Monday, March 5, 2018

Gabe Kapler and the Plan

By Jeff Kallman

Once upon a time, a venerated but perhaps now forgotten critic named Alexander Woollcott gave the Marx Brothers a damning-with-faint-praise review of a Philadelphia stage performance that unnerved Groucho Marx no small end. When Groucho met Woollcott and asked why, then, had the critic laughed at Harpo, Woollcott replied drolly, "If I didn't laugh at something in Philadelphia, I'd shoot myself."

Recent baseball seasons have had Phillies fans thinking much the same way when it comes to their team. Some of them may have thought like Woollcott; others may have laughed, like Figaro, that they might not weep. Now, hark to the Phillies' spring camp. The laughter may now be that of the joy of progress.

Edmund Burke once observed that when it was not necessary to change, it was necessary not to change. The Phillies may not know Burke, but they've finally realized it was necessary to change.

Assuming the reports coming from the direction of new manager Gabe Kapler are viable, the days of men with .300 on base percentages batting second are yesterdays. So are the days of leaving men stubbornly in their places instead of moving them to where they might better succeed to the detriment of the guys in the other uniforms. Places like the lineup and the outfield.

Kapler and the Phillies' think tank think such stubbornness is a formula for anything except winning, which the Phillies haven't done much of since you last saw them in the postseason. During the first Obama administration.

John Stolnis of The Good Phight, a splendid blog covering the Phillies over, under, sideways, and down, says the Phillies are going places this spring that even the most analytical of analytical teams wouldn't always think to go.

Whitey Herzog's splendid memoir You're Missin' a Great Game spoke often enough about it to make it a cliche: "You've got to have a plan." Kapler — a cog in the 2004 Red Sox, a team that married analytics to chemistry to win their first World Series since the Wilson Administration — has one. Maybe several. He's been conducting "player plan" meetings in spring, where he and his brain trust help players see their strengths and weaknesses alike and address the fixing of the latter to whatever extents possible.

Kapler and company are teaching numerous Phillies to familiarize themselves with different field positions. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but flexibility is invention's sibling. They've also tried in-game position switching, which isn't exactly unheard of, but which isn't exactly standard practice, either. In one game against the Yankees, Tommy Joseph started in left field but moved to right in the second during a pitching change. Rhys Hoskins started in right for Jacoby Ellsbury's at-bat, then moved to left and stayed until or unless Ellsbury came up again.

"The team is moving their better defensive outfielder to the location they feel a batter is more likely to hit the ball," Stolnis writes, "something that hasn't been done at all in baseball, but could ultimately end up saving a win at some point. It's a test drive, and we'll see how long it lasts."

Actually, it's been done before. Most famously, then-Mets skipper Davey Johnson — bereft of available position players — inserted relief pitcher Roger McDowell in right and Jesse Orosco on the mound, and rotated them each inning until the Mets secured a win. But Kapler's taking that idea to its most logical continuance. Three decades removed.

The decision to ease Pete MacKanin out of the manager's seat and Gabe Kapler into it becomes clearer, Stolnis writes:

"They've obviously spent a lot of time and money setting up an infrastructure led by numbers people and progressive thinkers, and it would have been a waste of those resources to have an old school manager still calling the shots. There are so many new things the team is employing - next level type stuff - that they needed a guy like Kapler in there. None of this ever would have worked with Mackanin.

"And it's not Mackanin's fault. He's a baseball lifer and spent decades in a game that had a certain way of doing things. It's not easy to change, even if you want to, and the Phils felt they needed someone who could not only deal with these changes, but be a proactive part of the change process. That's why Gabe Kapler is here, and Pete Mackanin isn't."

But what about the clubhouse? What about the chemistry? What about the time-honored hunch? Most reporting from the Phillies' spring camp has said Kapler went out of his way to begin forging relationships with his players from almost the moment he was named to the job. They knew he was on board with analytics from his days with the Red Sox, where Theo Epstein and Bill James introduced it, married it successfully to the people factor, and the team joyously calling itself the Idiots made the earth stand still. Kapler, the brain trust, and the think tank want the Phillies to make a similarly successful marriage.

The sooner, the better, even if Kapler isn't exactly worried about the actual or imagined pressures of managing in Philadelphia.

It's only been a decade since the Phillies last won a World Series. In real world baseball terms, a decade isn't that much a distance. But the Phillies have only two World Series championships in a franchise life that began two years before Grover Cleveland became the president of the United States. This is why Phillies fans think decades equal eternities. And why they laughed that they might not have shot themselves across them.

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