The Many Sides of Pulling Aaron Nola Early

There has been a lot written and said angrily about Gabe Kapler pulling Aaron Nola after 68 pitches in the 6th inning of Opening Day against the Braves. I took a side yesterday, it turned out to not be the reason the Phillies used, and of course the bullpen gave up a bunch of runs and blew the game. So rather than give a single side, I am going to look at all the various parts of the decision.

Rest Nola, It Is Game 1 of 162

This was my initial gut feeling on the move. Aaron Nola threw in the high 60 pitches in his last spring training start, he could have gone probably into the low 80s, but he wasn’t going for a long outing. At the time of the move, there was a man on base and the Phillies were up 5-0. The information at the time was that the Phillies had 9 pitchers in the bullpen (we later learned Pat Neshek was injured), which should be fine for getting 11 outs (at least that is the theory). So overall the thought here is that Nola pitched less than 170 innings last year, and with the Phillies’ emphasis on rest and keeping their pitchers healthy, this game presented an opportunity to get out of it with a sub 70 pitch outing from Nola to have him well rested for his next start and the rest of the season.

Third Time Through the Order Plus Two Lefties Could be a Problem for Aaron Nola


Those are Aaron Nola’s splits the first, second, and third time through the order in the 2017 season. Across baseball we have seen the same trend, that hitters are much better after seeing a pitcher multiple times in a game. Now that is over a full year and does not account for the individual game to game discrepancies. Then there is the fact that there were two lefties coming up to bat. Nola’s addition of a changeup last year reduced his platoon splits, but lefties hit .255/.324/.414 off of him last year, as opposed to righties which hit .228/.271/.355 off of him.

Hoby Milner is Really Good Against Lefties

When Gabe Kapler pulled Aaron Nola it was for lefty Hoby Milner. Hoby Milner was good at one thing last year, and it was getting left handed batters to make weak outs. With 12 strikeouts in 75 PA, he didn’t strike them out. However, lefties hit .159/.274/.190 off of him last year, with only 2 extra base hits. If Milner can get Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis out, then it is 3 innings for the bullpen to get up by 5 runs. The counter point to this is, that Milner’s great 2017 was BABIP aided and his lack of strikeout stuff was a problem. Also Freddie Freeman is really good.

Aaron Nola is Your Ace and You Trust Him

This is the most traditional answer. You set some sort of upper limit for pitch count based on workload and until Nola hits that or struggles you let him go. Freeman has good numbers off of Nola and walked in his last at bat, but with the pitches in the arsenal to work with and the low pitch count, Nola has a decent chance to do something vs Freeman. Even if Nola isn’t going to go more than 6 innings in the game, you could use Milner (and Luis Garcia) later in the game or just turn things over to the bullpen with two less outs to get. You also don’t give up any sort of momentum.

If You Are Going To Pull Nola You Should Have Pinch Hit For Him

Another part of the puzzle is that Aaron Nola hit in the previous inning with the bases loaded and two outs. At the time the Phillies had Scott Kingery, Odubel Herrera, Pedro Florimon, and Jorge Alfaro on the bench. It was 5-0 at the time so taking Nola out without knowing the events of the next inning would be lunacy. However, if you are in Gabe Kapler’s mind and know you are not going to let Nola go through the order a third time, do you consider pinch hitting and giving a reliever like Jake Thompson or Drew Hutchison a clean inning to work with.

In the end it is a lot of variables in play. It is the first game of the year and one decision in a series of decisions, and it probably wasn’t the one to cost the game (that could have been Ramos’s pitching, Neris deciding to give Markakis a meatball). Teams are setting themselves up to have more information than ever before and asking managers to make decisions in quick time on small percentage advantages. There will be nights like opening night all year, and nights when it works, but each decision has a lot pathways and reasons.

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  1. Joe

    March 31, 2018 06:33 AM

    More worrisome to me is that Kapler didn’t even consider it was a mistake to pull him. Nola never pitched 200 innings before, but has Holby Milner (and everyone else in the pen) ever pitched in more than 100 games in a season? Pitchers will tell you during a long season, 1 game/start you really got your A stuff, another start you have to battle thru, but you don’t always have your best pitches working, can’t manage pitchers as if they do. Nola had it working and at that point in the game was a better option to finish the 6th (not the 7th or 8th were discussing) then ANYONE the phils have to at least finish a quality start. Baseball is a game of streaks, Rys last seasons tear, probably isn’t allowed to happen with Kapler since he makes lineups in the future.

