Evident in their dispositions was everything that Phillies fans had been clamoring for. It was there in the heavy elliptical troughs under Matt Klentak’s eyes, and in the urgent strain of his voice. It was there in the subtle, drawn-in roll of Gabe Kapler’s shoulders, in the clasp of his hands around the microphone stand.
Over the previous 21 months, there had been countless moments in which we had seen them in settings such as this. A conference room, a pedestal, a line of cameras on their horizon. For both men, it had always seemed a habitat, a domain in which they exuded some outward sense of control.
But on this particular afternoon, as a warm, gray sky lingered like a shower mist outside, and a well-respected hitting coach moved on to the next chapter of his career, that calm manifestation of self-determination was nowhere to be found.
With the firing of John Mallee as hitting coach, and the return of beloved former manager Charlie Manuel to a uniformed role, a message has been sent. Klentak and Kapler have both been around the game — and the Phillies organization — long enough to know it.
This wasn’t a message to the players that none of their jobs is safe, as one questioner wondered. As is usually the case, the players’ jobs are the safest ones in the building, by virtue of the guaranteed nature of the contracts they have signed, and the value of the assets that the organization has divested to acquire them.
Instead, this was a message to their immediate superiors, to those two men sitting at the front of the room Tuesday. The firing of Mallee underscored the true nature of the chain of command in professional sports: The walls outside the clubhouse are where you will find the nameplates that are easiest to remove.
Even if the message wasn’t expressly intended as such, that is how it should be interpreted. And, judging by what we saw and heard from Klentak and Kapler, that is exactly how it was received.
The telling moments came whenever somebody tried to pin down the exact decision-making process that led the Phillies to part ways with Mallee and install beloved former manager Charlie Manuel as the team’s interim hitting coach. Throughout the 20-plus-minute news conference, there were numerous opportunities for Klentak or Kapler to take ownership of the move.
Anybody who has witnessed more than a handful of these situations should be familiar with such moments. The manager says, “This is my coaching staff, and, ultimately, I am the one who decided to make this move.” Or the manager’s boss says, “This is my team, and, ultimately, the weight of the decision falls on me alone.”
But we all know whose team this is, don’t we? Over the last three years, John Middleton has done little to resist that impression. This offseason, he practically courted it, making multiple cross-country trips during the pursuit of Bryce Harper, embracing a starring role in the narratives that recounted that chase, declaring in no uncertain terms that the time to contend had arrived.
“I’m impatient," Middleton said in the spring. "I want to do this now. I don’t want to do it incrementally over two offseasons or three offseasons. I know we’re inevitably going to have to do some things in July, but I want to push right now and do as much as we can.”
If there was any doubt about the driving force of Mallee’s departure and Manuel’s arrival, Klentak eliminated it with his response to a question about Middleton’s role in the decision.
“Any time we make a big organizational decision, we’re very collaborative about that," Klentak said. "So John definitely was aware of this, involved in this — as he has been for a lot of decisions we’ve made. Andy MacPhail [was involved], as well. But when we make big decisions, they are done with a collaborative approach and kind of a united front.”
The concrete action steps don’t really matter. This was a move made out of desperation, and, in most instances, desperation is a reaction to some external force.
Whether the force in question was an express mandate from Middleton or the perception of the intensity of his dissatisfaction, the action that it precipitated points to an owner who believes that, with 44 games remaining in the 2019 season, his team was a shadow of the one he envisioned it would be when he hired Kapler in 2017 and Klentak two years prior.
“When you have playoff aspirations and you’re not scoring runs,” Klentak said, “results matter.”
He was talking about the role of a hitting coach, but the words also encapsulate a much broader truth. There are a variety of factors that suggest the Phillies’ current predicament is chiefly a result of an organization-wide overestimation of the abilities of their on-field talent.
Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura — all are producing at levels similar to ones they’ve shown in multiple seasons that predated their arrivals. Maikel Franco, Nick Williams, Roman Quinn, Cesar Hernandez, Odubel Herrera — the bulk of their development occurred during the watches of previous regimes. Herrera and Hernandez have regressed. You can argue that Rhys Hoskins has, too, though let’s talk at the end of the season.
The same is true on the pitching side. Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin — all have turned out to be nothing less than the pitchers they have always been.
It’s true that the best coaching staffs are those that can help players progress from a previous level, and that, with the exception of Scott Kingery, no such progressions have occurred. In that sense, Kapler’s biggest failure — apart from whatever you think of his in-game management — has been to overpromise and underdeliver.
It’s also true that the best general managers are the ones who find value where there was not previously any.
Baseball is a whimsical game. One year, Charlie Morton is a journeyman pitcher staring down the end of his career. The next, he is a Cy Young candidate. One year, Carlos Santana is a disappointment. The next, he is hitting at an MVP level.
A GM can contemplate signing two different outfielders — Andrew McCutchen and Michael Brantley — and the historically healthy one can tear his ACL while the historically injured one can play in 111 of 120 games.
But as Klentak said, results matter. In Philadelphia, the only thing worse than a bad team is an underachieving one. This is a city that harbors the greatest of expectations for its professional sports teams, and Middleton has made it clear that he operates by that ethos.