Tommy Hunter did not know it was going to be him. He knew it was a possibility, that when the dugout told Seranthony Dominguez to start getting loose in the seventh inning, the Phillies were eventually going to need someone else to handle the ninth. But until the bullpen phone rang a couple of innings later, Hunter was not even sure he'd end up pitching at all, let alone serving as Gabe Kapler's latest closer of the day.
Three outs later, Hunter was exchanging handshakes with his catcher, having locked down his second save of the season in a 5-3 win over the Marlins on Sunday that moved the Phillies to 15 games above .500.
"It's definitely different," said Hunter, who is one of nine Phillies with at least one save and one of five with at least two, both ranking as the most among major-league teams. "But, I don't know, you can't really doubt it right now. I mean, we're in August, and [stuff's] still working. There's got to be a method to it. There's got to be something behind it."
With that, Hunter offered what might be the most fitting summation for Kapler's first season in the majors.
The 2018 Phillies: The (expletive's) still working.
>> READ MORE: Does '18 have a chance to compare to '08? Maybe
Nowhere has Kapler's norm-shattering philosophy been more apparent than in the bullpen, where the conventional wisdom has long suggested that the optimal way to manage a staff is to put players into regular roles. That is the way it has gone for most of Hunter's career. You know your inning, or your situation, and you develop your rhythm around it. Last season, as a setup man with the Rays, 51 percent of his appearances came in the eighth inning, with another 23 percent in the seventh.
This year, however, Hunter's pie chart looks a lot more egalitarian, with no more than 33 percent of his outings coming in any one inning. He has pitched 15 times in the seventh, 14 in the eighth, and six apiece in the sixth and ninth.
"It's one of those things where guys, including myself, are starting to embrace that you can come into the fifth inning and he's putting you in a position to succeed and a position that is pretty important to the team," Hunter said. "Once you start realizing that and understanding the concept, because you can't follow along, there's no following along. It's just what it is. And it's working. And guys are buying in."
The central component of Kapler's decision-making is Dominguez, the electric 23-year-old rookie who has emerged as one of the most dominant relief arms in the majors. Rather than confine that talent to three outs in the ninth inning, Kapler has attempted to utilize the righthander in a game's most pivotal moment, regardless of when it occurs.
On Sunday, that moment was the seventh inning. Aaron Nola had spent much of the afternoon grinding his way through an outing in which he did not have his best stuff. After the Phillies took a 3-0 lead into the seventh, trouble arrived. A swinging bunt off the bat of Isaac Galloway momentarily transformed Nola into a croquet wicket, the ball dribbling slowly between his legs. Then, Derek Dietrich pounced on a first-pitch change-up up in the zone, sending a missile into the right-field seats that cut the Phillies' lead to a single run.
At that point, Kapler had two options, according to the paradigm by which big-league managers have long operated. He could leave Nola in the game to face the heart of the Marlins lineup having already thrown 91 pitches. Or could turn to one of his veteran setup men, specifically Hunter or fellow righty Pat Neshek, with the potential of going to a lefty to face slugger Justin Bour, who was due up third. But instead of following the conventional wisdom, he followed a simple line of logic. With three innings remaining, the Marlins would send a minimum of nine more hitters to the plate. The most talented third of those hitters were due up now. The least talented third were on track to bat in the ninth. Instead of saving his most talented reliever for the ninth, why not use him now?
The notion might seem stunningly obvious to anybody who has not been exposed to decades of managerial groupthink. But when Kapler called on Dominguez in the seventh, it offered another glimpse at the little slices of competitive advantage that the Phillies' first-year manager has used to help guide his team to first place in the NL East.
"It's two-three-four-five, who's your guy there?" Kapler said. "I thought Seranthony would profile beautifully with that group."
Few pitchers in the majors this season have pitched in more pressure situations than Dominguez.
In an attempt to quantify the importance of a given plate appearance, the website Baseball-Reference.com has developed a metric called Leverage Index, which uses factors like the inning and score to assign a number to the situation. The stat is normalized so that the leverage of an average situation is 1.00. Thus, a player with an average Leverage Index of 1.10 has, on average, pitched in situations that are 10 percent more important than the norm, while a pitcher with a 0.90 average leverage index has pitched in situations that are 10 percent less important than the norm.
Dominguez's average Leverage Index is 1.930, the fifth-highest of any NL reliever and the 11th-highest of any reliever in the majors. Only three pitchers in the majors have seen a higher percentage of their outings come in high leverage situations.
What's interesting about that is that every player ranked ahead of him — not to mention the next eight behind him — has pitched in more save opportunities than Dominguez. In fact, of the 17 relievers with the highest average Leverage Index, only Dominguez and the Mariners' Alex Colome have had more than 55 percent of their appearances come in non-save opportunities.
If he maintains his current pace, Dominguez will be one of only 22 relievers in recorded history to post an average Leverage Index greater than 1.9 at the age of 23 or younger (minimum of 20 appearances). Every one of those players finished his season with a Game Finished in at least 50 percent of his outings. In fact, since 1976, only eight relievers in the majors of any age have finished a season with an average Leverage Index above 1.900 and fewer than 22 games finished while logging at least 40 innings.
(minimum: 40 innings pitched)
One of the key questions facing Kapler early in the season was whether he would be able to get the veterans on his roster to accept the unorthodox nature of his decision making. His ability to do so — along with, or because of, his ability to win games — is one of the primary arguments for his candidacy as NL manager of the year.
"You've just got to jump on board or get the [expletive] out," Hunter said. "I don't know how else to say that."
As he said earlier, the stuff's still working.