Chris Young

Matt Klentak Q&A: Gabe Kapler's future, passing on Dallas Keuchel, more

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Matt Klentak Q&A: Gabe Kapler's future, passing on Dallas Keuchel, more

ATLANTA — From Gabe Kapler’s future to the deals he did and didn’t make to a potential contract extension for J.T. Realmuto and the chances of seeing pitching prospect Spencer Howard in April, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak was asked about a number of topics by reporters before Wednesday night’s game against the Atlanta Braves.

Let’s go:

Question: Will Kapler return as manager next season?

Answer: “I mean this sincerely: We have 13 games left, we're four games out (in the wild-card chase), and one of the teams we're chasing, we play five times. Until we play the last game of 2019, we're not going to start talking about 2020 yet. We still have 13 very important games to play. They'll be plenty of time to talk about 2020 after this season.”

Klentak went on to credit Kapler’s handling of the team in the wake of numerous injuries. He mentioned the team’s improved defense and base running.

“The players are the ones who do those things,” he said. “They're the ones who deserve the credit. But I think a lot of that credit can be shared with a really impactful coaching staff that has spent a lot of time working on little things that over the course of a season turn into much bigger things. 

“I think Kap is doing a remarkable job managing the bullpen right now. We have had seven key members of our bullpen on the injured list.

“I think he's doing a very good job. Is he perfect every day? No. Are we all perfect every day? No. Have we had our share of challenges? Of course we have. But I think the group is playing hard down the stretch. We still have a chance. I think a lot of the subtle improvements we've seen this year have been the product of our manager and coaching staff.”

Question: So, is Kapler being judged on more than wins and losses?

Answer: “Winning is what matters. For his job, for my job, for anybody in this game. That's the cold-hard truth. I know that. We all know that. But not every season is the same as the one that came before it or the one that comes after it. The circumstances change. The player personnel can change. Expectations can change. There are a lot of things that are different year in and year out. 

“I highlighted a few areas where I think our manager and coaching staff have done a terrific job. Whether those contributions are enough to get us in the playoffs or not remains to be seen. We have 13 more games. But I think there have been a lot of positives.”

Question: Do you second-guess yourself for not signing Dallas Keuchel?

(Klentak said baseball’s tampering rules prevented him from discussing a player directly. He did offer an answer, though.)

Answer: “We will always go back and look at our decision-making and try to put ourselves back in the moment where we were making decisions and see in retrospect if there were things that we should have seen that we didn’t. Why did we make decisions that we did? Was there some improvement that we could make to that thought process to reach different conclusions?

“You’ve heard me say this, last year’s starting rotation was both healthy and effective. The effectiveness wasn’t linear. It was more effective in the first half than it was in the second half. But in the aggregate, that group of guys was pretty good last year. There’s no question that we bet on some improvement from some of those players based on what they had shown in 2018, based on their ages, their development curve, that we thought there would be more improvement than what we’ve seen. It’s hard to look back and second-guess that thought process. It’s easy to look back and second-guess the results, just like many Phillies fans have second-guessed. We made a lot of adjustments to our team last offseason in a lot of areas, many of those have worked out, some have not, but I think the best we can do is to look at the reasons we made or didn’t make decisions and try to learn from it.

“We’re evaluating every day whether it’s players or staff members or anything else.”

Question: Any second thoughts about being conservative at the trade deadline?

Answer: "You have to operate with the information that you have at the time that you were asked to make the decision. Given our place in the standings at the end of July, given the injuries that we had sustained and the likelihood that many of them would continue through the end of the season, that obviously impacts what our approach is going to be. Then you go out and you assess what the market is offering, what the cost is to acquire different players to make certain improvements and you make judgments. I will tell you that Corey Dickerson’s production for us was really impressive and, at times, Mike Morin and Blake Parker have pitched meaningful innings for us. I think Jason Vargas has done largely what we’ve asked him to do, which was take the ball every day and keep us in the game.

“The fact that we may not have traded away a lot of talent to acquire those players — I think what we should be evaluating is the contributions that those players made, and hopefully will continue to make, and less what we gave up to get them. I understand that sometimes what you give up can serve as a proxy for aggressiveness or intent but I think there’s also a value in reading a market and trying to make the best deals that you can. I know that some of the players that we brought in may not have been household names, but I think most of them have performed in such a way that they’ve delivered what we hope they’d deliver which is adding depth to our bullpen and keeping us in games in our rotation and in Dickerson’s case adding an impact bat.”

Question: Some starting pitchers regressed or did not live up to potential in 2019. How do you evaluate first-year pitching coach Chris Young?

Answer: “I never think it’s just one thing. On the topic of CY, I think if we’re going to be critical of players taking a step back this year, which I understand, we also have to recognize that many of our players took a step forward last year and a big part of that was the changes that we made to our game-planning and CY had a major impact on the positive strides our players made last year. It’s a big reason that we felt comfortable sliding him into the pitching coach role when we did because of the gains that we made a year ago.

