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.