Picture this: It is November 2008. The Philadelphia Phillies (the Philadelphia Phillies!) are the toast of the town. They have silenced the Eagles chants that used to drift through the stands like beachballs on stifling late summer afternoons. They have brought to the tortured Philadelphia sports fan the championship that improbably eluded all four major sports franchises for 25 long years. Their jewel of a ballpark will be stuffed to the bleachers for the foreseeable future with sellout crowds full of casual fans, pink-hatted girls and kids wearing Hamels jerseys. They have achieved the very rare feat of stocking their beloved roster primarily with elite players that they drafted and developed themselves. They are the World Fucking Champions. They are regularly referred to as one of the juggernaut franchises of major league baseball, along with the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers. Pat Gillick, the longtime baseball wizard and architect of the early ’90s Blue Jays and the General Manager who put the finishing touches on a core assembled by the much-reviled Ed Wade, has just handed the reins of this suddenly elite franchise to the dashing second-in-command, former major leaguer and longtime Phillies office-hand Ruben Amaro, Jr. I went to dozens of Phillies games in 2007 and 2008, and there was indeed no better time to be an obsessive fan.
Those days, when you could bike down 10th street and hear the roar of the sellout crowd from Oregon Street an hour before the game, seem increasingly remote. In case you hadn’t noticed, the Phillies are kind of bad. And as the Phillies owners and fans ponder the seemingly shocking implosion of the team and the bleak future that awaits them over at least the next few years, they should look no further than the disastrous moment when Amaro was given total control over the decision-making following the 2008 world championship. Within four short years, Amaro took a club that was minting money, whose farm system was consistently ranked among the best in the game, and whose major league team was the undisputed king of the National East, and turned it into a hot, expensive mess that will almost certainly spend the next several years looking up at the rest of the division.
This is how it happened.
Ignore The Metrics
Pat Gillick was an old school baseball man (and Hall of Famer), one of the last successful executives who genuinely didn’t give a shit about Moneyball and OPS and xFIP and all of the other advanced metrics that have revolutionized baseball management. Gillick put together the Blue Jays team that dominated the AL East in the late ’80s and early ’90s and won two straight titles in 1992 and 1993. It might be a coincidence, but Jack Morris, one of the most polarizing players for Hall of Fame voters, played for Gillick’s back-to-back World Champion ’92-’93 Blue Jays. Advanced metrics of the sort Ruben Amaro never looks at indicate that Morris was barely a league average pitcher most years, and benefitted from playing on good clubs like the ’84 Tigers, ’91 Twins and the Jays. But Morris is beloved by traditionalists who look at his win totals (254) and his post-season heroics (mostly his thrilling 10-inning, 1-0 Game 7 victory over the Atlanta Braves in the ’91 World Series) and make vague assertions about how he was “feared” by opponents and did things like “pitching to the score” — yielding runs in games where his team was way out in front but locking it down in close games. Statisticians have looked into these kinds of claims over and over again and found absolutely no evidence for them, but the old school guys, they don’t care. They know what they saw. Like Dick Morris and the GOP pundit class on the eve of the 2012 election, they don’t want a bunch of punk-ass numbers crunchers using fancy math to attack their cherished notions.
Gillick brought the Phillies a championship, but his success was fueled largely by a core drafted by the Wade regime, and the good fortune of picking up castoff outfielders Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth, both of whom were tossed away by their teams and both of whom would play key roles on the ’08 championship team. Those moves helped mask the reality that his tenure was punctuated by some pretty terrible decisions, one of which still haunts the team today. The first was trading Gio Gonzalez and Gavin Floyd to the Chicago White Sox after the 2006 season in return for Freddie Garcia, a former flamethrower whose lucky 17 wins in ’06 masked declining velocity and effectiveness. Garcia would pitch in just 11 games for the Phillies, going 1-5 with a 5.90 ERA before getting hurt. Gonzalez has blossomed into a top-of-the-rotation starter and even Floyd won 70 games for the White Sox before blowing out his elbow this year. In that same offseason, Gillick bestowed a 3-year, $24.5 million contract on a pitcher named Adam Eaton, who had been drafted by the Phillies as a first-rounder in 1996 but had been a below league-average performer for most of his career and was coming off a season in Texas where he put up a well-deserved 5.13 ERA. The signing was met with shock and ridicule across the industry even before Eaton turned in a historically awful 2007 season for the Phillies, in which he compiled a 6.29 ERA across 30 starts. Eaton was left off the 2007 and 2008 playoff rosters and mercifully released before the 2009 season, with the team eating the $7 million and change still owed to him in 2009.
