Gabe Kapler draws criticism with quick hook of Aaron Nola

AP Photo/Matt Rourke
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Opening Day was looking great for the Phillies as the club took a 5-0 lead into the bottom of the sixth inning against the Braves. Starter Aaron Nola was humming along, shutting the Braves out on two hits and a walk with three strikeouts. Oh, how the tides would turn.

Nola ran into a tiny bit of trouble, surrendering a leadoff double to Ender Inciarte in the bottom of the sixth. After getting Ozzie Albies to fly out, manager Gabe Kapler came out and replaced Nola — having thrown only 68 pitches to that point — with lefty reliever Hoby Milner to face Freddie Freeman. Freeman promptly deposited a 3-2 Milner fastball into the seats in right field, cutting the Phillies’ lead to 5-2. Milner would see his way out of the inning, but the Braves weren’t done.

In the bottom of the eighth, Kapler took Rhys Hoskins out of the game to improve his defense, putting Odubel Herrera in center field and moving Nick Williams from right to left and Aaron Altherr from center to right. Lefty Adam Morgan, who got the final out of the seventh inning, stayed in the game. He yielded a leadoff homer to Albies, making it a 5-3 game, then walked Freeman. After striking out Nick Markakis, Edubray Ramos relieved him. Ramos issued a walk to Kurt Suzuki to bring up Preston Tucker with runners on first and second. Ramos threw a pitch in the dirt that Knapp couldn’t handle. Attempting to nab the lead advancing runner, Knapp threw to third base but his throw was poor and skipped into left field. Tucker tied the game at five-all with a single up the middle. Mercifully, Ramos was able to see his way out of the inning without any further damage.

The bullpen continued to disappoint in the bottom of the ninth as closer Hector Neris took the hill. Neris allowed a single on a weak grounder to Charlie Culberson, who promptly advanced to second base with a sacrifice bunt. Albies flied out for the second out of the inning. After intentionally walking Freeman with first base open, Markakis walked the Braves off 8-5 winners with a three-run home run.

After the game, Phillies fans were irate with Kapler’s decision-making in the game. They were mostly mad that he yanked Nola with only 68 pitches even though he was cruising. I think it was a defensible decision. Nola was going through the lineup for a third time, and just about every starter has worse results the third time through the order. As research from Mitchel Lichtman showed at Baseball Prospectus in 2013, pitch count doesn’t have an effect on this. In other words, a pitcher is about as likely to perform poorly the third time through the order at 68 pitches as he is at 85 or 95. Nola, over his career, has allowed a .706 OPS to batters the first time he sees them and .618 the second time, but .755 the third time.

Additionally, Kapler was playing the matchups with his nine-man bullpen. Yes, nine-man bullpen. Kapler’s options were to let Nola face Freeman a third time or bring in Hoby Milner, a lefty reliever who held left-handed hitters to a .464 OPS last season. At Triple-A last season, Milner held lefties to a .508 OPS compared to .856 against righties. Furthermore, if you put stock in small sample match-up stats, Freeman has owned Nola historically. Even though Milner got burned by Freeman, Kapler’s decision was the correct one.

Teams up five runs going into the bottom of the sixth inning on the road win about 95 percent of the time. The Phillies’ bullpen was about average last year and is arguably now above-average, especially if one puts stock in, for example, Morgan’s second-half resurgence. It’s the first game of a 162-game season. Take the long view: don’t make Nola throw pitches he doesn’t need to throw. He’s the ace of the staff, but he’s still only 24 years old. What’s more important: Nola staying healthy, or winning a March game against the Braves in a season in which they’re expected to win fewer than 50 percent of their games? The Phillies have two more relievers on the roster than teams typically carry, so they can afford to go to the bullpen early. It isn’t the third game of a seven-game playoff series where you need to carefully manage workloads.

The Phillies win despite the quick hook on Nola almost every time if one was able to play out the game 100 or 1,000 times. They didn’t today, which stinks if you’re a fan, but it doesn’t mean Kapler’s process was wrong. If you’re at the blackjack table and stand with 20 against a dealer 6, but the dealer still finds his way to 21, that doesn’t mean your decision to hit was wrong. Sometimes your pitchers stink. Sometimes the opposing team executes well. It was a combination of both today for the Phillies, so you tip your cap to the Braves and move on.

Kapler was always going to have his decisions as a manager put under the magnifying glass because people who think like he does are still a minority in baseball culture, even though just about every front office is on board already. People are also skeptical of him because of some questionable stuff he’s blogged about and he doesn’t look like your typical baseball lifer. Fans are biased going into the season, having already made up their mind about whether or not they like him. Those that don’t like him will use today’s game as evidence he doesn’t know what he’s doing. If the Phillies had won today, those same people wouldn’t have said anything because it doesn’t support their viewpoint. It’s the very essence of confirmation bias.

