Tuesday, January 06, 2015

The Phillies: What Happened?

Along with a thoughtful bent and a funny name, another legacy of mine is Phillies fandom.

Which, historically has been something like inheriting a proclivity for corns, but lately has been pretty sweet, actually. The Phillies had a decent run there: Win the division as the Mets(!) collapse in 2007, win it all in 2008, the pennant in 2009, then a series of win-now trades that didn't get them the win, the sudden decline of a few key players and . . . now we start over.

A lot of Phillies fans are more than a little disappointed with this run. Phillies fans have always had a soft spot for the Red Sox. Sox fans experienced a lot of the "close but no cigar" sort of frustration, whereas the Phillies fan spent the vast majority of the twentieth century watching a team that was more or less a mockery of a professional baseball organization. But they had the frustration in common. Along with the proud urban ethnic tradition. And the urban ethnic racism and teams that pandered to it. And the reddish caps (for a little while). And, most of all, the absolute, unyielding hatred of New York.

So Phillies fans today look at the Red Sox and see a team that is still on a run of competitiveness that started back in the 1990s (since 1998, they've had two losing seasons), with occasional years off to retool. Why can't the Phillies do this? Why are the Phillies now in the midst of a multi-year rebuild?

Part of it is probably just luck. the Red Sox made a couple of bets on their big slow slugger (David Ortiz) and won. In fact they won beyond even the sanguine hopes of Red Sox fans--Ortiz has aged better than anyone expected. The Phils made a similar bet on theirs (Ryan Howard) and about as spectacularly lost.

Part of it is also how the teams decided to proceed after their initial world series win. The Red Sox remained committed to a philosophy which dealt out long-term contracts very reluctantly and tried very hard to keep contracts in the realm where the player could conceivably return value by standard measurements of such things. Thus Ortiz has spent his prime making 13-15 million a year. Howard now makes $25 million.

Even for a rich team such a contract going toward a now unproductive player is a hit.

And the Red Sox philosophy had other effects other than not overpaying for David Ortiz. he is the only Red Sock to be on all three of their recent World Series teams. Only six others were on the first two. Only three others were on both the second two. And even Ortiz might well have gone had he insisted on being overpayed. He'd have found someone outside of Boston who'd have done it, and Boston probably would not have matched.

The Red Sox seldom seem to convince themselves that they need a particular player. They are willing to let anyone go, and they end up letting a lot of people walk or trading a lot of people. There's very little continuity on the team, but there's very little other than on-field return in their calculations.

The Phillies took a very different approach . . .

I am, as a fan, rooting for an organization whose philosophies are diametrically opposed to my own, not only as to the question of whether you succeed, but as to the question of how you succeed. I like to watch young players grow and develop into stars, as I watched Amos Otis and George Brett and Frank White and Dennis Leonard. I take pleasure in seeing what they can do one year that they couldn’t the year before; this is what, as a fan, I enjoy. --Bill James, 1985 Baseball Abstract

Philadelphia owner Ruly Carpenter, realizing that Pete Rose at thirty-eight is no longer a player who can decide a pennant race, originally refused to pay what Pete Rose was asking. But the TV station that carries the Phillies, concerned not with ability but with marketability, came up with the dough . . . Bill James, Esquire magazine, 1979 

I direct your attention to these two passages from Bill James to establish two points: 1) That fans can have interests that run counter to the best strategy for a team to win. Even Bill James, one of the godfathers of baseball analysis, watches the game, in part, to watch the play and development of personalities he's become familiar with and fond of. Even highly analytical fans like stability and the continuity of a story; 2) The business side of baseball is not just about statistical analysis of on-field performance. It's about what sells. Winning sells, yes, but other things sell as well.

When the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, ownership made a decision to make it a priority to keep together the core--Rollins, Utley, Howard & Hamels--they had drafted and developed. Part of this was because they were a compelling group for the Philadelphia market. Unusually, there were two African-American stars amongst them. And there was a hard-nosed white guy (Utley). Ownership essentially decided that *this* Phillies team was not only a winner on the field, but a highly marketable group of personalities as well.

And Philadelphia is a town that loves its stories more than most. The 1993 Phillies are probably still the team the fans hold closest to their hearts. Not because they won it all (they didn't) but because their working-class fratboy demeanor and their seemingly never-ending series of come-from-behind runs--jibed precisely with the city's identity as overlooked, underappreciated and (frogive my French) declasse.

But dedicating yourself so strongly to keeping particular players often means overpaying for them--giving them longer, bigger contracts than their on-field performance really commands. So Ryan Howard's contract wasn't just a bit of insanity on the part of the General Manager. That contract was part of an ownership-level decision to make stability in core personnel a very high priority for the team.

This policy decision, combined with bad luck (Howard, Halliday), win-now trades that didn't entirely pan out (Lee, Halliday, Hunter Pence) and a couple of plain stupid trades (Hunter Pence II, Lee II) and you've got yourself a long rebuild.

On top of this, the Phillies, for some inexplicable reason, seemed to strongly believe that they could see something in or do something to athletic high-schoolers to make them pan out as major leaguers at an appreciably higher rate than usual. They were wrong about this as well, so they ended up taking a lot of long bets with draft choices they should have been expending on safer bets (successful college players).

Ruben Amaro certainly has to take some of the blame for all of this. His old-school mentality probably lent directly to the failed draft strategy of the past 5 years or so, and that old-school mentality really does have to be relegated to the dustbin. Explicitly and emphatically. A couple of Amaro's salary dump trades were just atrocious in terms of return. But MOST of the Phillies problem is down to bad luck and a policy of lineup stability that just didn't work.

But I have to say, in spite of its failure, I'm glad the Phillies did keep that core together for so long. Like Bill James, even if analysis teaches us that letting familiar faces go early and bringing in strangers probably would have made the team better and more resilient, it is a lesson I find hard to enjoy.

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