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Kapler details highs, lows of first season as Giants manager

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At some point in the next five years, Bruce Bochy will stand in front of a podium in Cooperstown, New York and discuss a Hall of Fame career, one built in large part on his success as a tactician in the late innings. But even after winning three titles with deft bullpen moves in October, Bochy wasn't immune to criticism.

The 2016 Giants never figured out how to get the final three outs, with Bochy giving Santiago Casilla a long leash, trying others, and ultimately turning to five different relievers in a ninth-inning collapse against the Cubs that now stands as the last competitive moment of a dynasty. 

The inability to close out those games haunted Bochy for months afterward, and Giants fans still cringe when they hear the words "game four." Blown saves can override a lot of good done over the course of a season, a lesson Gabe Kapler learned once again in his first season as Bochy's replacement. 

When evaluating Kapler's first full year in San Francisco, it's not hard to jump straight to that sequence in mid-August when Trevor Gott blew three leads in four days, or the Sam Coonrod blown save on the final Friday of the season. 

It's also not really a fair way to make the evaluation.

In their first year under Kapler, the Giants surprisingly finished one win short of a playoff spot and saw a lot of growth. An offense that was annually woeful turned into one of the National League's most dangerous groups, a young and unknown coaching staff drew rave reviews and even saw a first-year assistant pitching coach immediately get poached by a World Series contender, and that bullpen that was so maligned actually had the fifth-best ERA in the National League. Starting August 19, no team had a lower bullpen ERA than the Giants' 2.55. 

 

But ... those blown saves. Those nights when a veteran starter was pulled early and the bullpen couldn't hold on. Those decisions tend to linger.

"The way our local media responds to some of those moves is exactly how I personally respond to them," Kapler said recently, smiling. "You kind of go back and you think about them and you wonder what could have happened if you did it just a little bit different. I mean, I could point to seven or eight decisions in the last week that fell into that category. I could go back to some times in Philadelphia that I think about all the time.

"I'm constantly evaluating if we could have just tweaked it just a little bit what the different outcomes would have been."

That evaluation process came with a painful and unexpected twist. The Giants genuinely felt they were a really tough matchup for the Dodgers in the first round of the playoffs, but they failed on the final weekend and had to watch a division rival cruise through the Brewers and then hold off some tough opponents to snap a three-decade run without a title. 

With the Dodgers owning October and the Padres owning this offseason thus far, it's not hard to feel the Giants are further from contention than they were last November when Kapler pulled his Giants jersey on for the first time. But Kapler sees 2020 as "a good development season for us," and when asked to sum up his first season, it's easy for him to tick off the positives.

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In particular, Kapler is proud of the communication. It was clear during spring training that a 13-person staff would be remarkably hands-on, and Kapler said that dedication to communication translated to the 60-game season, even as the Giants were limited in how much time they could spend together. He was proud of the way the coaching staff prepared relievers and said there was an added emphasis on limiting the number of times a pitcher started warming up. In the dugout, there wasn't a team that made better late-game decisions with hitters than the Giants. Their pinch-hitters had a .917 OPS, the highest mark in the majors by more than 100 points. 

"We did a really nice job of getting our position players and pinch-hitters ready for some of the toughest moments of the game," Kapler said. 

Kapler put together a strong trio -- Donnie Ecker, Justin Viele and Dustin Lind -- to overhaul the Giants' approach at the plate, and he credits assistant coaches Alyssa Nakken and Mark Hallberg for a lot of the success late in games. When discussing 2020, he returns often to his staff. It is filled with young and inexperienced coaches he had been eyeing for years, and it's a group that drew plenty of praise from Giants veterans. Asked about preparing for his second year, Kapler again mentioned his staff, which is led by a bench coach -- Kai Correa -- he plucked from the Indians' minor league system. 

 

"I think what excites me the most is probably just getting back to work with this coaching staff and knowing that we all have a year under our belt working as a group, knowing that communication is going to improve, knowing that we have all spent a lot of time since the beginning of the summer to hone our coaching capabilities," Kapler said. "It's pretty exciting to be able to deploy some of those new skills and new learns."

The greatest learns may have come on the pitching side. Two days into his tenure, Kapler had already seen two veterans -- Johnny Cueto and Kevin Gausman -- politely complain publicly about the way they had been used.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts took a shot at the Giants for withholding their starting pitcher announcements. It was a rough start, but the staff adjusted.

Gausman was plugged into the rotation the rest of the way and pitched so well under Andrew Bailey, Brian Bannister and Ethan Katz that he got the qualifying offer. The Giants still played it coy with their starting pitcher at times, but they generally got their lineup out hours earlier than expected in previous years. Cueto ended up throwing at least 100 pitches in six of his final eight starts. After that first weekend, Cueto told Kapler he wanted more input during his starts. 

"You may have noticed there were several times I went out to Johnny and said, 'Hey, do you feel like you can get one more hitter, you feel like you can get two more hitters?' And he said, 'Yeah, give me one more, give me one more,'" Kapler said. "All it took for Johnny to feel that connection with me and that trust with me is me responding to his requests."

Trust can dissipate quickly over a season, though. Kapler never officially named a closer but spoke highly of Gott before the year and during two camps, and for the first few weeks of the season it was clear what the ninth would look like. Gott was cruising until he gave up five runs to the A's on August 14. A day later he allowed four more, and in the low point of the season, Kapler called for Gott one more time two days later, watching yet another lead disappear. 

"One of the things I'm always trying to balance is confidence in a guy that has demonstrated it in the past and giving him just one more opportunity to perform with, hey, what is the best interest for the Giants as a whole," Kapler said. "The latter is always going to take precedent, but there is a little bit of, well maybe this guy is one pitch away from getting it together and then really being able to establish himself as a trusted option.

 

"These discussions are not without their challenges, but they're ones that I constantly go back and evaluate and think through. Some of them I really love and some of them I wish I would have done differently."

That's the life of a manager. Kevin Cash was the best young decision-maker in the game until he pulled Blake Snell. Roberts was known for making the wrong choice every October until Julio Urias wiped that all away. Kapler learned this the hard way in two seasons in Philadelphia, but in their first year under Joe Girardi, the Phillies had the worst bullpen ERA in nearly a century. 

The Giants ended up being pretty good in the late innings, and they've taken steps this offseason to add more depth to the bullpen. The lineup that took a huge leap forward in 2020 will return intact, with Buster Posey joining in, and while the Giants need another starter or two, they have plenty of time to add before pitchers and catchers report. 

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That's a day Kapler is looking forward to, in part because it will officially turn the page on his first season. For all the growth the Giants showed, they still fell a win short of what would have been a surprise playoff berth.

"It was really disappointing. The last couple of days of the season were really tough," Kapler said. "We felt like we put ourselves in a good position to be a playoff team. The sting of that may not fully go away until we step foot in Scottsdale for spring training in 2021."