I’m here to answer a question that I was asked the other day by someone in the strangest of places.
My daughter is a dancer and her character shoes broke during dress rehearsal for a show she is in.
Desperate for a new pair, I ended up ordering her a new pair on Amazon. However, I wasn’t sure how the sizes ran, so I asked a question first, hoping someone would answer it.
The person who answered the question suggested had the name “Phillies” in their username. When I thanked them, I signed off with a pleasant, “Go Phillies.”
The follow up response was filled with too many LOL’s for my liking, but there was an interesting question posed in there. “Is it possible to not like Gabe Kapler and still like him at the same time?”
I didn’t answer the question, because I didn’t want to continue a weird conversation on Amazon that started about dance shoes and turned into a Phillies conversation, but the question intrigued me enough to want to write this post.
And here’s the answer:
Yes. Yes it is possible.
Ironically, it’s how I feel on most days when watching the Phillies. Because I never know what Gabe I’m going to get.
There are days when I am incredibly frustrated by his managerial decisions. There are days when his lineup leaves me scratching my head. There are days when he says something at his post game press conference when I think the guy is a snake oil (coconut oil?) salesman.
And then there are times when I think he’s coming around more to my line of thinking. He leaves his best pitcher in a game, despite the fact that analytics would have had him removed an inning or two earlier. He makes a gutsy decision to go all in for a win by trotting out a starting pitcher in the 16th inning of a game on one day rest rather than resort to using a position player as a pitcher as he was wont to do earlier this season.
It’s hard to argue that the guy has done a nice enough job of being a player’s manager – at least for the younger guys in the clubhouse – to have them believing enough in themselves that they are a good team.
And although the laser light show and fog machines in the clubhouse after wins may have been a bit much, when you have a record of 57-44, are in first place and have the second-best record in the National League, it’s hard to argue against that clubhouse culture.
It’s been successful through 101 games. More successful than they could have ever imagined. And with the Washington Nationals unexpectedly coming apart at the seams, the Phillies are in this for the long haul this season. They will be in the playoff race until the final days of September.
Even though there is good fortune there, Kapler has still been at the helm of the ship and kept the boat on course, even when there were plenty of chances for it to veer completely off the map.
And yet, recognizing those things, I’m still not ready to crown him as a managerial genius or mastermind like some others are.
Take for instance:
Gabe Kapler is quickly becoming my favorite Phillies manager in my lifetime. Can't sing his praises enough. Guy's got it.
— Matt Smith (@DTMattSmith) July 25, 2018
I used to work with Matt. He’s actually a sharp baseball mind, even if he does wade a little too deeply in the deep end of the fancy stats pool.
But let’s slow the eff down with this take.
He hasn’t even earned his first playoff berth and Matt’s got him ahead of the guy who won five consecutive division titles and a world championship? Chill out buddy.
But he isn’t alone:
Are you ready to join WIP Evenings’s official Gabe Kapler fan club… “Gabe’s Guys?” #GabesGuys
— WIP Evening Show (@WIPEvenings) July 25, 2018
I guess women aren’t allowed to like baseball or support the manager… but I digress….
The point is, becoming a blind loyalist at this point is dumb. Likewise, being a cantankerous grumbling curmudgeon who hates Gabe just because he’s different from what you are used to is pretty dumb too:
Is Gabe Kapler winning games for the Phillies because of analytics. or despite them? What statistical analysis supports the insane way he used the bullpen in the past 2 games? Yet somehow he won both of them. Is he smarter than us, or just like lucky?
— Angelo Cataldi (@AngeloCataldi) June 18, 2018
To be accurate They’re Dusty’s Dudes! Kapler is a fraud.
— Chris Audesirk (@audidadx4) July 25, 2018
I really want to like Gabe kapler, but when he says the most important at bat of the game was Knapp’s 1st inning leadoff strikeout u can hear the rocks rattling in his empty head. Lol. Continues to insult our intelligence, or does he believe his nonsense. Think it’s da later
— Rick Korpics (@rpk623) July 26, 2018
Actually, this last comment isn’t that stupid. It’s pretty accurate.
Yesterday’s game featured a huge bases-clearing triple by Carlos Santana and Scott Kingery’s first home run in a month, two at bats that were infinitely more important than Andrew Knapp’s lead-off strikeout.
Knapp’s at bat was as good as an at bat can be for a strikeout, but it was still a strikeout. It was ultimately unproductive.
