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Just three games in, Gabe Kapler facing a bold new reality
by Scott Butler 4/1/18

Gabe Kapler Phillies

One advantage of being a blogger is having the freedom to use the words of others in your own articles, like this recent post from Matt Gelb for The Athletic (subscription required):

From the moment Kapler became the most unorthodox manager in 136 seasons of Phillies baseball, he promised to put his players in the “best positions to succeed.” He has spread the virtues of nutrition and workload management to help his players remain strong. He has preached the importance of communication.

In his 23rd inning as manager, he failed to uphold every one of those principles. 

Optimism abounds for all baseball teams entering a new season. Even the worst of clubs holds a glimmer of hope for the upcoming campaign. Gabe Kapler, aided by a few big off season moves by Matt Klentak, took optimism to the extreme from the moment he accepted the job as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies.

"Be bold" has been Kapler's mantra (and Phillies hashtag), and it is by no means a hollow phrase. He closes batting practice before 8am. His pitchers don't shag during BP. He asks his players to show up later and sleep in more. He hired umpires for bullpen sessions. He boasts of how he will rotate players to keep them healthy and strong.

I've stated before that I loved this hire. It was a "bold" move by an organization that wants to make a statement to its fans that the Phillies are no longer living in the Dark Ages and that they are in aggressive pursuit of multiple championships.

It's hard not to feel exhilarated by Gabe Kapler's ultra positivity, his dare to be different attitude, his focus on analytics, his fierce competitiveness, his willingness to fail, and his rock hard abs.

He's made us question some of the most basic time honored practices because, well, just because. While your initial reaction to pitchers no longer shagging fly balls might be this...

..., when you reflect on it you might think wait, there might actually be some merit to this.

“It’s definitely unorthodox [pitchers not shagging balls], but there’s purpose behind it,” Tom Eshelman said last month. “What people don’t understand is that when you get a ball you have to throw it in. And so two days after you’re [pitching], you’re throwing 20-25 balls in. You’ve got no juice left in your arm and then you have to go throw a bullpen after that. It’s tough.”

A bold manager, a bold front office, and a bold owner, combined with intriguing young talent? Sure made you think that 4:10 on Thursday might represent the start of something special.

And then Aaron Nola was yanked after throwing just 68 pitches in a game in which he was suffocating the Atlanta Braves, also having just stood at the plate himself with two base runners in the top of the inning.

And then the bullpen surrendered 8 runs in 3 1/3 innings in a walk-off Opening Day Loss.

And then Kapler used 21 pitchers to fill the season's first 28 innings.

And then he asked Hoby Milner to enter a third straight game without having tossed a single warm up pitch.

And then he needed a position player, Pedro Florimón, to record the final three outs of the season's third game.

It's been a bad start for the new Phillies skipper. Really, really bad, but that should be somewhat expected for a 42-year old man with just one year of managing experience at single-A and zero days of big league coaching experience whatsoever.

Kapler's hard-core analytics approach to managing baseball games is essentially a science experiment. Much of this experiment will be accomplished through trial-and-error. So far it's been mostly error, but that has not dissuaded Kapler.

“I’m remaining 100 percent positive,” he said. “I believe in this club. I believe in the men in this clubhouse. I believe in our coaching staff and there’s no chance I’m going to let three games, two of them tough, derail what we're trying to do and that’s get to the postseason in 2018, which I believe we will do.”

Positivity is perhaps Gabe Kapler's greatest asset, and he may need it to survive the first few weeks - heck the first pitching change in Philadelphia.

Even after a heartbreaking opener, Kapler remained just as upbeat as he had been on Florida's west coast. “We are all very competitive people. It’s difficult to lose on opening day like that,” Kapler said. “I also believe in the long view we have. We had an incredible camp with an incredible amount of positive energy. I expect our club to come back tomorrow with that same degree of positive energy. This is going to be one baseball game out of 162 baseball games and I am still extremely confident that we have the pieces in that room to win a ton of them.”

What he also needs is a willingness to adapt.

After yet another bullpen debacle Kapler said, "What I understand is that the usage of our bullpen has been to keep them safe and strong, which we have done. You can go back and look at the innings and how many pitches our guys have thrown and you'll find we have kept them safe and strong. We understand that it's early in the season and some of the usage today was designed just to get us through the game."

Kapler's Phillies set a record for the most pitchers used in the first three games of a season (21) and utilized Hoby Milner in back-to-back-to-back games for the first time in his career.

He is not keeping his relievers "safe and strong."

For him to so boldly state otherwise suggests a stubborn marriage to his radical philosophies. If Kapler is not willing to bend - not abandon, but bend - his approach, this experiment will be an abject failure.

Super Gabe deserves some time to reflect and potentially rethink some things on this rare Sunday off-day. As poised and confident as he appears, he must be a little shell-shocked at this point. He can spout off confident words and complete positivity as much as he wants, but he must be pondering to some extent whether his theories of our nation's pastime, which seemed so great during meaningless Grapefruit League games, may not play out quite the way he had hoped in reality.

That reality involves an already overused bullpen and a potentially over-inflated ego. Whether or not that reality changes may define the fate of this season, this manager, and maybe this entire front office.

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