Midway through his managerial debut, Philadelphia Phillies skipper Gabe Kapler was in line for his first win. His team had jumped out to an early 5-0 lead, and Aaron Nola was tearing through the Atlanta Braves offense.
After giving up a double to Ender Inciarte to lead off the sixth, Nola managed to get Ozzie Albies to fly out to right field. With Freddie Freeman coming to the plate, Kapler had seen enough. He pulled his 24-year-old ace after just 68 pitches.
That’s when the trouble began for the Phillies. Kapler turned to Hoby Milner to face Freeman. On the seventh pitch of the at-bat, Freeman drilled a two-run homer to right to put the Braves on the board.
The team managed to get out of the inning without any more damage, and were still in good shape. With just nine outs to go, the Phillies had a three-run lead.
Usually, that results in a win. Instead, Kapler learned a tough lesson — a game can turn on one decision and there’s no grace period for a rookie manager when that one decision goes wrong.
It didn’t take long that the choice to come back and bite Kapler. After a scoreless seventh, things fell apart in the eighth. Albies hit a solo home run to lead off the frame, cutting the lead to two runs. After two walks, a passed ball led to another run. Preston Tucker then knocked in the tying run with a single. Just like that, the team’s lead was gone.
They would never get it back. Nector Neris came in to pitch the ninth, and after a single and an intentional walk, gave up a walk-off three-run homer to outfielder Nick Markakis to lose the game 8-5.
After the contest, a number of people questioned whether Kapler should have removed Nola from the game after just 68 pitches.
Phillies fans to Gabe Kapler right now after he pulled Nola with a 5-0 lead and just 68 pitches thrown. pic.twitter.com/A5OAlzrSc6
— Pitcher List (@PitcherList) March 29, 2018
Did Gabe Kapler take out Aaron Nola too early? #Phillies
— SPORTSRADIO 94WIP (@SportsRadioWIP) March 29, 2018
WOW!!! Phillies BLOW 5-0 lead and lose to Braves in Opener
— Jeff Skversky 6abc (@JeffSkversky) March 29, 2018
Following the game, Kapler defended his bullpen, saying he has confidence in all his players. Nola admitted he was surprised about the move, but did not fight Kapler on the decision. Nola told Philly.com he felt he “had a good bit left” when taken out.
Kapler did have his defenders. Pulling starters early has become the trendy strategy these days. It does have its merits. As we saw in the past few postseasons, teams can succeed by leaning on relievers more frequently.
But it’s also important to recognize the difference between utilizing the strategy in the postseason and using it in Game 1 of a 162-game season. The teams that have success with the strategy in the postseason do so because they have strong bullpens, usually with multiple elite or near-elite options guiding them through tough situations.
The Phillies don’t have an Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman or Kenley Jansen. The team’s best reliever last season — by fWAR — was Pat Neshek. He did not get into the game Thursday.
Instead, Kapler turned to Milner, Luis García, Adam Morgan, Edubray Ramos and Neris. Ramos, García and Neris were all effective in 2017, but none of them are elite options.
Many have assumed the driving factor behind Kapler’s decision may have been that pitchers tend to lose effectiveness once they face a lineup for the third time. Catcher Andrew Knapp said as much during postgame interviews. Nola was about the face Freeman for the third time in the contest. In 18 previous plate appearances, Freeman had clobbered Nola for a .375 average.
While that’s troublesome, the game was hardly on the line in that moment. The worst Freeman could do was hit a two-run home run, and the Phillies still would have led by three runs. This also wasn’t a scenario where Nola was gassed. He had breezed through the first 5 1/3 innings, averaging a little over 13 pitches per inning while giving up just three hits.
Even if you assume there’s a penalty for Nola going through the order for the third time, a five-run lead with your ace on the mound is exactly the right time for you to challenge that line of thinking. It’s OK if Nola gives up a few runs there, and you can squeeze out more innings from your best pitcher instead of turning it over to your relievers. It’s a much different argument if Nola was pushing 100 pitches, but that wasn’t the case here.
The reason this strategy works in the postseason is because teams play short series with a number of off days. Rest is a key factor, because it allows those relievers to recover and not get overworked. And even then, we saw Miller look hittable in the World Series with the Cleveland Indians, and Chapman struggled to maintain his velocity by the end of the 2016 postseason.
Leverage is also extremely high in the playoffs. There’s a much bigger focus on winning those games. That’s not the case in Game 1. There’s a lot of season left to be played, so you don’t have to manage with that level of desperation and risk overworking your bullpen immediately.
Hindsight analysis is always dangerous, because it’s easy to be critical when things don’t work out. But there were warning signs when Kapler made the move to take out Nola in the sixth inning. It was OK to question his process at the time.
Even after García gave up the home run, the Phillies still had a strong chance to win the game. It’s not 100 percent on Kapler that his relievers completely melted down. They have to take some of the blame too.
It’s also OK to expect some growing pains. It was Kapler’s first game as a rookie manager. He’s thought of as a progressive manager who’s willing to brace new ideas. He did that here and it backfired.
How Kapler bounces back is the bigger question moving forward. Adaptability is an important trait for any major-league manager to have. Game 1 was a learning experience. Kapler has 161 more to figure out the optimal strategy for his club.
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