On the morning of August 7, the Phillies were comfortably positioned 15 games over .500 as owners of the National League’s second-best record. Even then, the flaws of Gabe Kapler’s team were obvious and the warning signs were clear, but faults (and logic) be damned, it seemed like the Phillies were destined for seven late-season showdowns against the Atlanta Braves with a division title on the line. Of course, we know now that those games will serve as nothing more than a reminder of what could have been.
In the wake of this late-season death spiral, most followers of the Phillies feel what I would term as a blend of anger, disappointment, and acceptance. Whatever the emotion, Phillies fans are a resilient bunch and have already begun to look ahead at what should happen next. And what a question it is.
What happens when a team plays its worst when the games matter most? What happens when it goes 2-9 in September, 6-17 over its past 23 games, and 40 days without clinching a series win? When it loses 8.5 games to the young and imperfect Braves in the division standings in just over a month’s time? What happens is that some fans become angry, some apathetic, but almost all will move to assign blame.
Yes, it’s true that there exists a faction of fans and media members who are willing to agreeably deem this season a success simply because of an improved record, but that party shrinks daily as the Phillies’ prolonged freefall has jeopardized what not so long ago seemed like a certainty that the team would finish north of the .500 mark.
Watching the Phillies toggle between devastating late-game losses and lifeless blowouts has all but wiped away the goodwill earned by this young team and its rookie manager. Kapler, specifically, seems to have recently chapped many an ass. The patience of many fans has worn thin in response to his daily lineup shuffles, aggressive shifts, relentless pitching changes, and unwavering positivity that have each taken a toll as the losses mount. Don’t believe me? You can try sports talk radio, but that’s a, uh, very limited and specific cross-section of the fanbase . Instead, I suggest you open up a tweet from almost any Phillies writer during a game and read the replies. Do these disgruntled fans that are fed up with the manager represent the minority opinion? Maybe, but if it is, it’s a sizable one, and I think it warrants some exploration.
I’m sure opinions will differ, but I want to work in facts, so here’s what is indisputable: The Phillies are hitting .237 as a team this season, which is the second-worst team batting average in all of baseball. Their .711 OPS and .396 SLG% are both well below the Major League average, and only two teams have a higher percentage of plate appearances end with a strikeout than the Phillies’ 24.6 K% this season.
Here’s what else is irrefutable: The Phillies are a poor defensive team. Their -117 defensive runs saved ranks dead-last this season and is an almost impossible 41 runs worse than the -76 DRS posted by the Mets, the National League’s second-worst defense by the same metric.
What about the starting pitching that was for much of the season the Phillies’ greatest strength? Over the past 30 days, right around the time the train began to fly off the tracks, that strength became arguably the team’s greatest weakness. Over that span, Phillies starters have posted the National League’s second-worst ERA (5.24) and third-worst WHIP (1.41). The bullpen hasn’t fared much better with a 4.49 ERA and 1.42 WHIP that are each among league-worsts. While Kapler certainly deserves his share of blame for his team’s spectacular implosion, if you think all of this team’s issues fall on his shoulders, then I think you grossly overestimate a manager’s impact. These problematic numbers across all phases of the game aren’t indicative of a manager batting the wrong guy in the cleanup or leadoff spot, or making one too many pitching changes, they are indicative of a team that is fundamentally flawed in its composition and just isn’t good enough.
Another commonly cited gripe with the manager is the surprising regression of players like Odubel Herrera and Cesar Hernandez. Should their struggles be pinned solely on Kapler? Or are they representative of an organization-wide philosophy that has increased emphasis on drawing walks and elevating the baseball, a philosophical implementation that has, in part, driven the recent departure of several key minor league hitting coaches. Look at Hernandez’s average launch angle that has nearly tripled since last season, or Herrera’s which has jumped nearly 25% and tell me that’s all about Gabe Kapler. Please.
That doesn’t excuse Kapler’s obvious shortcomings or mistakes. I agree with many of the common critiques. Go look at my Twitter timeline during almost any Phillies game and behold my palpable disgust. The end of this season has been an unmitigated disaster in all regards, and the Phillies should be thoroughly embarrassed by their organizational incompetence that encompasses everything from a lack of progression by several key young pieces and the predictable minimal contribution from a slew of cheap and uninspiring acquisitions to the fucking grounds crew that couldn’t be bothered to drop a tarp on the infield at Citizens Bank Park ahead of a three-day rain event.
But I’m also fair, and thus, I don’t think that the Phillies’ disastrous finish warrants Kapler’s dismissal after a season in which he kept a fatally flawed team afloat into September. You should be frustrated, disgusted, and discouraged by the Phillies’ disgraceful play over the past month, but I suggest a year of patience and to pump the breaks on calling for his job just because you don’t like his “computers” or analytics-driven decision-making. Let’s see if the general manager can secure him some difference-making talent (an entirely separate issue and big if), and then let’s see what he does with it before calling for his head. If we’re having the same conversations next summer, then yeah, the dude will have to go.