Gabe Kapler fired as Phillies manager under weight of losses and leadership issues

Gabe Kapler fired as Phillies manager under weight of losses and leadership issues

Less than two years after pulling on a crisp, red Phillies cap and proclaiming that he was here to "bring that effing trophy back to John Middleton," Gabe Kapler is out as Phillies manager. The hard-working but polarizing skipper was fired Thursday, 11 days after his second season ended. He posted a 161-163 record.

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Kapler's dismissal is not a surprise. Expectations had risen dramatically for the Phillies the last two years, especially this season after the club added All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto and former NL MVP Bryce Harper to a talented young core of players that included Aaron Nola, Rhys Hoskins and Scott Kingery, and all the Phillies got to show for those expectations was disappointment.

The 2019 Phillies got off to a strong start. They were 11 games over .500 and 3½ games up in the division entering play on May 30. Over the next three-plus weeks, the Phillies spiraled downward and fell to 6½ games out in the race. During that span, the team suffered a significant loss when leadoff man Andrew McCutchen went down with a season-ending knee injury.

There were other injuries along the way, particularly in the bullpen. But even with the injuries and even with the front office taking a conservative approach to filling holes at the trade deadline, the Phillies were viewed as having a roster capable of producing more than it did. The Phils managed to stay in a weak NL wild-card race until the final two weeks of the season but collapsed down the stretch. With Middleton, the team’s managing partner, in attendance, the Phils lost five straight games in Washington and fell under the .500 mark. They needed to win two of three against the lowly Miami Marlins on the final weekend of the season to finish with a .500 record.

The Phils also suffered a huge collapse under Kapler in 2018. They were 15 games over .500 and leading the NL East in early August and went 16-33 down the stretch to finish 80-82.

Late in the season, general manager Matt Klentak said this of Kapler: "I think he's doing a very good job." But Klentak, finishing up his fourth season on the job without overseeing a playoff berth, added: "Winning is what matters for his job, for my job, for anybody in this game."

Klentak was part of a 2015 management overhaul ordered by Middleton to bring the old-school Phillies into the new-age baseball world. Kapler was Klentak's handpicked guy. He was completely new-school. He spoke the language of analytics that has taken over baseball and the Phillies front office under Klentak.

Analytics remains a polarizing subject in baseball, in Philadelphia and even in the Phillies clubhouse.

"They've gone overboard on the analytics," one player recently said. "They're making it way too complicated. They need to simplify."

Upon getting the Phillies job in the fall of 2017, Kapler moved to Philadelphia and frequented some of the city's restaurants and coffee shops. Despite his efforts to connect with the community, he was not embraced by Philadelphia and some of that was his own fault. Several of his data-based decisions backfired in his first week on the job and he was booed during introductions before the home opener in April 2018. His uber-positive appraisals of the team's play, even during irksome losing streaks, did not sit well with Philadelphia fans who prefer their critiques more unvarnished. Even club president Andy MacPhail recoiled at Kapler’s penchant for sugarcoating and urged the manager to be more frank when critiquing the team.

In hiring Kapler, Klentak said he wanted someone who could build a positive, upbeat environment where players would feel comfortable, develop confidence and ultimately thrive.

Kapler has his strengths. He is very smart and thick-skinned. He is a first-class gentleman. He is amazingly hard-working and dedicated to his beliefs and principles. But for a man who often talked about leadership, he seemed to lack it or at least was not forceful enough with it. Players were comfortable — maybe too comfortable. He ran a loose ship with few rules and was hesitant to discipline players. There were times when he needed to be the boss but wasn't. Toward the end of the 2019 season, he did not have Aaron Nola pitch around Atlanta assassin Freddie Freeman with first base open in an important ballgame. Nola is a ferocious competitor who does not like to walk hitters and Kapler let him pitch to Freeman even though the situation called for the manager to order an intentional walk and save the pitcher from himself. Freeman drove in two runs with a game-changing base hit.

Kapler arrived calling himself a "relentless communicator," but there were times when his messages did not land with players. In May, Vince Velasquez was told in a text message that he was being sent to the bullpen. Kapler told reporters that Velasquez was in favor of the move but moments later the pitcher presented a far different picture and that necessitated a face-to-face meeting between him and the manager. In August, Cesar Hernandez was benched for not running out a ball. That was news to Hernandez. He said he was informed that he was simply getting a day off. Kapler subsequently had to seek out the player to clarify that his being out of the lineup was, in fact, punitive, though Kapler preferred to call it "a response", ostensibly because that word would not be as harsh on a player’s ear. Kapler did his best not to ruffle feathers and players generally liked him and appreciated him for that. But that approach does not always garner respect and results.

Kapler has a year remaining on his contract. It's likely that Klentak would have preferred that Kapler stay on the job and continue to grow and evolve as a manager, but it's clear that Middleton and his partners were not happy with the way the season went. Middleton is keenly aware of his team's fan base. It wanted change, maybe even beyond the manager, and it got some.

Kapler's dismissal puts Klentak on notice. The team had shown improvement under Pete Mackanin in 2017, but Klentak fired him because he wanted his own man, someone who shared his vision of analytics-based instruction and game preparation. MacPhail signed off on the firing of Mackanin but publicly warned Klentak that a GM gets only so many managerial hires. Klentak's biggest one is now gone and it’s reasonable to wonder how much say he will have in picking a new manager.

Klentak, along with Kapler, also had significant input in hiring hitting coach John Mallee and pitching coach Chris Young. Mallee was fired in August and Young was removed as pitching coach last week, according to sources.

