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Rebounds in season opener by Ben Simmons, who also scores 19 points

In honor of Father’s Day, we bring you columns from Gordon Glantz and Eric Fisher remembering their fathers.

The Flyers promoted Ron Hextall to general manager, with former GM Paul Holmgren becoming team president. Hextall said that developing young players within the organization was the key to winning a championship.

Three-time world champion and worldwide icon Muhammad Ali, who proclaimed himself the greatest boxer of all-time (and often lived up to the hype), dies at age 74 after an amazing career and influential life.

Archive for the ‘Phillies’ Category

Hiding behind numbers

Posted by Eric Fisher On October - 3 - 2018 ADD COMMENTS

Whoever coined the phrase “numbers don’t lie” never watched the Phillies.

Numbers determine which players are in the lineup. Numbers determine where outfielders are positioned. Numbers determine when the team will execute a defensive shift. For all we know, numbers may determine when players eat sunflower seeds and how many they put in their mouth at one time.

Every baseball teams uses numbers. But the Phillies take it to an extreme.

That’s why outfielder Nick Williams, frustrated at only starting two of the first six games this season, responded to a question about why he wasn’t playing by saying, “I guess the computers are making (the lineup). I don’t know.”

It’s also why veteran pitchers Jake Arrieta and Pat Neshek publicly expressed displeasure when an exaggerated defensive shift resulted in hits when balls went cleanly through areas where fielder would have been if not for the shift. We’ve also seen shifts that led to Carlos Santana, playing out of position at third base, becoming even more out of position by shifting to an area normally occupied by the shortstop. The results were predictable.

How heavily do the Phillies rely on analytics? Their outfielders pull cards out of their pockets to determine defensive positioning, consulting them as if they were a caddy checking a yardage chart before advising a golfer about which club to use.

And, of course, there was an incident in early September when umpire Joe West confiscated a notecard that reliever Austin Davis was using. Davis wasn’t happy about having his notes taken away.

“Our analytics department works really, really hard to come up with this stuff for us,” Davis said, “and I want to use it because they work all day to come up with stuff to help get guys out.”

I apologize for being snarky, but Davis’ 4.15 ERA indicates that either the analytics department doesn’t know what it’s doing or Davis is incapable of executing the plan.

Perhaps we should take a step back. Before reading Davis’ quote, maybe you didn’t realize that the Phillies had an analytics department. According to reports, as recently as 2013 they didn’t have one. Now the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. The Phillies have a director of baseball research and development, a major league player information coordinator and a senior quantitative analyst.

The guys in those positions, with degrees from Stanford, Penn and MIT and backgrounds in economics, mathematics and – I can’t make this up – aeronautics and astronautics, and with work experience that includes Google and aerospace and defense technology giant Northrop Grumman, crunch numbers all day in order to determine where players should be positioned on defense, which pitches should be thrown in which situations to which hitters and probably which flavor of Gatorade to drink during which innings. By the way, there are three additional quantitative analysts and three software engineers working in the research and development department.

One problem with analytics is the results are only as good as the information being put into the equation. When the analytics department inputs information, it assigns value to different factors. Think about the quarterback rating in the NFL. The formula assigns different weight to different factors. But assigning weight to various factors introduces a subjective element into a process that is supposed to be objective.

A larger problem is that everything can’t be quantified. There is a push in many businesses today, from sports to education, to quantify everything. The idea is to provide data upon which to base every decision.

The problem is that data can’t account for every factor. For example, data can’t quantify stupid. I’m not questioning Odubel Herrera’s intellectual ability, but I know that he’s a dumb baseball player. He doesn’t have a good approach at the plate, he repeatedly makes mistakes on the bases and in the outfield, and he occasionally doesn’t hustle. Analytics can’t quantify any of those things.

I also don’t need analytics to know that Rhys Hoskins is a bad left fielder or that Dylan Cozens has trouble making consistent contact, particularly on off-speed pitches. Furthermore, when statistics contradict what I see with my eyes, I distrust them – statistics, not my eyes – even more. Phillies manager Gabe Kapler, an analytics devotee, cited FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) last week to imply that starters Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta had better seasons than it appeared. If that’s what the FIP says, then that’s further proof that numbers do lie.

Data shouldn’t replace judgment. An editor of a newspaper should use his or her instincts and news judgment to decide which stories go on the front page rather than base those decisions solely upon surveys about which kinds of stories readers want to read. Teachers should use their professional judgment to know which strategies work in their classroom – and it could be different for different groups of students – rather than rely on some formula that attempts to quantify the effectiveness of various learning activities.

Baseball managers should be trusted to make the proper decisions. Numbers should be used to inform those decisions, not as a crutch to justify bad decisions.

