When the Phillies swept the Cubs last week, it felt like for the first time in a long time that they might be poised to go on a run.
Baseball is weird like that.
The flaws and inconvenient truths embedded in the numbers built by over more than a 100-game sample be damned, it sure seemed the Phillies were about to parlay the invigorating momentum sparked by a short stretch of improved play and set ablaze by Thursday night’s ninth inning heroics by Bryce Harper into a perhaps season-altering lights-out homestand.
That outcome felt only more likely after the Phillies roughed up a reeling Padres team on Friday night that came into the weekend only 11-20 since the All-Star break.
And then, well, the Phillies’ lineup went 10 for 64, producing a .156 batting average and .487 OPS, while scoring a total of only five runs in a pair of disappointing losses. Just like that, the momentum was gone.
And then Phillies manager Gabe Kapler went to the podium in the media room at Citizens Bank Park after Sunday’s 3-2 loss and defended his team by expressing his pride in their effort and (mostly) everybody lost their minds.
“Obviously, it’s frustrating to lose today’s baseball game,” Kapler said. “Really proud of the grind in the at-bats, saw 110 pitches off their starter, saw 27 pitches with three outs in the ninth inning.”
Proud. The grind in the at-bats.
Fans got mad on social media. Radio hosts and callers debated his comments and the ramifications of their impact on clubhouse culture. I read and listened for a while in both the morning and early afternoon, and then I reached out to Kapler himself as a follow up to a Q & A we did prior to the game Saturday night. His response:
“I’ve been in a lot of clubhouses and around a lot of players. I’ve never met one that wanted to go up and strike out. I’ve never met one that enjoyed failing in a big moment in front of 40,000 people. Did we succeed the last two nights? Absolutely not. However, I think it’s reasonable to recognize and acknowledge the effort, the refusal to give up and the constant grind to get better. It’s something I see every day from our group.”
Kapler’s stance here isn’t exactly a revelation. He doesn’t believe in publicly admonishing his team because his philosophy is that the work supersedes the result (my assertion, not his) and that the best way to manage in workplace settings, including a baseball clubhouse, is with a supportive nature.
As a result, some fans and media types have criticized Kapler for creating what they perceive to be a lack accountability and acceptance of failure. Naturally, he doesn’t see it that way.
“The “acceptance of failure” notion is interesting. I’m not certain I understand that. I think about all of the stories I’ve heard or been a part of when a player’s career comes to an end. It’s a real challenge for most of us, because competing in this game, working day and night to be better than the person in the dugout across the field, is who we are. It’s what we grew up knowing. The concept of that entire identity disappearing because a coach or manager didn’t raise their voice publicly or identifies that there was something that can be built on for tomorrow doesn’t resonate with me.”
Though I don’t agree with every tactical decision he makes, I do agree with him on this.
Generationally, I think we’ve arrived at the point where workers perform better through open and honest dialogue in which they feel supported [Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last book comes to mind]. As someone who has experience coaching at the high school varsity level, I find that communication tends to breed trust and self-worth, yielding better work. That’s just me. In the workplace, maybe there are people out there in the world that need to be screamed at, outwardly admonished, and in some cases publicly criticized in order to achieve maximum output, but I think we’re trending away from that as a society. Athletics isn’t much different in this regard.
Anyway, I wanted to learn more about Kapler’s coaching philosophy, his management style, how he feels he’s grown in his role since taking the job just a little less than two years ago, and how he handles criticism. Here is our full exchange. Hopefully, it brings you a little insight into the inner workings of the Phils manager.
Crossing Broad: From what you’ve experienced over the past two seasons, what do you believe to be the most important part of your job? In other words, what are the things that you feel you have to do in the dugout beyond tactical and game strategy decisions in order for both you and the team to be successful?
Kapler: “I would say that the most important part of my job doesn’t ever take place in the dugout. As you’ve probably identified, strategy and tactical decisions are a very small part of what I do. But beyond that, the in-game management is also fairly small, both in terms of importance and simply in terms of time. For a 7 pm game, I usually arrive at the ballpark between 10:30-11. I leave between midnight and 1 am. So the three or so hours of game time become a very small part of the day.
To circle back around and directly answer the question, then, the most important part of my job is being a listener. I need as much information as I can possibly get from everyone – players, staff, medical, advance scouting – all of it factors in. It helps me make my decisions (lineup, bullpen management, pinch hitting decisions), and it helps me know what people need. Perhaps our translator tips me off that one of our Spanish speakers is having a rough morning. I can give that player a little bit of extra attention. Maybe I hear through the grapevine that a player is doing a little less in the weight room than he normally does, and I can ask him how he’s feeling and whether he needs a blow. Listening to every voice in and around the clubhouse is, without question, the most important thing I can do.”
