As the Phillies' lineup turns, Gabe Kapler is left with no choice but to mix and match (2024)

MIAMI — The lineup, Gabe Kapler’s 113th different batting order in 137 games, was tacked to a board Monday morning around the corner from the manager’s office at Marlins Park. It did not include Rhys Hoskins or Maikel Franco. It had Odúbel Herrera — who in his previous three games had hit eighth then fourth then sat on the bench — at a new defensive position and batting third. It had César Hernández, who for almost two years occupied the top spot, batting ninth.

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It was not decided on a whim; the Phillies thought about different scenarios and matchups during the Sunday night charter flight to Florida for the season’s most crucial week. The club’s analytics department provides reports ahead of series to determine where advantageous matchups lie — they are not based solely on left vs. right or a batter’s history against a pitcher. Kapler leans on these reports.

This is not conventional. But this is the solution when there is no one combination that can provide consistent production. The Phillies do not have a set lineup in a pennant race because no one in the lineup has held down a spot in the batting order. There have been too many games like Monday’s dud, a 3-1 loss to the hapless Marlins, that featured four Phillies hits with three of them singles.

The hitters have underperformed. No one, right now, is on a hot streak. So Kapler is less concerned about the actual order of the lineup. Rather, he has tasked his coaches and analysts to hunt for the right collection of players on a given day.

Those decisions are magnified in September, especially when a season appears to be slipping into one without October baseball. These are principles that have guided the data-driven Phillies all season.

Now, absent a strong answer, Kapler is diving deeper into the data that suggests a lineup mix.

“I just don’t think the same lineup every day leads to good results,” Kapler said. “In a vacuum, at least. Like, sure, if you have guys who you run out there every single day in the same spots and they feel good and everybody produces. Sure. You run them back out there. But, you know, I think in this particular case, it makes sense to give our guys the best chance to succeed.”

That is why Kapler has not repeated a lineup since Games 116-117 in San Diego. That was in early August when this 9-17 skid was in its nascent stages. The games have now become more urgent, and Kapler is reluctant to run the same lineup over and over again because there is no evidence through 137 games that such a winning combination exists.

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This is different for the Phillies, who used 77 different batting orders in 2008 and a mere 68 in 2009, but churned through hundreds of sequences in recent seasons when the on-field product was at its worst. Charlie Manuel’s Phillies featured dependable and productive players. The game has trended since then toward positionless baseball. Versatility is king. Managers, emboldened by their analytics departments, have sought creative solutions.

Kapler isn’t even at the extreme. The Astros, Cubs and Dodgers have each used more lineup combinations this season than the Phillies have. Those three teams utilized the same strategy a season ago; Houston and Los Angeles captured pennants doing it. Houston had used 119 different lineups before Monday. Chicago was at 126 and Los Angeles had used 134. Some of that is related to injuries. But the managers of those teams have interchangeable parts and robust analytics departments that value matchup-based batting orders over more conventional ideas. Even the Red Sox and Yankees have used a similar amount of lineups as the Phillies have.

Why have all of those teams succeeded where Kapler’s Phillies have not? Well, they have better players.

So Kapler is left with a conundrum. He has one — one — player with an OPS above .800 since Aug. 1. That’s Roman Quinn (a .915 OPS). Wilson Ramos and Justin Bour have been productive, but injuries have robbed them of frequent chances to be offensive difference makers. Herrera has a .544 OPS since Aug. 1. Hernández has a .600 OPS. Asdrúbal Cabrera, who homered Monday, has a .708 clip. Hoskins is at .727 and Maikel Franco has a .691 OPS since Aug. 1. The league average OPS this season is .723.

Carlos Santana, who went 1 for 4 on Monday, has a .782 OPS since August began. That’s why Kapler has continued to ride Santana in the middle of his lineup. Nick Williams has a solid .753 OPS since Aug. 1 and he batted fifth on Monday. No one else has answered the need for regular production.

As the Phillies' lineup turns, Gabe Kapler is left with no choice but to mix and match (1)

Asdrúbal Cabrera hits a solo home run in the second, accounting for the Phillies’ lone run on the day. (Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)

There are other considerations. Franco would have played Monday but he is not able. He has played through a sore right wrist he injured last month in Toronto. He is 0 for 13 since that series. He has not started in three of the team’s last four games. An X-ray ordered Sunday did not show a serious problem.

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“But, at the same time, when I squeeze my hand I feel a little bit of pain,” Franco said. “And when I hit the ball I feel a lot of pain.”

Had Hoskins not been 8 for his last 41 (.195), Kapler could have looked past Hoskins’ 0 for 8 with six strikeouts in his career against Marlins starter José Ureña. Instead, it presented a chance to rest the team’s offensive leader.

“We anticipate that we may not give him another day off for the entire season,” Kapler said. Hoskins pinch-hit and struck a deep fly to the warning track. He stayed in the game as the first baseman and Santana shifted to third because the Phillies trailed and needed as strong an offensive unit on the field as possible.

The counter is that a consistent lineup could have allowed players to find comfort zones. But every player who began the season on the roster has received a chance at regular playing time. The Phillies have seven players with 400-plus plate appearances for the first time since 2014. Jorge Alfaro is at 345 plate appearances. No Manuel team ever had eight players with 400-plus plate appearances in a season.

These Phillies are what they are. This much, after 137 games, is true. That is one argument for Kapler to explore different combinations with the various spare parts acquired since July. Nothing else has worked.

“I don’t think we’re running out of time,” Kapler said. “I don’t believe that. I think we have plenty of time to put together a really strong run. We have plenty of time to get hot. If we get hot, we can win games in bunches. If we get hot, and I believe that we can and will, we will rattle off enough wins to be right where we need to be when we start that series with Atlanta.”

And, if they’re hot, the lineup decisions could be easier. Absent that, it is the easiest thing to criticize. The challenges — and harsher realities — are deeper than lineup construction.

(Top photo: Brynn Anderson/AP Photo)

As the Phillies' lineup turns, Gabe Kapler is left with no choice but to mix and match (2)As the Phillies' lineup turns, Gabe Kapler is left with no choice but to mix and match (3)

Matt Gelb is a senior writer for The Athletic covering the Philadelphia Phillies. He has covered the team since 2010 while at The Philadelphia Inquirer, including a yearlong pause from baseball as a reporter on the city desk. He is a graduate of Syracuse University and Central Bucks High School West.

As the Phillies' lineup turns, Gabe Kapler is left with no choice but to mix and match (2024)

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