Updated: Friday, December 22, 2017, 1:32 PM
Gabe Kapler knows how the old-timers think, the codgers who cling to the past and to the traditional way of looking at a baseball lineup. You put Derek Jeter at shortstop and bat him second. You put Chase Utley at second base and bat him third. You strive for routine and stability both in which players play what positions and what spots in the order they hit. You do this every day. You never have to worry.
Kapler will not be filling out his lineup card this way during his first season as the Phillies’ manager, or during any subsequent seasons as the Phillies’ manager. Routine will be anathema. Settling for stability will be settling for decline.
At the press conference Wednesday where the Phillies introduced their new first baseman, Carlos Santana, and acknowledged that Rhys Hoskins would move to left field (most of the time), general manager Matt Klentak sidestepped the question of whether he would trade Odubel Herrera, Nick Williams, and/or Aaron Altherr both to acquire a starting pitcher and make a crowded outfield roomier.
But even if Klentak does deal away one of those outfielders, Kapler will be inclined to change his lineup regularly, based on any number of factors: the opposing starting pitcher, the amount of rest a particular player has or has not been getting lately, any statistics and analytics that he decides are relevant and warrant attention and action.
Might Hoskins still play first base here and there? Sure. It’s the position with which he’s most familiar.
Might Santana bat second? Or fourth? Or sixth? Or even lead off? Why not? Over his eight seasons with the Cleveland Indians, Santana started at least 35 games batting in one of the first six spots in the lineup. He stole 40 bases in 1,116 regular-season games with the Indians, but he batted leadoff 123 times. Why? Because his career on-base percentage is a robust .365.
It might sound, at first, as if a Gabe Kapler-managed team might have no everyday players. Not so, he said.
“First and foremost, they do play every day,” Kapler said. “It might not be 162 (games), but nobody plays 162. By way of example, all of those guys getting somewhere around 500 plate appearances, maybe 600, that’s a (bleep) ton of plate appearances over the course of a year, and I think the most important thing to convey is, this will make your numbers better. You’re not going to have as many of those ‘Oh, (bleep) matchups.
“Players never admit to it, but these guys have a nemesis. They have a guy who beats their ass, and they see themselves in the lineup sometimes against those guys, and some of them look at it and say, ‘This is going to be a grind today.’”
But then, some guys embrace the grind, right? It was difficult enough for the Phillies, for instance, to get Utley to take a day off in 2007, when Utley broke his hand after being hit by a pitch. Or in 2008, when Utley played through a hip injury that required surgery a month after the Phillies won the World Series. Or in any of his 13 seasons with the team, really.
And though the core of the 2018 Phillies promises to be fairly young, with a more modern sensibility about the game and a greater acceptance of its evolution and changes, won’t these players want to be out there day after day after day, playing the same position, hitting in the same place in the lineup, because they’re proud, and because predictability is comfortable, and comfort is helpful over a long baseball season?
And if they are inclined to think that way, how does Kapler sell them on thinking differently?
“Historically, it’s, ‘This is what’s best for the team, so you have to sacrifice for the team,’” Kapler said. “That’s bull(bleep). It’s, ‘This is best for you personally. It’s best for you and your ego, and it’s good for the Phillies.’ It’s, ‘This is better for you. Here’s how it’s better for you. Do you have aches and pains throughout the season? Yes. Can we minimize some of those aches and pains? Can we make your muscles more flexible? Can we keep your joints stable?’
“It’s not a sell. At the end of the year, you’re going to look up, and you’re going to be in a better position to make money. The Phillies are going to be in a better position to win baseball games. Your teammates are going to be in a better position to impact the club. It’s not a bull(bleep) sell.”
Understand: This philosophy was part of, if not much of, the reason that Klentak hired Kapler. Pete Mackanin is a good man and a “good baseball man,” in that he paid homage and respect to the game’s conventional thinking.
But that thinking also led Mackanin to bat Freddy Galvis — a player whose on-base percentage has never reached .310 and whose OPS has never reached .700 in any of his six major-league seasons — second in the Phillies’ lineup 94 times last season. Oh, and Galvis played all 162 games, too.
“I’m very empathetic to that thought process because it’s what people have grown up understanding,” Kapler said. “‘This guy’s a grinder. He plays every day. You stick him at short and forget about him.’ I think it takes perpetual willingness to educate. That has to happen every day. You can’t just say it once because you will get some eye-rolls. But if you talk about it on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, all the way through the season, it’s a message you’re constantly sending, and it becomes their normal.”
No matter how abnormal it might seem to anyone else.