It's not the stupid money, stupid.
Beginning in 2007, the Philadelphia Phillies won five straight division titles. They won six postseason series, including the World Series in 2008. Even before 2007, the Phillies had been competitive for quite some time, with four straight winning seasons. But in 2012, everything came undone. And the biggest reason might not be what you think.
Yes, we all hated Ryan Howard’s five-year, $125-million contract extension, which he signed early in 2010 but didn’t actually begin until 2012. Of course that lines up perfectly with the Phillies decline. So it’s easy to make the connection: contract we hate kicks in, Phillies stop winning, case closed.
To be sure, Howard’s been terrible over the last three seasons. The Phillies might actually have been better if they’d simply invested the $75 million in pork bellies or something, since Howard’s essentially been a replacement-level player.
But is Howard the reason for the Phillies’ phailures? No, he’s not. As Matt Swartz writes at The Hardball Times:
The Phillies certainly would have gotten more value by spending $25 million in each of the last three years just about any other way, but that typically nets only about 3-4 wins per year when spent on average free agents. Blaming the demise of the Phillies on the Howard contract understates just the magnitude of the decline. Philadelphia has averaged 21 games out of first place and 13 out of the Wild Card. Three MVPs out of Howard would not have let the Phillies sniff a playoff berth.
This is important! Even if Howard had played brilliantly for his money, even if they looked like geniuses for giving him that money, the Phillies still wouldn’t have been particularly competitive. They’ve gone 73-89 in the last two seasons; in 2012, they went 81-81, 17 games out of first place and seven behind the Cardinals for the second wild card. That was actually Howard’s worst season, so I suppose you might argue that if they’d spent the $25 million on some superstar who played exceptionally well, the Phillies might actually have challenged St. Louis. But that’s a real stretch.
All those win-now trades the Phillies made? Also not a great explanation for their recent struggles. No, it’s been something far more systemic and far-reaching:
The problem was not the lack of production per dollar from free agents but the lack of production from cost-controlled talent, which was not because they traded away many young players. Instead, the issue was a series of terrible drafts that have yielded almost no fruit for the last 11 years. This is even more shocking when juxtaposed against their incredible success in the draft during the eight years prior.
The Phillies’ total career WAR among all drafted players from 2004 through 2014 is only 27.8 compared to a league average of 100.0. This is not just league-worst, it is less than half of the second-worst Blue Jays at 60.5 ...
So who do we blame? Ah, there’s the really tricky question. The Phillies’ great successes came because of pre-2004 drafts that netted Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, and others. And there’s no obvious dividing line, front-office-wise, between 2003 and 2004. The Phillies had great drafts for years, then suddenly started having terrible drafts. And there’s nobody in particular to blame. And yes, the Phillies did lose some draft picks because they signed free agents, and they did draft late in rounds because of their regular-season successes. Even accounting for those things, they still have drafted poorly since 2004. And, again, there’s no obvious reason for this.
Except it’s probably true that the Phillies have been handicapped for some years, relative to other clubs, because for so long they’ve stubbornly refused to take sabermetrics seriously. As other clubs have collected college statistics and evaluated the relevance thereof, as other clubs have analyzed the history of the draft to see what’s worked and what hasn’t, as other clubs have done things with data the rest of us don’t even know about, the Phillies ... haven’t. Or probably haven’t, considering their general manager’s many public comments about the value of sabermetrics.
Hey, Ruben Amaro might have been right. It would be foolish to think the Phillies haven’t suffered plenty of bad luck in the draft. But if you’re publicly disdainful about what so many other teams are doing, and what those teams are doing seems to be working – the Boston Red Sox, by the way, have done exceptionally well in the draft over the last decade – then it’s probably fair to blame more than just bad luck.
The Phillies do finally have a Manager, Baseball Analytics. Which they never really had before. But it’s one thing to hire someone, and quite another to listen to him. The Red Sox, the Astros, the Athletics, the Rays, the Cardinals, the Reds, the Rangers, the ... Well, it’s really sorta silly to list all the teams that have entire teams of analysts, because it’s most of the teams. And most of those teams are run by people who have, for some years, publicly expressed their belief if the value of such analysis. My guess, and I would absolutely love to be wrong about this, is that the Phillies won’t start drafting well again until they’re run by different people.
It's also important, I think, to understand that one contract, no matter how much money ultimately gets wasted, rarely makes the difference in a season. If only because it's fairly rare for a team to finish within two or three games of a playoff spot; the Phillies haven't come close to doing that. And of course we've also got the example of the San Francisco Giants, who committed $126 million to Barry Zito ... and won three World Series in the next eight years.
None of which means it isn't fair to evaluate every contract. We have to talk about something, and they do tell us something about management's mindset and the money does matter, some. But teams rarely rise or fall because of one contract, or one player. The dollars just can't buy enough, the players rarely good enough (or bad enough) to make a difference alone.
Teams win and lose for complex reasons, along with healthy doses of good and ill luck that defy analysis.