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Old school minds question Gabe Kapler’s 9th inning reliever switch

Kapler did the unexpected once again in the 9th inning, but why old school baseball folks should slow down before ripping the rookie manager.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

At first, it seemed weird to me, too.

In the 9th inning of the Phillies’ 4-1 win against the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday, Phillies manager Gabe Kapler called on Edubray Ramos to start the inning, lining him up for the potential save.

It made sense. After all, the incumbent closer, Hector Neris, had blown two big saves against division rivals in the last 10 days and was sporting a 5.17 ERA, a 5.13 FIP and was walking 5.17 batters per nine innings. It has been an ugly year, and a change was necessary.

So all was proceeding according to plan when Ramos struck out Jonathan Schoop and Mark Trumbo to start the inning. One more out to go and everyone boards the planes to St. Louis in a happy mood. All Ramos needed to do was get the left-handed hitting Chris Davis out, and he would have his 2nd save of the season.

Then, Kapler threw everyone a curveball. Or, a splitter I guess, to be more accurate.

Remember, the Phillies had a THREE-run lead, and yet, Kapler took a reliever out who had whiffed the first two batters swinging in order to bring in a reliever who has struggled mightily so far this season.

In the end, the move worked. Neris fell behind Davis 2-0 but got him to hit a grounder to 2nd baseman Cesar Hernandez to end the game. Of course, this unorthodox move was questioned by virtually everyone at first, including myself.

But after the game, Kapler explained his reasons for making the move, and it had more to do than just looking at the analytics.

And if you look at the move, based strictly on the numbers, it made some sense.

However, the move hearkened back to the first week of the season, when a number of unorthodox moves by Kapler (Nola’s removal from the Opener, using nine pitchers in a nine-inning game, odd defensive shifts) and his mishandling of the Hoby Milner situation led to widespread criticism of the Phils manager across baseball.

However, that was eight weeks ago. Nevertheless, there are those who have not forgotten, including 14-year former veteran reliever Gregg Olson.

Of course, that first week was about two months ago, and it’s clear to anyone who has watched the team over the last eight weeks that Kapler has stopped over-managing and has done things “by the book” in many ways. He has been allowing his starters to pitch deep into games, he has found some comfort levels with the lineup, and it was only because of Neris’ meltdowns against the Braves and Nationals that this new closer-by-committee approach was required.

Matthew Pouliot of NBC Sports also had some issues with Kapler’s bullpen usage on Wednesday, and it appears as if Kapler’s first week in the big leagues is going to be the only impression some people ever want to have of him. But it’s clear that there was more at play than analytics in this decision.

The Phillies needed this win against the O’s. They simply couldn’t allow Neris to start the 9th inning of this game with a chance to blow a three-run lead against a team that came into the contest with a 13-28 record. That’s why Ramos started the inning and got the two right-handers.

Yes, putting Neris in that spot, with a three-run lead, was unusual, and frankly, I don’t really agree with it. I would have let Ramos stay in the game for at least one hitter. But Neris’ splitter is more effective against left-handers, as noted above. And after Davis, two more lefties, Chance Sisco and Pedro Alvarez, were due up for Baltimore, so putting in Neris with the bases empty and two out made a lot more sense than Ramos possibly imploding against the left-handers and forcing Neris into a higher-leverage situation.

Obviously, Kapler was trying to split the baby here. He was trying to both win the game, using some pretty basic numbers to do it, and get Neris back on the right track.

Did Kapler cost Ramos a save? Yes. Might Ramos be annoyed or mad about that? Who knows? But does that also mean Kapler doesn’t “take care of his players,” as Olson claimed? No.

As a former big league reliever, I can understand why Olson and others with his experience don’t like the idea of a closer-by-committee approach. Heck, I don’t really like closer-by-committee. My ideal of the ideal bullpen usage is the freedom to use your best reliever in the most high leverage situations, whether it’s the 7th, 8th, or 9th innings. Using two or three relievers to secure three outs with no one on base in a game you lead by three runs is not what I had in mind.

There are reasons why it hasn’t been done all that often. Relievers like to have set roles, and certainly, piling up saves is one of the ways a big league relief pitcher can assure himself of a big contract when the time comes. A manager has to make sure all his pitchers are on the same page, which one would assume Kapler has done.

It’s clear the first impression left by the Phillies skipper after his tough first week continues to follow him. But in this instance, the move worked, the Phillies won, and Kapler managed to secure a victory and get his struggling closer some confidence in the process.

Doesn’t sound like a good reason to kill the manager to me.