It’s a brand new world down in Clearwater. That’s plan enough to see. This is a radically different spring training than anyone who has covered the Phillies for any length of time has witnessed.
This team is doing things differently, not even from how the franchise traditionally did it, but in some cases, how every other team in baseball has done it. New manager Gabe Kapler and the infrastructure that has been created around him over the last couple years has meshed together and is thinking outside the box in order to maximize the Phils’ chances of winning in 2018.
And it’s even more clear now why manager Pete Mackanin had to go.
Please don’t read this as a knock on Mackanin who, by all accounts, is one of the nicest guys in the game and is well respected by just about everyone. But with a couple weeks of spring training under our belts, it’s already plain to see that, for the Phillies’ off-field investments to pay off, there needed to be a different voice in the dugout.
Just look at some of the different things the team has done this spring, only a scant few of which I think Mackanin would have been comfortable with.
- Kapler has instituted “player plan” meetings during spring training. In these meetings, the manager and coaches meet with players to cover, in great analytical detail, their strengths and weaknesses. They stress what each player does really well (what pitches he hits best in certain counts, etc.), and what they don’t do well (when they swing at the first pitch and miss, their batting average plummets, etc.).
- The team is experimenting with position players in a way we haven’t seen before. Tommy Joseph at third base? Sure, why not. In the outfield? Um, OK I guess. Cesar Hernandez at shortstop? It’s been tried before but let’s keep trying, right? Roman Quinn at shortstop? What is this, 2014? The team is focused on getting as many players to play as many different positions as competently as possible to give the team more flexibility. It requires a lot of unconventional thinking.
- Mid-inning position switches in the corner outfield has been with us for two spring games now. In the first, Tommy Joseph started the game in left field, but moved in the middle of the second inning to right field as Colin Cowgill came into the game during a pitching change. Rhys Hoskins started a game in right field this week against the Yankees, but just for the first batter of the game, left-handed Jacoby Ellsbury. He then moved to left field for the rest of the game, until Ellsbury came to bat again, at which point, he shifted spots again. The team is moving their better defensive outfielder to the location they feel a batter is more likely to hit the ball, something that hasn’t been done at all in baseball, but could ultimately end up saving a win at some point. It’s a test drive, and we’ll see how long it lasts.
- Rhys Hoskins batted leadoff. More importantly, lineup construction suddenly makes sense. Kapler said this week the numbers indicate the two most important spots in the lineup are Nos. 2 and 4, because those positions come up with the most runners on base. That’s why, for much of the spring, Hoskins and Carlos Santana have been in those two spots. Gone are the days of Freddy Galvis’ .300 OBP in the two-hole. Getting your best players more at-bats is not a difficult concept, but one the previous regime had trouble grasping. Not this group.
- Alex Nakamura, a senior quantitative analyst with the team, was in uniform and on the field, talking with Charlie Manuel, this week. Nakamura comes from Northrop Grumman, where he was a systems engineer. How do you think Mackanin and former bench coach Larry Bowa would have handled that?
- The Phillies are also focusing hard on catcher framing, setting up cameras in order to help catchers learn to do a better job in an area in which the team was dreadfully behind last season.
You’re starting to see why the Phillies decided now was the time to move away from Pete Mackanin. They’ve obviously spent a lot of time and money setting up an infrastructure led by numbers people and progressive thinkers, and it would have been a waste of those resources to have an old school manager still calling the shots. There are so many new things the team is employing - next level type stuff - that they needed a guy like Kapler in there. None of this ever would have worked with Mackanin.
And it’s not Mackanin’s fault. He’s a baseball lifer and spent decades in a game that had a certain way of doing things. It’s not easy to change, even if you want to, and the Phils felt they needed someone who could not only deal with these changes, but be a proactive part of the change process. That’s why Gabe Kapler is here, and Pete Mackanin isn’t.
On Episode 178 of the Felske Files (the podcast will soon to be re-named Hittin’ Season, listen to the first few minutes of the podcast for an explanation), I spoke with The Athletic’s Ben Harris about the many changes we’ve seen so far, and dove into some of the performances of key members of the team during the first full week of games down in Clearwater.
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