In any case, Gillick’s Phillies won a ring, and so Eaton and Garcia were erased from history amidst the good feelings and general revelry. Ruben Amaro, Jr. inherited Gillick’s team and his vision for baseball success without any of his apparent good fortune. Almost immediately Amaro set about handing out contracts that would eventually blow up in his face and which were met with facepalms in the analyst community. There were two essential elements to any Ruben Amaro signing: the player would be on the wrong end of baseball’s well-known aging curve, and the player would also fare poorly in evaluations using advanced fielding metrics, or even basic statistical analyses that looked at things like platoon splits. Of course, the team Amaro inherited was not without its flaws — the ’08 Phillies were a good ballclub, but they are never going to make anyone’s list of the decade’s best teams. The champs were an offensive juggernaut, but they lacked pitching depth beyond their homegrown ace, Cole Hamels. Their second-best starter in ’08 was 45-year-old Jamie Moyer, who was a great example of a guy the Phillies should have allowed to walk away but instead signed to a truly demented 2-year, $15 million extension.
But most of all the Phillies had a gaping hole in left field. Team evaluators (correctly, it must be noted) surmised that incumbent left-fielder Pat Burrell — another homegrown talent and fan favorite who led the delirious ’08 championship parade down Broad Street driving a pair of Clydsedales — was a statue in left who didn’t have much left in the tank, and let him walk away to Tampa Bay, the team the Phillies had just vanquished in the Series. The team had no internal options and turned instead to the free agent market, and to Raul Ibanez. Ibanez, who also quickly became a fan favorite when he began the ’09 season on a mortal roll, was a Seattle outfielder and a late bloomer who had just put up a sensational offensive season for the Mariners, hitting 23 homers and driving in 110. But Ibanez would play the ’09 season at age 37, and to say that evaluators were skeptical of his defense would be a world-historical understatement. But Amaro shocked the industry (this would become an unfortunate pattern) by giving the aging Ibanez a 3-year contract worth $30 million. ESPN’s blunt analyst Keith Law (a former front office assistant for the JP Ricciardi regime in Toronto) called the move “absurd” and argued that “by 2011, there's a good chance Ibanez will be just an albatross, both financially and defensively.”
Amazingly, the ’09 team went to the World Series, with a big assist from Amaro’s one genuine stroke of genius as GM — the midseason acquisition of Cleveland lefthanded pitcher Cliff Lee for a package of four prospects that have never amounted to anything for the hapless Indians. Lee was coming off one of the greatest pitching campaigns in modern history, having gone 22-3 for the 2008 Indians, winning the Cy Young and leading the league in both traditional and advanced metrics. Lee went 7-4 for the Phillies, who were adrift at the time of acquisition, and led them all the way to the NL Pennant and to a heroic but doomed quest to beat the Yankees — a much better team — in the Series. Lee was 4-0 in the ’09 postseason and secured both of the Phillies victories in their 6-game loss to the Yankees.
And so obviously Amaro figured that the thing to do with this pitching machine who caused women to swoon across the mid-Atlantic and who had almost single-handedly led the Phillies to the doorstep of another championship, was to flip him to the Seattle Mariners for a package of four prospects that, in almost the mirror image of his heist of the Indians, have never amounted to a damn thing. Rival GMs complained that Amaro hadn’t even properly shopped his ace. The ostensible reason for Amaro’s dumping of Cliff Lee was that he had just made another big splashy trade, this time for Toronto Blue Jays’ ace righthander Roy Halladay — an iron man who at the time was probably the consensus best pitcher in baseball. Acquiring Halladay’s services cost the Phillies most of their top prospects, including flamethrowing pitcher Kyle Drabek and catcher Travis d’Arnaud. For a few brief days it seemed the Phillies might spend 2010 running one of the greatest rotations of all time out onto the field. But Amaro, deciding he had to restock the farm system after acquiring Halladay, traded Lee for a package that was immediately regarded by analysts, as completely devoid of elite talent, which it has since proven to be. And while no one from the package the Phillies sent to Toronto has had much of an impact in the majors either, at least they were highly regarded.
