Out of the Background Part 1: An interview with Phillies owner John Middleton

Out of the Background Part 1: An interview with Phillies owner John Middleton

This is the first of a two-part series. You can catch more of our exclusive interview with John Middleton throughout the week on SportsNet Central.

John Middleton became part of the Phillies' ownership group in 1994, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2015, with the hiring of Andy MacPhail as team president, that he jumped out into the spotlight and put a face on the team’s ownership group.

Middleton recently sat down for an interview with CSN Philadelphia. Here are some of the highlights of the interview in Q&A form. We’ll run more later in the week.

Q: After years in the background, what prompted you to step out so dramatically?

A: "Historically (the partners) have stayed in the background. There's a simple reason for that — Major League Baseball wants it that way. Major League Baseball wants one person speaking for each team. They don't want limited partners out front. The person they want speaking for the team is the control person and that was Bill Giles originally, then Dave Montgomery. So that kind of gives you an idea of why we were behaving the way we were behaving back then.

"When we hired Andy, the senior management of the team and the owners sat down and talked, and we all decided there was an ownership responsibility to introduce Andy, to talk about what we were doing and why we were doing it, and to make people understand that it was our decision to hire Andy and that we were going to own that decision. And when we talked about who among the owners should do it, somehow I got volunteered."

Q: You and the Buck family own large, equal portions of the team. Are you close?

A: "Yes. We communicate most days. There are days when we talk hours on end on the phone, or in person or through email. You’ll be sitting there watching the game and some bad play or bad call will happen and you’ll get this text message — ‘Can you believe that?’ — and it will start this text chain back and forth for 20 minutes. They’re fans, too. They really like the sport.

"I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing and the team couldn’t have done what it has done in the last two years without their agreement and understanding."

Q: There’s a perception that the Phillies are owned by a bunch of genteel main-liners who don’t get all that ruffled by losing and are just happy to be part of it all. Are you amused by that?

A: "Staying in the background has created a void and that void has been filled with misinformation. I appreciate the opportunity to clear it up a little bit.

"The only option for me is winning. And if you’re going to lose, it’s only because you put forth the very best effort and you simply met a better competitor. That’s the way I want to win and that’s what I’m going to do here."

Q: How does the power work among the owners? Who makes the final calls?

A: "Well, Andy is the president of the club and Matt Klentak runs the baseball side."

Q: But you guys are the bosses.

A: "Yes, but we delegate the authority on a day-to-day basis to Andy and we stay involved a lot. Andy and I and Andy and the Bucks communicate frequently. I actually sit in Andy’s box and watch a lot of games and there’s a lot of conversation that takes place. We’re well informed on every important decision.

"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."

Q: During the organization’s transition in leadership, you went out and observed and gathered information. What did you learn about your organization during that period in terms of getting it back to where you want it to be?

A: "I think in a competitive world, the one constant is change. 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."

Q: Obviously change is a big theme for you. Were the Phillies too set in their ways? Were they too loyal?

A: "Loyalty is a good thing. It's not a bad thing. In my companies, we are very loyal to our employees and they were very loyal to us. I don't think there's anything contradictory between loyalty and being performance oriented, results driven. But being loyal doesn't mean you overlook or ignore a subpar performance. But I also think people need to understand that people work better and they work harder when they feel they're valued and they're respected and protected. I used to say, 'I want people to run through walls for me,' but if you want people to run through walls for you, they have to trust you and that you're going to treat them properly."

Q: How about the changes that were made in baseball operations?

A: "I felt at the time — with both Andy's hiring and with Matt's hiring — that we needed to go to the outside. It's not that I didn't consider internal candidates, I just felt very strongly that we needed somebody from the outside that has seen the world through other people's lenses, who have experienced different things and had a different knowledge base than an internal candidate would have."

Q: One area of change is the organization’s use of analytics. That seemed to be a mandate from you. In your mind, how far behind were the Phillies in this area?

A: "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."

Q: What do you say to fans who say, ‘They're building a great analytics department, but I want to see some victories on the field. I want to have another parade’?

A: "I think the two are inextricably intertwined. You have to do things off the field — scouting and player development — to have the players up here in Citizens Bank Park that are going to win. You might get lucky and catch lightning in a bottle some year, but if you want to win consistently, you have to do all these other things. We have to invest time, effort and money into making our scouting and analytics departments the best they can possibly be. From nutrition to sleep studies, we have to be ready to do whatever we can behind the scenes to help us perform better on the field. We have to build up our capacity and our expertise, and we're getting there quickly."

Q: Back in spring training, Red Sox owner John Henry said his team may have relied too much on analytics. They hired an ‘old-school’ general manager and are now back in the postseason. What was your reaction to Henry’s comments?

A: "I'm not going to comment on whether Boston did rely on it too much. I will take you back to Andy’s press conference in June of 2015. He said right from the beginning, ‘Why would you ever want to exclude information that can be important and help you make better decisions?' That information is part analytics and part what Andy calls human intelligence — in this particular case it's scouting. Andy said you need to have both and he is right. You need the balance. That’s Andy’s philosophy, that’s Matt’s philosophy and it’s mine and we are driving that throughout the organization.

"We have some proprietary analytical tools we’re working on, specifically biomechanical analytics, trying to predict and prevent future injuries for pitchers by combining that analysis with our medical evaluations, human intelligence. We are bringing that kind of dual mindset to everything that we can."

Next: John Middleton talks about the rebuild, where it’s going next and how patient he will be.

