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Manager’s mailbox: A virtual sit-down with Phillies’ manager Gabe Kapler

Philadelphia Phillies v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, we at The Good Phight were presented with the unique opportunity of having direct contact with Phillies’ manager, Gabe Kapler.

Each and every member of the TGP Masthead have their individual opinions of Gabe, his strategies, and his philosophies — however, a select few of us concluded that this particular opportunity was one that we thought the fans in particular would enjoy.

And thus, Manager’s Mailbox was born!

Those select writers assembled a list of questions based upon Kapler’s in-game philosophy, as well as his productivity as a manager on a general scope. We combined our individual queries, and shipped our list to Kap on Monday, the 23rd of September.

Just a day-and-a-half later, at 1:02 AM (yes, DIRECTLY AFTER that abysmal double-header with the Washington Nationals,) Gabe responded — and did so in great detail.

Say what you will about Kapler, but there was no denying that he put a great deal of thought and effort into his responses, which he certainly did not have to do.

Below, you will find the direct transcript of a portion of our Q&A with Gabe Kapler.

We’re hoping that if you, the audience, enjoy what we’ve put together here, we’ll eventually be able to open the line to TGP readers, as well, and allow you all to submit your own questions (within reason) to be answered by the Phillies’ manager himself.

In the last Braves game, in the bottom of the fifth, Aaron Nola pitched to Freddie Freeman instead of walking him with first base open. This led to two runs. It’s easy to look in hindsight and second-guess, but what are the specific factors you look at in deciding whether or not to walk a guy in this situation?

“Deciding when to issue an intentional walk has a lot of factors that go into it. First and foremost, we’re taking into account whether it’s a leverage situation and if it is, how giving a free pass is likely to affect that leverage situation.

Second, we evaluate the likelihood of getting that player out versus the hitter behind him. In the example you mentioned, Freeman is 10-42 against Nola and was 2-14 off of him this year. So, we’re thinking most of the time, Nola gets Freddie out. He’s also only had 4 extra base hits off of Nola in their careers, 1 in the last 3 years. We also know that Nola is typically our best chance to get their top hitters out. If we walk Freeman, it increases the chances, even though only by a small amount, that we have to face him an extra time with our bullpen.

Finally, we think about the impact it will have on the pitcher - will it affect their confidence, does this move demonstrate trust in them, and how will this change their psychology for the rest of the game?”

If you could do it over again, would you still pitch to Freeman in that AB?

Obviously, hindsight being 20-20 and knowing that Freeman would have the 2 RBI single, I would walk him.

When a decision like that is made, it is something we debrief, discuss and examine from every angle after the game. That specific one was a close call at the time, and looking back on it a couple of weeks later, I still think it was a close call. Taking everything into account, I think our win expectancy was better off letting Nola face him.

The beauty and devastation of baseball is that even when you make decisions that succeed 90% of the time, that’s a lot of results that come out the other way over the course of a season.

A couple of weeks ago, you put out a starting lineup against the Mets in which Jose Pirela, who had five plate appearances this season, got the start over a then-healthy Corey Dickerson, who despite being a left-handed hitter had hit lefties pretty well since joining the Phillies and had been one of their best run producers. Two questions:

  • What stats (and how far back) are you using when making a decision like that?
  • How does a player like Dickerson react to that kind of a decision?

There’s a combination of factors that go into any given lineup decision. Making out the lineup starts with questions of health. Who is banged up? Who can play, but a day of rest will help them to recover better? Who tweaked something? Who is experiencing some fatigue?

Being able to play and being 100% aren’t always the same thing, and sometimes my job is to know when to play someone at 75% and when to rest them.

The second factor that goes into it is mental. How is this guy’s confidence? How will it be affected by a day off? Then, we start to look into the matchup itself. We look at numbers, and generally will look at 1 year, 3 year and career sample sizes to get both a recent and a broader scale picture.

We dig down - how has he performed against RHP with primarily a FB/CT/SL profile? We look at where damage is - if someone does most of his damage on 4S up and the pitcher never throws those offerings, success is going to be less likely.

We look at swing path and percentages - if we’ve got a guy who hits a lot of balls on the ground and we’re facing a heavy sinkerballer backed up by a great defense, that’s not a recipe for success either.