Together, Kapler and Klentak pushed well-liked pitching coach Rick Kranitz out the door to make room for Young last fall. The move was made because Young was proficient in the use of data and analytics in building a pitching staff and game planning. Young’s methods were never fully embraced by the pitching staff. The popular Kranitz landed in Atlanta as pitching coach and helped the Braves win the National League East.

After going the out-of-the-box, inexperienced, new-school, progressive-thinking route in hiring Kapler, the Phils seem likely to look for an experienced candidate to be their next manager.

Maybe he can "bring that effing trophy back to John Middleton."

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Bobby Abreu, Cliff Lee, Scott Rolen headline polarizing list of ex-Phillies on Hall of Fame ballot

Bobby Abreu, Cliff Lee, Scott Rolen headline polarizing list of ex-Phillies on Hall of Fame ballot

MLB's 2020 Hall of Fame ballot was released Monday and it included six former Phillies of varying degrees of popularity. In fact, it's hard to even say which of the six is the most beloved in Philly. 

Bobby Abreu
Raul Ibanez
Cliff Lee
Scott Rolen
Curt Schilling
Billy Wagner

• At first glance, you might say Lee. He had great moments with the Phillies, memorable playoff games, and that low-key swag that drew fans to him. But things ended in a clunky way when he came back the second time. An elbow injury caused Lee to miss the final 1½ years of his contract and he was pretty much invisible during that time. He was also noticeably absent when the 2009 NL Championship team got together at Citizens Bank Park this past summer. The answer is still probably Lee, but it was a sour end for plenty of folks.

• Abreu is very well-respected around the game for being an ahead-of-his-time player with gaudy, well-rounded stats, but he was and still is polarizing around here. A portion of the fan base will always look at Abreu as an overrated compiler who was scared of walls. The other portion — it may be an even 50-50 split these days — appreciates the player Abreu was and realizes he'd be worth $200 million today.

• Phillies fans haven't forgotten Rolen's elite defense. Rolen was truly one of the best defensive third basemen of all time. But he orchestrated his way out of here and that is remembered equally, if not more so. 

• Schilling ... not delving into that one beyond an acknowledgment that his playoff performances were legendary, he had four excellent seasons and his post-playing career has been very strange.

• Ibañez was well-liked here and everywhere else he played. He may manage in the majors some day soon. He had an incredible first half in 2009, his first year with the Phillies, then was just slightly above average the rest of his three-year career with them.

• Phillies fans don't feel especially attached to Wagner, who was great here but lasted only two seasons. Unlike the other five on the list, Wagner should be in the Hall of Fame, in my opinion. Wagner was a more dominant reliever than Trevor Hoffman or Lee Smith. He had six seasons with an ERA under 2.00. He saved 422 games. He could have hung around for three more seasons to hit the arbitrary number of 500, which would have made him a Hall of Famer. Instead, Wagner retired on his terms after posting a 1.43 ERA for the Braves in 2010.

It will be interesting to see whether Abreu, a first-time candidate, gets the groundswell of support we've seen in recent years with players like Tim Raines.

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Phillies free-agent target: Zack Wheeler

Phillies free-agent target: Zack Wheeler

Leading up to baseball’s winter meetings, we will take a daily look at some of the game’s top free agents and how they could potentially impact the Phillies.

Today, we check in on Zack Wheeler, a right-hander who is seen as having much untapped potential.

The vitals

The very talented Wheeler has a big fastball — his career-high 96.8-mph average velocity was fourth-best in the majors among starting pitchers in 2019 — and excellent breaking stuff, but injuries and inconsistency have prevented him from blossoming into a star. He is 44-38 with a 3.77 ERA lifetime. He was the No. 6 overall pick by San Francisco in the 2009 draft. He was traded to the Mets two years later for Carlos Beltran, who is now the Mets' manager. Wheeler will turn 30 in May.

Why he fits

His career is trending upward and a team might be getting him just as he’s about to put it all together. Wheeler has been mostly healthy the last two seasons, going 23-15 with a 3.65 ERA in 60 starts. He has pitched 182⅓ and 195⅓ innings, respectively, the last two seasons, a good sign after struggling with injuries early in his career. In both 2018 and 2019, he was one of the best in baseball after the All-Star break, going a combined 14-3 with a 2.26 ERA.

Wheeler also reached a career high by throwing a first-pitch strike 65.8 percent of the time, a top-10 mark that placed him ahead of Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander.

Given the supply and demand for starting pitching in the majors, Wheeler is headed for a big payday, but not as big as the top arms in this market. That might allow the Phils to spread around their dollars and fill multiple holes.

Why he doesn’t fit

From Charlie Morton in the starting rotation to David Robertson, Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter in the bullpen, the Phillies have been burned by injuries to free-agent pitchers. Wheeler missed significant time recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2015 and 2016. He spent time on the injured list in 2017 and was briefly sidelined in 2019 with what was called shoulder fatigue. He rebounded quickly and was able to make 31 starts, but his health history can't be ignored.

The Phillies need to be protective of their high draft picks. They would surrender a second-round pick for the right guy. The question remains: Is the inconsistent Wheeler the right guy? When push comes to shove, the Phils would probably do it.

The price tag

Some team is going to bet on Wheeler being ready to reel off several years of good health and effectiveness. The industry feel is that Wheeler could come in somewhere between the four-year, $68 million deal that Nathan Eovaldi got from Boston last year and the six-year, $140 million that Patrick Corbin got from Washington. In other words, he could be looking at a $100 million payday. 

Scout’s take

“The velocity is intriguing. My concern is he gets hit too hard for the kind of stuff he has. He’s had some health glitches so that makes it a risk for the kind of money he’s going to get. But the raw stuff and potential are definitely there. It just depends on a team’s willingness to risk.”

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