    Kapler is quickly becoming the joke of MLB, I know the braves broadcasters had fun with it many times. Such as,” Nick Pivetta just became the 1st phillies starter this year to throw 69 pitches in a game” then laughter in box.

    • Wawa Mike

      March 31, 2018 07:19 AM

      With a 5-0 lead, Kapler saw a chance to give his Ace an easy victory. In a perfect world it would have worked out, but the wheels fell off. Having said that, I would have left Nola continue, at least for Freeman. My biggest concerns going into the season were Milner, Neris and Morgan, and they blew the game, not Kapler. Not having Hunter and Neshek should have made Kapler think twice. So far, we’ve seen a excruciating loss and an excruciating win. Let’s all hope for a 10-1 victory for the Phils today. The bullpen needs a day off.

      • Romus

        March 31, 2018 08:40 AM

        The ‘pen’s Jake Thompson is rested, has not pitched since Monday or Tuesday….though. is he healthy?.

      • Steve

        April 02, 2018 05:25 AM

        Home Depot is having a sale on pitchforks and brush hooks. Coincidence?

    • philk

      April 07, 2018 08:55 PM

      Is Kapler continuing being the joke of MLB? So, he pulls Nola after 68 pitches with a 5-0 lead to save him for the season and he lets Valasquez STAY IN after 89 pitches in the 5th with a 17-1
      lead so he can have a pitch count of 98 after the sixth!!! This is after the bullpen had a day of rest on Friday and five of them had not pitched since Tuesday. Am I missing something here?

  2. Mike

    March 31, 2018 08:58 AM

    I definitely would have let Nola try to get out of it for at least another batter or two, but I’m not about to freak out about the first game of the season. I see the logic for a bunch of the unorthodox things the Phillies are doing, yet it’s a bit overwhelming to see them doing all of these things at once. That said, I’m also sick of 90-loss seasons, so these new tactics will have to misfire quite a few more times before I will be as cynical as the last few years.

  3. John

    March 31, 2018 09:27 AM

    The whole point was not just using another pitcher, it was using a lugy against Freeman. If you have a lefty specialist and you don’t use him against Freeman who are you going to use him against? Strategy was sound, Milner didn’t get it done.

    • Iatrogenes

      March 31, 2018 11:34 AM

      Not sound strategy. You don’t use your lefty specialist in the 6th inning, because Freeman and Markakis will come up again in the 8th or 9th when the game may be more on the line. After Milner and Morgan, then what? Guess what happened? And I don’t think that’s just second-guessing. Wait until Kapler pulls Arrieta because Gabe has data that shows 3 years ago Arrieta gave up a hit to the next batter. Ugh!

      • John Salmon

        March 31, 2018 03:56 PM

        No-the closeness of the score matters more than the inning.

  4. John Salmon

    March 31, 2018 03:54 PM

    The bullpen should be able to hold a five run lead. It’s not complicated. It’s at least as justified pulling a starter “too soon” as too late, anyway. You want to pull guys BEFORE fatigue sets in. Frantzke said Nola showed no fatigue. Well, yes-that’s the point.

  5. Thomas Wood

    March 31, 2018 07:27 PM

    Data and analytics are nice, but should never be used as the sole factor in determining moves made during the game. The eye test should have told Kapler that Nola was never in any trouble, had no stressful innings, and was still dominating the Braves. Kapler seemed to have his mind made up before the 6th that if any runner reached, Nola was getting lifted. He is your best pitcher, and deserved the opportunity to finish the inning.

  6. Ed

    April 01, 2018 05:26 AM

    One could think, and I think I can pull some stats out of my ass on this, that this may be a very long and painful season.

  7. Keith

    April 01, 2018 07:24 AM

    I’m wondering if people are still saying it’s a sound strategy? In approximately 18 innings, the bullpen has given up 13 (not including Florimon) runs. The starters have only pitched 12 innings. We don’t have a good enough bullpen where they should be pitching this much. I’m big on analytics, but I’m even bigger on common sense. You don’t just pull a pitcher, not just any pitcher but your best pitcher on the team, after only 68 pitches. You screwed up that game, and the resulting 2 games because of overuse of your bullpen.

    Let’s not forget about last night’s fiasco when the umpire had to eject the braves manager because Gabe didn’t have a relief pitcher ready to go when he took velasquez out.

    And we’re not even talking miscues with the lineup card. In 3 regular season games, this guy has shown he’s over his head so far.

