Mad About the Phillies? Don’t Blame Gabe Kapler

Kapler, Klentak Express Confidence Phillies Will Turn Things Around
PHOTO CREDIT: ERIC HARTLINE-USA TODAY SPORTS

The Phillies entered their weekend series with the first-place Atlanta Braves riding high. A successful road trip to Pittsburgh and Detroit pushed the team six games over the .500 mark. A sweep of the Braves at Citizens Bank Park would put the Phillies right back in the division race. Even a series win would help the club separate itself from the wild card pack.

Instead, the Fightins reverted to form. They folded like a cheap suit at the hands of a better team with a deeper roster and a more consistent offense. The Braves pounded Phillies pitching to the tune of 24 runs over the first two games. Neither Jake Arrieta nor Zach Eflin gave the Phils an honest chance to compete. Arrieta left Friday’s contest after five innings, saddling the Phillies with a 5-0 deficit they could never overcome. Eflin, meanwhile, was mercilessly shelled on Saturday night. The right hander lasted just 2.2 innings, conceding six earned runs in the process. The bullpen could not stanch the bleeding on either night.

Sunday’s matinee felt like a fitting denouement for this Phillies’ season. The club salvaged the series behind a mostly strong outing from staff ace Aaron Nola, who dominated the potent Braves lineup for six innings before getting roughed up for 4 runs in the seventh. No matter. The triumvirate of Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins, and J.T. Realmuto finally awakened. Each hit a home run in a critical moment of the game: Harper hit a solo homer in the first; Realmuto broke the game open with a grand slam in the fifth; and Hoskins added some much-needed insurance with a two-run blast in the seventh:

In short, the Phillies did just enough to remain relevant in the playoff chase, managing a respectable end to a pivotal series that otherwise painfully demonstrated the gulf between the franchise and the elite teams in baseball. This club as currently constructed cannot match up with the Dodgers or the Braves. The Phillies don’t have the starting pitching. They don’t have the relief corps. Their bats go silent for too long and too often.

The June slide was not an aberration but a tipping point. The bullpen injuries to veteran linchpins Tommy Hunter and David Robertson, combined with the longterm absence of young flamethrower Seranthony Dominguez, have taken their toll. Gabe Kapler has been forced to rely on a rotating cast of Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs to navigate high-leverage innings. Once and future closer Héctor Neris resumed the end-of-game role by default and, though he’s been mostly dependable, Kapler may have preferred a more flexible role for Neris if he had any choice. Injuries and inconsistency have limited the manager’s options.

Nick Pivetta, the prince who was promised by the sabermetrics cognoscenti at the start of the season, has been exiled to the pen. He’s been dominant in his brief stint as a reliever; maybe the Phils will get lucky and Pivetta will find a home as a set-up man or closer in the same way Ryan Madson did a decade ago. The sample size is way too small to even entertain the comparison at this juncture. Pivetta has yet to demonstrate any semblance of consistency at the major league level, and the alarming decline of Eflin may force Pivetta back into the rotation.

If you squint really hard, you can delude yourself into thinking Drew Smyly is Cliff Lee. Meanwhile, Arrieta’s elbow issues seem to have doomed him to inconsistency, at least until he can address the bone spur that is causing him discomfort. Although he’s not dealing with a bone spur, Vince Velasquez’s performances on the mound can be just as unpredictable.

As for the everyday players, the season-ending injury to Andrew McCutchen has seemingly destabilized the lineup. Odubel Herrera is gone for the rest of the season as well, a victim of nothing but his own inexcusable behavior. In large part due to Nick Williams’ ineffectiveness and Roman Quinn’s stubborn refusal to hit the baseball or stay healthy, Scott Kingery has been conscripted to play centerfield. With outfielder Jay Bruce on the mend, promising prospect Adam Haseley has gotten some at-bats at the major league level. Time will tell if he can replicate the success he had in the minors. Realmuto has constituted a major defensive upgrade over last year’s horrendous tandem of Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp, though he’s scuffled of late at the plate. Bryce Harper has been fine, but he’s playing on a contract and a set of expectations that demands more output. Hoskins, meanwhile, has yet to fully take advantage of the protection Harper’s presence in the lineup offers him.

