Gabe Kapler’s first season as Phillies’ manager has taught us a lot about his philosophy
As Year 1 of the Kapler Era nears its end, the first-year manager has lived up to his reputation as a progressive, outside-the-box thinker who is eager to challenge baseball conventions.
ATLANTA — Two weeks ago, before the Phillies played a game in New York, Gabe Kapler summed up his most basic tenet of managing in 15 words.
"I think, philosophically, we all need to challenge the (bleep) out of our own beliefs."
Maybe the Phillies should turn that into a mass-produced fortune cookie and give it away at the series finale next Sunday. Or better yet, maybe they should slap it on a T-shirt for folks to wear around Citizens Bank Park. Whatever it takes to make clear that, like it or not, the culture change the Phillies have undergone this season — defined by Kapler, championed by general manager Matt Klentak and supported by a growing research-and-development department — is only going to continue.
Since spring training began, Kapler has asked his coaches and players to challenge their beliefs about daily lineup construction, hitting philosophy, the deployment of relief pitchers, and the metrics they use to judge success and failure (FIP and wOBA are two of his favorites). His ideas aren't all radical. In many cases, they were adopted from what has worked for other organizations. But the Phillies were so far behind the curve that, well, Kapler's outside-the-box thinking comes off even more progressive.
The players have largely bought in. It helps that the Phillies are one of the youngest teams in the majors, with a roster that remains impressionable enough to be open to change. The public is more skeptical, at least judging by attendance at home games, reaction on social media and e-mails to this writer's inbox, and Kapler has become a polarizing figure.
Kapler remains confident that he will win over the masses. But that's only likely to happen if the Phillies win, which they did so little of after the first week of August that a pleasantly surprising season turned sour.
As Year 1 of the Kapler era winds down, there are conclusions to be drawn about his managerial philosophy. A few observations after nearly six months:
Position flexibility wanted
In a perfect world, Kapler said the Phillies would have one lineup that combines their optimal offensive production with their best defense in both the infield and outfield.
"That's not how our roster is constructed," he said this week. "We have to sometimes give up something to gain an advantage."
The Phillies aren't alone. Through Thursday, Kapler used 128 batting orders in 152 games, which might seem excessive until you consider the playoff-bound Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs used 134 and 141 lineups, respectively. The Los Angeles Dodgers have used 147.
Kapler admires each of those organizations, in part because they have prioritized positional flexibility with even their best players. The Cubs have used MVP candidate Javier Baez at three positions and Kris Bryant at four, and moved Ben Zobrist and Ian Happ all over the field. The Dodgers do the same with Max Muncy, Chris Taylor, Enrique Hernandez and even Cody Bellinger.
The Phillies are moving in that direction under Kapler. Rhys Hoskins has been seeing time at both left field and first base, Carlos Santana at first base and third. And the next time you wonder what position Scott Kingery will play next season, consider the very real possibility that he could play every day at multiple positions.
Ready to launch
Kapler has drawn perhaps the most criticism for preaching an offensive approach that worked when he played for the Boston Red Sox and when he worked for the Dodgers but has not yet taken hold with the Phillies.
It sounds so simple: Lay off the pitches that you can't drive, be aggressive on the ones you can. And when you do swing, hit the ball on a line or in the air rather than on the ground. If Kapler didn't already believe in that approach, he was certainly converted to the cult after watching hitting consultants Craig Wallenbrock and Robert Van Scoyoc work with several Dodgers hitters, including Taylor and Justin Turner.
But the Phillies haven't made enough contact on pitches in the strike zone. Entering Friday night, they ranked 14th out of 15 NL teams in hits and 11th in slugging percentage. They were third in the league in walks, but they don't drive in nearly enough of their baserunners.
Still, the Phillies have doubled-down on their hitting philosophy. They recently parted ways with several minor-league hitting coaches and will bring in instructors who will be in closer lockstep with the major-league staff.
"We're not doing things so radically different that this has never been seen in baseball before or that other teams aren't doing similar things," Klentak said. "It's new to Philadelphia. I get that. Some of these things are new. But we have to continue to push forward in certain areas."
Kapler is willing to be proven wrong. He's open to other viewpoints.
After infamously yanking ace Aaron Nola after only 68 pitches on opening day in Atlanta because the numbers suggest starters have trouble going through a batting order three times, Kapler observed that Nola appeared to get stronger late in his next few starts. For the rest of the season, he hasn't hesitated to let Nola pitch into the seventh inning and beyond. Told earlier this season that longtime statistician and historian Bill James, who advised the Boston Red Sox in their failed "closer by committee" experiment 15 years ago, was skeptical of the Phillies' bullpen-without-roles approach, Kapler wanted to hear more.
"I've told our people, 'Assume that we're wrong, or prove ourselves wrong, and we should always be changing our mind,'" Kapler said. "Because that means we're open. If you're always thinking, then you are willing to change your mind."
So, Kapler will continue to ponder whether it's better to designate a closer than to simply use his best reliever in the highest-leverage situation, regardless of inning. And he will keep thinking of ways to structure the lineup to balance offense and defense.
But Kapler also will continue to buck convention and go against the grain, especially if he recognizes a possible advantage. It can be both maddening and enlightening to observers of the Phillies, but it's also the approach Kapler will keep taking.
"When we begin seeking those same tactical advantages in 2019, they will no longer be 'different' or 'unusual,'" Kapler said. "That will just be 'us' and how we operate."
Like it or not, it's the new Phillies Way.