When John Middleton tries to get his head around the monumental fall of the Phillies from 2008 World Series champions to 2015 worst team in baseball, he always starts the conversation in the same place. It's clear that the speaker for the ownership group sees an ignorance of analytics as the primary reason for the great decline.
Just a few minutes after Matt Klentak's introductory news conference as the 11th general manager in franchise history Monday morning, Middleton returned to the subject. After explaining that the Phillies had also gone from the best in baseball at drafting players from 1995 through 2004 to the worst in the following decade, he pinned the blame squarely on the club's inability to analyze important data.
"If you look at that 20-year cycle, the role of analytics is much more important," Middleton said. "It became more sophisticated and broader in terms of what it was measuring and the quality of the information it was giving, and if you didn't stay up with that curve, you were falling further and further behind. I think that's a big part of it."
He thinks it was the biggest part. In fact, with an incredulous and elongated "yeah," the billionaire ownership partner more or less admitted that the Phillies weren't just late to baseball's analytics party, they actually declined the invitation.
Middleton and team president Andy MacPhail described the six-week search for a new general manager as thorough and diverse and that was probably true. Definitely true: The three finalists - Klentak, Tampa Bay's Chaim Bloom and Oakland's Dan Kantrovitz - were all 30-something males with Ivy League educations and strong analytic backgrounds. The thing that likely set Klentak apart was his previous working relationship with MacPhail in Baltimore.
"The strategic visions had to be aligned," MacPhail said. "It would make no sense to bring someone in here who had a radically different approach to what we felt was the right way to go."
Embracing analytics and trying to become one of the best in the business at it is a worthy goal. Like the much-needed improvement of the product on the field, it will take some time. Klentak, 35, gave a good answer when asked about the analytic background that was a must-have for the job.
"It's a critical piece of the puzzle," Klentak said. "You're 100 percent right and they're 100 percent right to talk about it. What you will learn about me in time is that I try to create and strike balance in everything that I do and accordingly we'll try to strike balance in everything we do.
"The Phillies have a long and proud history - particularly recent history - that was the result of some excellent evaluations and scouting. . . . I don't want to lose that . . . but we also need to make sure we are gathering and utilizing all of the information at our disposal. Some of that may come in analytical form. Some of that may come via medical information. The real challenge is taking all of that information - and it is a ton - and combining it and synthesizing it and figuring out how that works into our process and making decisions accordingly."
If those remarks make 21st century baseball sound complicated, that's because it is. MacPhail's takeaway from his GM search was that "there are a lot of talented people in the game. I actually got to a point where I was thinking what a waste that Americans are investing this much brain power in sports."
Many of those large brains are already employed all over baseball, so the building of a quality analytics department is not the thing that will set the Phillies apart from the rest of baseball. Klentak pointed out that the first overall pick in the June draft, the first overall pick in the Rule 5 draft and the largest bonus pool in the international market are all great tools the Phillies have at their immediate disposal to begin their upward climb.
What the Phillies also have is an abundance of money. The 25-year, $2.5 billion television deal with Comcast SportsNet kicks in this year. Klentak and Middleton repeated MacPhail's mantra that this is not the time to jump in on big-ticket free agents. Agree or not, there are other ways to spend money in an effort to improve a ball club.
Start by spending more money than the allotted bonus pool during next year's international signing period. Big-market teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees have decided that the rewards outweigh the penalties. That's especially true in the Phillies' case since they would be paying to increase their pool of young prospects at a time when they really need good, young prospects.
Klentak and MacPhail also should immediately start recruiting the best scouts, player development and analytical people they know in the game. Pay them more than they can get elsewhere. The Phillies have some terrific scouts and development people already, but some changes in that area would not hurt.
The fact that the Phillies have the money to pay for the best should enhance their ability to expedite the rebuilding process in all aspects of the organization. That's the direction Middleton seems to want to take this team. Former president David Montgomery used to always say that winning was cyclical.
"Our objective is to challenge that," Middleton said.
The man and his team have the money to do it. Now, he also has an analytics expert in the GM seat to tell him how to spend it.