“The season hasn’t gone the way we thought it would in terms of the development of some of our starters, and I understand why the pitching coach will take a lot of the heat for that. I think much like with anybody who’s in their first year in any position, but particularly a prominent major league position, it’s reasonable to expect that that person is going to improve as the season goes along. And we’ve absolutely seen that. I think by the halfway point of the season we were on pace to potentially set National League records for home runs allowed. Part of that is the changing dynamic in the game and the ball itself, but that certainly was not a pace that we were looking to be on and our pitching groups made some key adjustments to address that. We’re not on the leaderboard of home run prevention, but it’s been considerably better in the second half. I think he and our group have made a lot of improvements along the way. But I understand why when a season has gone the way that it does his name is going to be in the paper.”

Question: J.T. Realmuto will be eligible for free agency after the 2020 season. Chances of an extension before then?

Answer: “I think J.T. has had a phenomenal season. When we acquired him, I declared him the best catcher in baseball. He’s been better than that. He’s been everything we could have asked for. I think it’s reasonable to expect that one of our offseason goals will be to address his contract situation and whether we line up or not remains to be seen. But he has done nothing to change our belief in him or our desire to make him a Phillie for the foreseeable future.”

Question: Will top pitching prospect Spencer Howard crack the opening day rotation next season?

Answer: “I think probably he’s going to need more time in the minor leagues. He had such an abbreviated season this year (because of a minor shoulder injury), as impressive as it was, we’re sending him to the Arizona Fall League to capture some of those innings that he missed when he was on the injured list this year to build up his workload in such a way that he can have a full season or even an extended season workload next year. One of the big challenges in baseball right now is the difference in the ball itself. I think it’s going to be important for him to get comfortable with the major league ball, whether that’s spring training or at the Triple A level, before we have confidence that he’s ready for the next step and that he has the confidence that he’s ready for the next step. None of that should diminish our confidence in him to be a very good pitcher at the major league level and hopefully in short order. We do think he has a very bright future ahead of him, but we also need to make sure we do the right thing for him developmentally and we’re hopeful that his positive progression will continue in the fall.”

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Zach Eflin finds success doing it his way — can he provide a lift for Phillies down the stretch?

Zach Eflin finds success doing it his way — can he provide a lift for Phillies down the stretch?

MIAMI — Zach Eflin is growing up. He’s becoming a man, speaking up and advocating for himself.

The results were on display Saturday night.

The 25-year-old right-hander led the Phillies to a 9-3 win over the Miami Marlins by doing it his way.

Featuring mostly sinking, two-seam fastballs — the pitch that got him to the majors and the pitch that he feels most comfortable throwing — Eflin tossed six innings of two-run ball. He scattered six hits, walked none and struck out two.

The performance was Eflin’s best since mid-June. He had a horrendous month of July and was demoted to the bullpen. That demotion led to his taking stock in himself as a pitcher. He concluded that he was throwing too many four-seam fastballs as he tried to satisfy those who wanted the strikeouts and swings and misses that are in vogue in today’s game. Phillies officials preach throwing four-seamers up in the zone as a way to combat hitters looking to launch and the approach does have merit with pitchers who have fastballs in the mid-90s. Eflin, in fact, has had success, at times, with that approach. But after struggling so much in the middle of this season, and having trouble going deep into games, Eflin decided he needed to get back to his comfort zone. He threw 79 pitches Saturday night and 37 of them (a season-high 47 percent) were sinkers. He got 10 outs on the ground.

“I think I can personally be more effective throwing sinkers, getting early outs, and staying in the game longer,” Eflin said after notching his first win in two months. “I think the recipe for getting early contact, getting ahead of guys, and staying in the game as long as I can, which is what a starting pitcher is supposed to do, definitely feels more comfortable for me.”

Charlie Manuel likes to say, "Know thyself." Eflin knows himself. Using the two-seamer and pitching to contact gives him more confidence.

“Absolutely,” he said. “There’s always a time for swing and miss and four-seamers and stuff like that. Fortunately for me, I was able to throw a really good sinker and get some groundballs tonight.”

Eflin confirmed that his July struggles made him decide to go back to featuring his sinker.

“It had been the couple outings previous to me going to the bullpen that I was kind of really wanting to go back to sinker-balling and getting early contact,” he said. “That’s when I got moved to the bullpen and it was kind of tough to figure out what I wanted to do from a bullpen standpoint, whether I wanted to keep doing the swing-and-miss stuff or start implementing my sinker. It had been three or four weeks in the making and then going back to the rotation I was pretty dead set on it.”

Eflin said he had a conversation with pitching coach Chris Young “and he was all for” the change in approach.

“I didn't demand it at all,” Eflin said. “We simply sat down and talked about it and I told him what I thought I was best at doing. At the end of the day, it’s a two-way street. They want what’s best for me, as well. If I’m at my best going out there throwing sinkerballs and getting early contact and going late into the game, then ultimately that’s what’s going to be best for the team. There was no point where they were against me doing it.”

