As a baseball fan, Gabe Kapler's approach presents a real problem to me and here's why
I love baseball, and I love analytics, but I'm rooting against Gabe Kapler in Philadelphia
Gabe Kapler, the Philadelphia Phillies' new numbers-loving manager is my enemy, which I find strange given that I invented Strat-O-Matic. Well, sort of anyway.
Let me explain.
The game has existed since 1961, which is well before I came into existence, but as an 8-year-old boy, I was not aware of this. What I did was invent my version of the game.
It was a simple process, really.
I came up with the idea on my own and then sought my mother's help to make it happen. I'd accompany her on trips to the grocery store, but instead of asking for toys like a normal kid my age, I asked her purchase a couple of packages of index cards instead. I'm sure she was confused and possibly worried about what her son was doing, but she obliged. Upon returning home, I went about the task of setting everything up. Every MLB team received an index card. On those cards, I would write the team's name, as well as its lineup one through nine, as well as the players' batting averages, home runs and RBI. I don't know what day of the year it was, but all of this information came from the box scores in the sports section of the newspaper I took from my dad that day. On a separate index card, I assigned number values to certain outcomes. A three was a strikeout, a four was a walk, a five was a double, and so on. I then stole two die from a board game, and I had everything I needed to simulate my very own baseball season.
I separated the teams into leagues, randomly drew two index cards at a time, and those teams would then "play" a baseball game. I would do this over and over again, recording the results of the games on each team's card.
I could have gone outside and played baseball with my friends, but I found this just as fun, if not more so. There was something about tracking the results that appealed to me, and I made adjustments along the way. I realized that doubles don't happen as frequently as outs do, so I changed the values of the dice so that more totals would result in an out.
Again, I created my version of Strat-O-Matic.
I don't share this information with you to brag about my ingenuity; I do so to make it clear to you that I am a baseball nerd. Like so many fans, I played the game growing up, but I was always attracted to the numbers side of it as well. I enjoyed doing the math and figuring things out and knowing who was good and who sucked based on those numbers.
Not much has changed now that I'm an adult. I've gotten into arguments with family members about baseball just by using crazy newfangled stats like WAR to explain to an uncle that Barry Larkin was better than Derek Jeter. I explained to another uncle that, actually, Joe Maddon wasn't an idiot for putting Kris Bryant second in the Cubs lineup.
I love stats. I love baseball. I love putting the two together to find ways to enjoy the game.
Which is why I find it so strange that I have a new enemy in MLB this season in Kapler, and it's somebody that loves numbers more than I do.
Kapler has managed only eight games in Philly so far, but he has caught a lot of creepy uses of coconut oil. The impetus for these glances is Kapler's strict adherence to the numbers in his managerial practices. He's a man who believes analytics and data are useful, and he's putting a lot of theories to the test from the jump., as well as players in his clubhouse in that time. And not just from those who've read about some of his, shall we say,
In his first three games as manager, we saw Kapler Aaron Nola, after only 68 pitches even though he was cruising. The reasoning being that hitters fare better against starting pitchers the third time through the order. Well, it didn't matter that day -- the bullpen blew the game.
He also benched Odubel Herrera on Opening Day for what he said were matchup reasons. One of those matchup reasons was that Nola, whom he pulled early, had a high groundball rate, and Herrera's defense in center wasn't as valuable.
Kapler has also had the embarrassing moment of going to the mound to make a pitching change only to discover the pitcher he wanted to bring in hadn't even begun to warm up.
And it's not only the media or fans bothered by all of this. One anonymous Phillies player told Fanrag Sports' Jon Heyman that the Phillies would be OK, they just "need the manager to get out of the way." Outfielder Nick Williams went on record to complain about his playing time, saying "the computers are making the decisions."
Now, had the Phillies been winning these games, odds are there wouldn't be so many people noticing Kapler's decisions, but if that were the case, I would be rooting even harder against Kapler. It has nothing to do with him or the Phillies. I'm just against the idea of stats dictating the entire game.
We see it in sports all the time, not merely baseball. A team finds success doing something new and then everybody else tries to mimic that success. Look at how infield shifts have evolved in MLB in recent years, or how important catcher framing has become to teams. Those are just a couple examples, and surely if Gabe Kapler and the Phillies start winning a bunch of games by using Baseball Reference and Fangraphs to manage their decisions, others are going to follow suit.
And I'll hate it.
As much as I love stats and nerding out over baseball, the fact remains this is still a sport played by human beings, and some parts of the game cannot be quantified. Thankfully, we're seeing signs Kapler is beginning to realize this. He has already said his bullpen usage will change going forward.
Here's hoping he'll adapt in other ways as well, because to run a team based on nothing but analytical data would remove the human element from the game, and at that point, it's not a game anymore. It's a simulation.
It's a kid randomly pulling index cards out of a pile on the floor and letting the dice decide the outcome.
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