Phillies

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

Phillies

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.