Howard the (Lame) Duck
For most of his tenure, Amaro has seemed to take great joy in confounding the community of statistical analysts that continues to ridicule his every move. He is part of a long-running battle between traditionalists and a group of writers and enthusiasts known as sabermetricians, or “statheads”, brought most vividly to life by Michael Lewis’s 2003 bestseller Moneyball, which chronicled the success of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane. In Moneyball, Lewis detailed how the A’s had supposedly turned themselves into a juggernaut by finding nuggets of value in facets of the game that were largely ignored by traditionalists and traditional statistics. For instance, Beane and the A’s believed that other teams did not correctly value players got on base a lot via walks. After all, the runs scored by players who draw walks count the same as those scored by players who hit infield singles. But traditionalists viewed these kinds of players as one-dimensional. Beane, though was hardly a trailblazer and was largely following a playbook written by the pioneering analyst Bill James and forced on him by financial necessity. Beane had support from a community of writers who, since the mid-1990s had been yelling into chasms about how many common ways of measuring player value — things like the Run Batted In (RBI), the pitcher Win, and batting average — were actually terrible ways of evaluating a player’s real contribution to team victories. A batter’s RBI totals, for instance, were highly dependent on runners being on base for them in the first place — something that players obviously can’t control. Even batting averages — the way you win baseball’s hallowed “batting title” every year — they argued, were frequently driven by short-term and largely random variation in luck on the placement of batted balls. Some even argued that beloved baseball strategies like bunting were mostly worthless maneuvers outside of a small number of situations, and they backed these assertions up with thousands of data points across baseball’s rich history.
These writers, who had their own blogs, or who later wrote for online outfits like Baseball Prospectus (where subsequent New York Times wunderkind Nate Silver got his start in writing) developed new metrics of player performance — things with weird acronyms like WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and FIP (Fielding-Independent Pitching) and BABiP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) that over a period of many years they have managed to heroically introduce into a public discourse that was thoroughly fixated on the traditional stats.It should be noted that a lot of these writers are brash, and a few of them are annoying (former ESPN columnist Rob Neyer once infamously attacked Willie Stargell’s career in a column days after the Pittsburgh legend died), but most of all they are relentless. If baseball were an authoritarian country, someone in Kansas City would long ago have capped Rany Jazayerli, a blogger who has spent the better part of two decades eloquently savaging the strategies of the team’s ownership in 3,000-word blog posts– whose front office still appears to be a bastion of traditionalist thinking in a market that desperately cries out for visionary management. But a funny thing happened — over time these once-crazy ideas were accepted by a number of front offices as the new received wisdom. Owners started hiring young eggheads like Tampa Bay’s Andrew Friedman and Boston’s Theo Epstein to run their teams– guys who had never played ball professionally and who were obviously viewed with deep suspicion by the traditionalists. They didn’t all succeed, but by 2010, even the writers — long dominated by staunch traditionalists — gave the Cy Young to Seattle’s Felix Hernandez, the darling of the sabermetrics crowd who had won only 13 games in the regular season but who clearly would have won many more games with better run support.
In Philly though, it might as well be 1980. The team is allegedly one of the last in the sport not to employ a full-time statistical analyst (I say ‘allegedly’ because the Phillies front office is a Stalin-era informational black box and because no one seems to know for sure). And from the moment Amaro took office, it showed that he and his team had learned basically nothing from decades of baseball research. Nothing epitomized this head-in-the-sand attitude better than the truly disastrous contract extension given to slugger Ryan Howard early in the 2010 season. Howard was actually one of the team’s great success stories — drafted in the fifth round by the legendary scouting department led by Mike Arbuckle in 2001, Howard slugged his way through the minors and forced the Phillies to dump veteran first-baseman and future Hall of Famer Jim Thome, who had been their big, splashy free agent acquisition in 2003. After winning the Rookie of the Year award in 2005 by slugging 22 homers in barely half a season, Howard unleashed holy hell on the National League in ’06, hitting 58 homers, driving in 149 and winning the MVP. He followed that up by hitting 47, 48 and 45 homers the next three seasons. Also: Ryan Howard is a genuinely nice guy, with a million-dollar smile, who never complains, plays his ass off and helped bring this town a championship. There is no question that Ryan Howard in his prime was a valuable player, and frankly you’d have to be kind of a dick to have watched him play in those days and not enjoyed it. If I ever see Ryan Howard in a bar, his drinks are on me, because he helped bring me what remains the only moment of genuine joy I’ve ever had as a Philadelphia sports fan.
