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Value at the margins might have cost Gabe Kapler his team
by Scott Butler 9/30/18

Gabe Kapler Phillies Spring Training

Gabe Kapler was something this city had never seen before. The 42-year-old rookie manager with the sculpted body had blogged in the past about the use of coconut oil, unique tanning techniques, and eating chicken bones. In Spring Training, he brought in umpires during throwing sessions and switched his outfielders' positions between batters.

Kapler's unorthodox approach - outside of a rough first week - seemed to be exactly what this team needed. When the Phillies finished off a sweep of the Miami Marlins on August 5 and his team owned the second-best record in the National League, he was a legitimate candidate for Manager of the Year.

Then the Phillies went 15-34 in their next 49 games (more than twice as many losses as wins and better only than the 110+ loss Orioles during that span) and have lost 9 straight games with two remaining in the season. While it may not be fair to say his players quit, it is fair to say Gabe Kapler lost his team.

Kapler is not fully to blame here, but he is as culpable as anyone in his team's colossal implosion. So, what was it that Gabe did wrong? It may actually come down to a term which he used as one of his greatest selling points: value at the margins.

“We’re going to make razor-sharp turns around the bases,” Kapler said after he was introduced as the 54th manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. “When the ball enters the hitting zone, we’re going to be in powerful and athletic positions. Before the game begins, we’re going to prepare, prepare, prepare so that we thought out everything and make strong decisions. We’re going to hunt for value at the margins. We’re not going to leave any stone unturned to find our competitive advantages.”

Kapler and his staff worked like animals to find those competitive advantages. Unfortunately, they came at the expense of any sense of stability for his ball club. Baseball players have been creatures of habit as long as the sport has existed. As absurd as it may sound, ballplayers enjoy knowing their place in the batting order, they take comfort in knowing which position they run to every game, and starting pitchers like taking the mound every fifth day. They savor their routines.

Zach Eflin was sent to the minors in early August in order to take advantage of a loophole that allowed him not to miss a start and at the same time gave the Phillies an extra position player.

Tom O’Connell, Eflin's agent, said in a statement to The Athletic at the time, “Today was an understandingly extremely tough day for Zach. Major-league starters have a strict routine that they adhere to that allows them to be successful; this roster move affects that. While the club may feel that they are doing what’s best for the organization, they also lose sight of the human element and how it will affect the player.”

And that takes us to the root of how Gabe Kapler lost the Phillies. In addition to the Eflin situation, he constantly tinkered with his lineup, rotated players in different positions, brought in position players to pitch, and chose not to generate defined roles for his bullpen. Some of his decisions worked and some did not, but the results in the aggregate were not flattering.

"It is my belief that players can become comfortable with a great many situations," Kapler said in June. "Though it requires constant discussion, communication, and open doors for everyone to be able to share their thoughts and opinions without judgment."

He had especially high standards for his relievers.

"The way we want their mind-set coming into camp is, 'I am a relief pitcher. I dominate important parts of the game. I am flexible. I am prepared.' If that's their mind-set, then we're in good shape."

Those are all fantastic qualities to have in players and something anyone wearing a uniform should aspire towards. But all players are not built the same, and to expect an entire roster to have the mental strength and flexibility to handle that over an entire season was a bit too ambitious.

Hey, any first-year manager will make mistakes, and when that first-year skipper is an outside-the-box thinker determined to challenge conventional wisdom, those mistakes become supernova sized ones.

Kapler learned from many of his missteps - like yanking Nola after 68 pitches on Opening Day and sending in Hoby Milner without warming up - during an embarrassing first week as manager.

But he failed to learn from a mistake he made when he left Odubel Herrera out of the Opening Day lineup. Kapler said he would rather have Herrera in center field when a fly-ball pitcher was on the mound for the Phillies and not Aaron Nola, who tends to record ground-ball outs. 

It was an aggressive move by the young, sculpted manager who adopted "Be Bold" as the teams' mantra in Spring Training. It also was a dangerous move, and one that was indicative of the way he would manage his ball club throughout the season.

"We can't make decisions because somebody might be upset," Kapler explained of Herrera's benching, "because the truth of the matter is, when these guys see how this all plays out and at the end of the season when they're all getting their reps and they've seen that over a long period of time, there's going to be a whole more comfort there."

After enduring two months of embarrassing baseball to to end the season, there is probably not too much comfort in the Phillies clubhouse.

While Gabe was relentlessly seeking every marginal advantage he could find, he missed the bigger picture.

Odubel Herrera was (at least at the time) one of the Phillies best players, and your best players need to play nearly every day. Do they need to play 162 games like the old school mentality would dictate? Not at all. Was sitting Odubel on a day where the analytics suggested they might be better off with someone else? Possibly.

Those types of decisions should be primarily used for platoon situations, determining when to rest a player, and how to keep bench players fresh.

But the value of those moves cannot supercede creating stability on your roster. Not only did he fail to recognize that, but he doubled-down after the trade deadline and tripled-down when rosters expanded.

There was plenty of talk of how the chemistry in the clubhouse might have changed after the trade deadline, but perhaps it was the turmoil created by the manager that had the greatest impact.

There is a lot to like about Gabe Kapler, which is why he will not be fired, nor should he be fired. There is no question that he will be relentless in his quest to improve himself as a manager next season.

But if he can't find the forest through the trees, it won't matter if he finds value at the margins.

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