This space was used late last season to endorse Pete Mackanin's continuing presence as the Phillies manager. That column had so much influence over general manager Matt Klentak that he removed Mackanin from the managerial position three days later.
It would be really cool if we could travel to some parallel universe and see how this same Phillies team is doing under Mackanin,. But it is probably going to be a while before Elon Musk's great-great-great-great-great-grandson makes that kind of thing possible.
So instead, we have Gabe Kapler's Phillies, and regardless of whether you are a skeptic or a fan, you have to admit the man is fascinating. He has, in fact, become the face of the Phillies in his first season. He is the person everybody on the outside wants to know about. He is like an NFL quarterback in that you can never talk or write about him enough.
Sure, Rhys Hoskins is hitting home runs almost as often as he did when he arrived last August and Aaron Nola is in the National League Cy Young Award conversation. But since spring training, Kapler has drawn the most attention, and that has not changed as the season has swung into the home stretch.
The initial attention, of course, was not good. His first two big decisions – sitting centerfielder Odubel Herrera on opening day and yanking Nola with a 5-0 lead after just 68 pitches – were not good ones. Two games later, when Kapler went to the mound to make a pitching change and did not have a reliever warmed and ready, it was a publicly embarrassing moment for the rookie manager that also triggered a letter to Major League Baseball from Jerry Layne, the umpire crew chief during that series.
By the time the team returned for its home opener at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies were 1-4 and the court of public opinion had already turned on the manager. He was like a rookie quarterback who had thrown seven interceptions in his debut. Kapler, to my knowledge, became the first manager in Phillies history to be booed before he managed a home game.
What a fascinating ride this was going to be, and it surely has lived up to expectations.
Kapler's only recourse for his turbulent start was winning, and here we are less than two weeks away from September with the Phillies in the middle of a National League East race no one expected them to be in. For sure, Kapler has earned his share of converts. The analytics lovers are firmly behind him even though the numbers do not always add up in his favor.
Yes, they are second in baseball in pitches seen per plate appearance, a statistic Kapler has harped upon all season. But they are also 20th in runs per game.
Yes, they have embraced the shift that other Phillies managers resisted for years, but they are near the bottom of baseball in almost every defensive category, regardless of whether you use standard numbers like fielding percentage or more advanced numbers like defensive runs saved. Is that a reflection of the manager's insistence on having players who are defensively flexible? I believe it could be a result of how unaccustomed Phillies defenders were to playing the shift before this season.
The bullpen, of course, has been the lightning rod in Kapler's first season and so it was again during the first game of Thursday's doubleheader against the New York Mets.
Watching a game his team no longer had a chance to win, Kapler went to his alternative bullpen, the one that now includes four position players. Utility infielder Pedro Florimon was the first position player to make a relief appearance and he's also the only one with two appearances. With his 9.00 ERA, he's in line to win the team's PPPOTY (position player pitcher of the year) award.
That statistic does not interest Kapler, but the manager was, to use one of his terms, laser-focused on winning the second game of the doubleheader. He was willing to endure the theater of the absurd that unfolded when the duo of Roman Quinn and Scott Kingery allowed nine runs on 10 hits over the final three innings. Kingery was the better of the two relievers even though he threw so slowly he could not garner a radar-gun reading.
"We used strategy to best position the Phillies to win baseball games," Kapler told reporters afterward. "We're going to continue to do that. My job is to protect the Phillies. That's it. That's what I did."
Kapler was asked if the paying customers should have felt ripped off.
"I would bet it is more entertaining to watch what we just saw than in the same kind of blowout game [with] one of our relievers that we see regularly," Kapler said.
In this case, he was right on both counts. What's the point of wasting relievers in a lost first game when you can watch a train wreck in which none of the passengers gets injured? Yes, there is some risk of injury to Quinn and Kingery, but, with apologies to them, they are not the type of players right now who would cost the Phillies a chance at winning the division. Maybe they will be one day, but not right now.
Anyway, the Phillies won the second game of that doubleheader and what started as a disaster of a day ended with their gaining a half game on the Atlanta Braves in the division. It was also another fascinating day of watching Gabe Kapler manage the Phillies.
Does that make him a better manager than Pete Mackanin? I'd go back to a quote from Mackanin late last season when he was feeling insecure about his job.
"It always seems to boil down to: Do you need better coaches? Do you need a better manager? Mackanin said. "The answer to all these questions is you need better players."