Through 19 months as manager of the Giants, Gabe Kapler has guided his team through a pandemic and an unprecedented 60-game season. He became the first manager to take a knee during the national anthem and made similar national news when he hired Alyssa Nakken as part of his large coaching staff. Many of the headlines through Kapler's first year-plus in charge have come off the field or away from the daily nine-inning grind, something that started with his very first press conference.
Between the lines, though, Kapler now has managed 100 games with the Giants. He has won 53 of them.
It's a record that nearly nobody saw coming in November of 2019, when Farhan Zaidi tapped Kapler to follow Bruce Bochy and manage a veteran team in an organization that was rebuilding at every level. But Zaidi had faith in his friend and former coworker in Los Angeles, even after that rocky first day. Asked over the weekend how he would assess Kapler's first 100 games, the Giants president of baseball operations said the main thing that stands out is growth.
"Having worked with him before, one of the things that I know is one of his best attributes is the ability to make adjustments," Zaidi said. "We all want to feel like we're getting better at our jobs as we get more experience."
Zaidi said he has seen that in two areas where Kapler has perhaps taken the most heat from the media and fan base, and even sometimes his players. Kapler was extremely cautious early on last year, pulling Johnny Cueto after 63 pitches on Opening Night and limiting Kevin Gausman, his eventual ace. His pitchers politely questioned their roles, and others in the organization wondered why Kapler was so quick to pull starters.
A year later, he has pulled a complete 180. Giants starters are tied with the vaunted Dodgers rotation for first in innings pitched. Gausman has pitched eight innings twice, Anthony DeSclafani has his first complete game in five years, and a pleased Cueto was allowed to throw 118 pitches in search of a 27th out in his second start.
"I think back to last year and the way we started with our starting pitchers being somewhat limited pitch-wise out of the gate, and he got feedback that they wanted a chance to work deeper," Zaidi said. "You've seen that extend into this year, too."
The reliance on starting pitching has been necessary in part because of how inconsistent the bullpen has been this year, but Zaidi sees growth there, too. Kapler might never live down the Trevor Gott sequence with some Giants fans, but the organization did quietly adjust its late-game strategy in the offseason. The Giants had hoped to go in a different direction under Kapler, making late-game pieces interchangeable. They scrapped that pretty quickly.
"We've talked more about having more defined roles in the bullpen and really, as an organization, made an adjustment from feeling like the most efficient way to get the last six, nine, 12 outs is just to have every guy available to come in as the situation is right," Zaidi said. "It's sort of recognizing that you're creating stability for the players in every game, and frankly stability for the manager. Nobody has a bullpen with a zero ERA -- to the extent that you're having a lot of one-run and two-run leads given to your bullpen, things are going to happen.
"But there's an element of riding out the storm, knowing that bullpens are volatile, and defining roles."
The Giants have done that in the final two innings, at least, with Tyler Rogers serving as the setup man and Jake McGee the closer. There have been hiccups, including some big ones, but the Giants are 22-2 when they lead after seven, a big reason why they're in first place.
Embracing a more traditional setup has made life smoother for the staff late in games, but there's nothing traditional about what Kapler is attempting with his lineup on a daily basis. The Giants have used 39 different lineups through 41 games, and Kapler has made the "line change" a known term among the fan base.
The Giants already have had 79 pinch-hit at-bats, nine more than the next closest team. They're tied for first with the Pablo Sandoval-led Atlanta Braves with five pinch-hit homers and lead the majors with 16 RBI from pinch-hitters. Along with general manager Scott Harris, Zaidi put together the deep and versatile roster, but he said even he is surprised sometimes as he watches the way in which Kapler uses his bench, often early in games.
"I really like the aggressiveness. I think it kind of gives us an identity," Zaidi said. "I think being that aggressive, while it puts the manager under the microscope, it can put the opposing team on the defensive. Suddenly when teams are doing their advance work and thinking about how to set up their pitching, they have to account for the fact that Kap is going to be aggressive.
"Again, I think it's a credit to him. There have been numerous occasions where maybe conventional wisdom would say save your players and in the National League the manager is always worried about running out of players, but it's a credit to any manager who chooses to be aggressive."
Some of the stretches -- such as using three straight pinch-hitters and emptying the bench last week -- have been an adjustment for those watching from the outside, but Zaidi said he hopes Kapler and his staff start more often getting the benefit of the doubt. It will take a lot more than 100 games for true determinations to be made, but here on May 17, the Giants are deep into their third week in first place in the loaded NL West. That probably won't last, but it was an unrealistic goal for this season, anyway.
It is difficult from the outside to truly judge the impact a manager is having, particularly in a rebuilding situation. Phillies fans ran Kapler out of town after he went 161-163, but they're 49-52 under Joe Girardi. Bruce Bochy lost 90-plus games each of his first two seasons in San Francisco, then got a roster full of new faces that put him on a path to the Hall of Fame.
Asked how he evaluates a manager, Zaidi said the most important thing is "continual improvement." He has seen that, not just in the record, but in the way the Giants are getting through nine innings on a day-to-day basis.
"I think we've achieved that last year into this year," he said. "We can't rest on our laurels here (in May) -- obviously we're going to hope that this continues, but we're seeing the in-game adjustments that I think he has made and the way they have played out. We're seeing how much he values the trust of players and is willing to make adjustments to lineups and pitching strategy and pinch-hitting strategy based on that input from players.
"I view success for us as an organization and for Kap as a manager as kind of just continued evolution and improvement, and we certainly have had a lot of that."