AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Gabe Kapler draws criticism with quick hook of Aaron Nola

46 Comments

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.

Astros take their third bite at the apple in response to Assistant GM Brandon Taubman’s comments

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Last night Sports Illustrated reported that, following the Houston Astros’ Game 6 victory over the Yankees on Saturday night, Astros Assistant General Manager Brandon Taubman shouted at a group of three female reporters, “Thank god we got [Roberto] Osuna! I’m so [expletive] glad we got Osuna!” Taubman reportedly repeated the phrase half a dozen times. The Sports Illustrated report was later corroborated by no less than four reporters apart from the Sports Illustrated reporter who were in the clubhouse and witnessed the incident.

The comments and their context strongly suggested that Taubman was, at best, making light of the criticism the Astros received for trading for Osuna following his domestic violence suspension resulting from very serious domestic violence charges lodged against him in 2018. To some it smacked of Taubman taking something of a victory lap over the Astros’ controversial — and poorly handled — acquisition of Osuna and came off as extraordinarily insensitive and abjectly tone deaf.

The Astros originally declined comment before the report was published. Late last night, after the story went live and once it became apparent that it cast Taubman in a bad light, they issued an angry and defensive statement, calling the Sports Illustrated article “misleading and completely irresponsible.” Again, despite the fact that the report was corroborated by multiple eyewitnesses. The team’s statement was itself then subjected to intense criticism today.

The Astros are now taking their third bite at the apple, releasing the following statements:

It’s worth noting that nowhere here do the Astros apologize or even reference last night’s statement which, in essence, called Sports Illustrated reporter Stephanie Apstein a liar. A statement which they no doubt would’ve let be the last word if it hadn’t been met with such pushback. Which suggests that the above statements — of the “I’m sorry if anyone was offended” non-apology apology variety — are more about damage control than sincerity.

It’s also worth noting that Taubman’s comment takes the oh-so-common tack of referencing the fact that he is a “husband and a father,” which is irrelevant given that at issue were his acts and words, not his identity. We are not what we believe ourselves to be in our heart of hearts. We are what we do. We are how we treat one another. That’s all that matters. Attempts to deflect from that basic fact of humanity are, just that, deflections. And patronizing ones at that. Taubman’s statement would’ve been way better if it had stopped after the second sentence.

As for owner Jim Crane’s statement, it continues the Astros’ tack of wanting to have it both ways. There is no rule that says they could not have traded for Roberto Osuna. What made the whole episode unseemly, however, is how they claimed to have a “zero tolerance” policy against domestic violence and claimed not to be breaking it when they clearly did so because, hey, Osuna was cheaply had. Which means that they actually have a “some tolerance” policy — as do a lot of teams — but they wanted to act like they were better than that and deflect criticism from those who took issue. Here again, Crane wants it both ways by using what should be a straight apology for one of his top employees’ boorish behavior as an opportunity to once again claim that they are better than they truly are when it comes to domestic violence.

If you don’t have to care about an issue and you, in fact, don’t care, well, fine. You may catch hell from people for that stance, but you can do what you want. If, however, you want credit for being on top of an issue, do the work to earn it. If you fall short of your or society’s expectations, apologize and try to do better. What you cannot do is fail and then try to use your failure as a means of turning the tables on those who criticize you while claiming that, actually, you’re really really good on the topic.

Major League Baseball has also weighed in:

“Domestic violence is extraordinarily serious and everyone in baseball must use care to not engage in any behavior — whether intentional or not — that could be construed as minimizing the egregiousness of an act of domestic violence.  We became aware of this incident through the Sports Illustrated article.  The Astros have disputed Sports Illustrated’s characterization of the incident.  MLB will interview those involved before commenting further.”

The comment came out at almost the exact same time the Astros’ comments were released, which suggests to me that they were coordinated. Which, hey, they’re all trying to end the conversation about this before the first pitch of tonight’s Game 1. I will not hold my breath for anything to come of MLB’s “interviews” of those involved.

As for the Astros, here is some free advice: “I. Am. Sorry. I. Was. Wrong. I. Should. Not. Have. Done/Said. That.”

Apologies are easy. We’re taught how to do them when we’re two years-old. Only when we start thinking we’re better than everyone do we start qualifying them to the skies to the point where they lose all meaning