Two key moments.
Had the Phillies made different decisions in either of those moments this weekend in Los Angeles, it’s just as likely the ballclub still doesn’t leave their series with the Dodgers with a win. Gabe Kapler is getting skewered in some circles for those decisions, but was he wrong? Or was the process correct and the results unfortunate? And how did he arrive tat those positions? Were they based on new-fangled thinking, spreadsheets and the dreaded “A” word (analytics)? Or were they sound baseball decisions?
First let’s take you back to Saturday night. With the Phils trailing 2-1 in the top of the 7th, Scott Kingery led off with a double. That brought Cesar Hernandez to the plate, perhaps the team’s best bunter. Some have argued Hernandez should have bunted Kingery over to third, giving the Phils a chance to tie the game with a deep fly ball or a well-placed ground ball.
Instead, Kapler chose to let Hernandez swing away and, unfortunately, he lined out to the right fielder for the first out of the inning. Kingery stayed rooted on second base as Maikel Franco then lined out to the left fielder and Sean Rodriguez struck out swinging against Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers would tack on a run in the bottom of the inning to make it 3-1, Harper would hit a two run homer in the top of the 8th to tie it at 3-3, and the Dodgers walked it off with a Will Smith homer off Hector Neris in the bottom of the 9th.
Did Kapler screw up? Well, had Hernandez bunted Kingery to third, Franco’s line drive to left still would not have allowed Kingery to tag up, as it was hit too hard and the left fielder was charging the ball when he made the catch. Kingery would not even have attempted to score. But even more than that, there is an unwritten, old school rule in baseball that Kapler adhered to in this situation.
You don’t play for a tie on the road.
Because you don’t have the final at-bat as the road team, playing for a tie allows the home team a final chance to win. Had the game been at Citizens Bank Park, playing for the tie might have been the right call, especially with an offense that was struggling to score runs. But in this case, Kapler made the correct, and the non-analytic call, by refusing to bunt for a chance to tie.
The second move came, once again, in the top of the 7th inning, but this time in Sunday’s finale. With the game scoreless, Cesar Hernandez hit a two-out double. Maikel Franco was then intentionally walked by Rich Hill, setting up a conundrum for Kapler.
He could allow Nick Pivetta to hit or he could remove him from the game for a pinch hitter.
Once again on Sunday, the offense wasn’t doing anything. They had mustered just three hits and this was, by far, their best scoring opportunity of the day. A run here might have been enough to win. However, Pivetta had been untouchable to that point, with no runs allowed through six innings, nine strikeouts, no walks and just three hits given up. He was only at 82 pitches.
One could certainly argue that leaving Pivetta in gave the team the best chance to win. He was shutting out one of the best lineups in baseball with relative ease. But traditionally, a manager will take his starting pitcher out in these situations in order to take advantage of what could be the only scoring opportunity they would have the whole day.
Unfortunately, the Phillies’ bench is putrid and, as Kapler looked around the dugout and realized Phil Gosselin was his best choice to face Hill in this pressure-packed spot, he probably should have sent Pivetta up to the plate. But Kapler rolled the dice that Gosselin wouldn’t watch a strike three sail by (which he did) and then watched his bullpen blow the game over the final two innings.
But again, even if Kapler’s decision to remove Pivetta for a pinch hitter was based somewhat on analytics, it was also a move that virtually every traditional baseball manager would have made. And if the Phils had a decent pinch-hitter for that spot, even a right-handed option like Aaron Altherr, the move would have been 100% defensible.
Unfortunately, it was either Gosselin or Sean Rodriguez in that spot, which means he probably should have left Pivetta in, given his choices. But it was by no means a slam-dunk call and again, things simply did not go the Phillies’ way.
So you can kill Kapler’s moves this weekend because they didn’t work, but don’t fall into the trap of believing he’s being mind controlled by the numbers. In both cases, Kapler made moves that most traditionalists would have agreed with. They just didn’t work.
On Episode 291 of “Hittin’ Season,” I talked about the weekend series with the Dodgers with Justin Klugh, and we broke down why the offense is to blame for their inconsistency, the acquisition of Jay Bruce, the free agency of Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel and the soon-to-develop trade market.