We look at swing path and how that will play against a pitch mix. We look at who can handle velo well, who can pick up best on spin and try to match that up.

Finally, in September especially, we have to figure out ways to keep guys from getting rusty without reps. We know that hitters struggle when they haven’t seen live pitching in a number of days, so we try to work them in where the matchup supports. As you know, we get creative about this because we also have to put our best 8 on the field every night, so we’ll have rehabbing or minor league pitchers come in to throw BP.

This isn’t a foremost factor for us, but it is a consideration.

Does the fact that the Phillies lead baseball in home runs surrendered on 0-2 counts suggest that there might be a problem with pitch selection in those situations?

Well, it’s certainly not ideal!

I think it’s a mix of factors. I think some of it is just random distribution. I think some of it is probably personnel. And yes, I think some of it has to do with game planning. In early July, we made some adjustments to how we went about game planning. It’s difficult to make drastic changes in the middle of the season for a great many reasons, but we did make some adjustments, and we saw a drop in the home run rate we were giving up.

I think there are probably similar adjustments to be made to the 2 strike process and to game planning as a whole. We will not be shying away from making these changes.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this season has been the failure of most of the team’s young players to develop and improve, with two prominent exceptions: Scott Kingery on the positional side, and Zach Eflin among the pitchers. Both have stated publicly that they credit their improvement to guidance other than—or even in conflict with—what their position coaches were telling them.

  • Does this suggest a problem with the team’s approach to you?
  • Is it possible that the Phillies have been too categorical about how they want their hitters and pitchers to perform?
  • And are there any lessons from Kingery and Eflin when considering the stagnation or regression of Rhys Hoskins, Nick Williams, Nick Pivetta, et al?

I actually disagree pretty strongly with some of the assumptions in this question. I think that we’ve seen quite a bit of development and improvement in various areas, both with young players and veterans alike. J.T.’s work behind the plate is a clear example.

Our base running across the board is another - Cesar and Jean epitomizing these improvements. Our defense has been significantly better. I would highlight Ranger Suarez as someone who has taken a step forward as well. I do think it does our players a disservice to not identify the steps forward that they’ve taken, even if it’s not as straightforward on the surface.

That all being said, we absolutely have to scrutinize our approach. I think there are three ways to evaluate it. Is it the right approach? Is the player trying to execute on the approach? Is the player successful at executing on the approach? It’s an area where I will be putting a lot of focus into this offseason, and I think the answer is going to be different for everyone.

To the second question, it’s possible. I, personally, believe strongly in the individual approach. Asking Vince Velasquez to be a right handed Jason Vargas or demanding Nick Pivetta pitch like Aaron Nola is asking for disaster. I remember one of my own hitting coaches suggest I just hit like Manny Ramirez - believe me, if I could have, I would have.

That doesn’t excuse us from asking ourselves if that has been effectively communicated. That doesn’t get us out of questioning ourselves about whether we’ve actually individualized it or fallen into patterns. Those are fair questions, and they need answers. I think the three players you named could not be more different individuals. The personalities, their physicality, their abilities and their weaknesses are so strikingly different that I couldn’t begin to draw specific lessons. I think the one commonality is that the challenge for every coach or manager is to learn every player’s language.

Our job is not to make ourselves comfortable. Our job is not to make life easier on us. Our job is do the work and put in the effort to be what each player needs. Our job is to understand who they are at that moment in time, then use that information to understand how to help them to be the best they can be in that moment. The results make it clear that we need to improve on this front.

To dig into the player I think most people are interested in, every hitter experiences slumps. When you go through one, it makes you physically sick. It’s devastating, and it’s all consuming. I can remember my (very poor) way of coping through a prolonged one, which involved hitting in the cage after games until my hands bled. That was especially counter productive, but I couldn’t see a way to do anything else. In Rhys’ case, there’s no talent issue here.

His plate discipline hasn’t gone away. His strength hasn’t gone away, he’s not struggling to hit the ball out of the park. His swing is fine. He’s a split second off with his timing, so he’s a bit too early on hanging breaking balls and a bit too late on fastballs he can drive at times. These type of issues resolve themselves. He is one swing away from going on a tear, and whether that one swing happens this season, this offseason, or spring training, Rhys is going to be fine.