Philadelphia Phillies: What can Gabe Kapler really do?

(Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
(Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images) /

The 2019 season has not gone the way Philadelphia Phillies fans had hoped so far. But does manager Gabe Kapler deserve to be the lone scapegoat amidst this mess of a roster?

There’s a saying in professional sports that coaches are hired to be fired. The underlying logic being that the average shelf life of a head coach or manager is typically not lengthy, especially in championship-starved cities. There are exceptions to that line of thinking of course. But there are only so many Bill Belichicks, Andy Reids, or Phil Jacksons that come along.

Most coaches, perhaps just simply due to the nature and parity of professional sports in the current age, will be fired long before they ever see any type of meaningful success. Such is the position of the professional coach. Win, and you become a local legend. Lose, and quickly see your livelihood taken from you as the angry fan mob rejoices in unison.

In October of 2017, the Philadelphia Phillies hired Gabe Kapler as the 54th manager in club history. It was an interesting signing by Matt Klentak, who praised Kapler’s use of analytics and his work with young players. Kapler guided the Phillies through a surprisingly successful 2018 season, only to see the team collapse down the stretch in September.

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There appeared to be some good core pieces in place that could help the team win now, and hopefully, with Kapler learning on the fly, he could become the calming force in the dugout and the clubhouse that could lead that core back to October baseball.

In perhaps the biggest offseason in franchise history, Klentak went out and with John Middleton’s permission, opened up the checkbook, bringing in Bryce Haper, J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura, and Andrew McCutchen. It was believed that these moves immediately made the Phillies one of the deepest and most talented teams in the National League. And for a few weeks in April, that seemed to be the reality. There was only one problem: Klentak didn’t spend any of the money on pitching.

The 2019 Phillies have been a disaster in terms of starting pitching, which seemed unlikely during spring training with the team already possessing Aaron Nola, Nick Pivetta, and Jake Arrieta. Nola was in the running for a CY Young, Arietta has won the award, and Pivetta was looking primed to slot in as the second man up in the rotation. The bullpen was also improved in the offseason, adding David Robertson and Jose Alvarez.

But that is not the current reality for the Phillies. The reality is that this pitching staff is far from adequate, and on most nights, they’ve been downright bad save for a few nice performances recently from Nola and a complete game from Zach Eflin. But they’ve been absolutely killed by the long ball this season, more so than any other team in baseball. In fact, Phillies pitchers are on pace to give up a record-setting number of home runs to opposing hitters.

It’s something that’s been very difficult to watch. Yes, Major League Baseball has admitted to tightening the seems on the baseballs. But this isn’t something that solely affects the Phillies. There are 29 other teams in baseball that have adapted to this. The Phillies haven’t.

Is Klentak to blame for not addressing the pitching in the offseason? In hindsight, it was probably a bit negligent to put so much trust in Pivetta and Vince Velasquez, two guys who have proven that they just don’t have the stuff or mental makeup to be in a big league starting rotation. Had Klentak brought in one or two proven starters, the team could then use Arietta and Eflin in the spots they are probably best suited for at this stage of their careers which is the backend of the rotation.

Eflin, through most of this season, has been the Phillies best pitcher. His armor has begun to crack of late, while Nola has had somewhat of a resurgence back to his ace form. But getting back to Klentak, he probably needs to shoulder most of the blame for the failure of this pitching staff and not addressing it.

To Klentak’s credit, his additions to the bullpen were good on the surface. He can’t be blamed for Robertson’s early-season injury or the fact that the rest of the reliever group has been the literal iteration of the Walking Dead. They’ve seen injuries to Adam Morgan, Tommy Hunter, Victor Arano, Seranthony Dominguez, Robertson, and now Juan Nicasio. Klentak certainly didn’t envision having to throw Edgar Garcia or J.D. Hammer out there to get important outs against Atlanta.

But if Klentak shares part of the blame, does the rest fall on Gabe Kapler as the team continues its inconsistent ways? There seems to be an ever-expanding collective of fans that have become all too willing to throw Kapler’s feet to the fire on the heels of this Phillies team’s inability to keep up with the better teams in baseball, namely the Braves, who just proved they are far and away the superior club.

There has been all manner of questions regarding Kapler’s ability to lead the team during the slide through June and the beginning of July. Really, after McCutchen was lost to an ACL tear and the Phillies were swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers, it seems like they never truly recovered from that. Yes, injuries have played a big part. It feels like the Phillies have lost more players to injury than any other team.

But through the last month and a half, the team at times has simply played an uninspiring brand of baseball, full of base running gaffes, fielding mishaps, and non-competitive plate appearances against pitchers that are more than hittable. When it comes to injuries and tightened balls, there’s not much a manager can do. But effort and competitiveness are within a manager’s domain, and when there are questions about those two things, it will almost always come back to the coaching staff.

There are many that believe Kapler didn’t help himself by not benching Jean Segura after several instances where he did not appear to run hard on the bases, with one of those instances resulting in the injury to McCutchen. To Kapler’s credit, he doesn’t publicly berate his players and believes a firm hand is better behind the scenes. Fair. But Kapler also could have used this situation to intelligently, and maybe subtly, light a fire under his team by discussing the importance of maintaining a certain level of compete no matter the situation.

Yes, the Phillies offense has gone dormant for long stretches this season without explanation. It seems unfathomable that a lineup consisting of Harper, Hoskins, Realmuto, and Segura could struggle to score runs the way they have. Yet, it’s been happening since the end of May. The coaching staff, especially hitting coach John Mallee, does need to answer in some way for that. They should be better, and the entire fan base is essentially praying they’ll snap out of it soon.

But despite all of the ire directed at Mallee and the offense, the biggest problem this Phillies team faces right now overwhelmingly the lack of quality pitching from starting staff to the bullpen.  In the series against the Braves this past weekend, Phillies pitching gave up eight home runs. The Braves’ lineup absolutely demolished the Phillies at the plate, and there was just a feeling that there was nothing nor anyone Kapler could throw out there to stop bleeding. Injuries notwithstanding, that is something that falls at the feet of the general manager.

So the real question is: if the limitations of the pitching staff are truly this team’s biggest problem, what can Kapler really do? He can’t do much about the fact that Pivetta can’t seem to get it together. He can’t do anything about Velasquez, because he is what he is at this stage. Kapler also can’t do very much at all about the skeleton crew he’s forced to pull from out of the bullpen.

Baseball is unique in that a manager must be able to make quick decisions in the heat of the moment that can have a major impact on the game. But at the same time, there are nights when a manager just needs to set his lineup and trust the players to go out and get the job done. After all, he can’t go onto the field himself. Kapler can’t go out and hit, and he certainly can’t go out there and pitch. So what is he really supposed to do about a pitching staff that just can’t seem to get it done?

The biggest failure of this team right now isn’t on the manager. Sure, Kapler has had his head-scratching moments. He still takes his starters out early at times. But can you blame him? And yes, he still pinch-hits with Andrew Knapp. But what else does he have on a bench that’s razor-thin with depth and talent?

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In the end, Kapler’s job isn’t completely safe. A coach’s job is never safe when he’s at the helm of an underperforming team. But if this season is going to be saved, Klentak is going to have to step in and correct some of the mistakes that were made when building this roster, and it needs to start with the pitching staff.