But his graceful moonshots and his RBI totals masked serious weaknesses that analysts had been harping on ever since his hotly-disputed MVP win over Cardinals first-baseman Albert Pujols in 2006. The first and most obvious and most important is that Ryan Howard can’t hit lefties worth a lick. You can be forgiven for not understanding this, because in his MVP season of 2006, he was actually terrific against lefties, sporting an OPS+ (a combination on-base percentage and slugging percentage adjusted for the effects of home ballparks and other league players at that position. The league average player has an OPS+ of 100 and each 10 points above or below represents a 10% increase or decrease in production from the league average. An OPS of 110 is solid; 130 is an All-Star) of 156 against them and slugging 16 homers. He wasn’t as good as he was against righties, but he was good. But things went south from there. In ’07 he hit .225 against lefties. In ’08 it was .224. I think you get the picture. To date, over nearly 1,700 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers, Ryan Howard has hit .224 and compiled an OPS+ of 62. To give you an idea of how bad this is, shortstop Mario Mendoza, who is the kind of legend that you don’t want to be and who is widely regarded (perhaps unfairly) as the worst major league baseball player of all time, had his best season in 1980, hitting .245 with a .286 OPB and 2 homers in 305 plate appearances. His OPS+ that year? 63. Ryan Howard is not merely bad against lefties — he is unplayable. The funny thing is, you don’t need Keith Law or Rany Jazeryeli or Nate Silver to tell you that Ryan Howard can’t hit left-handed pitchers. This is freely available basic baseball knowledge of the sort that has been compiled since Cleveland had a baseball team called The Spiders and William McKinley was president.
You could also see this if you actually watched the games, because teams started employing a radical shift against Howard — when he came to the plate, teams would move their shortstop to a position where the second baseman would normally be, their third baseman to a shortstop position close to second, their second baseman to a deep first base, and the first baseman up the line from the bag. It was like a hockey team pulling the goalie. Because Howard so frequently and relentlessly banged batted balls to the right side of the field, teams were able to rob him of dozens of hits, particularly because he simply never adjusted to the shift. I watched a lot of Phillies games in those years, and it grew enormously frustrating that Howard could not be bothered to hit the ball to the opposite field or even to drop the occasional bunt down the third base line. It wouldn’t have taken much to stop teams from doing this.
But other harbingers of Howard’s doom were not so apparent to the naked eye. New defensive metrics developed by analysts, things with names like UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating, which looks at how many batted balls a fielder reaches, rather than at how many of the ones he gets to that he fields cleanly, like the traditional statistic of fielding percentage) also took a dimmer view of Howard’s contributions on the field. Savvy analysts now view a player’s contribution to his team’s bottom line holistically — the sum of his offensive and defensive contributions. While there is some disagreement between the leading defensive metrics, the verdict is unequivocal: Ryan Howard was, even in his prime, a bad defensive first baseman, who routinely cost his team runs on defense and who was unlikely to ever improve. Over the course of his career, Ryan Howard’s defensive Wins Above Replacement is -11.8. You don’t need to understand the fancy math that goes into calculating dWAR to understand this: Howard has cost his team nearly 12 wins on defense alone above and beyond what you might expect from a warm Darin Ruf-like body fished out of Lehigh Valley. And beyond defense, there is the very simple matter of aging — baseball players typically peak in terms of performance between ages 26 and 30 and then go into decline, sometimes precipitously, sometimes slowly, but with very few exceptions. Howard was 29 when he signed his extension — at the tail end of his peak. He is a big man, precisely the kind of lumbering corner infielder — like Cecil Fielder or Mo Vaughn — likely to suffer a big injury in his early 30s and to never really recover from it.
