This week we’re looking at the big storylines setting up the Phillies 2018 season. Over the next few days we’ll look closely at Vince Velasquez, Cesar Hernandez and Maikel Franco, but today, it’s about Gabe Kapler.
In Philadelphia, we’ve seen this before. And we’ve seen it recently.
The hotshot new leader, brashly announcing his presence with authority using different, exotic ideas that haven’t been frequently used or even tried before. That’s what the Phillies have in Gabe Kapler, their first-year manager, a new-age skipper who believes in sabermetrics, healthy living and motivational speeches.
Maybe it’s not the exact situations we’ve already seen from former Eagles head coach Chip Kelly and former Sixers’ general manager Sam Hinkie, but they’re close. Both were run out of town despite Hinkie gaining a cult-like following as the seeds of his plans have sprouted into a potential playoff team this year and a powerhouse in the future.
So what lessons can Kapler learn from his maverick predecessors? There are the easy “Don’t rile your owner and blow off an office Christmas party” and “Don’t write manifestos that make people question your sanity” lessons. But there’s a really big one that never gets talked about, and that’s don’t be a jerk. Both Kelly and Hinkie had no use for the media, which made them seem like jerks with, at the very least, an air of aloofness and a perception of a superiority complex. When you have no use for the media, its members tend to pile on in the bad times.
So far, Kapler has been affable and gregarious with the media, and even better, he’s doing his homework and trying to make a good impression. He researched Angelo Cataldi before going on the air with him the first time, and Angelo seemed legitimately impressed. Winning over people like that can extend the grace period when Odubel Herrera decides not to run out a pop up and doesn’t get benched. He already made a potential scandal disappear before he even came into town with his outgoing personality. If nothing else, Kapler realizes there is more to the job than what’s on the field. It’s safe to say he’s made that pretty clear in his actions.
Now that it seems Kapler has curried favor with the media thanks to his outgoing personality and the confidence he oozes, he can get down to work – and what a job it’s going to be. While we love to think of this team as an up-and-coming dynamo because of how much fun Rhys Hoskins and many of the other youngsters made the last eight weeks of 2017, the fact is that this was an unwatchable mess of a baseball team for the better part of the season. Some of that has been blamed on former manager Pete Mackanin and his coaching staff. Maybe it’s warranted.
How Kapler will be judged will depend on the team’s goals. With a lack of starting pitching help, and steadfast philosophies leading them to decline adding a starter this offseason, the front office isn’t actually telling Kapler to go out and win the National League East. General Manager Matt Klentak knows what he has on this team (especially the starting pitching), and while it’s a vastly improved offense from what the team trotted out last April, it’s still a flawed, young one. The bullpen is a new, deep strength, built specifically to mask or at least reduce the many warts of the starting pitching, while Klentak gave Kapler at least a semblance of offensive depth, primarily by not letting anybody go.
Into the lab
While we hoped the Phillies’ 2017 season would be its last experimental season for a while, 2018 will be an experiment too. The front office has made that pretty obvious with its offseason signings, and Kapler is following suit with sabermetric-leaning batting orders in these first few spring training games that would make the old-time baseball people clutch their chests.
So if 2018 will be an experiment, how will Kapler be judged? Unless something goes really, really wrong, he probably has this year to do one thing: Be better than the last guy.
And Kapler probably thinks he can manage at Mackanin’s level, perhaps better, so we’re probably going to see those sabermetric theories in action not just in spring training, but in the regular season. And when Hoskins blasts a two-out, two-run homer to win a game in the bottom of the ninth while hitting from the two-hole, people may just appreciate why that happened.
Truth is this team should win more than the 66 games it won last year, if just by the virtue of the very strong bullpen and the addition of Carlos Santana. There are bound to be slumps by the likes of Hoskins, while there are obvious questions surrounding the other young guys and the starting pitching staff that we’re still not sure whether 80 percent of them belong in the majors or not.
Kapler may or may not be able to do avoid those slumps. He also may or may not be able to fix Maikel Franco’s swing. Or to make Vincent Velazquez throw strikes and pitch to contact. But you certainly get the feeling he’s going to do anything in his power to avoid those roadblocks, and he’ll do it in different ways than many people have seen before.
It also seems like his in-game management skill will be classified as “risky” when it’s just new ways of managing the game. Perhaps if we see those risks it will remind us of yet another first-year Philadelphia coach, who took so many risks in his first year that people thought he was crazy, or just not that good.
Turned out pretty well for Doug Pederson.