John Middleton had already grown disenchanted with his baseball team when he waited last month in the Phillies dugout. The season - which began with Middleton investing nearly a half-billion dollars into the roster - ended that afternoon with another listless loss, forbidding the Phillies from salvaging a disappointing season with a winning record.
“John,” team president Andy MacPhail said Friday at a news conference. “Had become an advocate for change.”
Middleton, the team’s desperate-to-win owner, was gearing to fire manager Gabe Kapler after two straight late-season free falls. But MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak resisted. The two, MacPhail said, requested for Middleton “to get more information.”
So Middleton shook Kapler’s hand after the final game, followed him out of the dugout, and met with the manager for 2 1/2 hours. He then traveled to meet with players, sought opinions from other front office staffers, spoke to people outside the organization, and met Kapler for dinner last week in King of Prussia.
Middleton, at the request of his top baseball officials, gathered more information.
“Those September collapses,” Middleton said of the team’s 20-36 record in September during Kapler’s two seasons. “I kept bumping up against them. I couldn’t get comfortable or confident enough that if I brought him back we wouldn’t run into other problems and therefore I made the decision I did.”
So Middleton, Klentak, and MacPhail flew this week to California and told Kapler on Wednesday afternoon that he was fired. The Phillies, for the second time in two years, will search for a manager. But the decision to fire Kapler was not a consensus. Instead, it was an overruling by the team’s owner of his two leading baseball decision makers.
“Nobody bats 1.000 in hiring decisions. I haven't. So it's early in his career, but I would also point out he's made lots and lots of really good hiring decisions, too,” Middleton said of Klentak. “I think what this should be is a learning experience, candidly. What's happened in other businesses we've run and gotten into this kind of situation, people learn from it.”
In their next manager, the Phillies will likely try to find a balance between analytics and tradition. Buck Showalter, who managed the Orioles when MacPhail and Klentak ran Baltimore’s front office, and Joe Girardi, who managed the Yankees to a World Series and carries the viewpoint the Phillies are seeking, appear to be at the top of the list.
“We're going to be looking for someone who can appreciate the organization that we have and the culture that's been developed here and embrace that and obviously put their own spin on it,” Klentak said. “Nobody's going to be exactly like the guy they're replacing.”
It was no secret, Klentak said Friday, that he was “a big fan of Kap.” He said the former manager was talented, hard working, and had good communication. But Klentak would have to admit that Kapler had his stumbles. He mismanaged the bullpen, leaned too heavily on analytics, and sometimes his messaging - like the time he benched Cesar Hernandez without telling Hernandez he was being disciplined - failed to connect with his players.
But that is not what caused Middleton to stand last month in the dugout and ponder Kapler’s future. Instead, it was the way the season’s finish mirrored the collapse of a year prior. Middleton held Kapler responsible for the team’s failure to reach the playoffs, but MacPhail said Friday that the front office had decided before the trade deadline that they would not chase the postseason “if it was unrealistic or if it came at the cost of our premier playing talent.”
So the Phillies plugged their starting rotation with Jason Vargas and Drew Smyly, traded for Corey Dickerson, and patched their bullpen with relievers who were cast-offs from other teams. It was fair to wonder if the Phillies provided Kapler with a playoff-caliber roster.
“It’s part of my job to objectively ask that question that you just asked,” MacPhail said. “If I look at acquisitions from the end of last year to this year, whether it happens in preseason or it happened in-season, and I try to evaluate us against all 30 clubs – I have to find a way to measure that, and there is no perfect way to measure, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s take wins above replacement. The Philadelphia Phillies added 17.8 wins above replacement, that was the best in baseball. Our issues weren’t the acquisitions that were new for 2018-19, a lot of our issues were carryover issues. You can say we didn’t do enough, but we were 1 out of 30.”
Two months after they decided to not chase the postseason, the Phillies unsurprisingly failed to reach the playoffs. The manager was fired for it, while MacPhail and Klentak flew home from California with Middleton. The front office was allowed to play the long game and decide during the 2019 season that it was time to look toward 2020, while Kapler faced expectations to win. And it was the manager’s change that Middleton advocated for.