But in Amaroworld, the only relevant facts were the home runs and the RBIs, and in the spring of 2010, Amaro once again created chaos in front offices across the land by signing Howard to a contract extension for 5 years and $125 million — an extension that wouldn’t even kick in until the 2012 season, with Howard already under contract for 2010 and 2011. This act of fiscal lunacy and franchise suicide made Howard the highest-paid first baseman in baseball with a contract that would only begin after he had turned 31 — the age that most players begin going into terminal decline. The decision was astounding not just because Howard’s weaknesses were well known in the analyst community, but also because Amaro was negotiating against himself for a player he already had under contract for two more seasons and didn’t even get a discount. And it threatened to cripple the Phillies for years if Howard aged the way most similar players have aged in the past. Traditional writers, especially those who wrote for Philly-based outlets, defended the move as a wise investment in a “proven run producer.” In a column that didn’t cite a single advanced metric and laughably compared Howard favorably to Albert Pujols, Inquirer beat writer Bob Brookover lauded the contract, saying that Howard “has a chance to continue to get better as a hitter.” ESPN columnist and longtime Inquirer writer Jayson Stark asked, “if the Phillies waved goodbye to Howard, how exactly were they going to replace him?” Meanwhile, the analyst community went ballistic. Keith Law wrote that the contract “made me laugh when I first heard about it.” ESPN’s Dan Syzmborski, who designed one of the pioneering player projection systems, called ZiPS, wrote that the deal was “an enormous risk” — and that was with projections that turned out to be crazy-optimistic. For instance, when the deal was signed Szymborski’s system predicted that Howard would hit .257 with 40 homers and 133 RBIs in 2013. Wouldn’t that be nice? Needless to say, the analyst community has had the last laugh on this one.
But for almost two years, it almost looked like Amaro was going to get away with his bad decision-making. In spite of spinning Cliff Lee away to the Mariners, the 2010 Phillies were even better than the ’09 version. Roy Halladay won the Cy Young by throwing 4 shutouts and winning 21 games, and Cole Hamels recovered from a rocky 2009 to post the best ERA of his young career. In one of his signature deadline deals, Amaro acquired Houston righthander Roy Oswalt from the Astros for pitcher JA Happ and prospects Anthony Gose and Jonathan Villar. Oswalt finished the year on a roll, going 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA. The Phillies won 97 games, and for the first time in their playoff run, they ran away with the division, finishing six full games ahead of the Braves. The Phillies routed the Reds in the first round of the playoffs, but then fell unexpectedly to the San Francisco Giants — the eventual World Champs — in 6 games. In a sad harbinger of things to come, Ryan Howard ended the Phillies playoff run with runners on first and second by looking at a called third strike from Giants’ closer Brian Wilson. But hey, as every stathead will tell you, the baseball playoffs are a statistical crapshoot, and the Phillies just happened to roll snake-eyes.
The Peak Before the Valley
After the 2010 season, Amaro and his team could still feel pretty good about what they had done --- the team had increased its win total in both 2009 and 2010 and looked primed for a long run atop the National League East. The Mets were in disarray, the Marlins were still a year away from opening their new stadium, and the Braves had fallen far from their glory days of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Only the Nationals really seemed like a serious threat at the time, as they were stockpiling early draft picks as a result of their dreadful regular season campaigns in 2008, 2009 and 2010. The following season, 2011, was therefore the apogee of the Phillies’ run and also the year that demonstrated the ultimate limits of Amaroism. By the end of 2010, the Ibanez contract was indeed looking like the albatross that Law and many others said it was going to be. After a scorching first half in 2009, Ibanez suffered a sports hernia, tailed off during the second half and slumped to 16 homers and 83 RBIs in 2010. He also suffered from a pronounced and predictable platoon split that saw him drop to an 83 OPS+ against lefties. This is nothing for Ibanez — a seasoned professional whose career should be respected and admired — to hang his head about. He was simply getting old. And he wasn’t the only one. Before the 2010 season, Amaro had signed aging infielder Placido Polanco to fill the void left by third baseman Pedro Feliz, giving him a 3-year, $18 million contract. Polanco, a former Phillie once sent to Detroit in an ill-fated trade for attempted axe-murderer Ugueth Urbina, was a nice player in his prime, but by the time he joined the Phillies he was in the midst of a 3-year decline that had taken his offensive production below replacement level. The Phillies were once again banking on a player reproducing his glory years in the decline phase of his career. Needless to say, Polanco did not produce as anticipated.
Almost on cue, Amaro wiped away the winter gloom with one stroke of his pen. Cliff Lee, only just exiled to the Mariners and then to the Rangers in a midseason trade, was a free agent. The Phillies lurked at the edges of the negotiations until the last moment and then swooped in. Lee loved his time in Philadelphia, had been blindsided by the trade that sent him to Seattle after the 2009 season and harbored a not-so-secret desire to return. With a generous helping of Phillies glory-years cash, Lee was enticed back to Philadelphia on a 5-year, $120 million contract that made him one of the richest players in the game. The team finally had Lee, Halladay and Hamels together, as well as Oswalt and the quickly aging core of the ’08 championship squad — Howard, second baseman Chase Utley, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, catcher Carlos “Chooch” Ruiz and centerfielder Shane Victorino. Even the analysts loved this signing, since Lee was more of a finesse lefty who could stand to lose some fastball velocity without completely torpedoing his game.
