It doesn’t matter how fast the San Francisco Giants’ 105 wins, or their boozy celebration in the clubhouse a few nights ago after they became the first team to land a playoff berth, or even the manager’s award. of the National League Year which will surely arrive at Oracle Park this winter.
The first sign that Gabe Kapler is a better manager now than when he was fired by the Phillies after the 2019 season came back on April 9.
It was the Giants’ home opener, the first game Kapler has managed in front of fans since John Middleton stepped down from the owner’s lodge to shake hands with him in the dugout following the 2019 Phillies final in Citizens Bank Park. Giants starter Johnny Cueto shut out the Colorado Rockies for eight innings but allowed a starting treble and a sacrifice volley in the ninth to reduce the lead to two runs. Kapler, who had his closest ready in the bullpen, walked to the mound with Cueto at 110 pitches.
But instead of taking the ball reflexively, Kapler asked for the opinions of wide receiver Buster Posey and first baseman Brandon Belt. They agreed that Cueto’s stuff seemed precise enough to deserve a chance to complete a game for the first time since 2016. Kapler stayed with Cueto, and the crowd roared their approval. Two batters later, after Trevor Story’s two-out single, the Giants made a pitcher change to clinch a 3-1 victory.
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“The subtext of this story is Gabe’s ability to make adjustments,” Giants general manager Scott Harris said by phone this week. “One thing that struck me while working with Gabe was that he strikes the right balance between intense pre-game preparation and the willingness to adapt to whatever the game is telling him.”
Think about it. Let it invade you. Now think back to 2018 and Kapler’s first game with the Phillies. He pulled Aaron Nola out with a sixth inning out after 68 shots on opening day in Atlanta, as data suggested a starter shouldn’t face the Heart of the Braves Order for the third time, even if everyone could see that Nola was sailing. . Phillies fans, and even some players, have never forgotten.
And because the Phillies went 161-163 in 2018 and 2019, including 20-36 in September of those years, Kapler couldn’t change the perception he lacked of an elemental feel for the game.
So it was one thing for Kapler, 46, to claim after being hired by the Giants 22 months ago and to reiterate earlier this season that he had pocketed “a substantial list of apprenticeships” from his tenure at the Phillies. But it was quite another thing to see him apply those lessons to the Giants, who had the best baseball record (95-52) in a weekend streak with the Braves that will force the Phillies to remove the manager they are from. have missed. city.
This is not a new phenomenon, a manager having more success in his second job than in his first. Terry Francona, one of Kapler’s mentors, went 285-363 in four seasons with the Phillies before taking the Boston Red Sox to the playoffs five times in eight years and winning two World Series.
“But I don’t think it happens naturally,” Harris said of Kapler’s managerial development. “I think one of the reasons he’s the manager he is today is because he’s committed to making adjustments and improving every day.”
Kapler went from a 57th round draft pick to a 12-year-old outfielder in the major leagues with six teams, including the 2004 Red Sox who broke the curse. Somehow, however, it took him a few years of management to remember how difficult it can be to play in the big leagues. He thinks he’s more sensitive to these challenges now.
Ahead of an April series against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, Kapler said the Giants had “a few players struggling for early season struggles and in a state of mental stress.”
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“I remember feeling that way sometimes as a player,” he said. “The players that I have coached in Philadelphia and now are more talented than me, but baseball is more difficult than ever and it will cause doubts and sometimes even mental anguish. Maximizing team performance requires a lot of nuance and balancing art and science.
Last year, with Kapler at the wheel, the Giants went 29-31 and missed the playoffs on the final day of the season. Credit for their recovery is widespread. Posey, 34, who missed the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, is having his best year since at least 2017; 34-year-old shortstop Brandon Crawford has never looked better in his 11-year major league career; Baseball operations president Farhan Zaidi and Harris handed around 40% of the 40-player roster ahead of the season, improving the depth of the organization to guard against injury and disruption from COVID-19, and got Kris back Bryant of the Cubs at the trade deadline.
