2017 Phillies: Analyze this

Dallas Green

Dallas Green, who died last week at 82, won 20 games as a major league pitcher, all for the Phillies, but 169 games as their manager, and their first World Series championship. Green wasn’t renowned for his tactics — it was in that decade that Bill James, if memory serves, wrote an essay in his Baseball Abstract that any playback manager knew better than to bat Manny Trillo second, which Green sometimes did — but for his motivation. He took over the team in 1979 when Danny Ozark, who had won division titles three straight years but was 2-9 in the NLCS, was fired. Green’s Phillies were 55-50 and four-and-a-half out of first place in early August of the next year when they lost the opener of a doubleheader to the Pirates, 7-1. Between games, Green berated his team as the media listened outside the locker room, the doors, like thin apartment walls, not quite soundproof. From phily.com, which reprinted a story last week from the day after Green’s tantrum: ” ‘This bleeping game isn’t easy,’ Green bellowed. ‘It’s tough, especially when you have injuries. But you guys (have) got your bleeping heads down. You’ve gotta stop being so bleeping cool. Get that through your bleeping heads. If you don’t, you’ll get so bleeping buried, it ain’t gonna be funny. Get the bleep off your asses … and just be the way you can be because you’re a good bleeping baseball team. But you’re not now and you can’t look in the bleeping mirror and tell me you are. You tell me you can do it but you bleeping give up. If you don’t want to bleeping play, get the bleep in that (manager’s) office and bleeping tell me because I don’t want to bleeping play you.’ ” Thusly inspired, the Phillies went out and lost the bleeping nightcap, too, to fall to 55-52 and six games out. But from there, the Phillies went 36-19 and won the N.L. East by a game (the same article said “The Phillies have about as much chance of winning the National League East as Ted Kennedy has of stealing the Democratic nomination away from Jimmy Carter.” The Phillies fared a little better in 1980 than did Ted, who didn’t even get a wild card.) They beat the Astros, 3-2, in what still might be the greatest NLCS — the final four games all went extra innings, and facing elimination, the Phillies rallied with three runs in the eighth inning of Game 4 and five runs in the eighth inning of Game 5, only to lose the lead each time and win in the 10th inning. By contrast, the six-game World Series win over the Royals seemed anti-climatic but wasn’t thanks to Tug McGraw, who loaded the bases the last three innings he pitched, and Pete Rose, who snagged a Frank White popup that Bob Boone dropped. Green went to the Cubs shortly after as GM and built their 1984 division winner, thanks to what he knew of the Phillies. Green acquired Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg from the Phillies in an otherwise pedestrian exchange of shortstops, and Sandberg won the 1984 NL MVP (the Phillies also traded away the 1984 AL MVP in Tigers relief pitcher Willie Hernandez). Green later managed both New York teams, the Yankees for three-quarters of a season in 1989 and the Mets for parts of four non-winning seasons from 1993-96 in which they were 229-283. His Mets tenure led to one of the Philadelphia Daily News’ great headlines: Dallas in Blunderland. As a pitcher, Green was a pretty good prospect — for the executive side. His best season was 1963, when he was 7-5 with two saves and a 3.23 ERA. He was on the ill-fated ’64 Phillies for parts of the season, with a demotion to the minors in between. Career numbers: 20-22, 4.26 ERA, 185 games, 12 complete games, four saves, 2 shutouts, 562.1 innings, 647 hits, 197 walks, 268 strikeouts, 88 ERA+, 3.79 FIP, .768 OPS against, 2.3 WAR, 454-478 record as manager, 169-130 as Phillies manager, 9-7 in the postseason.

Up next: The Phillies top prospect is the same this year as last year, which is enough to indicate caution. J.P. Crawford didn’t make the majors in 2016 as it was thought he might, because he didn’t fare well at AAA. Crawford batted .244 in 87 games at AAA and slugged just .318 — a number that would make Larry Bowa seem like a middle-of-the-order hitter. Crawford can walk — 72 of them last year salvaged a .349 on-base percentage — but if that’s all he can do (he’s a below-average base stealer), the Phillies will have to confront the idea that Freddy Galvis is a better player. That won’t do much for the spirit of their rebuild.

