The opening series of the 2018 season was...interesting for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Of the several storylines following the team as the season drew near, one of the chief ones was how Gabe Kapler would perform in his first season as a major league manager.
Kapler's only managerial experience before being named Phillies manager was a single season with the Red Sox' Class-A affiliate in the South Atlantic League, going 58-81. After briefly reviving his playing career, he got some experience as a coach for the Israeli national team as they attempted, unsuccessfully, to qualify for the 2013 World Baseball Classic. For the three years before his hiring, he was in the Los Angeles Dodgers' front office as Director of Player Development. He was a finalist to replace Don Mattingly with the Dodgers in 2016 before finally being hired by the Phillies.
He set a positive tone during Spring Training. The team's slogan in Clearwater was "Be Bold," and it was hoped that Kapler's new-age approach would bring the team into the modern age complete the club's long rebuild.
Unfortunately, his performance in his first three games left some things to be desired.
It started in the hours leading up to the first pitch on Thursday when he benched centerfielder Odubel Herrera—the team's most consistent hitter for the last three seasons—for Opening Day. The decision certainly didn't sit well with the man who is expected to be one of the team's cornerstones going forward.
"I don't like the decision," Herrera said before the game, "but if they think there are better options, I have to respect that."
While Aaron Altherr, who played center on the day, reached base twice and scored, the man who ultimately replaced him in the lineup, right fielder Nick Williams, went 0 for 4.
He earned more second guesses later in the game when he pulled ace-in-waiting Aaron Nola with one out in the sixth inning after just 68 pitches. The decision wasn't exactly vindicated when lefty reliever Hoby Milner gave up a two-run homer to Freddie Freeman, the first step in an eventual comeback win for the Braves.
Then, on Saturday, Kapler made one of the most egregious mistakes a manager can make: he went to the mound to remove starter Vince Velasquez without a pitcher actually throwing in the bullpen. Milner had to enter the game cold, and the umpires eventually allowed him to continue throwing warmups after the allotted time to keep him from injuring himself, which sent Braves manager Brian Snitker into a tirade that got him ejected.
The issue earned the team a formal warning from Major League Baseball and cast serious doubts about the level of Kapler's competence.
So what can we take away from Kapler's eventful weekend?
On the positive side, Kapler immediately took full responsibility for the Milner mishap. He made zero excuses. That will go over well both in the notoriously fickle Philly media and in the locker room.
But the locker room is where all of Kapler's mistakes might come back to bite him most. The bullpen mishap left Milner seriously exposed to injury. It's something can erode the trust between a manager and his roster very quickly. Taking full responsibility will help in that regard, but Kapler will probably have to regain the trust of his players.
He also needs to keep a close eye on his relationship with his most important players. Herrera is tied to the team for years and expected to be a cornerstone of the franchise. He's had a few attitude problems in his time in Philly, but he's still one of the best offensive threats on the team and one of the most experienced. If he starts to get grumpy, the rebuild could hit a bump in the road.
Kapler has been given a raw deal here—the signing of Carlos Santana forced Rhys Hoskins back into left field and forced Kapler to find ways to divvy up playing time in the outfield between four players. But frankly, no amount of analytics can justify keeping a healthy Herrera out of the lineup. He's one of the team's most consistent hitters and an elite defender, as his career DRS of 20 and 20.6 career UZR show. He needs to be out there.
As for Nola, this is another situation where the analytical fads of the day went too far.
The trendy thing is to limit a starter to two trips through the order before giving the game to the bullpen. Rich Hill was twice pulled for that exact reason during the World Series despite having great success up to that point.
The thing is, ace pitchers—and Nola will turn into an ace when all is said and done—are the pitchers that need to go through a lineup three times. Holding Nola back was not only a bad baseball decision but potentially detrimental to his development as a frontline pitcher. Yes, his stats the third time through the order show a decline in effectiveness, but if he's to be the type of ace that can lead a rotation come playoff time, he needs to learn to reverse that, and that must come with experience.
Especially when he's cruising with a low pitch count.
There are always growing pains for a rookie manager. Heck, Aaron Boone made the same bullpen mistake for the New York Yankees. But there are some troubling signs early on that Kapler needs to dispel.
Apart from the major issues like Herrera, Nola, and Milner, Kapler made some strange strategic moves over the first three games, including drawing in the infield in the second inning of a game that was still fairly close. Given that this team's strength will be its lineup, it makes little sense not to trade an early out for a run if it doesn't mean letting the game get out of hand.
We have to recognize that three games are three games and that Kapler needs time to find his footing. That being said, if Kapler keeps over-managing—he's used 21 pitchers in 28 innings of baseball this season—and making questionable strategy decisions, the front office will have to take notice. and maybe take action.
This rebuild is on the cusp of fruition, and it can't afford to be dragged down by a bad manager. It took too long for the team to realize Ryne Sandberg was a dilettante, and it took Pete Mackanin two-and-a-half seasons to pull things back together before being reassigned to the front office. With their core coming together, they can't afford to be set back in a similar manner. Kapler deserves time but if this weekend's issues start looking like the harbinger of a negative trend, the front office needs to act quickly.