We were promised a return to relevance. Instead, we’ve borne witness to another regression to the mean. In light of the unmet expectations set by a busy offseason that culminated in the mega deal that brought in Bryce Harper, it might be fashionable to pin the blame on the manager. Not surprisingly, Kapler has endured considerable criticism from a fanbase that has stomached enough losing.

He refused to bench Jean Segura for failing to hustle out of the box in San Diego, which led to an extended argument with Angelo Cataldi in which Kapler resorted to some crafty existentialism to try to exculpate Segura. It was an admirable defense of a core player, and it was largely unconvincing. But honestly, what else was Kapler supposed to do in that situation? Good managers, or at least those who wish to retain the respect of their clubhouse, don’t hand a morning radio host a juicy soundbite criticizing a player that dominates the headlines for days afterward.

There has always been a contingent of fans blinded by the nostalgia of the “good old days,” when managers like Dallas Green and Larry Bowa wore their emotions on their sleeves. They like the expressions of rage not necessarily because they’re productive, but because they match their own feelings.

Kapler has made it clear that the old way is not his way. NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Corey Seidman captured a telling quote from Kapler after an embarrassing performance against the Dodgers.

Per Seidman: 

“I think many people are looking for me to behave in a certain way,” Kapler said. “Who are the managers who stand out through history who are respected in these situations? It’s Lou Piniella, it’s Dallas Green. Right? These are the guys who you expect to see handle these situations.

“It’s not my personality. It’s not who I am. I don’t think it’s the best way to motivate people. So I don’t do it. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t have every possible conversation and it doesn’t mean that I don’t care deeply and passionately about making our players. It doesn’t mean that I won’t look under every stone to give them every opportunity and support to be the best versions of themselves. I’ll continue to do that.

“I just don’t do it in the way that many people think it should be done. I’m not going to apologize for that. I’m not going to say like, ‘Man, I should be Dallas Green.’ I’m not f—ing Dallas Green. I never will be.”

If this non-aggressive posture from Kapler disappoints you, take it up with the front office and, more specifically, general manager Matt Klentak. When Klentak dismissed Mackanin as manager after the 2017 season, he conducted a thorough search that ended with Kapler’s hiring. During the press conference introducing Kapler as manager of the Phillies, Klentak outlined a detailed process for the vetting of the final candidates:

“The final round interviews were full-day interviews that involved thirty different members of the Phillies, ranging from ownership to Andy (MacPhail), to Dave Buck, members of our scouting department, player development, R&D group, […] medical group, our clubhouse staff, our PR staff.

I think that was really important. It’s important for a few reasons, but in my opinion the major league manager has the ability to connect an entire organization.”

Kapler did not hide his leadership philosophy. It was right there for anyone to see on his blog, Kaplifestyle, or at least for those members of the media who weren’t too busy fretting over Kapler’s enthusiasm for coconut oil and the impact it might have on THE CHILDREN. In one post entitled “Problem Solving,” Kapler expresses his frustration with problem identifiers, which sheds considerable light on his contentious relationship with Cataldi. Kapler shares an anecdote about his son, who would cook eggs late at night and leave his dirty pan in the sink.

Kapler writes:

“He and I select the same pan, so when I go to cook, I am perpetually washing first. Suppose I approach him with, ‘Chase, you’re always leaving a dirty pan in the sink. It’s annoying,’ then walk away. Feels like an attack. I’ve identified a problem, but I’ve explained nothing, taught nothing. Instead, I say the same thing, but follow with a course of action.

