Thursday, February 25, 2016

Can The Phillies Avoid The Embarrassment?


Taking The First Game Seriously – It might be too strong to say the Phillies seek revenge against the University of Tampa, but they certainly want to save face. The Division II college team beat the Phillies in an exhibition game last spring at Bright House Field. They meet again Sunday. "[Larry] Bowa and I are going to spend a lot of time putting that [lineup] together," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin joked. "We have to beat them this year." Nobody came out and said it, but it was embarrassing for the Phillies to lose to a bunch of college kids, even though everyday players like Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz never set foot on the field. Perhaps that is why veteran Jeremy Hellickson will start Sunday. "We agree, we think he can handle the pressure," Mackanin said. But seriously, is it important to have a better showing from a professional baseball team, even if the Phillies that play Sunday other than Hellickson are relatively inexperienced? "We certainly want to beat a college team," Mackanin said. "But you have to consider that it's very early in camp. We haven't even gone over every fundamental yet. So we're seeing where guys are at. I'm anxious to see how we look on Sunday." Mackanin said he plans to play some of the team's youngest players in camp, which likely means top prospects J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams, Jorge Alfaro, Andrew Knapp, etc. They are not expected to be in camp very long because they are expected to open the season in the Minor Leagues. "I want to see them as quickly as possible because down the road we've got to get our team together," Mackanin said. Herrera centered: Mackanin said he expects Odubel Herrera to remain in center field, despite the Phillies acquiring Peter Bourjos in the offseason. Bourjos is regarded as one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball, but Herrera hit .297 with 30 doubles, three triples, eight home runs, 41 RBIs and a .762 OPS in 537 plate appearances last season. They might not want to mess with success by taking him out of his comfort zone in center field. "He did such a good job at getting himself to become a pretty good center fielder," Mackanin said. "Now Bourjos has never played anywhere else so I told him and [Aaron] Altherr to work a lot on the corners, because I'm going to look at different scenarios, Bourjos in right and left and Altherr in right and left. And I'll put Odubel in right and left. But I'm leaning toward leaving Odubel alone in center field." Eickhoff update: Mackanin said Phillies right-hander Jerad Eickhoff is "progressing nicely" from a non-displaced fracture of his right thumb. He could throw a bullpen session soon. Mackanin said he still thinks Eickhoff will be ready for the beginning of the season.

Phillies Upgrade Their Pool – The Phillies made a considerable investment on the international market last summer when they signed Dominican Republic outfielder Jhailyn Ortiz to a $4 million signing bonus. Expect them to make similar investments this summer. The Phillies will have $5,610,800 available to them during the 2016-17 international signing period, which is more than any team in baseball. It allows them to sign 16-year-old international players from July 2 through June 15, 2017, if the prospect turns 17 before Sept. 1, 2017, or by the completion of his first Minor League season. It is highly unlikely the Phillies will exceed their pool limit. Teams that exceed their pool by 15 percent or more are not allowed to sign a player for more than $300,000 during the next two signing periods, in addition to paying a 100-percent tax on the pool overage. In other words, if the Phillies exceed their allotment this signing period, they would not be able to sign a prospect for more than $300,000 until July 2, 2019. That makes little sense to a rebuilding team that could have a similar-size pool next signing period. It is why sources said the Phillies are not pursing somebody like 16-year-old Cuban outfielder Lazaro Armenteros, who figures to take more than $5.6 million to sign. The Phillies likely would pursue somebody like him when they rank more toward the bottom of baseball's international allotment, when it might be more advantageous to blow past their pool limit. The only wrinkle there would be if Major League Baseball implements a Draft system for international players, which Commissioner Rob Manfred favors. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires on Dec. 1. But that might not happen quickly enough to affect the 2017-18 signing period.