And the team didn’t disappoint — the Phillies stormed out of the gate and never looked back, obliterating the division on their way to a 102-60 regular season record, without question one of the two or three greatest regular seasons in 100-plus years of largely desultory Phillies baseball. Halladay and Lee were unbeatable. Howard’s numbers were down, but not so much (yet) that he was a liability. The team’s only flaw was a lack of right-handed power, and in July, Amaro made yet another trade with soon-to-be-deposed Houston GM Ed Wade, acquiring rightfielder Hunter Pence for what remained of the Phillies farm system — headlined by first baseman Jonathan Singleton and pitcher Jared Cosart, both highly regarded prospects who are now considered integral parts of the Astros’ future. They were considered a steep price to pay, but Pence tore up National League pitching upon arriving in Philly, and the team seemed unbeatable heading into October. Even then, though, a wiser GM might have looked at the Phillies insurmountable lead in the NL East, and the basic randomness of the MLB playoffs, and hoarded that talent for another day. But Singleton was expendable in the wake of the Howard contract, and boy did the scrappy Pence look neato in a Phillies uniform.
In the final series of the regular season, the Phillies swept the Atlanta Braves out of the playoffs, long after the Phillies had absolutely nothing to play for. It was a very Bill Belichick, New England Patriots boot-on-your-neck statement, and it allowed the St. Louis Cardinals to slip into the playoffs as the wild card and wouldn’t you know it, as the Phillies first round opponent in the National League Division Series. And therefore the final series of the 2011 regular season has been just about the last good thing to happen to the Philadelphia Phillies since. The Cardinals, almost an afterthought in the playoffs, took the Phillies to five games, with St. Louis ace and postseason hero Chris Carpenter matched up against Cy Young award winner Roy Halladay. But it was Carpenter who pitched a shutout, as the Cards scratched out a run against Halladay. On the final play of the season, and what will always be thought of as the final play of this Phillies team’s playoff run, Ryan Howard grounded out weakly and tore his Achilles tendon on the way to first base. He would miss the first three months of the 2012 campaign, the first year of his 5-year, $125 million extension, and by all indications, he will never ever be the same.
…And the Wheels Come Off
There was certainly an atmosphere of doom during the 2011 offseason. That Phillies team was meant to win it all. Amaro knew it. The fans knew it. But some cold realities of Amaro’s tenure were starting to set in. Amaro was like a losing gambler making ever-bigger wagers to cover his losses. Because of all the deadline deals, and particularly because Amaro got nothing back when he traded Cliff Lee to the Mariners, the team was suddenly devoid of high-end talent at the upper levels of the minor leagues, meaning that the major league team was dangerously thin and lacking reinforcements. They had sacrificed first-round draft picks under baseball’s rules by signing Raul Ibanez, Jonathan Papelbon and Cliff Lee, and had picked late in drafts anyway because of their impressive finishes from 2007 to 2011. Polanco was at this point a hollow shell of the player he once was. Chase Utley, a grinder who was the most valuable player on the team and perhaps the second most valuable player in the whole National League from 2006 to 2010, had missed the beginning of the 2011 season with knee troubles that would rob him of several months in 2012 as well. Howard was out, perhaps until late June. The anemic offense that showed up for the Cardinals series in October 2011 was what the Phillies were stuck with in 2012 too.
Amaro, though, instead of addressing the team’s offensive shortcomings or dangerous lack of bench depth, decided that the team’s biggest issue was at closer. He let incumbent closer Ryan Madson walk away to the Reds (Madson would blow out his elbow that spring), instead targeting Boston Red Sox flamethrower Jonathan Papelbon, and signed him to a shocking 4 year, $50 million contract. Papelbon was a solid reliever, but Amaro’s decision-making here once again ran afoul of the findings of baseball research, which indicated that teams overpaid wildly for closers, who tended to flame out after a few years, and furthermore, that the save statistic had warped the strategy of field managers, who let pitchers like Papelbon come in with no runners on base and two or three-run leads in the 9th inning and earn a ‘save.’ The trouble was that statistically, teams tended to win more or less the same number of games that they led entering the 9th inning no matter who was pitching. Paying closers, who pitched 50 or 60 innings a year, as if they were elite starting pitchers who tossed 200 or 250 high-value innings, was a form of madness foisted up baseball by the save statistic itself. Papelbon was also — you guessed it — on the wrong side of 30, with a lot of mileage on his arm. And I don’t think I need to bore you with the predictably hostile reaction of the analyst community to this signing.
