August 1, 2013
The Phillies President Speaks to SABR
It may seem incongruous to some to have David Montgomery, president of the very traditional (and sometimes openly disdainful of sabermetrics) Philadelphia Phillies address the crowd at SABR. But it really shouldn’t. Sabermetrics is named in homage to SABR, but while Bill James’ admiration for SABR is returned by many of its members, it is a very traditional organization as well. Its membership skews very old – even older than the 2013 Phillies, believe it or not. And while you’ll find a diversity of interests at SABR (including some interested in sabermetrics, in fact), on the whole it skews heavily toward an appreciation of baseball history. The Phillies too share an appreciation for baseball’s historical record, apparently up to and including using it as a reason to sign Delmon Young. So it really is a good fit.
Montgomery opened by welcoming everyone to “his city” of Philadelphia, saying, "This is a very passionate sports town, which is great if you happen to work in sports. Well for the most part, it’s great.” He got more than a few laughs from that. He then went on to discuss the “cycles” of the Phillies, talking about the high points of the franchise (including the recent run of success. He did not elucidate where the 2013 Phillies were in the cycle, however.)
He talked about various items on the SABR program that were of interest – a presentation about the World Series Phillies, for instance. (Montgomery revealed that his family got its first TV in 1950, to watch that World Series.) Also, a presentation about historic promotions. He then regaled the crowd with a story about dropping a ball from a helicopter.
The meat of his talk was a discussion of the difference between baseball in the 1950s and today. He began by rattling off a list of the stars of the ‘50s with a clear tone of admiration, saying that some considered that to be a “golden age” of baseball. Back then, he said, there were occasional TV games, but mostly people followed the game on radio. (He hinted at, but never outright confessed to, sneaking a transistor radio up to his room to listen to late-night games.) Talking about historic no-hitters (and saying that he’s been lucky to have the Phillies throwing the no-hitters rather than being no-hit in his time in baseball), he noted, “Before I ever got involved in this game, I grew up as a fan.”
Then he moved into talking about the transition from Veterans Stadium to Citizen’s Bank Park. The Vet was a city-owned stadium, and the Phillies wanted more control over maintenance and concessions and the like. But it was the Orioles’ Camden Yards that inspired them to desire a new, baseball-only facility. Then he talked about the revenue and the tax benefits the city and state get from the facility.
Another change he highlighted was in ticket sales. In the last year in Connie Mack, they sold 500,000 tickets, which he says is how well their Triple-A affiliate does in attendance in 2013, with the Phillies themselves doing six times that, with this season on pace to be the seventh consecutive with more than 3 million fans.
In the ‘50s through the ‘70s, game sponsorships typically were three companies taking three innings apiece, with the chief sponsors being TastyKake, a beer company and a “company you don’t hear much about anymore,” Philadelphia Cigars. Now the Phillies control their own sponsorship, he says, selling and controlling their TV and radio advertising, promotional days, in-park signage and more, with 14 employees dedicated to ads.
He talked about changes in minor league affiliations, which are now “clustered” in the local area, with their furthest local team in Williamsport, as opposed to having teams out as far as Montana. He noted several benefits – fans can get attached to players in the minors and be encouraged to see the major-league club when they get promoted (he mentioned Cody Asche, who debuted last night); there’s easier transportation between levels, and easier access to minor-league games for the baseball ops department.
He also talked about how food for the players has changed, with healthier food (as opposed to Philly cheesesteaks) and an emphasis on fitness, including weight rooms. He also talked about the use of video in hitters’ game prep, seeing pitchers that they’re facing and their own recent at-bats. (He highlighted Chase Utley as a guy who spends a lot of time preparing off video.)
He then moved to challenges faced by the sport, and he says the biggest challenge is keeping the in-park experience compelling enough to compete with television, given the advent of high definition and the ability of TV to give additional insight like in-game interviews. He talked about things like ballpark traffic and accessibility, as well as making the park an attractive experience. He talked about how to reach a broader audience than the devoted fans at SABR, with things like promotions, the Phanatic, and appeals to younger fans. He also highlighted the team’s efforts at community involvement, including charitable efforts, and said the Phillies were lucky to have players that support that.
Then he opened the floor for questions, after noting “I don't normally go out in public the day after a loss, much less eight out of the last 12, but I committed to this well in advance.”
The first question was about, essentially, the playoffs being a crapshoot. Montgomery said “the goal is to be one of those, now, 10 teams” and that “as recently as 10 days ago” they thought they had a chance to be one of those. But he noted that the club had built themselves “pitching first” as part of a philosophy to win in the playoffs. He also noted that it’s harder to win now, as exceptional young players like Andrew McCutchen are getting locked up early, so it’s harder to sign guys like him in free agency.
Then he was asked about game lengths, and he talked about a committee formed to examine game lengths, and talked about concerns of instant replay and how it needs to be analyzed thoroughly. He also talked about hitters stepping out of the box and other routines that he would like to see go away, but they have “developed habits” that are hard to break.
Then someone asked about whether or not the Phillies would “finally” start looking at stats, and Montgomery says there’s a misimpression of the Phillies as a club that doesn’t use stats. He mentioned wOBA as a stat they specifically look at, and says that some acquisitions are made not because the Phillies don’t know about his deficiencies but because “he’s better than who we have playing.” “We definitely are using those tools along with scouting.” Then he added, “We believe in character, and statistics don’t take into account character.”
The last question was from a Philly season ticket holder griping about the schedule, particularly interleague, saying the standings “don’t mean anything anymore.” Which is such a perfect example of the “get off the lawn” kinds of questions you get when you open up a mic at SABR that I wish I had made it up, but I didn’t. Also, did I say question? I meant open-mic lecture. (Which is ALSO a perfect example of what can happen when you open up a mic at SABR.) Montgomery responded about as well as one can to these concerns.
And that, that was the keynote. I’ll try and have more reports in a bit.