BY PAUL MANCANO – I’m rather ashamed to admit that I have only recently picked up a copy of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game and begun reading it. As a lifelong baseball fan, I really should’ve jumped on this sooner, or at least before I saw the movie. But alas, I will always associate the tubby, gooberish character of Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill, with his thin, real-life counterpart, Paul Depodesta.
Moneyball’s protagonist,Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, was the first to incorporate the ideas and principles of Bill James’ sabermetrics into the front office of a baseball club. Along with Depodesta, Beane, played by superstar actor Brad Pitt (who probably knows less about baseball than my six-year-old cousin), has managed to put together a decade and a half of mostly successful teams with limited funds. His improbable success can be most accurately attributed to his use of “advanced baseball statistics.” There are some advanced calculations that Beane & Co. does in the book, like using baseball trajectories to determine how many runs Johnny Damon’s defense saved in 2001 given the trajectories of the balls he caught. But for the most part, the tenants of sabermetrics, at least at its core, are fairly simple to understand.
At any rate, the book is phenomenal, it’s everything I hoped it would be, it’s one of the best sports books I’ve ever read, yada yada yada, why am I bringing this up now?
Sometimes it’s fun to notice the differences in two unlike things, like comparing Dan Gilbert to someone with common sense, or comparing Dom Brown to a baseball player. Comparing Billy Beane to Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is just as fun, because the two could not be more different.
I’ve discovered, like so many other Phillies fans who’ve read the book, that Ruben Amaro Jr. has followed absolutely none of the keys to success Beane has laid out for him. None. Somebody literally wrote a straightforward guide to being an at least moderately successful general manager, and he’s ignored it. It’s like Amaro has tried to build a team without reading the instruction manual. It’s like he’s tried to build LEGO Star Wars’ Millennium Falcon without reading the tiny booklet that comes with it. It’s like he tried to bake a soufflé without even looking at the list of ingredients. I’m really making my grade school creative writing teacher proud with these half-assed analogies.
Any old blog could lay out all the ways Ruben has failed as a GM. But this ain’t not any old blog. We’ve got a freakin’ moose for a mascot. If that doesn’t make you go
…then you’re in the wrong place. We’re not gonna just lay out the ways in which he’s failed. We’re gonna lay out the ways in which he’s failed according to Billy Beane’s model. Starting with:
1. On-base and Slugging Percentages
Sabermetrics seek to answer the most important question of baseball statistics: where do runs come from? The imperfect but close answer is that runs come from getting on base and getting extra-base hits. Batting average is overrated because it doesn’t include walks. Runs batted in is overrated because it relies on other players being on base ahead of the batter. But on-base percentage and slugging percentage are pure, and they end up forming a pretty accurate answer to the run creation question. (I know what you’re thinking, but OPS, or on-base plus slugging, is not a true measurement of the combination of these two stats, as Depodesda discovered, so we’ll analyze each percentage separately.)
Centerfielder Ben Revere strikes me as the perfect example of how Ruben has ignored this principle by looking only at the primary statistics.
When the GM traded the Vanimal and Trevor May for Revere, Phils fans were optimistic. They saw what Ruben saw: a young, speedy outfielder with a .294 average and a knack for making spectacular catches. Well, it turns out the reason Revere makes so many of those catches is his inability to get an initial read on a fly ball. And that average? It’s not as great as it looks.
Currently, Revere is hitting .292. All year, he’s only drawn 10 walks in 83 games. That amounts to a .314 OBP, which is slightly below the league average. In comparison, the average major-leaguer is batting .251. For a guy who’s hitting over 40 points better than the typical major-leaguer, he shouldn’t have an on-base percentage that’s extremely mediocre.
Now let’s look at his slugging percentage. Revere is currently slugging .352, which is about 40 points below the major-league average. Of his 93 hits this season, he’s got just six doubles, five triples, and one homer – the first of his career. That means that 88% of his hits have been singles.
That’s absurd. Despite his high average, Revere contributes very little to the team offensively. He doesn’t get on base enough to be a leadoff man, and he has absolutely no power. His low slugging percentage comes from the fact that he rarely, if ever, drives a ball out of the infield. His speed gets him infield singles, but a speedster should be raking in the doubles and triples, even if he can’t hit a homer to save his life.
In looking at Revere, it’s clear Ruben didn’t look far past the average. He ignored the secondary statistics—the warning signs that Revere wouldn’t be a run creator.
As a whole, the Phillies rank 27th in the league in on-base percentage at .302, and 28th in the league in slugging percentage at .362. Meanwhile, Billy Beane’s A’s rank fifth and eighth in those categories, respectively. They also are first in all of baseball in terms of runs per game with exactly five. The Phils are 26th with 3.77.
Ruben’s first Dumbyball failure is the most elemental. If you don’t get on base, you can’t create runs, simple as that. The biggest knock on this team is its lack of offensive production. People will always point to the fact that the Phillies don’t hit with runners on-base, but the truth is, the Phillies don’t hit at all.
Stay tuned for next week’s edition of Dumbyball, when we’ll be comparing the Phillies’ payroll to Lane Johnson’s dinner receipt.