With Papelbon on board, the Phillies were an extremely expensive team. Unfortunately, they were not an especially good one. With Utley and Howard sidelined, the team struggled to scrape runs together, an inversion of their 2008 championship formula. Cliff Lee stumbled out the gate and, victimized by non-existent run support, turned in one of the more improbable seasons in baseball history, going 7-9 with the peripheral statistics of an 18-game winner. When Howard returned in June, he was a pale shadow of his MVP self, and hit just .219 the rest of the way, his platoon splits worse than ever. You only needed to watch a few games of Phillies baseball in 2012 to see that Howard had gotten old, fast, and that the franchise was in serious trouble as a result. Utley returned but also looked like his best days were behind him, and even shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who had been re-signed to a 3-year deal before the season, looked increasingly league average. By the All-Star Break, the Phillies were listing badly, and in a rare admission of defeat at the deadline, Amaro spun Pence and Victorino off to contenders in exchange for some pretty marginal prospects. An August hot streak fell short, and the Phillies finished the season at 81-81, a massive, $170 million disappointment. The team even dangled Cliff Lee during August, putting him through waivers only to mysteriously pull him back.
If Philles brass was uncomfortable with the direction Amaro had taken the team, they gave no indication of it publicly. Prognosticators gave the Phillies little chance to unseat the reigning division champions, the Washington Nationals, or even the Atlanta Braves, who won the 2012 wild card, but in Amaroland, the Phillies were just a few breaks away from another run to the championship. Amaro tinkered with the roster around the edges but made no major moves. He traded for Texas Rangers’ third baseman Michael Young to replace Polanco, whose contract mercifully expired after the 2012 season. Young was, it is important to note, considered by most statistical analysts to be close to the single worst position player of the 2012 season, with his combination of declining offense and singularly terrible defense. To Amaro, though, Young was a proven run producer who would give the Phillies a dynamic infield offense. If anything, the disconnect between objective analysts and the Amaro front office was more pronounced than ever.
The Young acquisition wasn’t his only move, though. For years Amaro managed not to really say anything that betrayed the depths of his misunderstanding of contemporary baseball — until this past offseason. To plug the gap in right field left by Hunter Pence (who Amaro traded to San Francisco before the 2012 in-season trading deadline), Amaro made a relatively minor signing of veteran outfielder Delmon Young, who had played the past several seasons for the Detroit Tigers. Young was a former 1-1 — the first overall pick in the 2003 amateur draft who had compiled a few passable seasons in the big leagues but who came with three massive drawbacks. One, Young had never learned how to draw a walk, and didn’t hit enough to make up for it, and two, he was considered such a wretched fielder that the Tigers mostly hid him at DH in 2012. Finally, Young was a well-known and quite towering prick, who has both thrown a bat at an umpire during a minor league game and who was once arrested for drunkenly tackling a man after accosting him with anti-Semitic slurs. Upon signing Young, and apparently anticipating the totally predictable shitstorm of criticism that he was about to get from analysts, Amaro proudly told the media, “I don’t care about walks, I care about production.” This is the kind of statement that would have been met with a room full of nodding heads in 1980, but that in 2012 was just preposterous. “Yo Rube,” the analysts cried out, “walks are production.”
