- Rookies in any position around baseball have plenty to learn. Managing is no exception. Dave Martinez and Gabe Kapler have a plan for what they're adjusting in Year 2 as skippers.
What if you were given a mulligan after one season of managing? Would you manage anything differently? That’s what Gabe Kapler of the Phillies and Dave Martinez of the Nationals are getting this year: a mulligan after a rookie season in which one team collapsed and the other underachieved. And yes, they are managing differently the second time around.
Asked what they learned from last season, both second-year managers gave the same answer: rely less on the numbers.
“Yes,” Martinez said about a lesson from last year. “For me, it’s being more defined with bullpen roles.” The lessons continue: through seven games this year Martinez’s bullpen was the worst in baseball (10.02 ERA).
Said Kapler, who has Philadelphia off to a 6-2 start, “I believe in chemistry now more than I ever have. You can’t play this game on paper, even though it’s fun to do. It’s not a board game.”
The NL East figures to be so tight that managers just might be the deciding factor–again. Last year Brian Snitker won the Manager of the Year award for turning the Braves from a 90-loss team to a 90-win team, in great part because nobody in the league was better at winning one-run games (23-12).
The Braves finished at least eight games clear of three teams that hired rookie managers: the Mets (Mickey Callaway), Nationals and Phillies. Each team won between 77-82 games. Each manager struggled. Callaway didn’t have a firm grasp on NL-style baseball and lost an MLB-high 36 games out of the bullpen. Martinez and the Nationals won eight fewer games than their run differential suggested. And Kapler admitted to trying to squeeze every tiny incremental edge out of ballgames, a board-game style that tested his players.
The micro-management by Kapler began infamously on Opening Day last year when he pulled his ace, Aaron Nola, after just 68 pitches with a 5-0 lead. Philadelphia lost, 8-5.
On Sept. 11 Kapler pinch ran for Justin Bour in the fourth inning. In the same game he used four shortstops, becoming the first Phillies manager to do so since Gene Mauch, another famous micro-manager, in 1962. Four days later Kapler pinch hit for starting shortstop Scott Kingery without ever letting the rookie take an at-bat, pulled starting pitcher Vince Velasquez after just two innings, and used eight pitchers to face 35 batters. The pulling of Kingery without an at-bat was the kind of data-driven move that can rankle players.
Kapler chased platoon matchups more than any other manager. His pitching staff led the majors in platoon advantage. He accomplished that by making more pitching changes than all managers except Mike Scioscia of the Angels and Joe Maddon of the Cubs. No manager used relievers for less than three outs more often than Kapler.
His lineup cards read like the specials page of a diner menu. They changed every day. He used 138 batting orders in 162 games (pitchers not included). The most he stuck with the same batting order was five times.
Those days are over. This season, not only is Kapler is a changed man, but also the Phillies are a changed team. They are the first team ever to add three position players from the previous All-Star game (Bryce Harper, Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto), and those additions don’t even include a former MVP (Andrew McCutchen).
Kapler used the same batting order in each of the first six games of the season. So in one week Kapler stuck with one lineup more than he did all of last season. He now has the talent–and the lessons learned from last year–to trust his players more and the incremental statistical edges less. It helps, too, that the second-worst defensive team in baseball last year has improved to about league average.
“I’d say the way to assess it is just the confidence level of the pitchers when they deliver their pitch,” Kapler said. “They know the infielders are going to gobble it up behind them. There’s a lot of certainty when the ball is hit to our shortstop [Segura]. It’s not the flashiest shortstop in the world, but the guy makes the plays. When the ball goes up in the outfield we feel like we’re going to catch it. It’s not to say that we’re there. We’ve got a lot of defensive work to do still.”
Like Kapler, Martinez learned from last year to use statistics as a starting point, but not to dismiss the human element. For instance, Martinez began last season thinking that numbers should dictate his bullpen usage–that any pitcher could be used at any time. But he found that what sounded good in theory did not work well in practice.
“You can get caught up with the numbers and thinking you can plug in any guy at any time,” Martinez said. “But I learned you have to give the guy a role, a definitive role. They’re human beings. They respond better when they have a defined role.”
Martinez last year was quick to shuttle relievers in and out of games. He used his relievers on no days of rest more than any manager except Torey Lovullo of Arizona. They averaged just 15 pitches per outing, tying the Cleveland bullpen for the quickest hooks in baseball.
As Washington dropped out of the race, GM Mike Rizzo jettisoned three of Martinez’s go-to relievers, Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler and Shawn Kelley. The quick hooks, trades and releases took their toll. The Nationals’ bullpen posted a 4.63 ERA in the second half, the seventh worst in baseball.
Like Kapler, Martinez has a different team this time around, if only because Kapler has Harper and Martinez does not. Without Harper, Martinez said he ran a different spring training camp this year, with a greater emphasis on fundamentals. He ran simulated game situations in which his defenders had to execute 30 consecutive plays. Coaches would hit fungoes or launch “hits” out of pitching machines to simulate balls in play with runners on base, testing not only defensive skills but also decision-making skills.
“Our goal was to figure out how to emulate game situations every day,” Martinez said.
As with his bullpen, the results aren’t there yet. Washington was the worst team in baseball at turning batted balls into outs after its first seven games. Losing shortstop Trea Turner to a broken finger was a huge setback.
In a span of seven days in October of 2017, the Mets, Nationals and Phillies each hired a rookie manager to a three-year contract. The opening week to this season confirmed that the NL East is the most fascinating division in baseball: four teams capable of winning 90 games but three second-year managers still with something to prove.