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.”