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.
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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