Gabe Kapler wants to be clear. It isn't his explicit intention to redefine bullpen usage for the analytics age. And he doesn't wish to take the traditional approach to safeguarding a ninth-inning lead and turn it on its ear, either.
"I can assure you," the Phillies manager said the other day, "if we had Kenley Jansen on our roster, he'd pitch the ninth inning."
But the Phillies don't have Jansen. Or Craig Kimbrel. Or Aroldis Chapman. Their closest facsimile of a dominant ninth-inning pitcher is Hector Neris, who came into the season with all of 5 1/2 months' worth of experience in slamming the door for a non-contender. Neris did fine last season, but nobody would classify him as a proven lights-out closer.
So, when Neris blew two saves in a six-day span last month — the low point of a season-opening stretch in which he put at least one runner on base in 13 of 17 appearances — Kapler seized the opportunity to experiment with something about which he has long been curious: a bullpen without defined roles.
Behold, "Bullpen by Gabe."
"There are fewer separating competitive advantages available by just following suit," Kapler said of his unconventional bullpen strategy. "Unless your talent trumps that of the rest of the league, it may be necessary to take a different approach.
"I believe this requires more work. It requires more conversation. But I think in the end it's worth it."
In a wide-ranging conversation before a game last week, Kapler expounded on his bullpen philosophy and provided reasons for why he's confident it will work given the composition of the Phillies' pitching staff. He also responded to skeptics, including influential statistician and fellow deep-thinker Bill James, who advised the Boston Red Sox in their failed "closer by committee" experiment 15 years ago.
Like many modern managers, Kapler believes he can derive an advantage by deploying his best reliever at the most critical time of the game rather than saving him for the ninth inning. Mariano Rivera pitched in the seventh and eighth innings for a New York Yankees team that wound up winning the World Series in 1996. Francisco Rodriguez did the same early in his career with the Los Angeles Angels. In the past few years, the Cleveland Indians have used Andrew Miller as early as the sixth inning.
For the Phillies, rookie phenom Seranthony Dominguez has emerged as the relief ace. With an electric fastball, precise control and uncommon poise for a 23-year-old, Dominguez has become Kapler's go-to choice to face the middle of an opponent's lineup at whatever point it comes up late in a close game.
By itself, that hardly makes the Phillies revolutionary. But here's where Kapler's approach is different. The 1996 Yankees had John Wetteland behind Rivera. Troy Percival pitched after Rodriguez on those Angels teams. And when Miller is through dealing, the Indians close games with Cody Allen. If Dominguez does his job in the seventh or eighth inning, it's anybody's guess who will get the final three outs because Kapler hasn't assigned a specific pitcher to the ninth.
Kapler prefers it this way. It would be different, he said, if the Phillies had a proven closer. But given the bullpen's composition, with a half dozen young pitchers who weren't trained expressly as closers in the minor leagues and a veteran set-up man (Tommy Hunter) who has pitched in a variety of roles throughout his career, Kapler believes it makes more sense to choose a ninth-inning pitcher based on matchups against a specific batter and opponent rather than defaulting to one pitcher.
Since Neris was removed from the full-time closer role in mid-May, Edubray Ramos, Dominguez, Luis Garcia, Neris, lefty Adam Morgan and Hunter have pitched in save situations. Sometimes Kapler splits the ninth inning between multiple pitchers. It worked May 16 when Ramos and Neris closed out the Orioles. It didn't June 6 in Chicago when Dominguez and Morgan coughed up a lead in a walkoff loss to the Cubs.
"One of our advantages is that we don't have a 'pen full of 10-year veterans who aren't able to adapt," Kapler said. "Many of our relievers are still very young, and the ones with more service time, like Tommy, have demonstrated a willingness to be flexible and open. It is my belief that players can become comfortable with a great many situations, though it requires constant discussion, communication and open doors for everyone to be able to share their thoughts and opinions without judgment."
In 2003, the Red Sox had a similar belief. They let Ugueth Urbina leave via free agency after a 40-save season and went into the season without a set closer. It was a train wreck. Alan Embree and Chad Fox lost a lead on opening day, and Bobby Howry blew a save in the second game of the season. Ramiro Mendoza and Mike Timlin struggled, too.
Looking back, James believes the Red Sox erred in not defining their roles more clearly.
"There is an advantage that a closer has in that he is able to anticipate when he will come into the game and thus is able to build up his energy to reach a 'peak energy flow,' for want of a better term, at the moment that he enters the game," James, a Red Sox adviser, said via e-mail. "For five minutes, he is throwing harder and focused better than he could be for a longer period of time. One of the mistakes that we made was that we didn't consider the advantage that the closer gets from knowing 20 minutes in advance when and if he needs to get everything going."
Kapler conceded that a reliever, especially a closer, may benefit from knowing what inning he will pitch. But he also believes that teams can mitigate all of that by conditioning relievers to be ready for any situation. It starts in the minor leagues, according to Kapler. Rather than grooming a reliever for a particular role — long man, set-up, closer — he prefers that they be exposed to every part of the game.
And Kapler is determined to continue with his experiment. He knows he doesn't have all the answers. If receives negative feedback from his pitchers — by all accounts, he hasn't received pushback yet — he said he isn't opposed to a more conventional approach, especially in the ninth inning.
"I have little to no interest in breaking tradition for the sake of breaking tradition. I have little to no interest in being different for the sake of being different," Kapler said. "Only when I believe that it gives us a competitive advantage and helps the Phillies win, in those cases, I want to take a holistic view of the problem and attack it with all the information.
"What I'm most confident in is that the right decisions about roles or using guys much more flexibly will emerge. The emotions [of the pitchers] will come out, and we'll be responsive to the emotions."
One thing is for certain: However it unfolds, "Bullpen By Gabe" will be fascinating to watch.
7th inning: 4 appearances
8th inning: 4 appearances
9th inning: 2 appearances
Multiple innings: 1 time
Save opportunities: 1