It’s not abnormal to see a massive philosophical shift when new coaches take over a franchise. Phil Jackson’s hire brought Michael Jordan the triangle offense. Bill Walsh’s west coast offense brought Joe Montana and Steve Young to new heights in the bay.
However, in a sport such as baseball, where traditionalism is so ingrained that the fanbase revolts at any sense of rule change, a change of any kind is often seen as an attack on the game itself.
Gabe Kapler, the new manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, is doing just that. His managerial style, one of extremely quick hooks for starters and a massive reliance on everyone in the bullpen, hasn’t really been seen in the big leagues.
Kapler, who proved himself to be analytically sound during his stint as the Director of Player Development for the Dodgers, has had baseball fans around the nation breaking the cardinal rule of sports. Kapler has fans overreacting to every managerial decision three games into the season.
While Kapler made a quantitative decision based on splits comparing the opposing batting averages and WHIPs of starters compared to relievers, both of which are better in relievers.
This isn’t exactly out of the ordinary, or something one wouldn’t expect. If this wasn’t the case, managers would roll with starters really late into games. However, the relievers whose only job is to get through (generally) one inning will naturally have better success than starters who have to budget their energy over a massive length of time.
The Phillies have taken this to an extreme this season, with their starters only pitching 43.4% of innings. Aaron Nola, the Phils’ opening day starter, was lifted after only 68 pitches, despite only giving up three hits and one run. This is in spite of the fact that Nola threw an average of 99 pitches per start last season under Pete Mackanin.
In the next game, Nick Pivetta wasn’t allowed to start the fifth inning despite only throwing 73 pitches. Pivetta did give up three runs in those four innings but was allowed to hit for himself in the top of the fourth and pitch the bottom half, even though two of those runs crossed the plate in the third.
Finally, in the series finale, Vince Velasquez got lit up and was forced to depart after only 2.2 innings. Pedro Florimon, a center fielder, came on to pitch at the end of the 15-2 affair, the first time in the history of the MLB a position player has pitched in March.
Kapler got himself into major trouble in that series finale when it came to a particular pitching change involving Velasquez’s replacement, Hoby Milner. Milner had yet to warm up when Kapler summoned him in from the bullpen, a massive red flag for any manager, regardless of level or experience. Kapler tried stalling on the mound to allow Milner to throw some more pitches in the pen, which is against the rules. As a result, Milner was docked warm-up pitches.
Kapler has used more pitchers in the opening three games than any other manager in history, making eighteen pitching changes in 27.2 innings.
“I know he’s a first time manager but there’s no excuse for what we’re seeing.” – Braves announcer Joe Simpson
Gabe Kapler is about to make the Phillies’ team surgeon one very happy man. The Phillies organization should just send him a recurring payment for the Tommy John surgeries he is going to have to perform should Kapler not change his approach soon.
The truth is that a managerial style like this, while theoretically maximizing pitching performance, is not sustainable long term. Kapler cannot honestly expect his bullpen to have to piece together five innings a night effectively, nevertheless healthily.
There’s a reason that Kevin Cash was criticized to the moon and back for his “Bullpen Day as Fifth Starter” idea he is trying this year. Having to dispose of so much of a bullpen in one game leaves so many guys either unavailable or rendered ineffective for upcoming contests that it isn’t a viable strategy.
There’s a reason that, in an overwhelming majority of cases, relievers don’t pitch back to back days. There is a massive injury risk assumed with running guys out there on consecutive days and asking them to throw 100 miles per hour. The sad reality of the situation is that the shelf life of a major league reliever isn’t very long due to this, and so many relievers over the year have been shut down with shoulder or elbow injuries.
Kapler isn’t just using Cash’s method, it looks like he is trying to have a Bullpen Day every day. While the Velasquez hook, bar the drama associated with it, was justifiable at the time, there is no reason that Nola and Pivetta should have been lifted so early.
Kapler came out after the 15-2 loss and said that he has had position players work as pitchers throughout the spring, and will use them intermittently. There’s a solid reason that, for the history of baseball, position players hadn’t had to train as pitchers. There is no excuse for a position player to ever step foot on the rubber in a competitive situation unless the game goes uncharacteristically long.
“It’s not the last time we’re going to use position players to pitch.” – Gabe Kapler
It’s fair to believe, based on that comment, that Gabe Kapler actually intends on using his position players as pitchers when trying to win games. If this is the truth of the situation, the Phillies don’t stand a chance at being competitive this year. You don’t win championships, or many games, off the backs of gimmicks that sound straight out of whatever baseball’s equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters is.
Kapler, who has come out and guaranteed a playoff appearance for the Phillies, is actively destroying the players who he is going to have to rely on most to achieve that goal. A solid bullpen is the backbone of a championship contender, and without one, solid rosters are often wasted in mediocrity. And while the Phillies do have a solid bullpen, not even the Yankees have a bullpen that can be relied upon to pitch the equivalent of a start every game, and throwing your center fielder on the bump to get the save isn’t a practical solution to the problem.
It seems obvious to me that Kapler is trying a bit too hard to be the managerial equivalent of Billy Beane. He has taken the idea of shortening pitchers’ starts and amped it up past eleven. Much like Beane did with his sabermetric movement with the A’s in the early 2000s, Kapler is entering murky water with this situation.
However, should this trend we saw against Atlanta continue, I fail to see how Kapler is going to stay afloat.