SAN FRANCISCO -- For most of an hour Wednesday, Gabe Kapler answered questions from the media about what he had learned in Los Angeles. Kapler may never outrun that incident in the eyes of many Giants fans, but at some point, the focus of his tenure will turn to another question.
What did he learn in Philadelphia?
The Giants felt comfortable enough with Kapler and his past to hire him and give him a three-year deal. Will he last all three? That will be determined by his ability to handle a clubhouse, develop the next wave of Giants and actually win games between the lines.
Kapler went 161-163 in two seasons in Philadelphia, finishing third and then fourth in the NL East. The Phillies improved by 14 games in his first season, but they tailed off down the stretch both years, and 2019 certainly was a disappointment given how much ownership invested in the team over the offseason, led by the additions of Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto.
The front office wanted to keep Kapler around, and Farhan Zaidi got rave reviews from his counterparts. Members of the Giants ownership group spoke to members of the group in Philadelphia and heard similar reviews, with the caveat that Kapler’s time in Philadelphia had simply run its course. Those who were around him for two years say Kapler did a good job of managing up, but sometimes lost his ability to fully connect with the clubhouse. There were questions about the way he handled the pitching staff, in particular.
The Giants digested all that and decided Kapler would take Bruce Bochy’s place, and during the interview process, the two managers spoke about how much better you can be the second time around, as Bochy was. You can learn from your mistakes.
So, what did Kapler learn in Philadelphia?
“The thing that I learned most, and it was pretty abrupt, was in my first year as a Phillies manager in 2018 I thought a lot about every little strategic edge, every little strategic advantage, and sometimes at the expense of some of that confidence that we’ve talked about,” Kapler said. “My biggest learn was: Sometimes a confident player is a better baseball player, and that outweighs the strategic advantage you get of calling just the right pitch at just the right time.
“I’ll use a pitcher analogy. If all of the information says that your curveball is your best pitch in a particular situation but that pitcher does not want to throw that pitch, you don’t force him to throw that pitch. You let him throw a different pitch with a lot of conviction, with a lot of energy, with a lot of confidence, and maybe that’s the best pitch in the moment. So probably my biggest learn is now to blend those two things.”
In an appearance on MLB Network a day later, Kapler gave a specific example. On Opening Day in 2018, he pulled starter Aaron Nola after just 68 pitches because he didn’t want him facing a lineup a third time. That has become a somewhat common strategy in recent years – but Nola had allowed just one run on three hits in 5 1/3 innings at the time. The Phillies bullpen gave up eight runs and the team lost, but it wasn’t the end result that stuck with Kapler.
“What we didn’t know is what an emotional impact that would have on the dugout. It had a pretty big, significant blow," Kapler said. "What I learned from that is learning how to trust Aaron Nola deeper into games and so we did that for the rest of the 2018 season and 2019 season as well, understanding that what we were seeing with our eyes was equally important to what we were seeing on paper.”
Nola wasn’t pulled that quickly again the rest of the year and went on to finish third in the Cy Young Award balloting. Kapler certainly will need a longer leash if Madison Bumgarner returns, but even for veterans like Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto, he will need to continue to adjust. The Giants learned that in 2019 when they tried early on to limit Samardzija’s innings and exposure to opposing lineups, but instead they found that he was one of their most reliable pitchers. By the end of the year, Samardzija’s workload more closely resembled previous seasons.
Kapler said he plans on going on a “listening tour” to find out the preferences of Giants veterans. The Phillies did that after his first season, inviting team leaders to their Florida facility to discuss things like when they would stretch before games and how they wanted pre-game work to be handled.
“Every good clubhouse that I’ve ever been a part of … players have to be part of that raising the bar, they have to be part of that accountability that takes place,” Kapler said. “They have to be active participants in that conversation, and so those are some of the things that I’ll focus on.”