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Sielski: Dartmouth baseball shaped Phillies' Klentak

CLEARWATER, Fla. The two sides of Matt Klentak's baseball mind developed at Dartmouth College, formed with equal influence from who he was and where he happened to be.

Phillies general manager Matt Klentak.
Phillies general manager Matt Klentak.Read moreDavid Maialetti / Staff Photographer


The two sides of Matt Klentak's baseball mind developed at Dartmouth College, formed with equal influence from who he was and where he happened to be.

In October, the Phillies hired him, at age 35, to be their general manager, and any attempt to anticipate what sort of executive he will be - what qualities he will look for in players, what decisions he will make, why he will make them - has to begin with the four years he spent on that bucolic campus in Hanover, N.H. Klentak graduated in 2002 with a degree in economics, a fact that carries with it all the presumptions about any young baseball executive: that he spends hours each day squinting at spreadsheets on his iPad, that he views a ballplayer less as a human being than as an asset or liability to be evaluated based purely on the numbers and decimal points dotting his stat line.

But Klentak was himself a ballplayer in college. He was a three-year starter at shortstop, the team's captain as a senior, and his experiences and relationships at Dartmouth serve now as the infrastructure for his philosophy as a GM. It was there that he played for Bob Whalen, Dartmouth's head coach, a disciple and close friend of Sandy Alderson, the New York Mets general manager and the godfather of "Moneyball," the shorthand term for Major League Baseball's statistical revolution of the early 2000s. It was there that Klentak routinely batted at the bottom of the order, his average never eclipsing .273, but remained a mainstay in the lineup because of his defense, his leadership, and his willingness to play the sort of "small ball" that most sabermetricians loathe. And it was there that he learned the necessity of keeping those opposing perspectives in proportion when trying to build a winning team.

"The game is a marriage of statistics and anthropology," Alderson, a Dartmouth alumnus who mentored Klentak, said in a phone interview. "The danger is that one overwhelms the other. Given Matt's background as a college player . . . it's probably informed him quite a bit. To the extent he tries to balance the analytical and the personal, that's the key."

A native of Medfield, Mass., 150 miles southeast of Hanover, Klentak knew he wanted to attend Dartmouth as soon as he walked across the Green, the lush patch of grass that covers the campus' main quadrangle. He also liked the discipline and organization with which Whalen ran the baseball program and the attention that Whalen paid to assembling a team whose members fit cohesively, both in their talents and their personalities. "A lot of my best friends in the world were my teammates there," Klentak said. "I think that's by design."

Indeed, it was no accident that Whalen, who has won more than 500 games over his 26 seasons at Dartmouth, put together his teams in the manner he did. To guide his recruiting efforts, he relied on an algorithm that used various factors - athletic caliber, academic performance, household income - to pinpoint area codes and regions where he ought to spend his time and resources. The system and its success informed Klentak's thinking about the importance of intangibles in evaluating and acquiring players, a topic that Klentak said he discusses often with Phillies manager Pete Mackanin.

"Players will reach their ceilings when they're playing confidently, when they're in an environment that's loose and that allows them to be the player that they want to be," Klentak said. "When you're surrounded by people you know, people you like, people who encourage you, a coaching staff or manager who inspires you, all those things allow players to be at their very best.

"In any of the player-acquisition arenas, we not only want to make sure it's a talented player, but it's a healthy player. It's a player whose makeup and leadership fit into our group, players who are more than one-dimensional."

Klentak himself barely met that standard. At 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, he was a fluid, reliable fielder with an accurate arm, but he was inconsistent offensively. "I was not a power hitter," he said. "I was not a hitter, really, period." Still, he had his moments: As a sophomore, in a series at Miami against the defending national champion Hurricanes, he slammed a home run over the left-field palm trees at Mark Light Stadium. The following season, he doubled and scored the decisive run in the victory over Harvard that gave Dartmouth its second consecutive division title.

Mostly, though, he was there for his defense and his ability, in Whalen's words, to "keep the lineup flowing" by hitting behind a runner or laying down a sacrifice bunt. In fact, Whalen so valued Klentak's contributions that he benched two upperclassmen during Klentak's sophomore year and later moved future major-leaguer Ed Lucas from shortstop, Lucas' natural position, to third base - all to keep Klentak in the lineup.

"He hit .228 his senior year," Whalen said, "and he was worth every point of it."

The irony of Whalen's appreciation for Klentak's strengths - the sorts that orthodox baseball men often treasure - was that, through his friendship with Alderson, Whalen already had adopted many of the innovations that would soon change thinking throughout the sport. Michael Lewis' seminal book Moneyball wasn't published until June 2003, but by then, Whalen had for years been immersing his players in the then-heretical tenets of Alderson and protégé Billy Beane.

He accented on-base percentage and slugging percentage as the true measures of a player's offensive productivity. He set a goal for each Dartmouth hitter: to have 10 percent of all at-bats reach "deep counts," to tire out opposing pitchers. He and his staff tracked how opposing players fared in particular situations - against a righthanded hitter after the sixth inning, for instance, or against a lefthanded pitcher with two outs and runners in scoring position, trends that soon became de rigueur in the majors and are now standard aspects of scouting.

"There was never a pitcher who didn't have a past," said Michael Levy, a catcher and team captain for Dartmouth during Klentak's years there.

While many of Klentak's teammates and friends went on to Harvard Business School or accepted lucrative signing bonuses to work in banking or consulting, his early exposure to the "Moneyball" movement intensified his desire to make baseball his career. The night before his introductory news conference as the Phillies' GM, he called Whalen to tell him he had accepted the job.

"I told him, at some point you have to drive in your car 10 hours to answer whether you're taking a kid in the second round or in the 15th round," Whalen said. "If you take him in the second round and he doesn't get to double A, you'll be doing something else. You can look at all the numbers you want, but at some point, you have to believe in the kids you're taking."

It was nothing Matt Klentak hadn't heard, and learned, years before.