What he said: “If I was mentoring Maikel Franco right now, I would say, ‘Son, we’re going to be the MVP. And nothing is going to stop us but an injury,'” Mike Schmidt on third baseman Maikel Franco. What he meant: “It’ll take about 30 or 40 injuries — to everyone better than him — for Franco to be MVP.”

Outlook: If you want to know who won the ideological battle between sabermetricians and scouts, look at the Phillies. Among the last team to integrate and analyze, they now have an analytics department that has more depth than their 40-man roster.

The Phillies have come a long way from the time GM Ruben Amaro said he didn’t care about walks. Amaro graduated from Stanford — he was an outfielder on the 1987 team which won the College World Series — but whatever he learned there, it had nothing to do with on-base percentage.

Amaro’s replacement as GM, Matt Klentak, is Dartmouth educated and schooled on analytics. One of his first steps was to modernize a front office that was ranked No. 122 and dead last of pro teams in 2015 by ESPN in its embrace of analytics. “The Phillies famously disdain analytics: GM Ruben Amaro bragged in 2010 that his team is ‘not a statistics-driven organization by any means,’ ” wrote ESPN.com, “and would likely never have ‘an in-house stats guy.’ Emblematic of their innumeracy, the Phils then signed Ryan Howard, already under contract for two more years, to a five-year, $125 million extension.”

That’s how you wind up spending $125 million for -4.1 of WAR, which the Phillies did for Howard. A torn Achilles’ tendon didn’t help, but whatever chance there was to maintain the dominance of the 2008 World Series champions, 2009 World Series runner-up and 2007-11 NL East champions disappeared with the front office’s arrogant dismissal of modernity. With Amaro’s clairvoyance, he would have told a newspaper publisher a generation ago not to worry about the Internet because it was a fad which would pass.

The Phillies begin their second season under Klentak’s stewardship having won 71 games in the first. But don’t be deceived — they weren’t that good.

The 2016 Phillies were outscored by an MLB-worst 186 runs, scored an MLB-low 610 runs, gave up a nearly MLB-worst 796 (they were 26th) but were 20th in fielding percentage. Years ago Texas A&M had a basketball player with a report card like that. After earning four Fs and one D, said player was told by his coach Shelby Metcalf, “Son, looks to me like you’re spending too much time on one subject.”

The Phillies were a 100-loss team in 2016 that lost 91, which could have been the work of manager Pete Mackanin or it could have been dumb luck. The Phillies were 28-23 in one-run games and 10-34 in five-run-or-more games, so maybe it was a little of both.

Given that, some recession might be in order for 2017, which would mean a fifth straight season of 89 losses or more for a fan base that has no more patience than Amaro had faith in analytics. Phillies fans have to wonder how many years does it take to rebuild and how many years can they be expected to patiently wait for the rebuild to be finished?

It’s a good question for a team which has depth in prospects but projects few stars and collects expiring contracts and potential midseason trade targets the way the town’s basketball team has second-round draft picks.

That’s sound, but begs the question of what they’ll do with them? Collect more C level prospects for a locker room already full of them?

There are already questions about the prospects the Phillies do have. Outfielder Nick Williams, part of the return for pitcher Cole Hamels, hit just .258, walked 19 times and fanned 136 in AAA. Amaro may not care about walks, but Klentak does, and the Phillies thought Williams’ attitude was no better than his appreciation of the strike zone. Williams is just 23, but there’s a gap, either in maturity, performance or both, between him and a competent major league outfielder.

Catcher Jorge Alfaro is 23, hit .285 in Reading last year and was promoted for 17 big-league at-bats, but walked just 22 times in AA and fanned 105. He too came for Hamels in a trade completed by Amaro shortly before his firing, almost stubbornly to prove he still didn’t care about walks. It’s fair to wonder if those are the prospects Klentak would have wanted.

That’s not to say Amaro made a bad trade or that Williams and/or Alfaro won’t be good major league players. They still may. But the Phillies have a farm system loaded in quantity and short on top quality. Even when they had the No. 1 pick in the draft last June, there was no consensus No. 1, as there was for the Nationals when they took Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper, and the Phillies’ choice, 18-year-old Mickey Moniak, hit just one home run in his first 194 plate appearances.

He, too, may develop, but perhaps not without flaws, and the Phillies may learn the hard way that all the average prospects don’t make a star-studded lineup and multiple innings-eating starting pitchers don’t make an ace.

Team song: Talking Heads: The Overload

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