It was not going to work. Gabe Kapler had a ton of passion, some new ideas and cared deeply about his players. But he lacked the experience and directness needed to be a big-league manager even in an age when analytics rule.
For the second straight season, Kapler directed the Phillies to a good start and an abysmal finish. In both cases, he could not prevent rocks rolling downhill from becoming boulders that flattened his team’s chances of reaching the postseason. It’s September when a contending team needs to be at its best and the Phillies went 20-36 in Kapler’s two Septembers as manager.
Finally, after a seemingly interminable review of his ballclub, Phillies managing partner John Middleton fired Kapler as the Phillies’ manager Thursday, 11 days after the team completed an 81-81 season with a loss to the Miami Marlins.
Kapler, aware of the rumblings about his future as the Phillies went through another September meltdown, tried to make a case to keep his job several times during the team’s four-day, five-loss stay in Washington, but his words kept being drowned out by the team’s performance on the field.
“I really love managing this club,” Kapler said. “I love working for the people that I work for. That includes our general manager, it includes our ownership group, it includes our entire front office. And I’m not just working for them. I’m working for our player-development staff and our amateur scouting department. I work for everybody in this organization. Love that responsibility. I take it very seriously. Every single day I give every ounce of my energy to that responsibility and will continue to do that as long as I have this privilege.”
Like so many other Kapler responses, that one, in response to a question about his job security, was over the top. Kapler put in the long hours it takes to be a big-league manager, he clearly loves the game of baseball, and he is willing to field any question. One of his biggest problems, however, was giving direct answers and directions period.
In this analytics era, a lot of the managerial decisions are made by computer printouts that hope to predict the outcome of a given situation. Still, the manager must have a handle on the multiple personalities and massive egos that inhabit major-league clubhouses. That has always been the most important part of the job.
One of Kapler’s most egregious errors as manager was the way he handled players when they failed to hustle. He insisted that he dealt with each incident on a case-by-case basis, but his lack of consistency was bound to cause confusion in the clubhouse.
Sure enough, it did when the manager benched Cesar Hernandez in late August, the day after he failed to run on a ball that hit off the wall in a game against Miami down at Marlins Park. Kapler said he made it clear to Hernandez that he was being benched in a text message. Hernandez said he thought he was just getting a day off. Kapler later said he did not want to call Hernandez’s benching a punishment. Instead, he referred to it as “a response” to Hernandez’s actions in Miami.
It was all so ridiculous and it was made worse when general manager Matt Klentak defended Kapler’s mishandling of the situation.
Kapler was also to blame for the Phillies’ decision to force out former pitching coach Rick Kranitz, who moved on to Atlanta as pitching coach of the National League East champion Braves. The Phillies’ pitching staff had shown progress with Kranitz working as the primary instructor and Chris Young working as the analytics sidekick last season. Kapler, however, felt more comfortable with Young and convinced Klentak to make him the pitching coach because other teams had shown interest in Young. It was a mistake that did not sit well with some of the pitchers in the Phillies’ clubhouse and now both Kapler and Young are gone.
To be fair, the Phillies kept hustling for Kapler this season, but they did not execute.
Kapler, of course, does not deserve all the blame for what has happened this season. In fact, Klentak and team president Andy MacPhail deserve to be standing ahead of the manager in that line. Klentak, albeit with input from Kapler and Young, failed to get the Phillies’ starting rotation help before the season and at the trade deadline. That neglect negated Klentak’s good work in getting Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto as well as in-season deals for Jay Bruce and Corey Dickerson.
MacPhail is supposed to be in charge of it all, but what he’d be most remembered for if he left Philadelphia right now was his infamous, “If we don’t, we don’t” quote about the Phillies’ pursuit of the postseason. At a time when the Phillies could have used some pitching help, the team president simply tamped down expectations.
There is plenty of blame to go around for this 2019 season, but Gabe Kapler has become the primary fall guy. It’s possible the 44-year-old Kapler will learn from his first major-league managing experience and be better at his next stop. Let’s hope that’s the case for his sake. As for the Phillies, they should push hard for a more experienced manager this time around and that does not just mean major-league experience.
Buck Showalter, who worked for MacPhail and with Klentak in Baltimore, is the hot name circulating right now and 20 years of major-league managerial experience is certainly impressive. But the Phillies should also take a look at the experience of people like bench coach Rob Thomson and third-base coach Dusty Wathan, who have put in ample time as big-league coaches and minor-league managers. Both the Braves and Cardinals have been rewarded for hiring those types of baseball lifers.