‘Chase, after I cook eggs, I put a little water back in the pan, heat it to a boil quickly, then wipe it down and put it back on the stove so it’s clean for the next time. Let’s get in the habit of doing that for each other.'”

Additional posts on the drawbacks of setting rules for adults and the importance of a collaborative approach to leadership paint a picture of a manager who values constructive dialogue over dictatorial monologue, and who aims to model the expectations he sets for his employees rather than simply dictating them.

Kapler may strike you as a walking Ted Talk, or a New Age philosopher piloting a team of underachievers who require a firmer hand, but the Phillies consciously chose him to guide their franchise from the end stages of rebuild and into a new era of contention. Perhaps the Kapler way is the only path forward in today’s MLB. Would the tactics of Bowa or Green work in a clubhouse in which the best player on the team significantly outearns the putative boss and has more than a decade of job security? Fans need to disabuse themselves of the fantasy that the rules governing the hierarchy of a professional baseball organization are the same that stand in their office or that existed on their high school squad.

Moreover, Kapler has shown the performative competitive fire that the narrative junkies believe is a panacea for a slumping team. During the Phillies’ June swoon that bled into July, Kapler was ejected three times in a month. The Phils remained mired in mediocrity.

While his most stubborn detractors may not admit it, Kapler has made strides in his professional development this season. At the end of last season, I was particularly critical of his overly optimistic assessment of a team that struggled mightily down the stretch. Kapler has tempered his Tokyo Rose shtick a bit this season without fundamentally changing his persona. He’s also been much more restrained in his management of the bullpen, though the fact he’s playing chess with a board full of pawns might explain Kapler’s refined approach. You can make a compelling case that, given the personnel issues with which he’s dealt, Kapler has done a decent job keeping this teetering ship afloat.

Ultimately, the Phillies just aren’t good enough to contend for a World Series. The much-heralded prospect pipeline has underwhelmed in the eight years that marked the end of the last window of contention.

President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail has been with the team for four full years, and Klentak is in his fourth year with the team. Reports emerged last month that both have received contract extensions. Given the flurry of offseason moves that altered the makeup of the team and inspired serious fan enthusiasm for the first time since the 2011 campaign, it’s perfectly reasonable to argue they earned their extensions.

However, the splashy acquisitions of Segura, McCutchen, Harper, and Realmuto papered over a concerning lack of depth on the roster. Indeed, the reason the Phillies needed to get aggressive in the trade and free agent market in the past offseason was due to their inability to cultivate their own talent consistently. The condition of the starting rotation is a perfect symbol of an organizational failure to develop young players.

It’s a debilitating limitation that differentiates the Phillies from their weekend opponents. Atlanta’s roster is stocked with young players like Ronald Acuña, Ozzie Albies, and Austin Riley, to name a few. Homegrown cornerstone Freddie Freeman anchors the lineup. The Braves even continue to get solid output from Julio Teheran, who came up in the Braves organization and has been a part of their pitching staff for nearly the entire decade. Though their management team is reluctant to spend money in free agency, the Braves have assured themselves a long period of relevance because they have cultivated their young players. The Phillies have been less successful in this department, to put it charitably.

So, the next time you feel the urge to scream at Kapler for his perceived incompetence, take a look at the personnel he has been asked to manage. What can he do differently? Would a replacement like Joe Girardi win more games when he doesn’t have the luxury of tapping Andrew Miller or Mariano Rivera to pitch in high leverage situations like he did in New York? Girardi can yell at Adam Morgan and Hector Neris all he wants. It won’t turn either into Miller or Rivera. Might a timely clubhouse tirade make Maikel Franco a more patient hitter? Doubtful.

Gabe Kapler has been exactly the manager he advertised himself to be when the Phillies hired him two years ago. If you want to hold Kapler solely accountable for the disappointment of 2019, go right ahead. But you would be no wiser than a tenant targeting his super for the shoddy condition of an apartment building whose foundation was constructed on sand.

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