In a sport filled with strange customs, baseball's strangest might be the one that occurs every Sept. 1, when the rules of competition suddenly change in a way that both alters the strategy of the game and diminishes the quality of the product. For a league obsessed with its marketability, the curiosity of such an approach was underscored in the top of the fifth inning on Tuesday afternoon, when Gabe Kapler emerged from the Phillies' dugout with two out and was immediately greeted by a chorus of boos (or, rather, an ensemble or power trio of boos, since most choirs run deeper than 12 strong, which is approximately how many people were sitting in the stands at the time).
The source of the fans' discontent was the fact that they'd already seen Kapler two other times that inning, both of which resulted in a pitching change. By the end of the frame, the Phillies had used four pitchers to record three outs, with starter Nick Pivetta facing three batters before giving way to Luis Avilan, Luis Garcia and Adam Morgan, each of whom faced one. Again, this was the fifth inning, and the only thing that spared us from another pitching change was a baserunning mistake by Bryce Harper, who took too hard of a turn at first base on an RBI single and was thrown out from behind to end the frame.
The problem wasn't Kapler, who was simply doing what the rules allowed him to do in a desperate attempt to keep a foundering team afloat. The problem was — and is — the rules themselves. Before Tuesday's game, the Phillies added three pitchers to their active roster, giving Kapler an arsenal of 20 to choose from. They were able to do so because, starting Sept. 1, the active roster limit for MLB teams increased from 25 players to 40. The Phillies, like most big-market teams that are jockeying for playoff position, have taken advantage of the rules, carrying a total of 39 players for Tuesday's doubleheader against the Nationals.
From a strategic standpoint, it would be silly not to summon all available hands. You saw it throughout the Phillies' 3-1 loss to the Nationals in Tuesday's opener. In the fourth inning, Kapler pinch-ran for Justin Bour at first base after the lumbering first baseman drew a one-out walk in a scoreless game. In the sixth, he used two pinch-hitters, which still left him the freedom to call on J.P. Crawford in the eighth, a move that resulted in a one-out double. Two batters later, he used Jose Bautista to pinch-hit while representing the tying run.
"We're always like, should we have more bodies in the bullpen, should we have more bodies in the clubhouse, and the answer is almost always yes, because it gives you courage to be ultra-aggressive and try to win every moment of the game," Kapler said after the loss.
That's the right way to think as a manager, but it is also evidence of the extent to which roster expansion changes the very nature of the game during the most pivotal month of the season.
"I think it changed the character of the game in a major way," Kapler said. "Like I said, when you have deeper rosters, you have more players, you have more bullets to fire. You don't have to conserve."
Beyond the nature of wins and losses is that of the game itself. There has been a lot of ink spilled in recent years on ways to make big-league baseball a better product, with particular attention paid to the pace of play. In that regard, the Phillies have plenty of work to do on their own end. The fans who booed the pitching changes in the fifth inning would have been more receptive had they not spent the first four innings watching the home lineup struggle to manufacture any sort of offense against a 25-year-old right-hander who entered the day with a career 7.08 ERA.
Whatever happens over these next two weeks — the Phillies entered Tuesday's nightcap with a 5 1/2-game deficit in the NL East with 19 games to play — Kapler and his front office are going to have some interesting decisions to make this offseason. More pressing than figuring out a path forward is coming up with an accurate picture of where they are right now. Heading into Tuesday's doubleheader, the Phillies were averaging just 3.9 runs per game with a .307 team on-base percentage in 35 games since the trade deadline. They'd won just 15 of those games, their lone saving grace the fact that their only competition in the East is nearly as flawed as they are.
There is an argument to be made that all they need is a second big piece to complement Hoskins at the plate. Put Hoskins and Weapon TBD at the two- and the three-holes, and everybody slots in around them. There's also an argument to be made that no hitter on this team is currently swinging a bat that would be worthy of anything higher than the No. 6 or No. 7 spot in a contending lineup. They have a lot of guys who would be fine in such positions — Odubel Herrera, Nick Williams, Carlos Santana, Maikel Franco, Cesar Hernandez — but when is the last time any of them looked worthy of a spot in the top half of the order?
So, no, expanded rosters weren't the only thing bogging things down on Tuesday. But they did not enhance the viewing experience. People like watching stars. A bullpen might have one or two. None of them has six.