Is Phillies manager Gabe Kapler finally adjusting his pitching approach?

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PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 05: Nicholas Pivetta #43 of the Philadelphia Phillies hands the ball to manager Gabe Kapler #22 of the Philadelphia Phillies after getting pulled from the game in the sixth inning against the Miami Marlins at Citizens Bank Park on April 5, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Phillies won 5-0. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 05: Nicholas Pivetta #43 of the Philadelphia Phillies hands the ball to manager Gabe Kapler #22 of the Philadelphia Phillies after getting pulled from the game in the sixth inning against the Miami Marlins at Citizens Bank Park on April 5, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Phillies won 5-0. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images) /
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Phillies manager Gabe Kapler has been much more lenient leaving his starting pitchers in games recently. Is this him finally changing his approach?

It didn’t take long for Gabe Kapler to enter his first controversy as the Phillies manager. On Opening Day against the Braves, he pulled starter Aaron Nola at just 68 pitches with the righty cruising. It completely backfired as the bullpen blew a 5-0 lead and Philadelphia ultimately lost the game 8-5.

Throughout out the offseason, we were told that Kapler was going to use the bullpen heavily. That’s why the club has eight relievers on their roster as opposed to the normal seven. It was an approach the Dodgers, Kapler’s former team, relied heavily on last year, and it worked for them. However, after Opening Day and an embarrassing 15-2 loss that saw utility man Pedro Florimon take the mound, questions about the strategy started popping up.

Unsurprisingly, those questions have started to die down now that the Phils are 4-1 since returning to Citizens Bank Park. Even then, there appears to be a shift in Kapler’s approach to how he uses his pitchers.

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Monday night against the Reds, Ben Lively needed 86 pitches to get through the first five innings. He had allowed four runs up to that point, walking one in during the first inning, giving up a two-run home, and allowed an RBI double. Despite all that, Kapler allowed Lively to pitch the sixth as well. Any manager leaving Lively in at that point is already surprising, but it was more surprising for the trigger-happy Kapler. Lively allowed the tying run in the sixth before being pulled out.

After the game, Kapler explained his logic for leaving Lively in the game: [quote via Todd Zolecki of MLB.com]

"“He’s just the kind of guy you can ride. He’s dependable. He’s fiery. He’s aggressive. He’s competitive. It’s why we bet on him. He attacks the strike zone. He works fast. He keeps defenders on their toes. If a guy works fast, it makes hitters uncomfortable.”"

This explanation confused some as it didn’t make sense why Lively had such a long leash, but Nola didn’t through his first two starts.

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Then, Kapler bet on his starting pitcher on Tuesday night. Nola was sailing through seven innings, allowing just one run on three hits and three walks up to that point. In the bottom of the seventh, J.P. Crawford drove in the go-ahead run with an RBI single. That then brought up Nola, who at that point had thrown 88 pitches. Had Kapler pinch-hit for Nola, it would’ve been hard to blame him. Another run would have doubled the lead and made it harder for the Reds to come back.

Instead, Kapler let Nola hit. Why? Billy Hamilton, the closest thing baseball has to the Flash, was set to lead off the eighth. With how inconsistent the bullpen has been, it was hard to trust them to keep Hamilton off base.

If he reached base, he could tie the game with just his legs. Kapler had more faith in Nola to get Hamilton out, so Nola hit and pitched the eighth. It worked as Nola set down the side in order in the top of the eighth. Scott Kingery’s grand slam in the bottom of the inning took the pressure off Hoby Milner in the ninth.

Two nights in a row, Kapler left his starter in even though pulling them would have made sense. One night the gamble worked; the other it didn’t. However, since the Phillies won both games, Kapler’s decision-making has received far less criticism.

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Is this simply Kapler making an instinctual decision, or perhaps the beginning of a shift in how he approaches pitching changes? Maybe he is starting to take lessons from how the season started and apply them to how he approaches future games. Once Kapler can strike the right balance between his starters and relievers, finding success should come much easier.

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