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October 27, 2015

With Phillies, Klentak will try to blend best of old and new worlds

When John Middleton talks, there is an infectious enthusiasm that makes you wonder how he didn’t step forward as public face of the Phillies’ ownership group until four months ago. Strictly in terms of talking in front of cameras, Middleton is a natural.

He’s pretty well informed, too. Middleton knows that the Phillies were dead last from 2005-14 in terms of WAR produced from their drafted players. Even if major free-agent signings and selecting in the bottom half of the first round (because the team was so good) played a big part in that number, the Phillies have to draft much better moving forward. That much is obvious. 

In Middleton’s estimation, why did the Phillies fall behind after drafting so well from 1995-2004? The increasingly popular A word.

“It’s like Alice in Wonderland,” Middleton said. “You keep running faster and faster and stay in the same place. So the teams that are ahead of us, they’re not sitting still. The aggressive ones are trying to improve and get better. We have to run faster and faster.”

“[Analytics] became more sophisticated and broader in terms of what it was measuring and the quality of the information it was giving,” Middleton said. “And if you didn’t stay up with that curve, you were falling further and further behind.”

Now with a couple of new decision makers at the top of the front office, the Phillies’ task is to catch up to a movement that isn’t slowing down for them anytime soon. Middleton is fully aware of the challenge facing the franchise.

“It’s like Alice in Wonderland,” Middleton said. “You keep running faster and faster and stay in the same place. So the teams that are ahead of us, they’re not sitting still. The aggressive ones are trying to improve and get better. We have to run faster and faster.”

Enter Matt Klentak, the Phillies’ brand new vice president and general manager. A 35-year-old economics major from Dartmouth, he fits the Theo Epstein sabermetric whiz kid archetype to a tee. And the Phillies figure to be a much more data-driven organization than they have been in the past.

Yet what impressed me the most about Klentak’s introduction to Philadelphia was his respect for the Phillies’ baseball tradition. For example, he specifically went out of his way to mention that the franchise’s run of success from 2007-2011 was built through what he termed “awesome scouting.”

“I don't want to lose that,” Klentak said. “That is something we're going to continue to reinforce and utilize at every turn. But we also need to make sure we are gathering and utilizing all of the information at our disposal.”

“Teams that lean too far in one direction, whether it’s analytics or scouting or free agency or whatever it may be, those are teams that tend to get in trouble,”  he later added.

Hopefully, those words aren’t hollow. Regardless of the sport (and I cover all of four of the major ones), it’s becoming more and more apparent that using both the eye test and statistical data in concert is the way to go. Watch the game, look at the numbers, and then use both of them as checks and balances to figure out the answer. At least in theory, this isn’t particularly hard.

The Phillies have an ultra-important draft ahead of them, headlined by the first overall pick (1-1). That was just one reason Klentak found the position attractive, along with the largest international bonus pool and promising young players like Aaron Nola and Maikel Franco, to name a few others.

When it comes to educating those young players, Klentak also sounds like he has the right approach. In his mind, there needs to be constant dialogue and an emphasis on communication.

“If we just throw something in front of them and say, ‘Hey, do it this way because that’s what the book says, that’s probably not going to go very well,” Klentak said. “And it shouldn’t, that’s not the right way to communicate. That’s not the right way to handle things.”

There won’t be a drastic overhaul in the baseball operations staff, at least not initially. Interim general manager Scott Proefrock, who Klentak worked with in Baltimore, is staying on as an assistant GM. Klentak even praised the work Ruben Amaro did after Andy MacPhail was hired.

“John has assured me we will have the resources to add in areas, one of which may be in the analytics area,” Klentak said. “But I am not coming in here to make sweeping changes, not at all.”


Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann