Nobody said the revolution would be bloodless.
Gabe Kapler, the instrument of the Phillies’ analytics-driven system of player use and management, was ripped both during and after the team’s 15-inning loss to the White Sox on Friday. He’d done some unusual things, but, as it turned out, he’d done them with good reason. What lacked, both in the moment and afterward, was any benefit of the doubt; odd, for a manager with a team that entered Wednesday’s game in Arizona qualified for the postseason.
Jimmy Rollins knows why. He watched Philadelphia treat folksy Charlie Manuel, the winningest manager in franchise history, the same way. Kapler and Manuel make Rodney Dangerfield seem revered.
“Charlie led a culture change in the clubhouse. Charlie got [screwed] because of he was a ‘country bumpkin,’ or whatever,” said Rollins, standing in Phillies dugout Sunday.
Rollins pointed up to the box where general manager Matt Klentak and president Andy MacPhail sit. Rollins almost always smiles, and this was an alumni weekend, so he was especially happy. But he wasn’t smiling now.
“Now, there’s a culture change up there, and it’s reflected down here,” Rollins said. “Gabe’s just a by-product of it. But Gabe’s getting [screwed] because of it. "
This was two days after Kapler pinch-ran for pitcher Zach Eflin with much faster pitcher Vince Velasquez, who then played left field for two innings while centerfielder Roman Quinn pitched. And the experts lost their minds.
The in-game color TV analyst said, forebodingly and with great outrage, that Eflin had better be hurt (well, duh). Upon learning that Kapler did remove Eflin due to triceps soreness, the postgame TV analyst said Eflin had better wind up on the injured list (he has not). A longtime local columnist then tweeted that he didn’t believe the story that Kapler had a conversation while Eflin stood in the on-deck circle, preparing to sacrifice a runner to second, in which Eflin, the last available pitcher, admitted to soreness after having pitched two innings.
Those reactions were echoed immediately, and have been echoing for some time since. Forget that Velasquez made three sparkling plays in left field, and that Quinn gave up just one run in two innings — an above-average bullpen performance for this questionable crew. Piling on Kapler has become the bear-baiting of Phillies observers.
Rollins wasn’t endorsing Kapler as a manager. Neither am I. Rollins has little use for analytics. I’m a little more adaptive but not much.
It’s just impossible to imagine this degree of disrespect for, say, Dallas Green, Jim Fregosi, or Larry Bowa. It’s easy to imagine this degree of disrespect for Manuel, because that’s what happened.
“Oh, they used to second-guess me on double-switches all the time,” Manuel said. “Usually it was Tomas Perez and Pat Burrell. Burrell had a chance to come back around and hit twice. Now, who should I want to hit twice? Pat Burrell or Tomas Perez? I did what I wanted to do. I’ll live on that.”
Manuel, in his third season, led an upstart Phillies team to the 2007 National League East title, beginning a run of five consecutive division titles that included a World Series championship in 2008 and a return to the Series in 2009. It was easily the greatest era in franchise history. With 780 wins in a little less than nine seasons, and with the highest winning percentage (.551) of any manager who worked at least 600 games, things eventually changed, right?
“A little, beginning when we won in 2007,” Manuel said.
Did it ever totally change? What about the Series appearances?
“Not totally,” Manuel said. “No.”
Why? Because Philly likes what it likes: fiery, tough-guy traditionalists.
“The city had to get out of the mode of the 1980s, with Dallas Green, or the 1990s, with [irascible first baseman] John Kruk,” said Rollins. "[Fans] were products of those guys. It wasn’t about the players enjoying each other, and having fun. Charlie changed it to, ‘Let’s create an atmosphere that players would enjoy.’ ”
In that manner, Kapler manages like Manuel, but, certainly, Kapler’s method of communication can be grating. As a first-year manager in 2018, his incessant pro-player messaging and his participation-medal Kap-speak sometimes came off as condescending, and it drove the fans and the press bananas. After the season, MacPhail encouraged Kapler to be less protective and more blunt. He has been.
Kapler cussed six times in his postgame news conference Friday night, and cussing always goes over big in Philly. He consistently has been more critical in the moment; he ripped his hitters and pitchers after they lost two of three to the Sox over the weekend, and he admitted Tuesday night that reliever Ranger Suarez wasn’t good.
Granted, Kapler took a unique path to the dugout. After he retired in 2011, he worked in tech, in TV, and in the Dodgers’ front office, but he’s been around accomplished, winning managers. He won a title with Terry Francona’s Red Sox in 2004 and later played under current managerial sage Joe Maddon. In the past two seasons, Kapler’s teams have been under .500 for a total of 17 days, including zero days in 2019. But Kapler uses big words and leans on numbers, and, in Philly, he suffers for it.
"It’s just a by-product of the change. He came in as the new age of baseball, ” Rollins explained. “That’s not changing the clubhouse culture. That’s changing everything.”
It doesn’t help that this 2019 team isn’t nearly as good as Manuel’s clubs.
“We probably had a better team, even early,” said Rollins. “He has a higher-profile team.”
“With Charlie, we had to learn how to win,” Rollins said. “Gabe’s expected to win. That’s how they’re different.”
How they’re perceived, however, is virtually the same, and that rankles Manuel.
“You never know what the decision is down here in the dugout. He has a decision to make … usually, like the decision the other night, you’ve got to make them quick,” Manuel said, and the experts have the luxury of reflection. “They react before they really know why you did it.”
To be clear: Like Rollins, and like me, Manuel isn’t defending Kapler’s management style.
“Gabe Kapler — he can manage his team the way he wants to. Just because my philosophy is different than his, it doesn’t mean he’s wrong,” said Manuel.
Even if Kapler isn’t wrong, Manuel said, the critics won’t apologize.