By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist
If the rumors are true, then be afraid.
Be very afraid.
If the Phillies are, in fact, considering Dusty Baker, Joe Girardi, Buck Showalter and – are you kidding me? —Mike Scioscia to be their manager next year, it’s over. Really, really, over. Over. Did I say it’s over?
John Middleton dipped his toe in the analytics pool a couple of years ago and apparently felt the water to be a bit too chilly to his liking. So he canned Gabe Kapler, neutered Matt Klentak, and, at least insofar as these four candidates suggest, decided to return to the soothing waters of the 1970s, where baseball managers spit and cursed, determined who would play by who they believed looked like a ballplayer, and -- like a blind man behind the wheel of a car -- navigated by feel. Welcome to your 2020 Phillies.
Obviously, Kapler was a disaster as a manager and Klentak hasn’t proven himself deserving of much deference at least based on the decisions we can trace to him, so it’s not as if Middleton should be faulted for stepping in and trying to right the ship. It’s just that these four managerial candidates, themselves, suggest that Middleton is itching to take his listing ship and submerge it completely, down into the icy depths where it’s going to take James Cameron to ever find it again.
I’m not sure Middleton understands this but analytics isn’t something one simply does or doesn’t do. If the information is out there only a fool, or Larry Bowa, would ignore it. The problem with the Klentak-era Phils thus far is that they haven’t been smart enough in understanding and implementing the massive amount of data that’s at their fingertips. Data that the four teams still playing are utilizing brilliantly right now.
For example, if one is determined, as Kapler was, to manage one’s pitching staff as though every game were the seventh game of the World Series, one’s staff better be deep enough to handle the amount of regular work the 11th and 12th men on the staff were inevitably going to get. Klentak, however, didn’t provide Kapler with such a staff and what weapons he did provide soon wound up on the injured list, leaving Kapler with a bullpen that looked like something that would have trouble getting outs in Reading. Still, Kapler entrusted game after game to the likes of Juan Nicasio, Ranger Suarez, and five other guys I’ve already forgotten. That’s not using analytics, that’s being flat-out stupid. So is throwing Vince Velasquez out there every fifth day in the futile hope that he’d magically transform into a pitcher who resembled somebody other than Vince Velasquez. And so is removing Aaron Nola in the fifth inning of a ballgame for no better reason than you think that a flowchart tells you to do so.
So blaming the last two years on “analytics,” pronouncing the entire affair a complete and utter failure, and ditching it altogether to consider a candidate such as Mike Scioscia, who takes to analytics the way boys take to showering after gym class, is a disservice to the way the game is being played -- quite successfully -- today. Baker, Girardi and Showalter aren’t perhaps as allergic to the information out there today as is Scioscia but none of them appear to have much of a mind to take that information and put it to its best possible use. In short, none of these four are a step forward. And Scioscia is a plunge into the deep end.
Kapler’s problem, and maybe Klentak’s as well, was that while he was amenable to the numbers, he didn’t appear to know what to do with them. By themselves, numbers are just that -- numbers. They don’t dictate anything. It’s only a nimble mind that can determine how to make sense of them and use them to win actual baseball games. Yes, the numbers show that batting averages today are typically higher the second and third time a starter goes through the order but what to make of that information is where the rubber meets the road. Do those numbers mandate, as Kapler blithely assumed, that starting pitchers needed to be yanked ever earlier, thereby ensuring copious innings in crucial situations by the bottom rungs of his pitching staff – those players who spend their careers floating between the bigs and the minors? Or might they suggest that the Aaron Nolas and Zach Eflins of the organization needed to work harder to vary their approaches early in games so they’d still have some surprises up their sleeves come the later innings? One could look at these numbers in countless different ways. One way would result in our seeing more of Nola and Eflin pitching in key spots in late innings; another would result in our seeing way too much of Suarez and Nicasio.
As it turned out, Kapler wasn’t capable of the type of analytic thinking that might make the Phillies better. Maybe Klentak isn’t either. But this doesn’t mean that the answer is Mike Scioscia. Or Dusty Baker. Or Joe Girardi. Or Buck Showalter.
The only way out of the mess the Phillies find themselves in right now is by using their brains to find a manager who knows how to use his. The Phillies need to think better, think different. Sadly, it appears as if John Middleton has decided they're better off not thinking at all.