The thoughts and sounds behind Bryce Harper's jaw-dropping home run

The thoughts and sounds behind Bryce Harper's jaw-dropping home run

Aaron Nola had no chance at seeing where the ball landed.

Not many did, unless you were a fan leisurely strolling through the center-field concourse and enjoying the amenities of Ashburn Alley at Citizens Bank Park.

"I think it went over the stadium, from where I was sitting," Nola said. "It was a long one."

That's how powerfully Bryce Harper struck his first-inning home run in the Phillies' 2-1 win over the Rockies (see observations). The ball left his bat at 114.1 miles per hour, traveled 466 feet and cleared the brick walls in center field.

It was loud and it made the sellout crowd of 42,354 fans louder.

"I think just as a fan, you just stop and watch the distance of the ball," manager Gabe Kapler said. "I don't think we saw a ball go that far to center field all year last year and certainly not this year. That's rare territory. Pretty impressive."

Harper pounced on a first-pitch fastball from Rockies right-hander Antonio Senzatela. The swing consisted of everything you want to see from Harper, who is 5 for 15 (.333) over his last four games with the homer and three doubles.

He's staying back and driving the ball.

"I think he's beginning to feel it," Kapler said. "I think part of that comes from the work he's been doing with [hitting coach] John Mallee, specifically being a little bit taller on his backside and his hands being a little bit closer to his body."

Harper didn't want to make too much about the distance of his home run. He remembered some advice from a former manager and five-time All-Star.

"Matt Williams always used to tell me, 'It's not how far, it's how many you hit,'" Harper said. "I'm just trying to go about it the right way every single day, doing things out there that help this team win. Just putting the bat to the ball and trying to win games.

Harper has eight home runs and 28 RBIs in 45 games. He has a .371 on-base percentage and is second in baseball to only Mike Trout with 34 walks.

However, he's hitting .230 and was 10 for his last 70 (.143) prior to this 5-for-15 stretch. The Phillies are seeing positive signs, though, from Harper's swing.

"We all believed he was going to break out of what he was in," Nola said. "Guy works hard, works hard at what he does. We've all seen what he's done in his career. Nobody is pressing over him, we know he's the gamer that he is and he does a lot to help the team.

On Saturday, it was a walk, a double and vicious contact on the first pitch he saw.

"I think Harp is best when he's gap to gap," Kapler said. "Every once in a while, he's out in front and pulls the ball down the line. He's at his best when he's hitting high line drives into the gaps, and the ones that he gets just underneath go into the seats or in this case, over everything in center field."

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The weather is warming and here comes Phillies' Aaron Nola

The weather is warming and here comes Phillies' Aaron Nola

The sun was beaming and Aaron Nola was in attack mode, letting the ball rip through the 78-degree heat.

Just like the days back in Baton Rouge, Louisiana?

"It's hot as hell down there in the summer," Nola said with a smile about his hometown.

It wasn't quite that hot Saturday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park, but Nola looked at home. He looked like himself, the Nola everybody watched in 2018 when he finished third in the National League Cy Young voting.

Or on second thought …

"Not just the 2018 version, but the best version of the 2018 version," manager Gabe Kapler said.

As the weather turns to warmer temperatures, the man with the most important right arm on the first-place Phillies could be turning into form. It sure appeared that way Saturday as he struck out a career-high-tying 12 batters to pick apart the Rockies in the Phillies' 2-1 win (see observations).

Nola delivered six innings of one-run ball in 106 pitches. He was firing from the get-go, striking out the side in the first inning on 13 pitches. All three punchouts were looking and punctuated by fastballs.

Five days ago from the same mound, Nola needed 38 pitches to finish the first inning against the Brewers. The weather was miserable, a wet 48 degrees at first pitch. He lasted just three frames, throwing 84 pitches in a no-decision.

That performance is now safely buried in the past.

"He was sharp, he was electric, he was running his fastball back over the plate off of the inside," Kapler said. "The curveball was sharp from the outset. When his curveball is good, you see lots of swings and misses, you see empty swings, and that's what was happening today for him."

Nola has a Louisiana coolness to him. The 25-year-old is laid-back, but he's laser-focused.

It's why the Phillies haven't been too worried about his 4.86 ERA entering Saturday or his pinpoint command not being all there through nine starts.

"When I've had conversations with Aaron after the starts that haven't been great, he's so consistent in talking about his process and that being the thing that he can control and the work that he does between starts," Kapler said. "He never comes off of that position. He doesn't cry in his soup, he's not thinking about the last outing that he had, he's already on to the next one. I think the reason that we saw him come out like lightning today is because of the work that he did between starts."

Nola improved to 4-0 with a 4.47 ERA, 60 strikeouts and 21 walks. He's 10 starts into the 2019 season and is only warming. Still, the Phillies have led the NL East and are just starting to see his best around mid-May.

"That's what I remember when I was with the Nats, facing that," Bryce Harper said. "It's getting hot out there, he's from Baton Rouge, so he likes pitching in hot weather, warm weather."

A quiet competitor like Nola knew Saturday's effort was possible, even with his previous start still fresh.

"It's baseball, anything happens," Nola said. "Last outing, I never threw 80-some pitches in three innings. I've never done it before, but it happens. Things can change really quick. Always got to trust what you're doing and keep working hard through the ups and downs."

That warm weather didn't hurt, either.

"It felt good outside," Nola said. "I got a good sweat on, I like sweating when I'm out there."

The Phillies will like Nola in the summer.

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