I remember Flyers head coach Roger Neilson, one of hockey’s innovators with regard to video and statistics, saying, “Most people use statistics like a drunk uses a lamp post. It’s more for support than for illumination.”

Analytics can be a useful tool. But that’s all it should be: a tool. Analytics shouldn’t be the baseball bible, dictating every decision and replacing good judgment.

You want numbers? Here are some numbers that mean something. 80-82 (the Phillies’ record this season), 17-34 (the Phillies’ record during their final 51 games) and 6 (consecutive losing seasons).

Regardless of the numbers the computers in the analytics department spit out, those are numbers that don’t lie.

Phillies Notebook: Future looks murky

Posted by Eric Fisher On October - 2 - 2018 ADD COMMENTS

The Phillies earned 14 more wins this season than in 2017. On the other hand, their finish, going 17-34 down the stretch after being 15 games above .500, can’t be ignored.

But, rather than judging this season on wins and losses, it should be judged by how much closer the Phillies came to being a playoff team.

The victory total says the Phillies made significant progress toward being a playoff team, but it seems that we learned a lot more about what the Phillies’ future won’t be than what it will be.

We learned that Rhys Hoskins isn’t a good left fielder. We learned that Scott Kingery isn’t an everyday shortstop. We learned that Odubel Herrera isn’t a reliable center fielder – if we didn’t know that already.

Basically, we learned that nearly every position was primarily manned by a player who won’t be there in the long term, with most of them changing before next season.

So, even putting aside their historically bad finish, how can we say that the Phillies moved significantly closer to championship status when they don’t have the players of their future in the right positions to move forward?

FIRST BASE

Hoskins, with his team-leading 34 home runs and 96 RBI, clearly has to remain in the lineup. If Hoskins moves back to first base, as he did toward the end of this season, Carlos Santana has to move off first base. Santana played third base during the final few weeks. If Santana moves to third, though, where does Maikel Franco go?

THIRD BASE

Franco’s .270 batting average led Phillies’ regulars who were with the team all season. His 22 home runs and 68 RBI are also respectable totals. But his .314 on-base percentage and inconsistency raise questions about whether Franco is the third baseman of the future. Starting Santana at third base would be a step backward defensively for the already defensive-challenged Phillies. And it’s debatable whether Santana (.229 batting average, 24 home runs, 86 RBI, .352 on-base percentage) would be much of an improvement on offense.

SECOND BASE

This is Scott Kingery’s natural position. Of course, if he doesn’t hit better than .228, with a .267 on-base percentage, as he did during his rookie season, Kingery doesn’t belong in the starting lineup. Another problem associated with starting Kingery at second base, where he might feel more comfortable, is it would displace Cesar Hernandez, where he could become a backup – unless he’s traded.

SHORTSTOP

If Kingery moves to second base, the Phillies would have to find a shortstop. Asdrubal Cabrera’s .228 batting average and .286 on-base percentage call into question whether the Phillies would want to bring him back, even at a reduced salary. The other option at shortstop is J.P. Crawford, who batted .214 in between injuries.

CATCHER

This position is also shrouded in uncertainty. Wilson Ramos was the Phillies’ best offensive threat (.337 in 33 games) and defensive catcher. But Ramos was hindered by nagging injuries. Will the Phillies pay enough to keep Ramos off the free-agent market? If they let Ramos go, will they be content with Jorge Alfaro as the starter?

OUTFIELD

The outfield isn’t much more stable than the infield. Hoskins should move out of left field. Odubel Herrera (left) was supplanted by Roman Quinn in center field in September. Herrera (.255 batting average, .310 on-base percentage, 22 home runs, 71 RBI) frequently started in right field during September, but is he a better option than Nick Williams (.256 batting average, 17 home runs, 50 RBI)? Herrera or Williams could move to left field, but would you be comfortable with an opening day outfield of Williams-Quinn-Herrera? Neither would I.

There is no reason to expect the Phillies to bring 37-year-old Jose Bautista back next season. Aaron Altherr (.181 batting average) and Dylan Cozens (.158 average in 26 games) have yet to prove they can hit major-league pitching well enough to be in the starting lineup.

ROTATION

This might be the most stable area on the team. Aaron Nola is clearly the ace. With a 17-6 record and 2.37 ERA, Nola was far and away the Phillies’ best starter.

Jake Arrieta was supposed to be a solid No. 2 starter, but he finished with a 10-11 record and 3.96 ERA, which is certainly not ideal for a player making $30M. Arrieta’s salary drops by $5 million each of the next seasons. Given the state of the rest of their rotation, the Phillies had better hope that Arrieta doesn’t experience a similar decline in already-mediocre performance.

