Gabe Kapler deserved a better chance with Phillies

Joe Giglio
May 22, 2020 - 6:05 am

Gabe Kapler never had a chance.

I ignored that reality even though it was obvious from the moment the Phillies hired him prior to the 2018 season.

The California guy in better shape than half his players? An ex-player who talked like a front office executive? A new-school manager in an old-school sports town? A leader who didn’t see the value of criticizing players publicly in a town that demands accountability? 

Kapler’s tenure in Philadelphia was always likely to end poorly, but reality and fairness aren’t one in the same. There’s no logical way to look at the Phillies roster, front office moves and talent around the National League and deem what Kapler got out of his team (161-163) in two years grounds for dismissal. 

As we debate Kapler’s two-year run on WIP, it’s quite clear that the ex-Phillies manager wasn’t given a fair shake here.

Let’s start with 2018, Kapler’s first season. The “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” line fits here. Whenever a Kapler debate breaks out, it won’t take long for a detractor to bring up the removal of Aaron Nola on Opening Day after just 68 pitches. Never mind that Nola (like most young starters) likely wasn’t built up enough after spring training to more than, say, 75 pitches in Game 1 or that the Phillies had extra arms in the bullpen that opening series to be aggressive with relievers. It didn’t work. Opening Day was ruined. Kapler never lived it down. 

One week later (after an embarrassing moment where no reliever was warmed up in Atlanta, and an aggressive shift went wrong in New York), Kapler was booed making a routine (and ultimately successful) pitching change during the home opener vs. Miami. I was there. It was among the most stunning boos I’ve ever witnessed. 

In the eyes of many, the opening week, season-ending collapse and post game press conferences is all that happened in 2018. Yet in between, one of the best managerial jobs in the sport occurred. The Phillies, coming off a 66-win season in 2017 and losing records in every year since 2013, were 63-48 in early August despite a below-average roster.

Seriously, other than Aaron Nola, the 2018 Phillies were full of mostly nothing. Poor defenders. Average-to-below average offensive players. A young starting staff that was destined to run out of gas. Philadelphia’s preseason over/under win total was around 75, and a minus-51 run differential points to a team that should have won closer to 76 games than the 80 it did. The season should have been looked at as a success and step forward, but became an indictment on a collapse and prism into why the manager was to blame. 

One year later, expectations rose higher than reality should have placed them. The Phillies added talent, but remained a top-heavy team with little depth from the farm system and a pitching staff barely fit for a .500 season, let alone a playoff trip. By the end of May, it was quite clear the roster wasn’t good enough no matter who wrote out the lineup card

Both Kapler seasons in the Phillies dugout were marked with disappointing endings, and both lie on the feet of poor roster construction, a farm system that still hasn’t been fixed by the Andy MacPhail/Matt Klentak regime, alarming inactivity (“if we don’t, we don’t”) at the 2019 trade deadline, and roster not close to on par with the best teams in the sport. If anything, Kapler overachieved. With the bullpen and injuries in 2019, the August-September roster felt like a 75-win team.

The Phillies needed an agent of change to usher in modern baseball. That’s what Kapler became, and it hurt any chance he had of winning over fans. The Phillies didn’t miss the playoffs in 2018 and 2019 because of shifts, too many different lineups (check out how the good teams do things), bullpen usage or launch angle. They weren’t good enough because Kapler couldn’t take poor and make it better than OK, or OK and make it October-worthy. 

Kapler wasn’t without any fault, and far from perfect. I disagreed with some moves and decisions, just like any fan. That’s how it is with any manager. While his big-picture attitude was refreshing, I always wondered if he needed to impart more of a sense of urgency on the team. The ousting of pitching coach Rick Kranitz for Chris Young didn’t play well, something that ultimately falls on the manager. He could have done himself favors with the media and fan base by talking less about analytics (like, say, FIP) and more about results. 

But there’s little doubt in my mind that Kapler will succeed out west with the San Francisco Giants, a team committed to a long-term vision and with a front office aligned on how to get there. That success could have happened here if for a little more patience, an acceptance of where the sport was going with data-driven decisions and a franchise capable of putting out enough talent to compete for something real.