Gabe Kapler has fit in a lot in his 42 years on this earth. Coming into Opening Day, here is just but a small sampling of things he has done:
• Played 12 years in the Major Leagues, winning a World Series ring with the 2004 Red Sox.
• Considered one of the most muscular players in Major League Baseball history, including being featured on the cover of countless fitness magazines, including this doozy of a photo. (Looks better than this, anyway.)
• Went to high school with Ice Cube.
• Was the focus of a K-Swiss ad campaign before he ever even reached the bigs.
• Went to Japan for a season right in the middle of his career, came back, played another season in the Majors, retired, managed for the Red Sox's Minor League Greenville Drive, came back, played four more years and nearly made the 2011 Dodgers Opening Day roster at the age of 36.
• Managed the Israeli World Baseball Classic team the year after he retired for good.
• Did television work for Fox Sports 1 back when they did Fox Sports Live, during which he once got into a televised debate with me about cortisone shots. (I'm pretty sure he won.)
• Ran (still runs, actually) a truly fascinating blog, amusing excerpts of which you can find here.
• Worked as the director of player development for the Dodgers, where he helped usher in the new management group there but also got on the wrong side of Terry Francona's son. (The Phillies do not play the Indians this year, so there'll be no lineup-exchange shenanigans this year.)
That's a lot! (The New York Times' Tyler Kepner has even more!) Gabe Kapler has lived a full baseball life in his 42 years, an unconventional character and thinker in a world in which sometimes convention is the one law of the land. The Phillies took a risk when they hired him to be their manager back in November, and they knew there would be blowback. (Jeez, his introductory news conference was half about coconut oil.) But I didn't know if they expected this much blowback, this soon.
Suddenly all Gabe Kapler has done in his life has been erased. He's apparently just a baseball dunce now.
Three games into his Phillies managerial career, Kapler is already under siege. The Philadelphia Inquirer says his players might already be losing faith in him. Phillies fans were roasting him before his first game was even over. A common April Fools' joke on Sunday was to claim that the Phillies had already fired him. This Twitter account already exists. It is difficult to imagine a more difficult start to a managerial career, particularly in a town as notoriously unforgiving as Philadelphia.
So, what happened? Let's take a look at Kapler's most debated moves as manager of the Phillies so far and see where they rank on the Managerial Dunce Meter. Is he really as outmatched as Philly sports radio has made him out to be? Or is everyone freaking out because it's Philadelphia, and they freak out about everything in Philadelphia? Let's go one by one.
Didn't start Obudel Herrera on Opening Day. This was the first eyebrow-raiser for Kapler. The Phillies center fielder is expected by many to be key to what the Phillies are doing this year, a young player with upside and Major League experience. But Kapler sat him Game 1, because he had struggled against Braves starter Julio Teheran and because Phillies starter Aaron Nola is a ground-ball pitcher. Herrera was "upset" not to be starting, but Kapler saw that as a good thing, showing off the player's competitiveness.
Bad move? Well, Kapler had to throw down the gauntlet early: The team's motto this season is "Be Bold" for a reason. Players probably care about the honor of starting on Opening Day more than they should, but they do care, and part of any manager's job is understanding that. But Kapler did have a reason, and explained it thoroughly, to the player and to the media, and I'm not sure what more you can ask of a guy who takes a risk than that. Also, replacement Aaron Altherr went 1-for-3 and scored a run. Dunce Rating (out of 10): 3.
Pulled Aaron Nola after 5 1/3 innings on Opening Day. Nola, ostensibly the team's ace until Jacob Arrieta is ready, had thrown five shutout innings before giving up a double to Ender Inciarte and getting Ozzie Albies to fly out to start the sixth. Despite Nola only throwing 68 pitches and leading 5-1, Kapler pulled him and brought in lefty Hoby Milner to face Freddie Freeman. Before discussing what happened next -- because Kapler can't control that, and neither can you -- look at the move in the moment. Mounds of baseball research have shown how dramatically pitchers lose effectiveness the third time through the order; Kapler isn't the first manager to notice that, or implement it. Nola said he was fine and was surprised to be pulled, but he hadn't thrown more than four innings in a game in Spring Training. Also, you've got eight freaking bullpen arms and it's Opening Day: Why have a bullpen that large if you're not going to use it? Also, Milner is really good: He didn't give up a homer to a single left-handed hitter last year in 75 plate appearances. Unfortunately for Kapler and the Phillies, Freeman hit one, and the Braves came all the way back for an 8-5 win.
