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Gabe Kapler determined to win over skeptical Phillies fan base, trusts his team’s process to win

"I understand that I don't look or sound or behave like Dallas Green," Kapler said, referring to the late World Series-winning manager of the 1980 Phillies, "and I'm never going to."

"I understand that I don't look or sound or behave like Dallas Green," Gabe Kapler said, referring to the late World Series-winning manager of the 1980 Phillies, "and I'm never going to."
"I understand that I don't look or sound or behave like Dallas Green," Gabe Kapler said, referring to the late World Series-winning manager of the 1980 Phillies, "and I'm never going to."Read moreCharles Fox / Staff Photographer

It wasn't enough for Gabe Kapler to ask his players and members of the front office for feedback about his job performance or to hand out anonymous surveys to his coaches to elicit honest ideas for how he might improve.

The Phillies manager is also spending the offseason living among the fans.

Rather than returning to the warmth of his native Southern California, Kapler has made the curious decision to stay in Philadelphia. And if you happen to wander into Cafe La Maude in Northern Liberties on a weekday morning or Suraya in Fishtown in the evening, chances are you will find him there, sipping coffee, grabbing a bite to eat, or working on his iPad, always ready to talk baseball.

Consider it Kapler's attempt to relate better to a traditionalist fan base that, by and large, doesn't connect with a Phillies organization that has undergone sweeping change in the three years since data-driven general manager Matt Klentak took charge — and especially since Kapler got hired last Oct. 29.

During a wide-ranging, hourlong conversation this past week — his first public comments since his controversial end-of-season radio interview on WIP — Kapler insisted he's "empathetic to the position of our fans" and realizes "change is very uncomfortable." But there's something that he needs Phillies fans to know, too.

"I understand that I don't look or sound or behave like Dallas Green," Kapler said, referring to the late World Series-winning manager of the 1980 Phillies, "and I'm never going to."

Kapler, 43, will surely do some things differently next season. If he didn't already know that his analytics-era managerial style was imperfect, the point was amplified by a 16-33, end-of-season Phillies collapse that, for sheer shock value, surpassed even their unexpected 64-49 start and resulted in an 80-82 overall finish. Never has a 14-win improvement from the previous season seemed more uninspiring.

But Kapler also believes strongly in the Phillies' process and their vision for what a successful organization looks like in 2018. And he's determined to bring the masses on board. He's even "seriously considering" the concept of town-hall-style meetings in which fans would be encouraged to raise their most critical questions and concerns, the ones he's rarely confronted with when he's recognized around town.

"Come with the questions that you called in to the radio station with, come with the questions that you screamed into your computer with, and let's talk it through," said Kapler, reclining on a leather couch in his Citizens Bank Park office. "I'll show you and I'll share with you how those decisions were being made. I think what might happen over the course of time is people would see me as less 'out there.'

"We have to work hard — and we should have to work hard — to market and convince our fan base that the decisions we make are rooted in a tremendous amount of research and care. And there's never anything that is flippant. It's our responsibility to message that effectively. That doesn't mean we're going to win everybody over. But at least we keep working at it, we keep trying to communicate, we keep trying to share the vision, and we'll acquire a larger degree of trust."

Ultimately, though, Kapler knows there's only one way for the new-school Phillies to win over the fans.

They need to win.

Crazy as it sounds, the clock is already ticking on Kapler to prove he's the right manager for the job. He signed a three-year contract, and although he sees the game like Klentak does and is carrying out the organizational change that general partner John Middleton desires, the Phillies must stand with the best teams in the National League next October for Kapler to avoid entering 2020 as a lame duck — or worse.

"The thing that people don't realize is I love that. I love the high bar," Kapler said. "I want the highest possible bar."

Kapler has therefore heeded the advice in those anonymous surveys and face-to-face meetings. He's considering implementing and enforcing a stricter set of team rules after allowing the players mostly to police themselves this season.

In response to the Phillies' ranking last in defensive runs saved (minus-146), he intends to place "a huge area of focus in spring training" on fundamentals so that "nothing is missed." He expects the coaching staff to remain intact, with the possibility of a few additions.

But Kapler said he welcomes collaboration from fans, too. Around town, he insists he has "at least one conversation" per day about baseball.

"Usually it's like, 'Do you think you should sign [Manny] Machado?' " Kapler said, bursting out laughing. "I have yet to have a conversation about strategy or a second-guessing conversation, although I know it's on their minds. And if they did want to say it — 'You used [reliever Hector] Neris too early last night,' or whatever — I would be very open to it."

>> READ MORE: Why Bryce Harper, not Manny Machado, should be the Phillies' top free-agent choice | Matt Breen

Kapler nevertheless is aware of the criticisms of the Phillies' philosophies. He's heard that many fans believe the offensive approach — deep counts, lots of walks, lots of strikeouts — is boring, largely because not enough of those long at-bats result in hits.

Likewise, Kapler knows how he is perceived. He understands that many fans look askance at his mix-and-match lineups, his preference for players who can shuttle between multiple positions, his philosophy of a role-less bullpen, his predilection toward the alphabet soup of advanced metrics (FIP, wOBA, WRC+), and his unfailingly sunny-side-up positivity even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

"I have no interest — zero interest — in being different for the sake of being different," Kapler said. "I have no interest in pushing the envelope for the sake of pushing the envelope. I just want us to have better practices."

Much of the Phillies' philosophy under Kapler and Klentak has actually been co-opted. Kapler often cites the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs as models of successful modern organizations. He followed the NL Championship Series and was intrigued by Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell's aggressive bullpen usage.

And while traditionalists questioned Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts for not starting lefty-swinging Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy, and Joc Pederson and switch-hitting Yasmani Grandal against Boston Red Sox lefties Chris Sale and David Price in the first two games of the World Series, Kapler saw the sense in leaving 109 regular-season homers on the bench.

(Just imagine the deafening screams of Phillies fans if Kapler ever tried that.)

"The Dodgers are a good example of a team that is built with a group of platoon options and mix-and-match options, both in the bullpen and the lineup," Kapler said. "If it turns out that we have a bunch of dudes who can just run out there every day at one position and all of them are middle-of-the-lineup guys, we'll be able to make that work, too. But I think that the best teams in baseball have at least some variability in their lineup construction. I think that is the best way to win baseball games."

And that's what it always comes back to, doesn't it? If the Phillies don't win it all in 2008, or at least the first of five straight division titles in 2007, Charlie Manuel is still regarded around here as a hick, not the best manager in franchise history.

Win enough games to bring a World Series back to Philadelphia, and Kapler will be accepted. Don't, and it won't matter how much he tries to explain himself.

"I think that's right," Kapler said. "No matter what, winning trumps all. But I see our fan base as a piece of the puzzle that can actually help us win games. I think if we can get a few more people believing in the power of us working together, I think we can make a material difference in wins and losses.

"I love the challenge of winning over this fan base. I think it is the most inspiring challenge, period."