Yes, it was 13 pitches. Yes getting the starter out of the game earlier is a good thing. However, there were other long at bats prior to Walker Buehler leaving the game. For example, Rhys Hoskins worked the count full before he hit his solo homer in the very next at bat after Knapp.
What Kapler was really saying with his comments in that tweet above was an “eff you” to the critics who wonder why Knapp is leading off in the first place.
He’s now 1-for-8 with no walks and three strikeouts in two games leading off, so depending on how you measure success will depend on what you think of those numbers, but to me, they aren’t good and he isn’t a good option there – especially when your lead-off hitter has the most plate appearances in a game.
So his comments were self-serving. They were his way of justifying why he thinks he’s smarter than you. Rather than ignore it, or simply say something like, “Hey, I know we didn’t get the result we wanted but working a 13-pitch at bat to lead off the game really set the tone for us for the rest of the day,” which would have been more than justifiable, he went all-in on his take that it was the most important at bat of the game.
We aren’t dumb Gabe. We know the game too. We recognize it for what it was. Don’t make it out to be more because it makes you look good.
But it’s not just his post game “everything is awesome” commentary that gets under my skin. I at least understand the rationale behind it. Protect your players and they will be more willing to run through a brick wall for you.
That’s Gabe’s greatest strength so far – having his finger on the pulse of most of the locker room (I say “most” because I’m sure there are veterans in there who don’t completely buy in to his approach).
But his reluctance to try anything different to fix the defensive woes of this team is an example of his stubbornness that his way is the best way.
According to Sports Info Solutions The Phillies dead last in defensive runs saved and in defensive runs saved by shifting:
Most Defensive Runs Saved – 2018 Season
— Sports Info Solutions (@SportsInfo_SIS) July 24, 2018
This is partly because the players have been atrocious, but this is also partly because they are playing out of position so much in their position.
In other words, shifting is one thing, extreme shifting is something else.
Against Baltimore, Maikel Franco had to make a game-saving diving stop on Chris Davis on a ground ball that would have been a routine play if he was playing in his normal position. But he wasn’t:
The very next day, Kapler not only continued that shift, but got more extreme, putting all four Phillies infielders on the same side of the diamond.
Granted, it didn’t hurt, as Davis struck out each time he came to the plate, because he stinks, but the fact is, this play aside, the Phillies are often left to mentally make adjustments on balls that would normally be routine.
It has plagued them consistently. It’s why they are last in baseball in defensive runs saved from shifting.
Maybe don’t shift so far. Maybe shift a little bit. And really, do we need four infielders on the same side of the diamond, three isn’t enough? Is the range of Carlos Santana (former gold glove winner) Cesar Hernandez and Scott Kingery that bad?
And how about this hit by Joc Pederson in the loss to the Dodgers on Monday:
If Kingery is only shifting a little bit, and isn’t completely on the other side of the bag, this is a double play ground out, Seranthony Dominguez likely doesn’t have his worst outing of the season, and the Phillies potentially sweep the Dodgers.
This is the thing that has bothered me the most with Kapler. He’s settled down with the bullpen to get it into a position where it’s doing well now with defined roles. Small hiccups like Knapp leading off aside, the lineup has settled down too without too much jockeying around. (I’d still swap Santana and Hoskins so there is a better chance of runners being on base for Hoskins, but that’s mostly nit-picky), and as I mentioned before, he’s got the team believing in itself, which is all good.
But when he digs his heels in, he really becomes an immovable object, even if there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.
I can find dozens of examples like the videos above from this season. And sure, there are times the shift works. I’m not anti-shifting. But when you’re one of only two teams in the negative on runs saved by shifting, you are either shifting at the wrong times or shifting too frequently, or over-shifting specific batters, or some combination of the three.
And the Phillies don’t seem to be trying anything different there at all.
That bugs me. And it bugs me how they spin it.
Fix the defense, fix how you present it publicly, and I can probably get on board with the manager and move forward.
Until then, I’m gonna stick by my long-existing belief that managers can’t win games, but they can certainly lose them.
In the interim, I’ll applaud Gabe for getting the team to where they are right now. I’ll give him his credit when and where it is due. But, I also won’t stop pointing out mistakes either. As Bob Wankel likes to say on our Crossed Up podcast, “If you want to hear someone always piss positive about Gabe and the Phillies, there are plenty of living, breathing smiley faces out there for you to listen to, watch and read.”
But my warning to you is that blind loyalty is a dangerous premise for sports fans. As such, you won’t find that here.
And oh yeah, you also won’t find me championing Gabe as the greatest manager of my lifetime anytime soon either.