The rest of the rotation is a bit of a question mark. Zach Eflin (11-8, 4.36 ERA) was respectable and could be a nice fit at the back end of the rotation. On the other hand, Nick Pivetta (7-14, 4.77 ERA) and Vince Velasquez (9-12, 4.85 ERA) did not demonstrate that they belong in the rotation next year.

How many seasons are the Phillies willing to wait before concluding that Velasquez isn’t going to be a quality starting pitcher? He’s only 26 years old, but, after three seasons of leaving games early because he’s thrown too many pitches, is it realistic to expect this leopard to change his spots. Pivetta has been in the rotation for two seasons, and he regressed the second half of this season. Manager Gabe Kapler cited FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) – or is it the usually fatal Feline Infectious Peritonitis? – to try to prove that Pivetta and Velasquez pitched better than their numbers indicate, but the Phillies would be wise to look for potential replacements rather than count on Velasquez or Pivetta to suddenly discover how to harness their potential next season.

BULLPEN

The Phillies may have found their closer of the future in Seranthony Dominguez. He was 2-5 with a 2.95 ERA, and he blew one more save opportunity than Hector Neris this season, but growing pains are to be expected with a pitcher who moved up the organizational ladder as quickly as Dominguez.

Edubray Ramos (3-1, 2.32 ERA) was terrific when healthy, and the Phillies had better hope that Pat Neshek (3-2, 2.59 ERA), 37, lives up to a contract that will pay him $7.75 million next season. Victor Arano (1-2, 2.73) had a good season. Luis Avilan, acquired for the playoff push that didn’t materialize, posted a 3.18 ERA in 5 2/3 innings.

But the Phillies are stuck with Tommy Hunter for another season at $9 million. Regardless of how hard they try, general manager Matt Klentak and manager Gabe Kapler can’t convince me that Hunter (5-4, 3.80 ERA) had a good season.

Hector Neris (1-3, 5.10 ERA) and Luis Garcia (3-1, 6.07 ERA) can look unhittable in one outing and look like they can’t get anyone out in the next outing. Yacksel Rios (3-2, 6.75) looks like he can’t get anyone out most of the time. The rest of their bullpen, guys such as Adam Morgan (0-2, 3.83 ERA) and Austin Davis (1-2, 4.15), are just guys. They’re nothing special.

The Phillies have some decent pieces around which to build their bullpen. But the bullpen was maddeningly inconsistent. When the Phillies become contenders, they’ll need a more reliable bullpen.

MANAGER

Gabe Kapler’s first season as manager was a roller coaster. At one point, some observers were pushing for him to be considered for manager of the year. At other times, especially toward the end of the season, there were questions about whether he should be back next season.

I never bought into Kapler’s power of positivity. That approach may be more effective with a college team than a professional team. I also questioned how that approach would work when things weren’t going well. Although not proof that it won’t work, Kapler’s inability to pull the team of its tailspin over the final eight weeks could indicate that it’s not working.

I’m also not a fan of Kapler’s overuse of analytics, but he can’t be faulted for doing what the organization wants him to do. A bigger criticism is his use of his bullpen, without clearly defined roles, and his insistence on having a lineup full of players not playing their best defensive position. Kapler’s explanations for his lineups and in-game strategy always sound logical, but they often don’t withstand closer scrutiny.

Another criticism is that Kapler managed for the big inning. The Phillies were notoriously ineffective at advancing runners. Instead, the strategy seemed to be to wait for the three-run home run.

Kapler should be brought back next season. But a repeat of this season could challenge his ability to stay positive, and it may cost him his job.

GENERAL MANAGER

Give Matt Klentak credit. When the Phillies, surprisingly, were in the playoff hunt at the trade deadline, Klentak was aggressive in acquiring veterans. Asdrubal Cabrera, Justin Bour, Wilson Ramos and Jose Bautista were added to the lineup. It didn’t work out, but give Klentak credit for trying.

What Klentak doesn’t get a pass on is constructing a roster full of pieces that don’t fit together. The Phillies have too many players who don’t make consistent contact at the plate. Adding similar players such as Cabrera, Bour and Bautista may be one reason the new additions didn’t boost the offense.

The responsibility for players starting in positions in which they won’t be playing in the future falls upon Klentak as much as Kapler. Klentak is the one who provides the players to Kapler. If the pieces don’t fit, that’s on Klentak.

Klentak also bears responsibility for the over-reliance on analytics. Although the Phillies were behind the rest of baseball in the use of analytics before Klentak arrived, the pendulum has swung too far the other way. The Phillies seem to rely on numbers rather than judgment. Knowledgeable people making good judgments is better than relying on a computer spitting out numbers.


(click on logo above for 2012 season schedule)
Maurice Cheeks enters Hall of Fame