Even the team’s minor moves have turned out pretty disastrously. Pitcher Joe Blanton, who helped win the Series in ’08 and was serviceable in ’09, was signed to a preposterous 3 year, $24 million extension before the 2010 season. Blanton was mediocre in 2010, hurt in 2011 and so ineffective last year that Amaro had to basically give him away to the Dodgers. Ben Revere, the speedy young outfielder acquired from the Twins before the 2013 season, displayed his singles-only game for half a season before breaking his foot in July. Ty Wigginton, acquired before the 2012 season as a bench bat and infield insurance, flamed out with an 84 OPS+. But by far Amaro’s biggest blind spot has been relievers. Before the 2010 season, Amaro signed journeyman reliever Danys Baez to a genuinely inexplicable 2-year, $5.25 million contract. Baez, who spent a few middling seasons as the closer for Cleveland and Tampa Bay in the mid-2000s, was coming off a season in which he compiled a 4.02 ERA in 71.2 innings for the Baltimore Orioles, with a strikeout rate that augured near-term and spectacular disaster. And disaster is what Amaro got — for the $5.25 in Phillies glory-years cash, Baez was worth -1.3 Wins Above Replacement over his two pitiful years in Philly. Mind you: This is an extraordinarily large loss for a reliever to inflict on a team. Amaro, who had watched bullpen mainstays Brad Lidge (the 2008 hero), Clay Condrey, Chad Durbin, and JC Romero flame out after once being brilliant, should at least have sensed that relievers are extremely volatile. Amazingly, this memo has still not reached Amaroland. Before the 2013 season, Amaro signed pitcher Mike Adams to a two-year, $12 million contract. It was like an Amaropalooza: Wrong side of 30? Check. Middle reliever? Check. Coming off a major injury that tends to end the careers of 34-year-old relievers? Check. Bemused laughter coming from every other front office in baseball? Check. Adams pitched ineffectively in 28 games before tearing his shoulder in three (!) places. He will likely be out until the end of time.
The Phillies entered the 2013 season as no one’s favorites. They were old, and injury-prone, they couldn’t hit, and they sported an outfield better suited to the independent league Camden Riversharks than a major league baseball team. To make matters worse, Roy Halladay had broken down with a shoulder injury toward the end of the 2012 campaign and entered 2013 as a question mark. Despite the long-awaited emergence of onetime top prospect Domonic Brown into an All-Star (hey I still love the Phillies, and I love watching him play), the team has been dismal, with one of the worst run-differentials (which is merely a stone-age calculation of the difference between runs scored and runs allowed that apparently is yet another thing that is poorly understood in Amaroland) in the league. Papelbon’s predictable decline has accelerated, and there is not a single team in baseball that the Phillies can even give him away to, for nothing more than the cost of his contract. Both Ryan Howard and Chase Utley started the season healthy for the first time in three years, but Howard was mostly ineffective before suffering another knee injury and having another surgery, and ESPN analyst Dan Szymborski recently wrote that the Howard contract is likely to end up as the worst in the history of professional baseball, with the Phillies now projected to take a stunning $94 million bath in terms of value returned. Utley has performed well but also missed a month with an oblique injury — the sort of problem that tends to nag older players. Halladay, an old-school workhorse, fought ineffectively through his injury for seven starts before finally succumbing to shoulder surgery. They entered play on July 30 49-56, after losing 8 straight games just after the All-Star Break. They will not make the playoffs, and players like Lee and Papelbon are unsubtly clamoring to get out of town and obliquely criticizing the front office for not helping them pack their bags. Amaro, strangely, made no moves at the deadline, meaning the Phillies intend to bring this sad bunch back around for another go at it in 2014.
Through it all the one constant has been the team’s General Manager, convinced of his outdated traditionalist dogma, hiding behind his sunglasses and frittering away the franchise’s financial and public relations capital on a series of increasingly disastrous moves. It’s not that he has done nothing right, but rather that the things he has done wrong — the Howard and Papelbon contracts, the looting of the farm system, the sacrifice of top draft picks for mediocre players — have cumulatively made the team substantially worse, much more expensive and nearly impossible to fix in the short term. He is the Mitt Romney campaign that never ends. Amaro recently responded to critiques of the team’s farm system by attacking the farm system rankers, saying “….there’s just a lot of those lists that come out that make me laugh” — a desperate act of redirection that fooled no one. The truth is that the lessons that Amaro refuses to learn have now cost the Phillies their sellout streak, their place in the postseason, and probably their perch as one of the sport’s marquee franchises. They are likely headed back into a prolonged dry spell, when they will find out that even the lovely Citizens Bank Park can be half-empty if the team is terrible, a lesson they should have learned back in the leaner days of 2004-2006, when disgraced Daily News columnist Bill Conlin habitually referred to the gleaming new park as “the money pit.”
Conlin was wrong about the stadium. But Ruben Amaro has dug the team a new, deeper and more insidious money pit, one that would take even the best of baseball’s new geniuses years to climb out of, if only the Phillies would hire them. The $75 million they will still owe the diminished shadow of Ryan Howard after this season is just the beginning. Yet there is no indication that Amaro, or the Phillies ownership that still mysteriously employs him, has any intention of doing anything other than buying bigger and more expensive shovels to bury themselves with.
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