Phillies Owner John Middleton On Rebuilding Process, Progress

Phillies owner John Middleton covered a variety of interesting topics in a two-part interview with Jim Salisbury of (see here and here). Fans of the team will certainly want to give those pieces a full read, but here are a few highlights:

Middleton began by addressing the way that the organization’s recent leadership transition came about. The ownership group decided it needed to take a more public role as Ruben Amaro Jr. was moved out of the general manager’s seat. Ultimately, Andy MacPhail was brought in as president to drive a rebuild, with the organization feeling it “needed to go to the outside” to acquire executives with “a different knowledge base than an internal candidate would have.” Change, notes, Middleton, is now a clear organizational imperative.

“I think in a competitive world, the one constant is change,” he explained. “I want the Phillies to be at the forefront of change because in order to be successful in the long run, you have to be ahead of change rather than lagging behind it.”

As Middleton and MacPhail set out to put that philosophy into action, they hired Matt Klentak to run the baseball operations department. In part, that reflected a massive shift toward the use of analytics. Middleton explained how the club has ramped up its use of statistics and related tools:

“In 2013, our analytics department was zero. Zero people, zero budget. In 2014, we had one full time person, and one intern, and the budget from my memory was $ 100,000. Next year, we’re going to have a minimum of six full-time people, a number of interns, and a budget measured in the millions. Our competitors may add people, as well, and add to their budgets, but right now we’re projecting that we’re going to have one of the top analytics departments in baseball. We have come light-years in the last 12 months.”

There’s more to come, Middleton also mentioned. The Phils are working to develop “some proprietary analytical tools … specifically biomechanical analytics, trying to predict and prevent future injuries for pitchers by combining that analysis with our medical evaluations, human intelligence.”

Obviously, the rebuilding process isn’t always quick; he notes, in fact, that Klentak studied recent examples from competitors and found that a three-year down period is the likely minimum. Middleton stressed that he continues to exercise patience and intends to see the process through, though he noted that the organization hopes it can complete its own process on the shorter side of what others have required to return to contention. There’s progress, he says: the team as a whole, both hitters and pitchers, showed improvement in “controlling the strike zone,” which Middleton labeled “the cornerstone of [Klentak’s] vision of Phillies baseball going forward.” And the minor league ranks featured strong team and individual performances.

Whether and when the Phillies can break out — as soon as next year, but perhaps more likely in 2018 — will likely depend upon many variables, Middleton noted, including simply the developmental path of several important young players (and others who could emerge from relative obscurity). Philadelphia doesn’t seem inclined to make an early strike via free agency, with Middleton stressing that it’s not the way to build a roster. But he did acknowledge that the organization has “already started talking about issues like our current team and where we see strengths and weaknesses in the free agent market” over the next several years.

As the process continues to unfold, Middleton suggested that he won’t simply fade back into the background. If anything, it seems, he’ll take on an even more visible and important role both inside and outside the organization:

“My role has changed over the last two years and I find it interesting. I’m enjoying it a lot. I like working closely with Andy and Matt and I’m enjoying what I’m doing. I’m even thinking of getting an office in the stadium if they’ll let me do that. I see my job as making sure we have the right strategy in place to get us back to our championship form, and to make sure that we’re on track and on schedule with getting back there.”

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