Nearly two years ago, Matt Klentak sat behind a table at Citizens Bank Park and listened to Gabe Kapler introduce himself to Philadelphia.
The general manager spent four weeks after the 2017 season trying to hire his first manager. Klentak said his phone was buzzing as soon as Pete Mackanin’s dismissal was made public. He interviewed a cast of prospective hires and conducted a rigorous process that had them meet with everyone from the clubhouse staff to the owner.
And this was his man.
“We’re going to play with the same level of intent and intensity that Chase played with,” said Kapler, resembling a college football coach selling his program as he mentioned Chase Utley, Larry Bowa, Mike Schmidt, and Charlie Manuel. “We’re going to make razor-sharp turns around the bases. When the ball enters the hitting zone, we’re going to be in powerful and athletic positions. Before the game begins, we’re going to prepare, prepare, prepare so that we thought out everything and make strong decisions.
“We’re going to hunt for value at the margins. We’re not going to leave any stone unturned to find our competitive advantages. We’re going to think traditionally and we’re going to think progressively. We’re going to mold those two things together. This is in an effort to bring that [expletive] trophy back to John Middleton. Ultimately, that is what we do. We care deeply about winning and we are ultra-competitive. Thank you.”
Team president Andy MacPhail had warned Klentak a month earlier that a general manager “only gets so many managers.” Soon, MacPhail said, the spotlight would shift from the dugout to the front office. And Klentak aimed for the fences with his first swing.
Kapler, as evident from his introduction, is different. He was never on a major-league staff before managing the Phillies. He communicates with his players daily through text messages, outlifts them in the weight room, and uses analytics to guide every decision he makes.
The Phillies finally embraced analytics when they hired the Dartmouth-educated Klentak. Now they were going all in with Kapler, who was a player when analytics started to filter into clubhouses. But so far, being different has not equaled being successful. The Phillies have a .497 winning percentage under Kapler.
They missed the playoffs in both seasons, fading twice in September, and had a nondescript year after investing a half-billion dollars in their roster.
Kapler’s fate for 2020 remains uncertain. The Phillies are expected to make a decision on his future this week. But it’s hard to imagine Klentak firing him. And that is why there is still uncertainty.
Kapler was Klentak’s choice. The GM said recently in Atlanta that Kapler “is doing a very good job.”
Is Kapler perfect? No, Klentak said. But he loves the way Kapler communicates, praises him for the team’s defensive and baserunning improvements, and credited him for the way the patchwork bullpen pitched in the second half of the season. Kapler is still his man.
The manager’s fate would not be in question if the Phillies were gearing up for a playoff game this week. But the GM cannot fire him for missing out on the playoffs when he was the one who gave him a faulty starting rotation and opted against significant upgrades at the trade deadline. (The front office had decided by then that the postseason was a long shot.)
Kapler said he and Klentak talk every day “about everything under the sun.” If the manager’s fate relied strictly on Klentak, then the general manager would have stood up for the man he sat next to two years ago and already confirmed that he would be back in 2020. Instead, there is a louder voice. And it was waiting for Kapler on Sunday.
Klentak may be unwilling to judge Kapler on his win-loss record, but Middleton should. He may not judge him on the public perception of the team or the fact that the Phillies seemed to fall out of favor with the city so quickly after signing Bryce Harper. But Middleton, the billionaire businessman, will.
Middleton stood Sunday in the Phillies dugout and shook hands with Kapler before he left the ballpark for possibly the final time as Phillies manager. If Kapler’s future was not Middleton’s decision, then the manager would already know where he stands. And now he waits.