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How Gabe Kapler has adjusted his way into NL manager of the year front-runner with Giants

The former Phillies manager has committed to better understanding the human element of the game after two years in Philly of believing there was no data dive too deep.

In his second season in San Francisco, former Phillies manager Gabe Kapler has the Giants on a 105-win pace and atop the NL West.
In his second season in San Francisco, former Phillies manager Gabe Kapler has the Giants on a 105-win pace and atop the NL West.Read moreJohn Bazemore / AP

Never mind the San Francisco Giants’ 105-win pace, or their boozy celebration in the clubhouse a few nights ago after they became the first team to clinch a playoff spot, or even the National League manager of the year award that surely will arrive at Oracle Park this winter.

The first sign that Gabe Kapler is a better manager now than when he got fired by the Phillies after the 2019 season came way back on April 9.

It was the Giants’ home opener, the first game Kapler managed in front of fans since John Middleton descended from the owner’s box to shake his hand in the dugout after the 2019 Phillies finale at Citizens Bank Park. Giants starter Johnny Cueto blanked the Colorado Rockies for eight innings but gave up a leadoff triple and a sacrifice fly in the ninth to trim the lead to two runs. Kapler, who had his closer ready in the bullpen, marched to the mound with Cueto at 110 pitches.

But instead of reflexively taking the ball, Kapler asked the opinions of catcher Buster Posey and first baseman Brandon Belt. They agreed Cueto’s stuff appeared sharp enough to merit a chance to complete a game for the first time since 2016. Kapler stuck with Cueto, and the crowd roared its approval. Two batters later, after Trevor Story’s two-out single, the Giants made a pitching change and closed out a 3-1 victory.

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“The subtext of that story is Gabe’s capacity to make adjustments,” Giants general manager Scott Harris said by phone this week. “One thing that has struck me in my time working with Gabe is he strikes the right balance between intense pregame preparation and willingness to adjust to what the game is telling him.”

Think about that. Let it wash over you. Now think back to 2018 and Kapler’s first game with the Phillies. He pulled Aaron Nola with one out in the sixth inning after 68 pitches on opening day in Atlanta because the data suggested that a starter shouldn’t face the heart of the Braves order for a third time, even though everyone could see that Nola was cruising. Phillies fans, and even some players, never forgot.

And because the Phillies went 161-163 in 2018 and 2019, including 20-36 in September of those years, Kapler couldn’t change the perception that he lacked an elemental feel for the game.

It was one thing, then, for Kapler, 46, to claim after getting hired by the Giants 22 months ago and reiterate earlier this season that he pocketed “a substantial list of learns” from his Phillies tenure. But it has been quite another to watch him actually apply those lessons to the Giants, who took the best record in baseball (95-52) into a weekend series with the Braves that will force the Phillies to pull for the manager they ran out of town.

This is hardly a new phenomenon, a manager having more success in his second job than his first. Terry Francona, one of Kapler’s mentors, went 285-363 in four seasons with the Phillies before taking the Boston Red Sox to the playoffs five times in eight years and winning two World Series.

“But I don’t think it just happens naturally,” Harris said of Kapler’s managerial evolution. “I think one of the reasons why he is the manager that he is today is because he commits to making adjustments and improving every single day.”

Kapler rose from being a 57th-round draft pick to a 12-year major-league outfielder with six teams, including the curse-busting 2004 Red Sox. Somehow, though, it took a few years of managing for him to remember how difficult it can be to play in the big leagues. He believes that he’s more sensitive to those challenges now.

Before a series in April against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, Kapler said the Giants had “a few players who are wrestling over early-season struggles and in a state of being stressed mentally.”

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“I remember feeling like that at times as a player,” he said. “The players I managed in Philadelphia and now are more talented than I was, but baseball is harder than ever and it will cause self-doubt and sometimes even mental anguish. Maximizing team performance requires a lot of nuance and finding the balance between art and science.”

