By Paul Hagan, MLB.com
At first glance, the Phillies’ appointment of Andy MacPhail to run the team after the 2015 season looked like a safe, conservative decision. A tee shot down the middle rather than trying for the green with a more risky drive over a water hazard.
A second glance, to MacPhail’s immediate right on the dais at Citizens Bank Park, disproved that assumption. There sat John Middleton (left in photo above), a member of the ownership group. That’s a big deal. It was the first outward and visible sign that the way the Phillies now conduct their business has changed significantly.
And it’s not just that Middleton revealed that the Phillies will jump headfirst into advanced analytics for the first time when their own proprietary computer program — to be called PHIL — comes on line in September.
For the last 34 years, the Phillies’ partnership agreement gave new meaning to the concept of silent partners. The team president, first Bill Giles and later Dave Montgomery, had the final say on all decisions, and spoke for the group. The investors remained unseen and unheard, and that’s just the way it was. No more.
Middleton said he believes it’s important that the president represent the organization for baseball-related issues after Pat Gillick steps aside and MacPhail ascends at the end of the regular season.
But the 60-year-old billionaire also made it perfectly clear that he isn’t going to be content to passively sit in the shadows and root, root, root for the home team.
“I foresee it being more of a public role when it deals with more significant ownership-level kinds of decisions,” he said.
Middleton owns just under half of the Phillies’ stock, as do cousins Pete and Jim Buck. He certainly can’t be faulted for wanting to have a more active role in looking after his investment. He’s been exerting more influence for a while now, attending the quarterly owners meetings, for example. Now that involvement is out in the open. Monday’s unveiling of MacPhail was his coming-out party as well.
This isn’t to say that the Phillies didn’t want to win before. The fact that they’ve had one of the highest payrolls in baseball for years demonstrates that. Still, the emphasis being placed on success has never been stated quite this bluntly and specifically.
“When we were interviewing Andy, we made it clear to him that we expected him to devote the majority of his time to the baseball side of the business. To improve the farm system and ultimately the major league team. Every other consideration was secondary to that goal,” Middleton said early in his preamble.
Turning to MacPhail: “The pledge Jim, Pete and I made to you when we extended the offer is that you will have access to whatever resources you need to succeed.”During the question-and-answer portion of the news conference, Middleton was asked directly if his presence signaled a change in approach from ownership.
“I think the single most important thing an ownership group does is hire the person in charge of the business,” he said. “And I think when you made a decision of that magnitude, the ownership group has to come forward and make sure that people understand that they are the ones who made the decision. Jim, Pete and I had the conversations. Jim, Pete and I had the deliberations privately. Jim, Pete and I reached out to different people.
“This is not a decision that we delegated, much less abdicated. We own this decision. That’s an important part of the accountability that we think we had.”
Middleton went on to dispute any notion that his goal is to gain a majority ownership stake in the team.
“I’m very happy where I am now,” he said.
Where he is now is front and center, although he joked that he hopes he doesn’t have to appear about hiring a new president any time soon. But he conceded that there’s been a significant change in the way the Phillies do business, partly because many of the original owners have sold their shares.
“There’s been an evolution within the franchise over the last several years,” he said. “As the ownership group has shrunk, the Bucks and my family have had an increasingly larger position. And with that comes a responsibility that’s a little different from what it was 25 years ago, and you have to kind of step up.”Pete, Jim and I have been much more involved with the issues at an earlier stage than we were five years ago, for example. And that’s not going to change. We’re going to be there asking questions. You don’t want us making baseball decisions, trust me. But I think we need to be asking hard questions of the people who are involved in that process. We need to be comfortable that they’re crossing all their t’s and dotting all their i’s.”
And, if need be, nudging the organization along. It’s not just a coincidence that there will be more of an emphasis on sabermetric analysis in the future. Middleton shook his head when asked if he was surprised at how the Phillies have lagged in that area.
“No, because I was aware enough with what was going on in previous years to kind of know where we are,” he said.
And why has that changed?
“Because I’m in the position to make a hiring decision and make that happen,” he said without hesitation.
Make no mistake. Hiring Andy MacPhail is hugely significant with possible longlasting repercussions. But it only begins to suggest the way the Phillies are now a different operation than they’ve been.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com.