    • Joe

      April 01, 2018 04:18 PM

      The only saying its sound strategy is Kapler. If he could admit a mistake and try learn from it, I csn understand, but to be so stubborn, in fact now we are playoff bound, per Gabe

  8. Steve

    April 01, 2018 06:41 PM

    Kapler should have also been looking at the whole series. If you believe in numbers then you’d have no reason to believe Pivetta and Velasquez would go deep into their games. The 5 run lead at the time makes it even less urgent to start using bullpen arms,. Milner would have almost surely had use later. Finding out that Neshek was out on top of Hunter already being out would have tilted my decision there even more. One thing analytics tells you is that most of the bullpen arms are young and have experienced their share of ups and downs already. You bet on Nola for at least a few more hitters with all that information.

  9. Michael C Lorah

    April 02, 2018 07:52 AM

    I’m giving Kapler the benefit of the doubt on most things, including opening day, but this weekend showed a troubling trend in bullpen management. I know there’s a love right now for big, powerful, fresh bullpen arms that can blow batters away – but I’m still a bit skeptical that the Phillies have such a ‘pen. Milner, in particular, may held lefties in check last season, but he’s NOT overpowering and Freddie Freeman is an elite hitter. Morgan has a short track record. as a reliever Ramos has a mixed record of success. Thompson has never relieved (and rarely succeeded). Arano and Rios have no MLB track record to speak of. There’s a lot of room here for this thing to be a lot less than people hope it to be.

    Further, I feel Kapler’s just using too many arms. He did it all three games (okay, Vince’s early exit Saturday forced his hand there). I know a third of an inning isn’t a lot, but you can’t ask a guy to pitch a third of an inning 162 games in a row. This isn’t the playoffs where it’s win or go home. No matter what happens, there are a hundred and fifty nine games to play still. The Phillies can’t wear out six arms every single game, even with an eight-man ‘pen.

    • Michael C Lorah

      April 02, 2018 07:55 AM

      As an addendum to this, I’m very open to analytics. But there’s one place where I’m stubbornly old: relievers aren’t as good as starters. If they were – if they could get more than a few outs – they’d BE starters, so my preference is get (at least) six from the starters and limit the relievers’ exposure as much as possible.

      So that’s where I draw my “cranky old man” line in the sand. 😉

      • Steve

        April 02, 2018 02:37 PM

        Well they serve different purposes. If you said starters typically are better at the same hitter out more than once in a game I would agree with you. Most RP are not as strong the 2nd or 3rd time through the order, and that, as you said, is why they aren’t starters. But if we are looking at getting 3 outs, or even 6, or getting one out with runners on 2nd and 3rd, I would not say starters are better than relievers as a blanket statement.
        They are two different types of pitchers with two different priorities, and they have altered their skillset to maximize their effectiveness when they are called on. I don’t think Jerad Eickhoff is better than Andrew Miller just because he pitches more innings.

      • Michael Lorah

        April 02, 2018 05:44 PM

        The Phillies DON’T have an Andrew Miller in their bullpen. 😉

  10. Chris S

    April 02, 2018 11:01 AM

    I have had this conversation lots over the last couple of days and based on the information I have seen, I feel it wasn’t a terrible move to try and rest Nola since the pen should have been able to get 11 outs without giving up 5 runs. If it worked out and the Phillies won 5 – 0 everyone would be praising him for saving Nola when he didn’t need to pitch the rest of the game. Who knows maybe he leaves Nola in the game and he finishes the 6th inning, but not before giving up 3 runs. There are too many what-ifs and Kapler needs to stick to his guns on this decision because the data told him to make the move. We read this analytically slanted site because most of us believe that over the long term the data bears out more wins. He made a move that was based in analytics and it didn’t work out. Away teams win 95% of games they lead by 5 runs going into the bottom of the 6th inning. He made a move that works 95% of the time and it just didn’t work this time.

    • Michael C Lorah

      April 02, 2018 12:18 PM

      I see the point, but my big problem with that line is this one game doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Pivetta and Velazquez are notoriously prone to short starts, and your best bullpen guys, Hunter and Neshek, are unavailable. In that spot, I think you stick with your ace. Given the thinness of the starting rotation, the Phillies bullpen is going to pitch A LOT of innings no matter how you draw up this season. When Nola, the team’s ace, is cruising, I think you have to let him ride.

