In December, I penned a piece discussing how 2018 would be the most important calendar year for the Philadelphia Phillies organization in some time. In it, I asked when the honeymoon for new manager Gabe Kapler would end. Opening Day of the 2018 season, it would appear, is the answer.
Theo DeRosa recapped the Phillies Opening Day loss for SportsTalkPhilly.com, but some of Kapler's more controversial decisions in the team's 8-5 loss are worth examining even more deeply.
- Not starting Odubel Herrera or Scott Kingery
If I was building my Opening Day lineup with the Phillies current 25-man roster, Odubel Herrera would have been my starting center fielder, full stop. With that said, Herrera dealt with a shoulder injury early in Spring Training, and didn't seem to have his timing when he returned (he hit .224 this spring). The Phillies also have four starting-caliber outfielders in Herrera, Rhys Hoskins, Aaron Altherr and Nick Williams. Herrera got into the game today, and will likely start tomorrow. It's not how I would have handled things, but so be it.
Not starting Kingery made less sense. Cesar Hernandez may be the Phillies best hitter aside from Hoskins, as he showed today with two hits, including a home run. But with Kingery on the major league roster, you figured he would start at third base, over Maikel Franco. If not at third base, perhaps in right field, one of the six positions that Kapler said last weekend that he is comfortable playing Kingery at.
Both will probably start tomorrow, and Kapler does have to manage fitting 10 starting-caliber players into only eight positions. It just feels like if you are putting together your Opening Day lineup, you put your best eight players out there. Herrera and Kingery are two of the Phillies eight best players.
- Pulling Aaron Nola for Hoby Milner in the sixth inning
Should Gabe Kapler have pulled Aaron Nola after five-and-a-third scoreless innings, with a runner on second? No. Nola, in his first Opening Day start, had thrown just 68 pitches and allowed only three hits. Even with a runner on second base and two lefthanded hitters scheduled to bat, there was no reason to think that Nola was at-risk of blowing the Phillies five-run lead.
With that said, it was also reasonable to think that Hoby Milner, who lefties hit just .159 against in 2017, wouldn't allow a two-run home run to the first batter that he faced. Instead, Freddie Freeman launched his 20th career home run against the Phillies, cutting the team's lead to just three. Sometimes things just don't work out.
In Kapler's defense, Nola's ERA jumped to 3.98 in the sixth inning in 2017 and 7.30 in seventh inning. The Phillies can't afford to have their bullpen pitch four or five innings every game - especially not when Nola starts - but they have a bullpen that should be deep, at least on paper. They should have been able to hold the five-run lead for Nola, even if pulling him was a mistake.
- Using Edubray Ramos over Pat Neshek in the eighth inning
As it turns out, Kapler said that Neshek was unavailable today. If that was the case, short of going to Neris in the eighth inning, it's unclear who Kapler was supposed to turn to in the eighth. Imagine the second-guessing that would have been done, deservedly so, if he had turned to Victor Arano, Jake Thompson or Drew Hutchinson in the bottom of the eighth and they had blown the lead.
With that said, there's reason to be concerned about Edubray Ramos. Ramos was lights out after the All-Star Break last year, posting a 2.70 ERA in 24 games, but that came after he posted a 5.52 ERA in 35 games prior to the All-Star Break. Thus far in 2018, it doesn't appear like the second-half Ramos has returned.
In 10 games this Spring Training, Edubray Ramos posted a 7.27 ERA. There may be some veterans who Spring Training results don't mean anything for, but Ramos wasn't one of them.
After Adam Morgan allowed a wind-assisted home run from Ozzie Albies to open the eighth, Ramos came in with one out, as the Phillies attempted to get a two-run lead to Hector Neris. Instead, Ramos came in and walked Kurt Suzuki. With runners on first and second, Andrew Knapp, who started over Jorge Alfaro, allowed a passed ball. To make matters worse, after Freeman advanced to third base, Knapp fired the ball to third, probably with next-to-no chance to throw Freeman out. Instead of throwing him out, he one-hopped Franco at third base, and the ball went into left field, allowing Freeman to score and Suzuki to move to third base. Should Franco have blocked Knapp's throw? Probably. But Knapp probably should have just eaten the ball, rather than making what turned out to be a pretty pathetic throw. On the next play, after former Phillie Peter Bourjos came in to pinch-run for Suzuki, Preston Tucker hit an RBI single into center field.
Ramos was able to retire Dansby Swanson and Ryan Flaherty to end the inning, but the damage was already done, as the Braves had roared back to tie the game at five.
- Pulling Rhys Hoskins after the eighth
In 2008, Charlie Manuel would often pull Pat Burrell in favor of Eric Bruntlett late in games. Burrell was one of the team's biggest power threats, but he wasn't a good baserunner, or fielder. So Manuel would bring in the light-hitting Bruntlett for Burrell, hoping to gain an advantage in the field and on the basepaths. It worked in the clinching game of the 2008 World Series.
The thought process with pulling Hoskins prior to the eighth inning was that the Phillies were upgrading in the field, as they attempted to hold their three-run lead. Not only was Williams an upgrade over Hoskins in left field, but Herrera, per nearly all advanced metrics, was an upgrade over Altherr in center, as was Altherr over Williams in right. The problem is that while Hoskins may be a similar left fielder to Burrell, he's the team's best hitter. On the 2008 team, Burrell wasn't one of the Phillies five best hitters.
There really shouldn't be a point in any game where Hoskins isn't on the field for the Phillies. If the thought process is that you don't want to take the chance with him in the outfield late in a game, fine, move him to first. He is a downgrade over Carlos Santana in the field, but you still get to keep his bat in the lineup. There's also a significantly smaller chance that you lose the game on a play your first baseman makes than your left fielder.
Again, though, even if this wasn't the correct decision, one would have thought the Phillies could hold a three-run lead over the Braves for two innings without needing Hoskins' bat again. That wasn't the case.
- Not Walking Markakis for Bourjos
With a runner on second base and two outs, it was a no-brainer for Kapler to call for the Phillies intentionally walk Freddie Freeman. Beyond the fact that having a runner on first created a force-out at every base, Freeman is a Hall of Fame caliber player in a lineup that isn't particularly deep. You couldn't afford, three innings after Freeman hit a home run, to let him beat you.
The question then becomes should Kapler have intentionally walked Nick Markakis, who has over 2,000 career hits, to face the light-hitting Bourjos. Clearly, with the benefit of hindsight, facing Markakis didn't work out. As Ricky Bottalico pointed out on the NBC Sports Philadelphia postgame show, Markakis was seven-for-14 lifetime against Neris. So there was an argument for taking your chances against Bourjos with the bases loaded.
With that said, there's a chance that if Markakis hits a hard single, or even legs out an infield single, a run still doesn't score. If Bourjos puts the ball on the grass, the game is over. Markakis was also 0-4 entering the ninth.
In the end, the feeling that I'm left with is that while Kapler deserves to be second-guessed for pulling Nola after only 68 pitches, the rest of his decisions don't look as bad as some will make them out to be, especially if Neshek wasn't an option today. There's 161 more games, and the bigger problem that the Phillies displayed today was an inability to hold a five-run lead. Kapler and the bullpen will have a chance to make atone tomorrow night at 7:35 p.m.