Eflin mixed in four-seamers, sliders, curveballs and changeups in stopping the Marlins on Saturday night. The Marlins put up 19 runs on the Phillies on Friday night and the team needed a big performance from Eflin.

“A lot of weak contact on the ground, good two-seamer in the zone, attacking, efficient, and strong through six innings for us,” was manager Gabe Kapler’s appraisal of Eflin’s outing.

Kapler was asked about the genesis of Eflin’s change in approach. Did the pitcher push for it? Did the team?

“I think it’s a combination of both,” Kapler said. “It’s something that he feels comfortable with. I know that Chris Young likes to run (the two-seamer) in on the hands of right-handed hitters. If Zach Eflin is getting the ball on the ground, something good is happening. So, obviously, swings and misses are nice and there are going to be times for those, and right now he’s focusing on weak contact, efficiency and getting the ball on the ground and being successful with that approach.”

Kapler was asked about how that approach could help Eflin’s confidence.

“I think it’s less about something that specific and more about him feeling like his body is strong, he’s capable of giving us length, he’s capable of being efficient, and less about one pitch in particular,” Kapler said. “I’m not saying that it’s not important, I just don’t think that it’s — I think it’s much more the aggregate of what he’s doing right now rather than him leaning more heavily on the two-seamer. He also used a curveball and a slider successfully today and some four-seamers at times.”

In the end, it doesn’t matter how Zach Eflin rediscovers his effectiveness. All that matters is that he does. The Phillies are in a playoff chase. They have 34 games left. They desperately need starting pitchers not named Aaron Nola to step up. Maybe Eflin, back in his comfort zone, can be one of those guys. In the meantime, the Phillies look to make it a 4-1 trip behind Nola on Sunday.

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Aaron Nola is ready for opening day — and a lot more than 68 pitches

Aaron Nola is ready for opening day — and a lot more than 68 pitches

CLEARWATER, Fla. — There will be no quick hook for Aaron Nola this opening day. As long as he’s effective and getting the job done, he’s staying in the game longer than 68 pitches. There are no restrictions.

“Absolutely none,” pitching coach Chris Young said.

With Young looking on and Andrew Knapp doing the catching, Nola made his final start of the spring in a minor-league game at Carpenter Complex on Friday. The Phillies chose to have Nola make his final tune-up in a controlled setting to ensure that he get his pitch count up and get into the sixth inning. He threw 91 pitches and left in the middle of the sixth.

Nola’s next outing will come Thursday at Citizens Bank Park against the Atlanta Braves. It will be Nola’s second straight opening day start against the Braves. Last year’s came in Atlanta and still lives in infamy. Nola was cruising along with a 5-0 lead in the sixth inning when rookie manager Gabe Kapler went to his bullpen and started playing the matchup game. The bullpen ended up blowing the lead, the Phillies lost, 8-5, and Kapler was roasted for taking his starter out at 68 pitches. Even the soft-spoken Nola was miffed.

As it turned out, Kapler’s controversial decision to hook Nola on opening day turned out to be a growth moment in the two men’s relationship.

“For sure,” Nola confirmed. “We had a talk after the game and he let me go the rest of the season. That’s what I want to do.”

For the season, Nola ended up pitching 212 1/3 innings, fifth most in the majors. He finished fourth in the majors in ERA (2.37) and quality starts (25) and fifth in WHIP (0.97) on his way to a third-place finish in the NL Cy Young voting. He threw a first-pitch strike 69.4 percent of the time. Only St. Louis starter Miles Mikolas (71 percent) did that more often.

Armed with a new four-year, $45 million contract, Nola, 25, comes into the new season with high expectations. He challenged for the Cy Young Award last season and there’s no reason he can’t do it again this season.

But Nola is more concerned with team expectations. On paper, the Phils are the most improved club in baseball and they’re expected to contend in the NL East. The improved roster and heightened expectations can be seen at the newsstands as Nola joins Rhys Hoskins and newcomers Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week.

“We have a team to make the playoffs, but we still have to go out there and win and we still have to go out there and compete,” Nola said. “Expectations are better than no expectations and that’s going to raise our game up, I believe.

“You look at the type of guys we’ve got, All Stars, MVPs, Cy Young winners. We got ‘em on our team. But there are no guarantees.  We still have to play and compete.”

As opening day comes into focus, players are always eager to get spring training over and begin the season. There seems to be an extra bit of juice in the Phillies’ clubhouse, a feel that this team knows it could be pretty good and it can’t wait to get started and see how it all plays out.

“That’s accurate, for sure,” Nola said. “We’re all excited and ready to go. It’s not just that we have good ballplayers and good talent in there, I think they’re good guys, too, and I think that makes more icing on the cake because the better guys you have, the better chemistry you have and the easier it is to play with each other.”

Nola said he is right where he needs to be physically. He feels great. He’s excited to see Citizens Bank Park sold out on Thursday and face Atlanta’s Julio Teheran. This season of big expectations is almost here.

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