CLEVELAND — On the morning of Feb. 18, an MLB.com reporter posted a Twitter poll in which fans were asked if they would rather the Phillies sign Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. It turned out to be a landslide of Reagan-vs.-Mondale proportions. Among nearly 9,600 respondents, 86 percent chose Harper.
A day later, Machado signed with the San Diego Padres. And two weeks after that, the Phillies landed Harper.
Coincidence? Not at all, actually. After Harper’s introductory news conference in Clearwater, Fla., Phillies owner John Middleton acknowledged he was aware of the fans’ preference for Harper. In a subsequent radio interview on WIP-FM, he cited the poll and said it was “actually why, at the end of the day, when push came to shove, we walked away from the Manny deal."
Swell. Kudos, too, to Middleton for considering the real-life paying customers. Let it never be said that Phillies fans lack a seat at the table when it comes to big organizational decisions. This billionaire owner hears them loudly and at least as clearly as the city’s two sports-talk radio stations come through his favorite streaming devices. We’re not sure how many hours per day he tunes in, only that he’s a longtime listener and occasional caller who once vowed to “die trying” to win back the World Series trophy.
But when it comes to the future of manager Gabe Kapler, Middleton would be wise to turn down the radio and shut out the Twitterati. This subject, at least, isn’t binary. It’s too nuanced for a poll.
This column isn’t meant to advocate for Kapler. After nearly two full seasons, there are well-reasoned arguments for him to stay on and for the Phillies to move on. We’re here less to pass judgment and more to remind that Kapler was never the people’s choice to skipper the Phillies and has not yet won over the masses, which means Middleton can’t be swayed by public opinion this time as he decides whether to retain the manager in 2020, the final season of his three-year contract.
Kapler doesn’t look or sound or behave like any previous Phillies manager. As he said after last season and reiterated with slightly more colorful language in July, “I’m not [expletive] Dallas Green. I never will be.”
Because of that, he hasn’t always connected with passionate and vocal fans, most of whom grew up watching a more traditional style of baseball than the analytical bent that is in vogue everywhere nowadays, not only among Kapler and general manager Matt Klentak.
Blaming Kapler, in particular, when the Phillies stumble has become a reflex for many folks. You call in to radio shows or email newspaper writers (ahem) to object to his lineup decisions, his use of the bullpen, or his latest Tony Robbins-sounding oration to the media.
Oh, and let’s not even get started on the half-dozen or so times this season that he didn’t bench a player for not hustling, a fair criticism considering it was a recurring problem for shortstop Jean Segura, second baseman Cesar Hernandez, and others.
Just a hunch, but if we started a Twitter poll right now, the majority would favor firing Kapler over far more excusable moves than, say, letting Aaron Nola pitch to Braves slugger Freddie Freeman in a tie game with two runners on and first base open in the fifth inning Thursday in Atlanta.
But that would be ignoring a few other relevant facts. Entering the weekend, the Phillies under Kapler were 158-155, seven wins better than their expected record of 151-162 based on run differential. They have stayed within reach of a wild-card spot this season despite a spate of season-ending injuries that has claimed the left fielder (Andrew McCutchen), the No. 2 starter (Jake Arrieta), and six relievers in the opening-day bullpen, and forced the team to juggle 55 players, a single-season franchise record.
And even as the final playoff berth in the National League has slipped away, they continue to play hard, taking two of three games this week against the division-leading Braves. If the Phillies were holding a wild-card spot, Kapler would be getting manager of the year consideration.
None of those things is enough by itself to warrant keeping Kapler. Taken together, though, they do reflect well on him, even if the public instead dwells on his negatives.
If Middleton is judging the manager based on what he’s hearing from fans, Kapler has no chance, just as good, old Charlie Manuel would have been a goner with one year left on his contract after the Phillies’ wild-card near-miss in 2006.
But if Middleton is listening to his baseball people, as David Montgomery did back then, he’s likely getting recommendations to keep Kapler.
Klentak, in particular, recently noted the Phillies’ improved baserunning and defense and credited Kapler for doing “a remarkable job” with a bullpen that has been almost completely overhauled. The Phillies entered the weekend with a 4.48 bullpen ERA, slightly better than the league average (4.53).
"I think he's doing a very good job," Klentak said. "Is he perfect every day? No. Are we all perfect every day? No. Have we had our share of challenges? Of course we have. But I think the group is playing hard down the stretch. We still have a chance. I think a lot of the subtle improvements we've seen this year have been the product of our manager and coaching staff."
Many fans don't see it that way, of course. And Middleton will surely alienate some of them if he elects to bring back Kapler. It won't be an easy sell. Given the expectations this season after ownership spent nearly a half-billion dollars on roster additions, there will be a demand for change.
And if Middleton really thinks that Joe Girardi or Joe Maddon or some other manager who might be available is better able to get the Phillies into the playoffs for the first time since 2011, then he should make it happen.