For a couple of weeks in July, the biggest sports story in Philadelphia wasn’t the Sixers’ attempts at bringing in a third star, nor was it the forthcoming training camp reporting date of the defending champion Eagles. Instead, it was the Phillies’ ultimately failed pursuit of star Baltimore Orioles shortstop Manny Machado.
The Phillies, of course, didn’t get Machado, and the team’s trade deadline additions were Wilson Ramos, Asdrubal Cabrera and Aaron Loup – fine players all, with a chance to help the Phillies, but not superstars by any stretch. Nor did any of them cost any of the team’s top prospects.
The failure to land Machado – or Bryce Harper, who was reportedly on the trading block for a day – led to consternation among some in town that the Phillies aren’t committed to winning or “all-in” this year. And that consternation is just the latest front in a Phillies culture war that’s beginning to feel quite a bit like the Sam Hinkie Wars that have waged within the city’s basketball community for the past five years.
The Phillies, as of this writing, are in first place and have been for the better part of the last two months. After four straight losing seasons in which the team was practically irrelevant, the Phillies are very much back, with an exciting young core, a handful of quality veterans, and the overarching sense that the team is on the upswing and at the ground floor of what’s looking like a long run of success.
So then why do so many people in Philadelphia, among fans, media, and even the team’s own broadcasters, seem to have such contempt for this year’s Phillies team? And why are so many people unhappy with a very exciting, first place club?
There seem to be three major critiques of this year’s Phillies team, judging by sports radio, social media, and sports bar chatter: The team wasn’t aggressive enough in pushing for Machado or any other star, the Phillies don’t play what’s typically understood as “solid fundamental baseball,” and there’s dissatisfaction with Gabe Kapler’s style, whether it’s his embrace of analytics or his refusal to rip players in press conference.
I happen to believe all of these critiques are dead wrong, but more interesting than that is that we seem to be seeing another huge demarcation in Philadelphia sports culture, a divide along cultural, generational, and even political lines. Just as the city’s basketball fans spent several years tearing each other apart over The Process, it’s now happening all over again with the Phillies. At least everyone seems on the same page about the Eagles.
Start with Machado. Right now, the Phillies, with their young and improving roster, are in their first year of what’s possibly a multiyear run of contention. Sure, adding Machado would have been satisfying, but trading good enough prospects to win a bidding war would have likely led to the loss of players with a chance to help the team during their current run.
There’s a concept in economics called “The Winner’s Curse,” in which the winner of a bidding war overpays in order to win, often for emotional reasons. Giving up a huge haul for two months of Machado might have made the Phillies winners in the short run, but the chance of overpaying was so overwhelming that they would likely have regretted it.
Indeed, a whole lot of fans want their team to always sign the biggest free agent and trade their prospects for the biggest star available, when team-building, especially in baseball, is usually much more about player development than superstar acquisition.
The Phillies tried that for awhile, during Ruben Amaro’s tenure as general manager. Sure, some of those moves worked, most notably the trade for Roy Halladay. But the organization seriously atrophied during Amaro’s tenure, to the point where they went years without developing any significant players and fell into a years-long tailspin once the core started to age.
But, if the Phillies really see adding huge stars as their path to real contention, they will have many other chances, especially with an owner on record as wanting to spend, and the Phillies are going into the offseason nowhere near the luxury tax threshold, unlike many of their rival bidders. Those chances will begin with… Manny Machado himself, who will hit free agency in less than four months.
We see this with the Sixers and their “star hunting” too. But there will be other opportunities for that team to add a third star – they tend to become available in the NBA every few months – and I wouldn’t be shocked to see them reach the Finals this year with their current core.
And besides, has everyone forgotten about the Dream Team Eagles season of 2011?
Then there’s the idea that the Phillies aren’t “playing the game the right way.” And the most notable articulation of this viewpoint has come from an unlikely corner: The team’s own broadcast team, as pointed out by The Good Phight’s David S. Cohen in a passionately argued blog post on July 24.
Sure, the team could be better defensively, and Odubel Herrera’s occasional lapses drive everyone nuts, for good reason. But Herrera’s also a really good player. And if the Phillies don’t make the playoffs this year, it won’t be because of the lack of bunting.
The anger about everything from bat flips to rising strikeout rates are practically old and cliched arguments throughout the game. But because the Phillies resisted analytics for about a decade later than most of the rest of baseball, this debate is coming to Philadelphia late. We even have Mike Schmidt taking the place of his old teammate Joe Morgan as the bitter color commentator who retired 30 years ago and whose understanding of the game hasn’t been updated one iota in that time.
And then there’s Gabe Kapler, who made one of the worst first impressions of any Philadelphia sports figure, but has righted himself as the team’s play has improved and his glaring miscues have been fewer and further between – and still nowhere close to the level of Charlie Manuel’s, in his first years with the Phillies.
Aside from the resistance to analytics and concepts like launch angles, there’s absolute vitriol about Kapler’s refusal to ever rip players to the press. It’s a replay of the fights that were had over Andy Reid for nearly a decade. There’s also grumbling about Matt Klentak, who’s seen as a number-crunching nerd who never played the game and doesn’t get it – as if that wasn’t the conventional wisdom about Howie Roseman until about two years ago.
I get it. In Philadelphia sports, the “old school” tendency is strong. For a lot of men in this city, getting yelled at by a coach, or their dad, was a formative part of their experience playing sports, if not their life in general. It “made me the man I am today,” I hear often. To see a prominent male authority figure who doesn’t do that, and who praises his charges even when they screw up, is just anathema to these people.
But, much like baseball, the world has changed, and the Buddy Ryan/Bobby Knight approach no longer carries the day. Beyond that, being a disciplinarian just isn’t Gabe Kapler’s style. It wasn’t the way it was done in winning organizations where he played (Boston) and worked (Los Angeles). Judging by the team’s success, it seems to be working.
Enjoy the Ride
I understand that even post-Super Bowl LII, there’s a deep fatalism to Philadelphia sports, especially when a team has been bad for a long time. Think of the Phils of the 2005-2006 period, which won 88 and 85 games. People in Philly HATED that team, because they were sick to death by then of the Bobby Abreu/Pat Burrell core and deeply skeptical of the new manager, Charlie Manuel. We all know what happened just a couple of years later.
Every indication is that the Phillies, whatever becomes of this year’s team, are looking at a years-long run of contention, with the sort of young core that a lot of teams would love to have. They finally have a single owner, rather than a mysterious cabal of elderly recluses.
After years of delay, they’re doing the right thing with analytics, international scouting, and player development, and they were built using the same player-development-plus-signings-to-fill-the-holes blueprint as the Cubs and Astros, who won the last two World Series. The Phillies, after a long run of irrelevance, matter in Philadelphia again.
So sit back, enjoy the ride, and appreciate that, Manny Machado or no Manny Machado, the Phillies finally have it together.