The Phillies Sent Representatives to the SABR Convention to Tell Attendees About Their General Disdain for Statistical Analysis

Screen Shot 2013-08-05 at 11.51.26 AMThat’s like sending a nun to be the keynote speaker at a sex toy convention.*

The SABR convention was held in Philadelphia last week and over the weekend, and that’s ironic because, ostensibly, the Phillies’ general philosophy in acquiring players is to ask themselves four questions: Is this player old and white? Is he willing to accept $10 million more from us? Does he swing for the fences and have no patience for walking and, you know, “getting on base”? Has Ruben Amaro ever heard of him?

None of those things have a lick to do with what is near and dear to so many nerds.

I’ll be honest, I’ve developed an appreciation for SABR, partly because everything stat heads said in 2010 and 2011 – Roy Halladay’s impending decline, Ryan Howard’s insane contract, the Phillies mortgaging their future, overspending at the wrong positions – has come true. They were… right. More right than I thought they would be. And advanced metrics are here to stay in sports. Look no further than Sam Hinkie and the coach-less Sixers (who needs a coach when you math?!) to find an example of a local team that is embracing the trend. But the Phillies are not doing that. Far from it, actually. So it is particularly weird that they sent David Montgomery, Gary Matthews, Brad Lidge and others to represent them and talk about how the team mostly doesn’t use advanced analytics at a convention about advanced analytics: [Philly Mag]

Dave Montgomery’s speech touched on lots of stories about his years with the Phillies, and afterwards he submitted to a lengthy Q&A from the crowd. When he was asked about whether it was time for the team to further embrace advanced analytics, Montgomery said it was a “misconception” that the Phils ignore statistical analysis, and that scouting and analytics are “not mutually exclusive.”

When I asked Montgomery to elaborate afterwards, he noted that while the team lacks a full-time analytics specialist, it has three employees, as part of the its player personnel department, who study analytics as part of their job, that the team gives consideration to the stat known as wOBA (weighted on-base average) and that the Phillies receive defensive metric reports from Fangraphs. Still, one doesn’t get the sense that stats come first with the club.

“We believe in character,” Montgomery said, “and statistics don’t always show character.”

Speaking on the player panel, Gary Matthews seemed to have even less use for stats.

“I’m not a stat guy in terms of evaluating a player, Matthews said, which to be fair is a pretty standard opinion for ex-ballplayers/broadcasters of Sarge’s vintage. “I look at the heart, and whether you can go to battle with a player.” Lidge appeared to at least be familiar with the debates, a staple of stathead blogs, over proper closer usage and pitch counts.

I can imagine the chuckles in the room when Montgomery and Sarge mentioned buzz words like character and heart. The nerds, perhaps like the Manchurian Candidate, were presumably sent into an uncontrollable rage that could only be extinguished by killing old-timey baseball folk.

Oddly, though, in trying to squash the stereotype that all SABR nerds are guys in their 20s with laptops and never been kissed smiles, and are, well, nerdsStephen Silver of Philly Mag described a scene that is perhaps even less… exciting:

While there was no one there, of course, who had been following baseball since 1905, the crowd certainly skewed older, with many attendees retired individuals who treat the convention as an annual vacation, one they’ve been taking for years and years. Regardless of age, a lot of the attendees were dressed for a ballgame, wearing the shirts or hats of their favorite team. In all, it was a group of people who just flat-out love baseball.

The stereotype one might have expected to encounter at the SABR convention was of a bunch of  bloggers in their early 20s, toting laptops while arguing about which version of wins-above-replacement (WAR) was more trustworthy. I saw very little of that; a much more common sight at the Marriott was a group of three or four men in their 60s or 70s, standing in a circle swapping stories and trivia questions about specific players and games they remembered from the 1960s. Much as I love modern statistical stuff, listening to old-timers reminisce about the ’65 Dodgers was a whole lot of fun, too.

F.U.N. For some reason I keep thinking about that time Peter Griffin spoke at a NAAFP meeting in Family Guy. That said, there were undoubtedly some worthwhile things discussed at the convention that, sadly, the Phillies won’t consider.

*It’s not lost on me that nuns, in theory, should be** the world’s largest consumer of sex toys and other manual stimulation props. I would think that by the time their late-50s roll around, they begin to look at wooden ladles with dark motives.

**And just like the Phillies “should be” subscribing to SABR theories but don’t, I’m guessing most nuns aren’t willing to take the risk of being seen in Spice2Nite.

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8 Responses

  1. Riley Cooper should give baseball a shot. Didn’t the phils draft him years ago?

  2. Well, at least Monty, Sarge and Brad were honest about their love for the dark ages of baseball. And I find that to be perfectly appropos because the Phillies have entered their own dark age, and they don’t figure to come out for the next decade or longer.

    By the by, that line in the beginning about nuns and sex toys was classic.

  3. Was enjoying the article right up until two ads started auto-playing videos, and refused to let me turn them off.

    Too.Much.Noise.

  4. Fuck Montgomery and Amaro and their old school mentality. They will never be successful playing like this. Just look at Delmon young. He posted a negative WAR last season and is doing it again this year. He’s actually making the team worse by playing every day because of how much he sucks. And we’re not even talking too much advanced stats. Last year Amaro talked about how the phillies need to alter their approach and to be more patient and have better at bats. And he goes out and gets Delmon, Michael Young and Ben Revere all of whom have below league average walk rates. What the F?

    And Kyle that point you brought up about “SABR nerds” predicting the downfall of Roy and the awful Howard contract is exactly why people use those stats: to predict future performance. People so quickly dismiss them and say, “What do you mean Ryan Vogelsong is a bad pitcher his ERA is under 3.00?” But the reality is those stats are more predictors of future performance rather than evaluations of past ones. But it’s good to know that the philles don’t even have a single person whose job it is monitor and understand these stats. I take great comfort in the fact that every writer and editor at fangraphs probably knows more about baseball than Ruben and can make better personnel decisions.

  5. Question for Dave Montgomery: In view of the Galvis, Ruiz, Bastardo, Romero suspensions, how’s that “We believe in character” strategy working out for you ?

  6. Believe it or not, I actually find this encouraging. Montgomery showed that the Phils give more regard to analytics than I anticipated. Still not enough, but still, more than I thought.

  7. *This* in particular infuriates me about the team the most. I am in the Brian Kenny camp. We have to wait for the OLD men in the front office to vacate.

  8. It was in Philly?!! Did anybody video tape it? Is there footage/links? It was never mentioned on MLB Network, I watch it everyday.

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