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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Potentially awkward scenes we could see during 2020 MLB season

Potentially awkward scenes we could see during 2020 MLB season

Baseball fans are hoping for the best. 

Everyone that loves the sport is hopeful that the owners and players can iron out their financial differences and come to an agreement that clears the way for a 2020 season. In the meantime, we are left to wonder what a season played in the midst of a pandemic might look like. 

Beyond there being no fans in the ballparks when the season starts, players would also keep their distance from one another, both on and off the field. 

A potentially awkward scene comes to mind. Say the home team wins in walk-off fashion. What would the celebration look like? We're used to seeing the entire team stream out of the dugout and charge whoever delivered the winning hit, mobbing him somewhere along the basepaths and ripping his jersey off.

Or in the case of a walk-off home run, everyone waiting at home plate to dump the Gatorade bucket on the hero and jump around in unison.

We saw Phillies star Bryce Harper in the middle of several such celebrations last season, most notably after his walk-off grand slam against the Cubs. What would that look like in 2020? Harper sprinting around the bases, charging towards home plate where ... no one is waiting for him. Everyone gives him a thumbs-up from a distance and goes their separate ways? It's a weird scenario to think about. But it will likely play out quite a bit should there be a season. 

Former Phillies outfielder Jeff Francoeur was a guest on the Phillies Talk podcast this week and said that if he were still playing, he'd probably still hug a teammate after a walk-off and just pay the fine.  

Back to the possibility of playing in empty ballparks without fans. At first thought, that doesn't seem like too big of a deal for the players. Baseball is baseball, it's still the same game with or without fans. But not having the energy and electricity that the fans provide could have a big impact on certain players, particularly the Phillies' best player. Francoeur, for example, explained how players sometimes really use the fans' energy to get up for day-games when the fatigue of the season mounts.

No one feeds off the fans more than Harper. He loves playing to the crowd at Citizens Bank Park — pumping up the fans sitting behind him in right field and gesturing to the crowd behind the dugout after a big home run. Harper fires up the fans, and vice versa. 

Harper is equally effective in feeding off negative energy on the road. He's probably been booed in opposing ballparks more than any player in baseball and he's been dealing with it since his teenage years. He was heckled throughout a game in San Francisco last season, with one fan yelling 'overrated' each time Harper stepped into the batter's box (a chant Harper hears in most road cities). He channeled that negativity into a pair of monster home runs and made sure to let the fans know about it afterward.

His first game back in Washington last season is another great example. Nationals fans were all over Harper the entire night. He responded by going 3-for-5 with two doubles and a two-run home run into the upper deck.  

Harper is a showman. He relishes his roles of fan-favorite at home and villain on the road. Harper will still be effective playing in an empty ballpark. But it's fair to wonder if the lack of energy could have an adverse impact on him.  

It's one of countless unknowns as we brace for what promises to be a baseball season unlike any we've seen. Of course, there is still plenty of work to be done to ensure there will be a season. The clock is ticking. 

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Revelations and takeaways from the Roy Halladay E60 documentary

Revelations and takeaways from the Roy Halladay E60 documentary

There was so much of note in Friday's powerful hourlong E60 documentary of the life and death of Roy Halladay. Heartbreaking recollections from his widow, Brandy, troubling details of his addiction to prescription opioids, and the valuable lesson that hopefully can come from such a painful tragedy.

"I just wanted him to slow down," Brandy said.

"Roy had none," she said of the balance in his life at points.

"He didn't feel he had the luxury of making mistakes, he was truly tormented."

How Halladay's opioid addiction began

Halladay popped his back during the 2011 season and pitched through it. He pitched through pain the night the Phillies' playoff hopes ended in a gut-wrenching 1-0 loss to the Cardinals in Game 5 of the NLDS after a franchise-record 102 regular-season wins.

Brandy told a story of Roy experiencing such back pain that he once fell down sneezing around that time.

