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Gabe Kapler is learning on the fly as Phillies manager

He had a few rough games early, but Kapler has done a better job as of late.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Six teams hired a new manager prior to the 2018 MLB season.

The Washington Nationals, New York Mets, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers all found new skippers, but none have pushed as unorthodox methods as Philadelphia Phillies new manager Gabe Kapler.

Right after the Phillies hired Kapler in November, I wrote an article about him in which I compared him to former Eagles coach Chip Kelly. Certainly, Philadelphia sports fans hope Kapler’s tenure in the city does not end similarly to how Kelly’s did. (Though that is very unlikely to occur, as Kapler would never get the GM duties as Kelly did. Baseball just does not work that way.)

Thirteen games in, and Kapler has found himself right in the thick of things already, and not in the most positive of ways. It’s certianly not all bad however; of teams with first-time managers, Kapler’s Phillies do have the third-best record at 9-5. It’s a simplified comparison because all six managers inherited teams with different talent levels, but what I am trying to say is, well, Kapler’s Phillies have not fallen apart...at least not yet.

For a bit, it seemed like the team’s direction might go sour. On Opening Day, Kapler pulled starting pitcher Aaron Nola with a 5-0 lead after throwing just 68 pitches. The Phillies went on to lose. Two days later, he brought in left-hander Hoby Milner from the bullpen without warming him up first. And, after dropping two more games to the Mets, the Phillies were 1-4. Kapler was booed in his first game as manager in Philadelphia. It was a less than auspicious beginning.

Since then though, the Phillies have rebounded, albeit against bad teams. They took two of three from the Marlins, including a 20-1 thumping on Apr. 7th, then swept both the Reds and the Rays.

What has impressed me is how quickly Kapler has been willing to change his methods when necessary. To survive in Major League Baseball requires being able to go off-script, to make the important changes right as things look bleak. Kapler has done just that, and he has done that with success.

One thing Kapler has stressed throughout his managerial career is the third-time-through-the-order penalty. That is, a starting pitcher’s numbers significantly decrease when they are facing hitters for the third time, and they should be removed from the game before this happens.

Kapler subscribed to that methodology when pulling Nola on Opening Day, yet many pointed out that he lacked the feel for the situation, as the game was pretty well-in-hand, and Nola’s pitch count was only in the 70s. Kapler did not need Nola, or any of his pitchers, to throw a shutout. All he needed was them to allow fewer than five runs. Nola should have been left in that game, even if it was only to just save the bullpen. It would not have been the end of the world had Nola given up one or two runs. Over the course of the season, those types of decisions help save a bullpen.

In the first eight games of the Phillies season, the starting pitcher on any given night faced more than 18 hitters (exactly twice through the order) six times. That includes Nola on Opening Day, who faced 20, yet is still thrown in as having been pulled too quickly. So, yes, Kapler would let his pitchers get to face the order for a third time, but it usually wasn’t for long. The most batters that any of his first eight starters faced was 25.

Gabe Kapler’s starting pitching usage

Game No. Starter Batters Faced Pitches Thrown
Game No. Starter Batters Faced Pitches Thrown
1 Aaron Nola 20 68
2 Nick Pivetta 18 73
3 Vince Velasquez 20 69
4 Ben Lively 25 91
5 Aaron Nola 22 87
6 Nick Pivetta 21 97
7 Vince Velasquez 23 98
8 Jake Arrieta 18 74
9 Ben Lively 27 100
10 Aaron Nola 29 103
11 Nick Pivetta 26 103
12 Vince Velasquez 25 93
13 Jake Arrieta 27 88

Over the last five games, Kapler has let his starters roll.

Kapler let Ben Lively pitch up to 100 pitches in the first game of the series against the Reds, and that proved to be a mistake as he gave up the tying run in the top of the sixth.

On the next night, Kapler let Nola pitch into the eighth inning (amazing, I know) in the first true Phillies gem of the season.

To finish out the series, Kapler went with his gut and with the desire of his player after letting Nick Pivetta throw the seventh inning. After the game, Kapler said that Pivetta knew he was likely being pulled but was convinced by the starter to stay in. That decision paid off, as Pivetta finished out the seventh and saved the bullpen some outs in a night they desperately needed them. The game went to 12th inning, and the Phillies eventually won.

In fact, four times this season, the Phillies’ starting pitcher finished 6 23 or more innings in their outing, which is tied for the second-most in baseball. Only the Cleveland Indians have more.

So, really, Kapler has done a better job as of late of both following his gut and his players’ wishes when it comes to starting pitching. As any good baseball analyst would tell you, there is still a balance between numbers and gut feel. After all, if everything was decided by numbers, then these games would not even be worth playing.

But that’s just in the starting pitching department.

Defensively, the Phillies have been brought into the modern age, as they have moved into the league’s top half for most shifts for the first time since at least 2012 (which is how far back FanGraphs’ split tool goes). They have had some unfortunate BABIP luck on those, but at a minimum, they are there.

In terms of lineup construction, Kapler has been tasked with the tough job of keeping everyone happy. The Phillies have, in theory, nine players worth starting for the seven non-catching spots. As expected, some players have expressed their discontent for the lack of playing time, but from an outsider’s point of view, it seems as if Kapler has done a fine job balancing everyone’s interests based on the matchups that day, while leaving the cornerstones of his lineup — Rhys Hoskins and Carlos Santana — in nearly every day. I have no concerns there.

And, lastly, in terms of bullpen usage, Kapler still seems to be getting the feel for things. He has used a lot of relievers so far. The Phillies are tied for fourth in baseball for most relief “games,” or different players coming into pitch. He has played the matchup game seemingly a bit too often, and that has pegged the Phillies at 24th in baseball in terms of overall bullpen value. It will help once they get Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek — their big offseason bullpen additions — back from the DL.

On the whole, as a sabermetrics fan, I’m hoping that Kapler’s “experiment” in Philadelphia works out. He obviously cannot rely solely on the computers, and the burden is on him to explain to the players the reasoning behind the moves. But, as he has proven so far this season, he’s willing to work to find that balance. And that is what will create a successful tenure for Kapler in Philadelphia.


Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.