      Honestly, I even wanted to squeeze another inning from Pivetta. But as I said above, I’m not as convinced of this bullpen’s talent as the Phillies apparently are. Especially with Hunter and Neshek out of the mix.

      • Mike Williams

        April 02, 2018 12:31 PM

        Here’s what Gabe should have done with Nola….

        He should have put him in lf for the two hitters, them brought him back in to continue to pitch.

        Of course, I am kidding, but is there anyone who can convince me that this won’t be done this way in the future?
        All bets are off..

      • Steve

        April 02, 2018 02:40 PM

        That actually wouldn’t be the most absurd thing I would expect to see this year. If it wasn’t a pitch count issue, simply a bad match-up say in the 5th or 6th, I could see taking out Altherr, moving Nola to the OF for a batter or two, then moving Nola back to the mound and bringing in Williams or Kingery to play OF for the rest of the game.

        At this point I don’t think we can rule anything out with Kap.

      • awh

        April 02, 2018 10:08 PM

        Steve, by that logic you might as well play 9 pitchers in the field and have each one come on and pitch to the batter of his choice.

        Of course I’m kidding, but yes, I can see Kapler doing something that unorthodox too.

        It’s going to be an interesting season. I have a feeling we’re going to be debating/analyzing a lot of the moves Kapler’s going to make.

        As I’m sitting here (watching the NCAA final), I wonder whether the Phillies are going to make a liberal use of the 10-day DL. Use a pitcher a lot, and then DL him right as the next guy comes off the DL. It could be a revolving door to the training room.

      • Steve

        April 03, 2018 11:45 AM

        Dodgers manipulated the 10 day DL nicely last year. Hopefully the players aren’t actually getting hurt, but if you can use it to your advantage, go for it

  11. Steve

    April 03, 2018 08:45 PM

    So Nola vs Thor tomorrow, but no one can watch unless they log in to a Facebook app…… I know MLB is looking for ways to appeal to younger fans, but this is terrible. Why black it out? Just offer it on both platforms.

    • Michael Lorah

      April 03, 2018 09:10 PM

      Sorry, man. That stinks. As my blacks me out when they play the Mets, this FB stream actually works to my advantage, but there’s no reason to black out the regular broadcast.

    • johnmatrix

      April 05, 2018 12:20 PM

      I called comcast and complained about this. It’s total crap. Comcast basically has a monopoly on watching the Phils, but will take games off of TV and put them on facebook on a whim? It’s not right.

      • Romus

        April 05, 2018 03:09 PM

        It was not Comcast……it was MLB….who signed a $35M contract with Facebook to televise 25 weekday, afternoon , regular season games…approx one per week that will incorporate every team at least one time.

  12. Michael C Lorah

    April 05, 2018 06:55 AM

    Okay, I have to say that many of my concerns are lessened after this two-game series against the Mets. Even with losing both games, I didn’t feel embarrassed by the way the Phillies played*. They were able to limit the Mets’ lineup to six runs total over both games. The ‘pen pitched effectively, and the starters were given some leeway to go a third time through the opposing line-up (Nola actually pitched fewer innings, but faced more batters and threw more pitches, so the early hook was more justified).

    The Phillies lost the Braves series because they couldn’t pitch at all. They lost the Mets series because they faced some very good pitching and couldn’t put many runs on the board. I have to believe that the lineup is going to start to click at some point.

    *Yes, pissing away the double play chance in the first game was embarrassing, but that is, as Kapler often says, a “learning opportunity.” There are ways to position the defense in a shift that will allow them to get double plays. The coaches and infielders should be a little more heads up about this now, I hope.

  13. greg

    April 05, 2018 01:54 PM

    Years of watching Charlie cost games by being too dumb. Now we gotta watch Gabe cost games by being too smart?

  14. Joe

    April 07, 2018 03:56 AM

    Is Nick Williams still on the team? Putting young guys in the bench, hard to get going at the plate. Timing is everything at the plate, reps are needed.

    I understand the idea of wanting high OBP over batting averages, but if you can’t get hits, you get walks without scoring runs, like in the mets series. Team can get 2 or 3 walks an inning but no runs, get 2 or 3 hits in an inning, you score.

    Also, we will never see a pitcher throw a shutout, no hitter, etc in the Kapler era. They have to get thru a lineup 3 times even in a perfect game.

  15. Cutter McCool

    April 08, 2018 10:29 PM

    Is this site dead? Hasn’t been updated in over a week. Sad. Oh well. Leaving for The Good Phight forever.

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