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Klentak: Gabe Kapler learned this year that perception matters

The Phillies hope for playoff baseball to return to Citizens Bank Park in 2019. (Matt Veasey/Phillies Nation)

It didn’t take long for Gabe Kapler’s honeymoon in Philadelphia to come to a conclusion. With Aaron Nola cruising against the Atlanta Braves on Opening Day, Kapler pulled the team’s eventual lone All-Star representative with a 5-1 lead with one out in the bottom of the sixth and just 68 pitches exhausted. The Phillies would go on to lose that game 8-5, the first loss in an ugly 1-4 start. It was far from the first time that one of Kapler’s decisions was questioned, as the 12-year major league veteran became a polarizing figure in his first season at the helm of the Phillies.

Prior to the start of the season, many Phillies fans would have been content if told the team would go 80-82 and finish in third place in the National League East in 2018. Internally, the Phillies organization probably would have signed up for an 80-82 campaign. But that lacks the context that the Washington Nationals had an extremely disappointing season. It lacks the context that Phillies bought at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline (and even into August) for the first time in seven years. And it lacks the context that after entering August in first-place in the National League East, the Phillies finished with a losing record.

So though there doesn’t appear to have ever been a debate internally about whether Kapler would return to manage the Phillies in 2019, a 27-40 record after the All-Star Break turned the heat up on Kapler again late in the season. At general manager Matt Klentak’s season-ending press conference, Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia asked the third-year general manager what feedback he would give his hand-picked manager after their first season together.

“I’m not going to sit up here and criticize him, but I do think that part of what Kap learned this year is that perception matters. Through some unfortunate – or very high-profile – early-season incidents, he started off in a bit of a hole. And [he] did an excellent job of recovering from that for four months. Now at the end, as the team performance has struggled, I certainly recognize that the spotlight is back on him. But I’m not at all worried about Kap’s work-ethic or his willingness to adjust and lead this group going forward.”

There were times throughout the course of the season where Kapler’s unconventional manager style didn’t work. Pulling Nola on Opening Day, though there may have been some calculation behind it, didn’t work. Though there’s no guarantee that keeping the same lineup day-in-and-day-out (or more frequently than he did) would have worked, constant lineup changes throughout the final two months of the season didn’t help to spark a team that hit a wall when the calendar turned to August. Seranthony Dominguez didn’t find much success when the team asked him to pitch a second inning after sitting in the dugout following pitching in a high-leverage situation.

With that said, the Phillies were 59-48 at the conclusion of July. They won 80 games despite posting a -51 run differential, something Klentak cited in his press conference. The Pythagorean theorem says the Phillies should have been four games worse than they finished, something that’s a credit to a manager’s in-game decision-making, among other things. And despite a report from Jon Heyman of Fancred Sports that there was “some disenchantment” among veterans about Kapler’s managerial style down-the-stretch of the season, Rhys Hoskins, Carlos Santana and Pat Neshek have all publicly praised the interpersonal skills of Kapler.

Klentak said that managerial mistakes – ones that will be heavily-debated in a passionate sports city – come with the territory for a rookie manager.

“It’s not reasonable – and it wasn’t reasonable a year ago when we sat here – to think that a first-year manager in Philadelphia period – especially a first-time manager at any level – would come in here and be flawless from the start. That’s just not reality, guys, it’s not. Again, some his mistakes have been very high-profile, I think he’s handled them very well. It won’t be the last mistake that he makes, he’ll make more,  that’s the nature of his job, every decision that he makes is on display every night.”

What the last two months of the Phillies 2018 season showed is that this may be the most crucial offseason in franchise history. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will both reach free-agency at age 26, with the Phillies clearly at least one elite hitter away. Four-fifths of the team’s starting rotation posted an ERA north of five after the All-Star Break, creating questions about the one part of the roster that appeared to be relatively stable for most of the summer. And the team’s defense – which was panned by both traditional statistics and advanced metrics – needs to be drastically improved.

But not all is negative, despite a disappointing finish to the season. The Phillies, as Klentak was sure to remind the collective media, won 14 more games in 2018 than they did in 2017. And though there are some adjustments the Phillies will ask Kapler to make in 2019, the organization still feels pretty good about the 54th manager in club history.

“It is incredible to me how thoughtful he is, how well he communicates and how adjustable he is,” Klentak said of Kapler.

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