But Did He Remember His Stapler? – It seems too perfect that one of the newest Phillies employees referenced a line from the tech-centric comedy "Office Space" as he described his freshly created role in the analytics department. What would you say you do here, Andy Galdi? The Phillies hired Galdi, 30, in January to be their director of baseball research and development. He spent the past three years at Google in Mountain View, Calif., where he served as a quantitative analyst for YouTube. The Phillies convinced him to leave lucrative Silicon Valley to run their analytics department, which includes data visualization and reporting, statistical research and data infrastructure. "I would say I'm there to help organize their data, the data that they have there and the data that's provided by MLB and [MLB Advanced Media]," Galdi said in a telephone interview. "And then I see how we can extract any kind of insight about anything regarding players or strategy or whatever." There is no question Galdi has the smarts for the job. He graduated from North Carolina in 2008, majoring in business administration and mathematics. He earned his Master's degree in statistics from Stanford in 2013. He worked as a baseball operations intern with the Mets in '09 and spent the following two years working in the NBA Commissioner's Office as a statistical analyst before he joined Google. He worked as a quantitative analyst with YouTube, where his team worked to make product enhancements. Now let's pretend most people don't know what a QA does. "There are certain metrics that YouTube cares about or any company cares about," Galdi said. "Let's say it's how much time users are spending on the website. That's a made-up example, but let's say it's something like that. We'll say, OK, this button works this way or we can have it work a different way. Or we can have this layout one way or another way. We'll kind of experiment." QAs design the experiment, which could be one portion of the YouTube audience seeing a button work one way, while another sees it work a different way. QAs work with engineers to run the experiment, deciding how long it needs to run, what's the proper sample size, etc., before analyzing the results. Galdi said he loved his time at Google, but the Phillies lured him back into sports. "I said I'd only come back to baseball if it's a good situation, and I think the Phillies are a great situation," he said. Of course, the outside perception of the Phillies and analytics has not been a good one. Phillies general partner John Middleton knew that and publicly placed a huge emphasis on analytics last year as Philadelphia hired president Andy MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak. "Like, are there even computers around?" Galdi said. "That's really not the case at all. They had already built PHIL [the organization's computer system]. They had already done a lot of this work toward making the situation there more technologically advanced, which is where I wanted to go anyway. It's not like I'm starting at zero. What I want to do is push it even further. "To be honest, I'm still learning a lot about what's already been done there and it's quite a bit." But besides organizing and extracting insight from data, Galdi and the Phillies' analytics department will try to come up with their own ways to measure information. "Most teams have access to a lot of the information," Klentak said. "The real advantage to be gained is how we manage it, what we do with that information and the process that we implement to make decisions based off that information." Say the Phillies are interested in an infielder and his defensive metrics the past three seasons are not particularly good, but their scouts think he is better defensively than those numbers indicate. Galdi and his team hope to have a handle on the uncertainties of their data to help make a more informed decision. "I'd like to say, 'Well, this is within the error bound of him being an average defender,'" Galdi said. "I wouldn't say it's defense, offense, pitching or one specific area that we could work on as an analytics community as a whole. I think it's measuring uncertainty." Galdi mentions the marriage between analytics and scouting. MacPhail, Klentak and Galdi have made it very clear the Phillies will not be one-trick analytical ponies moving forward. "I'm not going to revolutionize everything," Galdi said. "I'm not going to tell people how to start doing their jobs, like telling scouts to get the hell out of here. That's not what I'm about. I'm about coming in with some different ideas from a different industry, seeing what works and what doesn't. It's being a good teammate. So if there's a new technological thing I want to introduce or a new statistical study I want to talk about, I want to work with other people. I want to talk to everybody, work with everybody. That's what I really enjoy, trying to help people understand, trying to teach them. And then in turn, which I think is even more important, learn from them. How can their knowledge improve my analysis? "We have some really great scouts. The guys that I've met in the first two weeks are super impressive, great guys to talk to. Whenever you're doing any kind of analysis, you need as much background information as I can to make sure I'm not missing some big assumption or whatever." Said Klentak: "What Andy is going to be doing is a piece of the information puzzle. We're going to gather information in a variety of ways, most notably from our scouts, understanding the makeup of players, medical information as well as statistical and analytical information. Our job is take all of that information and incorporate it into a process to make the best decision."