Then there’s Kapler, who juggled positional squads (second base, left fielder, and center fielder), oversaw baseball’s best box, and kept the Giants in first place for 134 days until Thursday despite being hunted down by Los Angeles rival Dodgers, a reigning monolithic World Series champion.
“His judgment in the dugout is one of the reasons we’ve been so consistent throughout the six months of the season,” said Harris. “His ability and willingness to extend a reliever, or make a change, or play while he’s reading the play in the play has been very important. I think his reputation belies his ability to make adjustments in the game.
Kapler’s reputation, cemented in Philadelphia, was that of a data-driven tactician with a robotic grip on numbers. He is perhaps the fittest man on the planet, with no trace of his stomach, and he rarely seemed to cope with his guts.
Zaidi first met Kapler in 2014, when they started working with the Dodgers. Kapler was the incumbent agricultural director and Zaidi was the newly hired general manager. They hit it off. And one of the traits Zaidi admires most about Kapler, which he often mentioned to Giants CEO Larry Baer and other team leaders, is Kapler’s openness. If anyone used previous mistakes as a tool to improve themselves, Zaidi thought it would be Kapler.
Baer didn’t take Zaidi at his word. The Giants had remarkable stability in the dugout, with just four managers in 34 years from 1986 to 2019. So when the Phillies finally canned Kapler after the 2019 season and Zaidi put him on the roster of candidates to succeed longtime Giants manager Bruce Bochy, Baer asked around.
“In talking to other CEOs and owners, there were a lot of people who thought you were better at your job with the experience,” Baer said over the phone. “My experience with Gabe is that he is completely comfortable in his shoes in the canoe and frankly behaves like someone who was much more successful than two years ago in Philly.”
Baer also strongly believes that there is no more important relationship in professional sports than a baseball operations manager and a manager. He’s seen it for years with Giants general manager Brian Sabean and Bochy, who have won three World Series together in five years. There was no denying the familiarity or the chemistry between Zaidi and Kapler.
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Kapler had what Harris describes as “an ambitious plan” to put together a coaching staff. The Giants have hired 14 coaches (most teams have around 10). Most of the Giants’ coaches are in their 30s and few have played for the majors. Alyssa Nakken is the first full-time coach in major league history. While the organization was excited about the staff, there was internal concern that some players, especially veterans, would be skeptical.
“We didn’t know how this staff was going to be received by the players,” said Harris. “But Buster, the Brandons, Evan [Longoria], and [Cueto] all really approached this staff in a very welcoming way and thought, “These are talented staff who can impact my career and help us win, and I’m going to give them a chance.” This does not happen everywhere.
Indeed, the players – notably Posey, Crawford and Belt, who have seven World Series rings among them – have signed on to Kapler’s program. Posey, Crawford and Longoria are experiencing career resurgences, and the Giants have received great contributions from actors such as Steve Duggar, LaMonte Wade Jr. and Darin Ruf, a former Phillie from the pre-Kapler years.
But it works both ways, according to Harris. Kapler pledged to better understand the human element of the game after two years of believing there was no too deep a data dive or too little competitive advantage.
“Gaining an advantage on paper doesn’t help if it costs too much for humans who play too psychologically,” Kapler said at the start of the season. “I’m making more tolerance for the comfort zones now, recognizing that sometimes all that is needed is a calm, constant presence to let the confidence and talent of the players shine.”
That didn’t stop Kapler from texting Harris and others late at night in an attempt to get different perspectives. Harris said Kapler “regularly challenges his own assumptions,” but in a way that does not draw attention to himself.
That way, the Giants hope he never changes.
“Kap is a great manager right now, but I think he’s going to keep improving because that’s what he is,” said Harris. “He’s wired that way, and I think that’s one of the reasons he probably has the inside track for National League Manager of the Year.”
In a landslide.