Crossing Broad: How have you adapted and evolved since you’ve taken this job? Has there been something that has forced you to reconsider a previous philosophy or thought-structure of yours?
Kapler: “I think the biggest evolution is simply to listen more. We may know something is true. It may be true on paper. It doesn’t always translate into what is actionable in game. It is not easy to take in information and make a change. It’s not flipping a switch. Our coaching staff may be able to identify a hole or a weakness, but before we can go about correcting it, we need to understand the entire history and psychology of a player. We have to take into account comfort, confidence and trust. Truth becomes much more nuanced. This is something I knew, but we also get daily reminders of it.”
Crossing Broad: Does the criticism you get have an impact on you? I’m wondering how intently you follow those who criticize your job performance, whether or not those criticisms have an impact on you from a human standpoint or on how you do your job? Is there something that those who criticize you fail to realize or maybe don’t perceive properly?
Kapler: “I read it all. I take in everything, from as many people as I possibly can. The reason I do is pretty simple – a good idea or a different perspective can come from anywhere. One thing I think I’ve been pretty consistently strong in is that I don’t believe in “stay in your lane” or “dirt in your spikes” mentalities. I want to hear from everyone – the new scouting intern, the minor league coach, the R&D analyst, the groundskeeper, the fan on the streets. 99% of the time, it may not be helpful (#FireKapler can only go so far), but I’m not willing to miss out on the 1% of the time that I look at something differently because of it.
Of course, I don’t and won’t ever manage because of popular opinion. But, maybe it causes me to do one more dive through, maybe it causes me to question one assumption. I’m inquisitive by nature and always want to be challenged. I think testing our ideas against other competing interpretations is always the way to get to the best outcome.
In terms of whether people perceive things properly or whether there are certain criticisms that are unfair, I think it’s always important for anyone to realize that we don’t know what we don’t know. I often see very confident statements being made that just aren’t reflective of what’s happening in the clubhouse, and that happens because people don’t realize there is information they don’t have.
Finally, the criticism I respect the most is when people make an affirmative statement. “You shouldn’t have put in this reliever” is much more effective when coupled with “You should have put in this other reliever instead.” It’s even more effective when it happens contemporaneously instead of after the fact. That is the way I think we (everyone) grows and learns, by taking in a position ahead of time rather than having hindsight be 20/20.”
Crossing Broad: One criticism that specifically comes up a lot is about accountability. This is something you’ve spoken about before. You stress communication and the need to have conversations with the players in your clubhouse. In general terms, do you feel there is a time and place to have harsh or more direct conversations – or even what some people would call tearing into a player? Or do you fundamentally believe those types of conversations aren’t constructive? Beyond that, how do you determine how to approach what may be an uncomfortable conversation with a player in which the goal is corrective action?
Kapler: “I think there’s a difference between a direct conversation and “tearing into a player.” I can yell and flip a spread table, call a player into my office and scream “this was horseshit.” Most of our players have been playing baseball for 20+ years. They know when they’ve made a mental error. They know when they’ve screwed up. I haven’t found that calling it out publicly and in the media works. Punishment through humiliation is something most of us accept isn’t effective in their workplace, so why would it be effective in this specific workplace?
I know that doing it would be an emotional release for the fans. I know that they may live vicariously through it (“Hey, look! The manager is expressing how I feel in this moment! I feel better now.”).
What that doesn’t take into account is effectiveness. My job is to get the best out of the player the next day and the day after. That is going to be individual for every player, and part of my job is knowing how to talk to each person to get to that outcome. Perhaps that’s looking at the video. Perhaps it’s asking questions. Perhaps it’s having a stern conversation. Perhaps it’s getting loud. Perhaps it’s not playing the next day. Perhaps it’s putting them in the lineup again even when I hadn’t planned to. Each person will need a different approach, and the only goal should be helping the Phillies to win that night’s game and the next game.”
Crossing Broad: I know you take information from multiple sources and like to listen to multiple perspectives, but is there one player or coach from your past experiences that you can pinpoint and say had the most influence on your philosophies and how you do the job?
Kapler: “I stay in touch with as many people as possible. Front office, coaches, managers, agents, scouts, administrative staff, media, fans – I learn from them all. I think if I had one moment in particular, it was my first year as the Dodgers’ Farm Director. I had an infinite number of ideas, and I was supervising something like 250 players and 100 staff members who all needed my attention every moment of every day.
One particular staff member wanted me to come sit on his couch and chat before a game. That’s all he needed. He didn’t need the latest information we had dug up, he didn’t need my advice, he didn’t need my instruction. He just needed me to be present. I learned that most of the time, no one needs me to fix their problems. They just want me to be there in the moment, seeing who they are, and appreciating them for that. I try to keep that in mind during every conversation, no matter how busy the day is otherwise.”