Last year, with Kapler at the wheel, the Giants went 29-31 and missed the playoffs on the final day of the season. Credit for their turnaround is widespread. The 34-year-old Posey, who sat out the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, is having his best year since at least 2017; 34-year-old shortstop Brandon Crawford has never been better in his 11-year major-league career; president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi and Harris turned over about 40% of the 40-man roster before the season, improving the organization’s depth to guard against injuries and COVID-19 disruption, and picked up Kris Bryant from the Cubs at the trade deadline.

Then there’s Kapler, who has juggled positional platoons (second base, left field, and center field), overseen the best bullpen in baseball, and kept the Giants in first place for 134 days through Thursday despite being stalked by the archrival Los Angeles Dodgers, a monolithic, defending World Series champion.

“His judgment in the dugout is one of the reasons why we have been so consistent all six months of the season,” Harris said. “His ability and willingness to extend a reliever, or make a change, or put a play on as he reads the game in the game has been really important. I think his reputation belies his ability to actually make adjustments in-game.”

Kapler’s reputation, cemented in Philadelphia, was that of a data-driven tactician with a robotic adherence to numbers. He may be the most physically fit man on the planet, with no trace of a belly, and he seemed to rarely manage by his gut.

Zaidi met Kapler in 2014, when they began working together with the Dodgers. Kapler was the incumbent farm director and Zaidi was the newly hired general manager. They hit it off. And one of the traits Zaidi admires most in Kapler, which he often mentioned to Giants CEO Larry Baer and other team officials, is Kapler’s open-mindedness. If anyone would use previous mistakes as tools for self-improvement, Zaidi believed it would be Kapler.

Baer didn’t take Zaidi’s word for it. The Giants have had remarkable stability in the dugout, with only four managers in 34 years from 1986 to 2019. So when the Phillies finally canned Kapler after the 2019 season and Zaidi put him on the list of candidates to succeed longtime Giants manager Bruce Bochy, Baer asked around.

“In talking to other CEOs and owners, there were a lot that had the prevailing view that you’re better in your job with experience,” Baer said by phone. “My experience with Gabe is he’s completely comfortable in his shoes in the dugout and carries himself frankly as somebody who’s managed a lot more than just previously two years in Philly.”

Baer also believes strongly that there’s no more important relationship in pro sports than a head of baseball operations and a manager. He saw it for years with Giants general manager Brian Sabean and Bochy, who won three World Series together in a five-year span. There was no denying the familiarity or the chemistry between Zaidi and Kapler.

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Kapler had what Harris describes as “an ambitious plan” for assembling a coaching staff. The Giants hired 14 coaches (most teams have about 10). Most of the Giants coaches are in their 30s and few played in the majors. Alyssa Nakken is the first full-time female coach in major-league history. Although the organization was excited about the staff, there was internal concern that some players, especially veterans, would be skeptical.

“We didn’t know how that staff was going to be received by the players,” Harris said. “But Buster, the Brandons, Evan [Longoria], and [Cueto] all really approached that staff in a very welcoming way and thought, ‘This is a talented staff that can help impact my career and help us win, and I’m going to give them a shot.’ That doesn’t happen everywhere.”

Indeed, the players -- notably Posey, Crawford, and Belt, who have seven World Series rings among them -- bought in to Kapler’s program. Posey, Crawford, and Longoria are having career resurgences, and the Giants have gotten big contributions from role players such as Steve Duggar, LaMonte Wade Jr., and Darin Ruf, a former Phillie from the pre-Kapler years.

But it works both ways, according to Harris. Kapler has committed to better understanding the human element of the game after two years of believing there was no data dive too deep or competitive edge too small.

“Gaining an on-paper advantage doesn’t help if it costs the humans that are playing too much psychologically,” Kapler said early in the season. “I make more allowances for comfort zones now, recognizing that sometimes all that is needed is a calm and steady presence to let players’ confidence and talent come through.”

It hasn’t stopped Kapler from sending late-night text messages to Harris and others in an attempt to gain different perspectives. Harris said Kapler “challenges his own assumptions regularly,” but in a way that doesn’t draw attention to himself.

In that way, the Giants hope he never changes.

“Kap’s an excellent manager right now, but I think he’s going to continue to improve because that’s who he is,” Harris said. “He’s wired that way, and I think that’s one of the reasons why he probably has the inside track to National League manager of the year.”

In a landslide.