After the game, Kapler said, “Look, tonight, the decisions didn’t work out in our favor. But I’m very confident that over a long period of time that they will.”

He’s right.

Texas Rangers ink free-agent ace Jacob deGrom to 5-year deal

Jacob deGrom
USA Today
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ARLINGTON, Texas — Jacob deGrom is headed to the free-spending Texas Rangers, who believe the health risk is worth the potential reward in trying to end a six-year run of losing.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner agreed to a $185 million, five-year contract Friday, leaving the New York Mets after nine seasons – the past two shortened substantially by injuries.

“We acknowledge the risk, but we also acknowledge that in order to get great players, there is a risk and a cost associated with that,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “And one we feel like is worth taking with a player of Jacob’s caliber.”

Texas announced the signing after the 34-year-old deGrom passed his physical. A person with direct knowledge of the deal disclosed the financial terms to The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the club did not announce those details.

The Rangers were also big spenders in free agency last offseason, signing shortstop Corey Seager ($325 million, 10 years) and second baseman Marcus Semien ($175 million, seven years).

The team said deGrom will be introduced in a news conference at Globe Life Field next week following the winter meetings in San Diego.

“It fits in so many ways in terms of what we need,” Young said. “He’s a tremendous person. I have a number of close friends and teammates who played with Jacob and love him. I think he’s going to be just a perfect fit for our clubhouse and our fans.”

Texas had modest expectations after adding Seager, Semien and starter Jon Gray ($56 million, four years) last offseason but still fell short of them.

The Rangers went 68-94, firing manager Chris Woodward during the season, and then hired Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion with San Francisco. Texas’ six straight losing seasons are its worst skid since the franchise moved from Washington in 1972.

Rangers owner Ray Davis said the club wouldn’t hesitate to keep adding payroll. Including the $19.65 million qualifying offer accepted by Martin Perez, the team’s best pitcher last season, the Rangers have spent nearly $761 million in free agency over the past year.

“I hate losing, but I think there’s one person in our organization who hates losing worse than me, and I think it’s Ray Davis,” Young said. “He’s tired of losing. I’m tired of losing. Our organization is tired of losing.”

After making his first start in early August last season, deGrom went 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 outings. He helped the Mets reach the playoffs, then passed up a $30.5 million salary for 2023 and opted out of his contract to become a free agent for the first time.

That ended his deal with the Mets at $107 million over four years, and deGrom rejected their $19.65 million qualifying offer in November. New York will receive draft-pick compensation for losing him.

The fan favorite becomes the latest in a long line of ace pitchers to leave the Mets for one reason or another, including Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and David Cone.

The Rangers visit Citi Field from Aug. 28-30.

When healthy, deGrom is perhaps baseball’s most dominant pitcher. His 2.52 career ERA ranks third in the expansion era (since 1961) behind Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (2.48) and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (2.19) among those with at least 200 starts.

The right-hander is 4-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five career postseason starts, including a win over San Diego in the wild-card round this year that extended the Mets’ season. New York was eliminated the next night.

A four-time All-Star and the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, deGrom was a ninth-round draft pick by the Mets in 2010 out of Stetson, where he played shortstop before moving to the mound. He was slowed by Tommy John surgery early in his career and didn’t reach the majors until age 26.

Once he arrived, though, he blossomed. He helped the Mets reach the 2015 World Series and earn a 2016 playoff berth before winning consecutive NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019.

But injuries to his elbow, forearm and shoulder blade have limited him to 26 starts over the past two seasons. He compiled a career-low 1.08 ERA over 92 innings in 2021, but did not pitch after July 7 that year because of arm trouble.

DeGrom is 82-57 with 1,607 strikeouts in 1,326 innings over nine big league seasons. He gets $30 million next year, $40 million in 2024 and 2025, $38 million in 2026 and $37 million in 2027. The deal includes a conditional option for 2028 with no guaranteed money.

The addition of deGrom gives the Rangers three proven starters along with Gray and Perez, who went 12-8 with a career-best 2.89 ERA in his return to the team that signed him as a teenager out of Venezuela. Young didn’t rule out the addition of another starter.

With several holes on their starting staff, the Mets have shown interest in free agents Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon to pair with 38-year-old Max Scherzer atop the rotation.

Now, with deGrom gone, signing one of those two could become a much bigger priority.