Gabe Kapler, new manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, is having a weird time. It’s too early to call it a hard time, and probably too early for any firm pronouncements about his fit as a manager, but things are for sure going in strange directions. Through three games Kapler has already spent more time defending his managerial decisions than some managers will over the course of a full season.
By far the biggest, hmm, area of concern for Phillies fans has been Kapler’s use of his bullpen. Opening day saw Kapler pull starter Aaron Nola after one out in the sixth inning; that alone is hardly notable, but in this case Nola had not yet allowed a run; even that isn’t so weird all on its own, but then you learn that Nola had thrown just 68 pitches through five-plus innings. Okay, sure, you are thinking, but in a close game a manager will often and this is where I cut you off to note that the Phillies had plated four runs in the top of the inning and had a five-run lead, plenty of breathing room for Nola to work his way into and out of trouble, should the Braves string something together. And then there’s this: if an extremely efficient shutout isn’t a good enough performance to earn a pitcher a chance to go beyond 70 pitches, why on earth was Nola allowed to hit with two outs in the top of the inning, with runners on first and third? His strikeout ended Philadelphia’s big inning.
Okay, fine, but who are we to quibble if the strategy ultimately works? Well that’s just it: Philadelphia’s bullpen, which Kapler describes as a “major strength of [the] club,” hasn’t been able to hold up its end of the bargain. Thursday night, Hoby Milner gave up a two-run dinger to Freddie Freeman seven pitches into his relief of Nola; Adam Morgan and Edubray Ramos combined to allow three runs in the eighth inning; Hector Neris came on with the score tied in the ninth and gave up three runs, the final margin of defeat. Kapler got better results from his bullpen the following night, in a 5-4 win, but used eight relievers in the game after pulling starter Nick Pivetta before the start of the fifth inning. This approach gave Gabe Kapler, by the end of his second ever game as a major league manager, a slice of history, per Matt Gelb of The Athletic:
The Phillies set a major-league record by using 15 pitchers in their first two games. The previous mark, 14, was accomplished by the 2014 Cubs and 2004 Twins. Each of those teams began the season with 26 innings over their first two games. The Phillies played 20 innings and still discovered a way to summon 15 pitchers.
Kapler’s philosophy, which he apparently honed while working for the Dodgers organization, calls for quick hooks for starting pitchers, such that they are not too often exposed to an opposing lineup for a third time. This makes some sense—the more times a quality batter sees a pitcher in the same game, the more likely he is to spot certain pitches and pitch tendencies, and the more likely the pitcher is to get into trouble—but requires starting pitchers who are able to work efficiently through their first two trips through the lineup, and relief pitchers who can come in and be better than whatever is likely to happen during the starter’s third trip.
A manager with a quick hook, who likes to play match-ups, runs the extreme risk of wearing out his bullpen, and of running out of arms. It’s troubling to see this kind of thing written about a team that is less than a 50th of the way into its season:
The Phillies could execute another roster move before the game [on Saturday] to buttress the taxed bullpen.
All of these concerns were voiced before Saturday’s game. And it was Saturday’s game when the wheels really seemed to come off of Kapler’s pitching strategy. As a possible side effect of the gleefully liberal use of his available bullpen arms, Kapler seems to be losing track of who is available, and when, and under what circumstances. Saturday Kapler yanked starter Vince Velasquez in the third inning and called to the bullpen for Milner. But there was a problem:
The pitcher Kapler wanted hadn’t even had time to warm up! This created an awkward scene where Kapler lingered around the mound while Milner tried to get some extra throws in, in the bullpen. Braves manager Brian Snitker didn’t like the delay and came out of his dugout to argue, and was eventually ejected by umpire crew chief Jerry Layne. Layne, for his part, was in an uncomfortable position, per ESPN:
“For whatever reason the pitcher wasn’t even getting ready,” Layne told a pool reporter. “Who got crossed up, I’m not placing blame on anybody because I don’t know. He just wasn’t ready. Hadn’t thrown a pitch. ... The last thing I want to do is get somebody hurt. It’s already a messed-up situation.”
Layne said a report would be sent to Major League Baseball.
“Whoever’s at fault on the Phillies’ side should have to answer to Major League Baseball,” Layne said.
Hard as it may be to believe, this was just the start of the madness Saturday. Velasquez left the Phillies in a bad seven run hole; Kapler used four relievers to get the Phillies from the third inning through the seventh, including two innings from Jake Thompson, who surrendered five more runs. With his bullpen already on fumes and the game well out of reach, Kapler turned to outfielder Pedro Florimon to pitch the ninth inning.
So, through three games, Kapler has set a major league record for most relievers used through the first two games of a season, and has already had to deploy a position player to finish a game. The Phillies have given up 27 runs. It’s early yet, but it’s not insignificant that that is a whole eight runs more than the next highest number in baseball. If nothing else, it is extremely hard to accept someone’s unorthodox and extravagant-seeming approach to pitching when it yields such abysmal results. Per Matt Gelb, after Saturday’s fiasco:
When asked about the inauspicious beginning to his managerial career, Kapler spoke for more than a minute about the “long view.” How he was thinking about New York. How his lineup is seeing so many pitches. How his hitters have put the fat part of the bat on the ball. How his rotation is filled with a couple of horses. How some of the young pitchers have limitless potential.
Then, he proclaimed his team would make the playoffs.
It’s awful hard to not roll your eyes at a manager who yanks his starter after 68 pitches and starts playing match-ups in the fifth inning of the second game of the season, who then espouses the long view after a catastrophic fuck-up. So Kapler’s long view involves the nightly deployment of an extremely short view? One that left the team without an available reliever before the end of the third game of the season? Yes, small sample size; yes, circumstances; yes, the Phillies—still, before people start to buy what Kapler is selling, they’ll need to see evidence that it is anything other than chaos.