Bad move? It didn't turn out well. But, again, there was real logic behind Kapler's move, and not just that: It's in many cases standard operating procedure in baseball. If Milner gets Freeman to bounce out to the second baseman, no one blinks an eye. This is classic hindsight-is-20-20. Dunce rating: 2.
Used nine pitchers in Friday's 11-inning win. The problem with needing so many outs from your bullpen on Friday -- other than the fact that they didn't get them -- was that Kapler needed a ton more from them on Saturday. Nick Pivetta was ineffective as a starter, going just four innings and giving up five hits, two walks and three runs. Heading into the fifth inning, the game was tied and the meat of the Braves' lineup was coming up: Inciarte/Albies/Freeman/Markakis. So Kaplan pulled Pivetta. It worked, too: The Phillies' bullpen threw three shutout innings before giving up a run in the eighth, and then three more shutout innings after that, including the 10th and 11th. If I'm reading this straight, a large portion of the anger toward Kapler was because he went to the bullpen so much. It should probably be noted that the one Phillies' win so far was because their bullpen gave up just one run in seven innings, mostly because Kapler called for the right guys at the right time: because he had faith in his bullpen. You really think Pivetta makes it through that fifth inning unscathed? From this angle, it kind of looks like Kapler's quick hook won the Phillies a game they wouldn't have otherwise.
Bad move? I do not consider "a managerial decision that wins your team a game" a bad move, no. Dunce rating: 0.
Bringing in Milner in the third inning of Saturday's game. All right, there's no justifying this one. The Braves shelled Vince Velasquez for seven runs in 2 1/3 innings, and Kapler, as eager as the rest of us to stop watching the carnage, called for Milner to enter the game without warming up and exceeded the amount of time needed for a pitching change under pace-of-play rules implemented for 2018. Umpire Jerry Layne realized what had happened and, breaking with the rules out of common human decency, let Milner warm up on the mound because "the last thing I want to do is get somebody hurt." Kapler took full responsibility, saying, "It's a pretty good indication that I need to do a better job, and I will." It was a massive mistake, even for a guy managing his third big league game, and he probably deserves all the kicks you're giving him. It's still worth noting that one time a Hall of Fame manager put in the wrong pitcher in a World Series game and, upon seeing the pitcher, said, "What are you doing here?" These mistakes are bad, but not a death sentence.
Bad move? I'm not going to try to justify this one. Dunce rating: 10.
Finishing a blowout loss with shortstop Pedro Florimon on the mound. Observers mocked Kapler for this, though I don't understand why. Sure, he had used so many pitchers in his first three games that he didn't want to waste their arms -- he used 21 pitchers in total, which, yeah, is a lot -- but I'm not sure the correct response to a bullpen-heavy series is to force another reliever to throw when you're down 10 runs. Did people want Kapler to use a pitcher there? The game's over. He'd told Florimon he might pitch in a blowout. He saved another bullpen arm in a lost game. What's the problem here exactly?
Bad move? I understand that the narrative beast has to be fed, but the argument that Kapler should be mocked for not wasting a pitcher in a blowout is bewildering. Dunce rating: 0.
It is possible that Gabe Kapler is a moron who has no business near a Major League dugout -- such a moron, in fact, that he can't even make it through one series. But isn't it a little bit more likely that he's just a guy in a tough sports city with a media contingent more interested in #coconutoil hashtags than evolving attitudes about bullpens? Isn't it a little bit more likely that he made a dumb mistake with Milner but otherwise navigated a tough series how most managers would? Isn't it a little more likely that he's an unconventional guy and therefore more easily mocked and meme'd than if he were just another boring baseball lifer? Maybe? Possibly? Given his dynamic baseball career, it's worth giving him some time before we rush to judgment. It is, as they say, a long season.