant; he probably won't. That's the entire point of the article. It doesn't matter if Amaro made mistakes before -- as you note, plenty of GMs do that. What the Phillies need, though, is a GM who will recognize those mistakes for what they are.

Jul 08, 2013 08:03 AM
 
Matt

The National League presents a tough context to evaluate the directions GMs take, because the caliber of teams is not so high that a .500 club couldn't get into the playoffs with some breaks. So yes, the aging Phillies had a chance, though not enough to double down, and you can kind of defend his (lack of) moves.

But Amaro is running out of time, his team is getting older and worse, not younger and better. He has already missed some opportunities to get back some future value. The industry seems to be shedding the clear dummies from the GM pool like Bavasi and Littlefield. If he sinks the Phillies into the ground, he is going to look like a dummy for missing his chance to rebuild.

Jul 08, 2013 11:27 AM
rating: 0
 
Adrian

"Yes, Amaro has mistakenly given low dollar contracts to fringe ballplayers we could have reasonably expected to be terrible. Yes, Amaro has mistakenly relied on guys we could reasonably expect to be washed up. Yes, Amaro has made trades that looked bad at first glance, and still look bad today. Yes, Amaro has gone into a season without quality Plan Bs at positions that were known to be iffy. But the point is, so does every other GM if they stick around long enough"

I think the real point is that any GM that does all of the things that you yourself have acknowledged Amaro has done maybe shouldn't stick around too much longer.

Jul 07, 2013 14:11 PM
rating: 1
 
fandamage

If your defense of Amaro is that he is not as bad as the man who gave Barry Zito 7yrs/$126M (and Aaron Rowand 5yrs/$60M) or the front office that has two of the biggest albatrosses in baseball draped around their neck (the Angels).... that is not a very strong defense.

Most GMs have made bad signings, yes. But that doesn't make Amaro's moves less hurtful to the Phillies' future.

Jul 06, 2013 14:51 PM
rating: 5
 
Peter Hood

I rather thought Terry Ryan's assessment of the MIN performance was rather decent. He took responsibility for the players available to play.

Jul 07, 2013 03:29 AM
rating: 1
 
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