Where Is Gene Schall? – Following a 12-year pro career, Gene Schall returned to Villanova University to complete a Bachelor of Science degree in business with a minor in psychology. He needed an internship and there was only one opening ... in the IT department. "Not knowing anything about computers, I took it. Got assigned to the help desk. You can image how much help I was," he laughed. Mike Arbuckle, then the Phillies' assistant general manager/scouting and player development, reached out to Schall to see if he was interested in getting back into the game. "I was, but told Mike I didn't want to be in uniform as I had enough of that and I didn't want an office job," Schall said. "Mike replied, 'That makes you a scout.'" A new career was launched as an area scout for the Phillies in 2008 looking at amateur talent in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and South Jersey. The next year, Schall was promoted to regional supervisor. His territory was the eastern part of the country from Florida to Canada. He assumed the title as Mid-Atlantic regional supervisor in 2014. He now oversees three area scouts. The Major League Baseball season generally begins in April and ends in October. Schall explains: "In the middle of January of 2015, Johnny [Almaraz, director of amateur scouting] had a meeting at Citizens Bank Park. It was the first step in preparing for the Draft. We zeroed in on the top 10-20 players, kids we wanted to follow. Around the third week of January, junior colleges and high schools in Florida, the Southwest and Far West began playing. Division I college programs started in February. It cranked up even more in March." Airplanes, car rentals, hotels, games and players now consume Schall's schedule. While the naked eye is still No.1 in judging a player, technology has provided additional tools. "The information that is available today is mind-boggling, 10 times more than five to seven years ago," Schall said. "The radar gun helps, but Louisville Sluggers let you know how hard the kid is throwing. We have video of almost every player. Colleges and even high schools have multiple video cameras on the fields providing various views. Every high school league and college conference has all kinds of statistics. Through analytics, we can digest all this information and learn that a certain player may not play up to his stats. Analytics helps us paint a total picture." Technology is a gigantic tool to help scouts and their schedules. "I don't know how scouts did it 20-30 years ago," Schall said. "One scout told me he'd be heading for a game, would pull off the road when he saw a pay phone, call his voicemail to see if the game for which he's heading is still on or canceled. Today, we have the Internet, smart phones, iPads and GPS. Communication is 24/7, real easy to stay in touch with each other. A text lets me know if the game is still on. My GPS takes me right to the field. No more paper maps." The MLB Draft last summer began June 8. Commissioner Rob Manfred stepped to the microphone, "With the 10th selection in the Draft, the Phillies select Cornelius Randolph from Griffin High School, Griffin, Ga." Randolph is from Schall's territory, specifically scout Aaron Jersild, whose area, in addition to Georgia, includes South Carolina, Northern Florida and Latin America."Cornelius had been on our radar for two years of high school baseball and summer leagues," Schall said. "Aaron pegged him as a high pick right from the beginning. All of us saw him play multiple times. I probably saw him 25-30 times. We all agreed he was the most comfortable high school hitter in the country. Many high school players are question marks when it comes to hitting, inconsistency. This guy hit everywhere we saw him. "As Johnny said on Draft day, Cornelius is a ballplayer and he loves to play. We can see talent but we need to learn what makes a kid tick. Getting to know the parents and teammates is extremely important. Aaron spent a lot of time with the family. Some kids view being drafted as sort of a novelty. Others want to play. You need to learn if a kid is willing to spend time developing his skills in the Minor Leagues riding buses and failing. Baseball is a game of failure." Once the Draft was over, golf, pool time, Cape Cod? Well, somewhat. But more baseball was on Schall's calendar. Throughout the summer various high school showcase events were held across the country. The Phillies scout all the college summer leagues. Schall spent two weeks in Cape Cod ... scouting. Late August turned into a short down time for Schall and the amateur scouts before college programs re-booted in September. Some high schools have fall ball. According to Schall, late October is the unofficial end of the scouting season. The greatest joy of his job? "Finding future Major Leaguers, watching them go through the difficult development process and make it to the top," Schall said. All the travel doesn't get to him. "It's much easier than being a player riding buses and then having to play a game," Schall said, before confessing that his travel schedule can be a nightmare. "Sometimes I wake up in a hotel and don't know where I am. I've returned car rentals to the wrong company. Many times I arrive at an airport with tickets for three different destinations. It depends if a certain player is going to play, pitching rotations and weather conditions. The airline people think I'm crazy." This season, the Phillies have the No. 1 overall selection in the MLB Draft. Two of the often mentioned tops picks are left-handed pitchers from Schall's territory -- 6-foot-7 A.J. Puk from the University of Florida and 17-year-old Jason Groome from Barnegat (N.J.) High School. Schall will be one of many from the Phillies checking out these two young prospects. For Puk's first start in late February, the Phillies had four people on hand, including Pat Gillick. Schall's baseball career: A first baseman at Villanova University, Schall was selected by the Phillies in the fourth round of the 1991 Draft. He spent 12 seasons, 1991-2002, in the Minors (.285 career batting average) and parts of two seasons, 1995-96, in the Majors with the Phillies (.252 for 52 total games). He was traded to the White Sox for Mike Robertson on Jan. 31, 1997. Schall later returned to the Phillies' organization, ending his playing days with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2002.

Today In Phils History - It was on this day that one of the greatest moments in Phillies history happened and I am not talking about Mike Schmidt's 4th appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated next to a list of "Baseball's Millionaires". While the team is know for having made several Hall of Fame caliber mistakes via trade, on this day in 1972 the tables were turned as the Phillies traded Rick Wise to St. Louis for Steve Carlton. 

With the Phillies having finished the 2015 season with a spectacularly awful record of 63-99 it will be interesting to see what kind of team new President Andy MacPhail and GM Matt Klentak put on the field. At the same time I am definitely looking forward to the games against Boston with former GM Ruben Amaro on the field. Given the departures, lingering contracts, a history of injuries, bipolar performances, and unproven talent, it should, at the very least, be an interesting season for the Phillies. Who knows, maybe they can avoid 100 losses... hopefully by more than one game!

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