Three games into the 2018 season, I, much like Gabe Kapler, have arrived at a critical juncture. I feel compelled to choose a side on Kapler, who over one bizarre weekend in Atlanta managed to steer the Phillies’ ship beyond the curious and into the absurd.
In doing so, he accomplished what wasn’t long ago the seemingly impossible task of wiping away the palpable good will and optimism of fans starved for competitive baseball and late-season relevance. As a writer, that puts me in an interesting spot. Did you come here for measured takes? Do you need to read the standard qualifiers?
Small sample size. Long season. Three games does not a season make.
Or do I tell you that the Phillies’ opening series in Atlanta was a complete shit show that raises several red flags regarding what could transpire over the remaining 98.1 percent of the season? Do I tell you that Kapler’s performance, though it could have been worse from a win-loss perspective, was an unmitigated disaster? Because it was. I guess I just answered my own question.
Let’s briefly recap what happened this weekend:
1) Kapler benched his presumed starting center fielder on Opening Day, citing his desire to optimize his lineup’s performance by using data-driven match-up analysis. Predictably, the center fielder was less than pleased. I’ll get back to why this matters in a moment.
2) He removed his staff ace after only 68 pitches, despite the fact that said ace was dominant through five-plus stress-free innings. What ensued over the game’s final four frames was a comedy of errors that featured a handful of Phillies relievers periodically parading forth from the bullpen door. Each did their part in ensuring what clearly felt like the inevitable outcome, which was the most embarrassing managerial/coaching debut in this city’s sports history.
3) The death blow in the meltdown was the three-run bomb Hector Neris allowed to Nick Markakis, who owns Neris. The data clearly indicated the probability of the ill-fated outcome, but Kapler elected to ignore it in a high-leverage situation and was burned. On the day, Kapler irritated his center fielder, pissed off his staff ace who was robbed of a win, lost a baseball game, and demonstrated a lack of strategic consistency which I’m sure raised some eyebrows around the clubhouse.
But hey, it was just one out of 162. No reason to overreact.
4) Kapler gave a startling post-game interview in which he incorrectly doubled-down on his flawed line of thinking:
Gabe Kapler just doubled down and didn't admit a mistake on the worst decision I've seen in two years. That was a spectacularly bad interview. Someone better wake him up quick. This is going to go VERY badly for him. Not admitting mistakes is not a good look in this town. #phils pic.twitter.com/VrvDMv1jQS
— Justin Windheim (@jwindheim) March 30, 2018
To be fair, one could argue that Kapler had to say that he would do it all over again. If he truly has conviction in his philosophy, then he isn’t going to backtrack after one unfavorable outcome. The issue here isn’t about analytics and data, it is that he managed the first game of the season like it was the only game, failing to identify that he needlessly taxed a bullpen that was likely to be heavily relied upon over the series’ final two games.
5) A young Phillies team showed some resiliency by bouncing back to earn its first win of the season on Friday night, but it came at a price. Starter Nick Pivetta lasted only four innings and Kapler needed seven innings from his already fatigued relievers to outlast the Braves. The Phillies set a Major League record by using 15 pitchers to complete 10.1 innings in the season’s first two games. Amazingly, this still wasn’t the most incomprehensible aspect of the weekend.
6) Desperately needing some length from their starting pitcher, the Phillies turned to Vince Velasquez in the series finale. The result was predictable. A starter who has shown a frustrating inability to pitch efficiently and effectively deep into games over the past two seasons continued to show that inability after failing to finish the third inning against the Braves.
It was at this point when things devolved into a total circus act as Kapler had his worst moment in a weekend filled with bad ones. He signaled to the bullpen for Hoby Milner, but there was one small problem. Milner was not loose and was forced to enter the game without having thrown a single warmup pitch:
Umpire crew chief Jerry Layne mercifully allowed Milner to take a handful of warmup tosses on the field as a safety precaution before being unfairly thrust into action:
Layne: Braves manager Brian Snitker wanted Milner to have zero warm-up pitches. Layne disagreed. "The last thing I want to do is get somebody hurt," he said. "It's already a messed-up situation."
— Matt Gelb (@MattGelb) April 1, 2018
Needless to say, it’s utterly inexcusable that an umpire must protect a player’s health because his managaer was too incompetent to do so. Kapler dismissed the gaffe as a mere miscommunication.
The Phillies, of course, went on to lose 15-2 in a game that saw them use position player Pedro Florimon in mop up duty only three games into the season.
7) Despite all of the above, Kapler assessed his team after its first three games and then told reporters-with a straight face-that it will make the postseason:
Despite tonight's loss, Gabe Kapler remains very confident in his team. pic.twitter.com/OqxNE9L5iG
— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) April 1, 2018
All of that in just three days. It’s a lot to digest and Kapler has already arrived at a critical point in only his first week on the job. He came into this role with a noted lack of managerial experience, but he seemed to effectively change the feeling around the team during his first spring training in charge. Those good feelings are now all but gone.
His strategical maneuvers were both questionable and misguided. His inability to execute a routine pitching change, which directly put at risk a key piece of his bullpen, was flat-out scary. Several of his decisions surely have caused his young team to at least privately question if he is fit for the position.
It’s absolutely unfair to suggest so soon that Kapler will be a bust, or to definitively conclude that this first series is a sign of what’s to come, but this weekend mattered and Kapler fucked it up. Badly. It would be just as irresponsible to simply dismiss what went down as early growing pains. I’m not going to bury the guy at this point, but put me in the camp with those who are a mix of skeptical and concerned.
This has most definitely been a suboptimal start.