With Kapler, it's a whole new ballgame for Phillies

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With Kapler, it's a whole new ballgame for Phillies

CLEARWATER, Fla. — It’s a whole new ballgame with the Phillies. Has been for a while now. The information age has gripped a franchise that not long ago was considered as old school as it gets, not that there wasn’t merit in that way of doing things; there was, and those five division titles, two National League pennants and one World Series title from 2007 to 2011 are proof.

This is not a debate over new school vs. old school, not a debate over analytics vs. scouting. It’s just a reminder that there’s a new way of doing baseball around the Phillies. The ground-up building of a research and development department that now numbers more than a dozen is an example of the change. The hiring of progressive thinker Gabe Kapler as manager is an example. On Tuesday, Alex Nakahara, a senior quantitative analyst from the team’s R & D wing, was in uniform and on the field (see story). That was another example. The Phillies still have a scouting force. But they also have so much more.

The wealth of information that the team is now collecting on players has resulted in the initiation of morning meetings with each player during spring training. Kapler called them “player plan” meetings. Now, managers and coaches have been meeting with players to cover strengths and weaknesses for a century. These are a little different, a little more detailed and data driven as the Phillies look for what Kapler is always talking about — value at the margins.

Kapler said the meetings, which can include coaches, front office people and members of the R & D department, are designed to highlight strengths that sometimes a player did not know he had. Areas that need "focus" or improvement are also covered.

“We’re digging in together, learning about the players and giving them information so they can be the best version of themselves,” Kapler said. He added that he tells players, “We’ve been thinking about you and paying attention to all of the details of your performance and your career and here are the things that you kick ass at and maybe some things that you can focus on.”

Data and other visuals are presented to players.

“We use images, some heat maps and things like that to give them a feel for what we look at when we evaluate them independent of our scouting way of looking at them,” Kapler said. “We’ll show them, ‘Hey, you have elite command of your slider to the outside of the plate.’ And then we’ll give them a little context, where they stand versus the rest of the league. ‘Did you know that this was one of your strengths?’“

In these meetings, a hitter might learn that he hits a particular pitch in a particular location very hard.

“So the thought process is now, ‘Go attack that pitch because you’re good at it and you crush it and it might help you lay off a pitch that is the opposite of that,’ Kapler said, adding …

“Does that make sense?”

These are the new Phillies.

Aaron Nola another Zack Greinke? A quick call-up for Scott Kingery?

Aaron Nola another Zack Greinke? A quick call-up for Scott Kingery?


BRADENTON, Fla. — Gabe Kapler played most of what figures to be his opening day lineup on Friday and the Phillies responded with one of their best games of the Grapefruit League schedule in beating the Pittsburgh Pirates, 8-2.

The only regular not in the starting lineup was shortstop J.P. Crawford. Bench candidate Jesmuel Valentin played there (see story).

Opening day starter Aaron Nola pitched four shutout innings, gave up four hits, a walk and struck out five. He threw 64 pitches and 45 were strikes.

Maikel Franco belted two homers, both bombs to left. One was a two-run shot on a 3-0 fastball, the other a grand slam.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be a good showing by the Phils without another impressive performance from the man who has been the best player in camp, Scott Kingery. He came off the bench, played center field, right field and third base, and stroked a hard single to right.

It is doubtful that Kingery will be on the opening day roster, but it’s looking more and more like he could be up with the big club as soon as April 13. If Kingery stays in the minors until then, the Phillies will control his rights through 2024. If he makes the opening day roster, he could be eligible for free agency after 2023. Keeping Kingery down for a few weeks won’t sit well with some fans, but it makes good baseball sense, especially for a team that does not project as a slam-dunk contender.

Kapler raved about a play Kingery made at third.

“Wow, wow,” the manager said. “His ability to go to his left and make that strong throw. He showed off that incredible arm and that versatility.”

Kapler also liked Franco’s power. The third baseman, entering a make-or-break season with the Phillies, is hitting just .192 on the spring, but he leads the club with five homers. Franco has closed his stance by bringing his front foot closer to the plate. He is getting more comfortable with the stance, which the Phillies hope will prompt him to use the middle of the field and stop pulling off balls.

“He attacked that 3-0 pitch,” Kapler said. “That was pretty impressive.”

Nola said he was “ready to go” for the opener.

Kapler concurred and compared Nola to a former Cy Young winner.

“Perfect tune-up for opening day, got him right where we wanted him with pitches — and he got to that pitch count by throwing strikes, a lot of them, and really attacking with pitches," Kapler said of Nola.

“He’s starting to look to me a lot like — I saw Zack Greinke in the American League when he was with Kansas City — kind of a familiar look to the way that he uses the gas pedal and the brake effectively and fills up the strike zone with all his pitches. His calm, easy, collected demeanor is really reminiscent of some of the best pitchers in baseball.”

The Phillies play the Tigers in Lakeland on Saturday.

Questions Phillies face as spring training nears its end

Questions Phillies face as spring training nears its end

BRADENTON, Fla. — Less than a week before opening day, there are still a number of unanswered questions surrounding the Phillies.

About the only thing known for sure is that Aaron Nola will start Thursday in Atlanta. The right-hander made his final spring tune-up Friday afternoon against the Pirates.

Some of the questions that need to be answered before the Phillies pack up and leave Florida on Tuesday include:

• When will Jake Arrieta join the rotation? Will it be April 2, 3 or 4 in New York? Will it be during the team’s first homestand, possibly April 7? Arrieta threw 31 pitches in his first spring start Thursday. A bullpen session over the weekend and his next start, likely 50 or so pitches on Tuesday, will offer team officials a better idea on when he’ll be ready.

• Who else will be in the rotation? Nothing has been announced, but Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta appear to be locks with Nola and eventually Arrieta. Zach Eflin could be the fifth starter, if the Phils use one the first time through the rotation. He could also piggyback with Arrieta in New York if the Phils wanted to get Arrieta going that early. Ben Lively and Drew Hutchison remain candidates to make the club as the fifth starter, should the Phils use one during the first 10 days of the season.

• Who's in the bullpen? Hector Neris, Pat Neshek, Tommy Hunter, Luis Garcia and Adam Morgan are locks. That likely leaves three openings. One spot will likely go to a lefty, Hoby Milner or Zac Curtis. Right-handers Edubray Ramos and Victor Arano seem to be vying for one spot and the final one could go to Lively or Hutchison. They are both stretched out and could provide the bullpen length that injured Mark Leiter Jr. would have.

• How about bullpen roles? Manager Gabe Kapler is not one to speak in absolutes. He is loath to define roles in his bullpen or batting order. He’s keeping options open and could assign roles on a nightly basis based on matchups and research that the team’s growing analytics department digs up. Neris went 20 for 20 in save chances while giving up just three runs in 19⅔ innings after June 27 last season. Logic would dictate that he'd be the closer. But will he be every night? Will Kapler use him in a matchup situation in the seventh inning some night? Time will tell. Same for batting order construction.

• Who will be on the bench? Infielder/outfielder Pedro Florimon has played well and looks like a lock. That leaves one or two openings, depending on how many pitchers the Phils open with. Veterans Ryan Flaherty and Adam Rosales were both granted their release. That leaves Jesmuel Valentin and Roman Quinn, both 40-man roster guys, as the two lead candidates. There might be room for both, depending on how many pitchers the Phils open with. It also would not be shocking to see the team send Quinn to Triple A to get more playing time. The Phils appear to be leaning toward carrying Andrew Knapp as their second catcher over Cameron Rupp, who has a minor-league option remaining.