Halladay began taking prescription opioids in the spring of 2012, obtaining them by paying cash to a doctor in Florida who was recommended to him by a Phillies teammate.

"He was continuing to hurt himself, and the more he hurt himself, the more dependent he would be on medication," Brandy said. "He was breaking his back. He actually shrunk three inches from compression in his spine. That's insane."

Former teammate and pupil Kyle Kendrick, who looked up to Halladay as a role model and mentor, noticed that something wasn't right. 

"At his locker, I was right next to him. You'd try to talk to him and you'd feel like he wasn't there," Kendrick said. "As a friend, I felt like I should say something. I felt like he might need help. A teammate and I said something to someone who worked for the team."

The teammate confronted Halladay about his drug use during the 2013 season but nothing changed.

Fear of public scrutiny

Halladay's body became dependent on the medications to function. All the while, he privately dealt with the fear of others finding out. He was tormented by the potential public scrutiny.

"Everybody should be able to ask for help and they shouldn't be looked down on and judged for that," Brandy said several times throughout the documentary. If there is one lesson to be learned from this tragedy, it is that.

Roy Halladay went to rehab for his painkiller addiction during the 2013 season, his final year in the majors. Many Phillies fans will remember the stress-filled, sweat-soaked 13 starts Halladay made that final year. At times, that was a reaction to the medication in his system.

He left rehab early, Brandy said, because he had been recognized and someone had snuck a phone into the facility. Roy was nervous about word of his stint in rehab leaking out.

The struggle to find a purpose

After retirement, in the years before Halladay recaptured some of his joy and passion by coaching his sons' baseball teams, Roy "stopped taking care of himself, inside and out," according to Brandy. His weight rose to over 300 pounds at one point in retirement, then down to 205 at another.

He reentered rehab in January 2015 for the painkiller addiction and was there three months. When he returned home, he began seeing a psychiatrist and was formally diagnosed with ADD, depression and anxiety. 

In retirement, Halladay struggled to find a purpose. 

"He was lost, he didn't know what to do with himself," Brandy said. "Flying was therapeutic."

Doc's days in the air

The circumstances of Halladay's death were documented in a 2018 toxicology report and in a report from the National Transportation Safety Board last month. He had Zolpidem, amphetamine and morphine in his system at the time he crashed his Icon A5 plane into the Gulf of Mexico. According to the NTSB report, Halladay was doing extreme acrobatics when he lost control.

Halladay received his pilot's license in 2013. He had spent much time in the air with his father, Roy II, a pilot, from a young age, and had accrued more than 700 flying hours himself before the crash.

"He was an excellent pilot," Roy II said of his son. "Mechanically, his skills were very good. He kept working for additional ratings."

Yet still, Brandy didn't feel it was totally safe. 

"He was trying to fill this void by buying boats and planes and cars and shoes," she said. "Roy was an adrenaline guy, he was always looking for that rush."

When Roy got his Icon A5, a plane that made him feel like he was flying a fighter jet, "he was so excited, he couldn't control himself," Brandy said.

"My concern was after he got the (Icon A5), he kept talking about how sporty it was, how much of a sports car it was," his father said. "I said be careful with it."

The tragedy

Halladay died 35 days after getting the Icon A5. According to the NTSB report, he frequently flew at low altitudes in shallow water and flew underneath a bridge in Tampa with Brandy on board 12 days before the fatal crash.

On the day of the crash, he and Brandy were supposed to see one of their sons' band perform at a school concert. Roy told Brandy he'd return the Icon A5 to the airport and meet her there. He texted her while she was driving, "I'm so sorry, I should have just gone with you, another wasted day." Instead of flying north to the airport, he had flown west to the Gulf of Mexico where the crash occurred.

"I had so much more in the future I wanted for us and it was hard to know that it was just done," Brandy Halladay said.

"I know in my heart it was an accident. I want to make sure that people understand that he was just a man. Perfect, I hate that word, perfect. I just want him to be Roy. I hope somebody hears our story and says, 'Wow, I'm going to ask for help.'"

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