Tuesday night offered us another window into Gabe Kapler’s in-game managerial philosophy. It was the seventh inning, and J.P. Crawford had just given the Phillies a 2-1 lead with a two-out single through the right side of the infield that scored Nick Williams from third. That left a runner on first base with the pitcher’s spot due up, leaving Kapler with the choice of pinch-hitting in pursuit of another run, or letting Aaron Nola bat and then sending him back out to the mound for the eighth.
Nola had thrown 88 pitches, low enough to go back out for the eighth, but high enough that he almost certainly wasn’t going to pitch the complete game. On the one hand, an extra run would have given the hard-worked Phillies bullpen some more breathing room. On the other hand, pulling Nola would have left the bullpen with an extra inning to kill.
That’s a close call, until you considered that one of the fastest players in the majors was due to lead off for the Reds. Billy Hamilton had already manufactured the Reds’ only run by drawing a walk, stealing second, and then scoring on a single. Walking him to lead off the eighth could very well have meant a tie game, given the ease with which he has been swiping bags. Rather than hoping for a reliever to come in and throw strikes, Kapler made the wise move to leave his starter in the game. It paid off: Nola retired Hamilton and then the next two Reds he faced to send the game to the ninth.
To say that Kapler has evolved as a decision-maker isn’t really fair. We really had no idea who he was to begin with. After a rough first weekend in Atlanta when he pulled Nola after just 68 pitches on opening day and then went to his bullpen early and often in the final two games of that series, a lot of people assumed that they were witnessing’s Kapler’s idea of baseball in the modern era. Turns out, it might have just been one of those fluky stretches of games.
Or maybe he really has altered his thinking about how and when to allot his faith to his bullpen. And maybe his biggest mistake at the start of the season was his belief in how good the unit really was.
Of the Phillies’ five losses this season, two have featured late-innings implosions in games they had a chance to win. On opening day, Hoby Milner, Adam Morgan and Hector Neris combined to allow six of their own runs and a seventh inherited runner to score while blowing a 5-0 lead. Last week against the Marlins, Morgan and Luis Garcia allowed five of the eight batters they faced to reach base, and three of them scored. All this occurred in the eighth inning of a game that had been tied, 3-3.
Kapler has been dealing from a less-than-full deck thus far, with his top two set-up men on the disabled list (Tommy Hunter is nearing the final stages of recovering from a hamstring injury; Pat Neshek is expected to be out for a while with a lat injury). Plus, the early going is often rough on relievers. Consider the Yankees bullpen, an elite unit that is unquestionably one of the best in the league. It has already given up 33 runs, 10 of them by David Robertson, Dellin Betances, Adam Warren and Aroldis Chapman.
For the Phillies to have any shot at maintaining this .500 record, they need Hunter, Neris and a third pitcher to have lights-out seasons as high-leverage specialists. But if your starters don’t have the ability to pitch deep into games, and your bullpen is something less than outstanding, a lot of your managerial decisions are going to be a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
The win over the Reds on Tuesday night was the first time Rhys Hoskins failed to reach base since Game 157 of last season, and it was only the 10th time in 60 career games that it happened. But even in an 0-for-4 game in which he struck out three times, you saw why the 25-year-old left fielder is the centerpiece of this lineup. In Hoskins’ three plate appearances against Homer Bailey, he forced the Reds starter to throw a remarkable 20 pitches. When you consider that the average NL hitter sees 3.94 pitches per plate appearance, the impact of Hoskins’ approach becomes clear.
In seeing eight more pitches than a typical NL hitter would have, Hoskins might have single-handedly knocked Bailey out of the game an inning earlier than otherwise would have been the case. The righty was dealing for most of the night, striking out seven and taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning. But by the end of the sixth, he had thrown 93 pitches, and the Reds went to the bullpen. If he’d only thrown 85 pitches? Who knows.
Point is, Hoskins’ approach pays very real dividends — the Phillies took the lead in the seventh off Reds reliever Jared Hughes — and it’s one that the Phillies’ lineup as a whole has adopted this season. They lead the league with 4.37 pitches seen per plate appearance. In fact, Hoskins’ average of 4.52 isn’t even the best on the team: Cesar Hernandez is averaging 4.73, the second-best rate in the league.
Against Bailey, Hernandez saw 17 pitches in three plate appearances.
The Phillies’ approach at the plate has been perhaps the single-biggest positive revelation of the start of this season.