At the outset of the 2021 season, it wouldn’t have been surprising if a team from the National League West had the best record in baseball approaching the All-Star Break.
However, if you were told that the team tied for the most wins in the sport wasn’t the Los Angeles Dodgers or San Diego Padres, well, that would have been unthinkable.
But Gabe Kapler’s San Francisco Giants will enter play Thursday atop the National League West, and tied with the Boston Red Sox for the most wins in baseball at 54. The Giants have two less losses than the Red Sox.
Naturally, Jayson Stark of The Athletic named Kapler as his midseason National League Manager of the Year, an award that the former Phillies skipper may win unanimously if voting was held today. In his explanation, Stark spoke to an unnamed executive, one who had praise for Kapler’s development in his second managerial stop:
“It’s so clear he learned a lot of lessons from what he did wrong in Philadelphia,” said a rival executive with no connection to Kapler or to either team he has managed. “He’s really smart. He really cares. And it’s obvious he took the things that didn’t work there and made sure he wouldn’t do those things again.”
Kapler perhaps never recovered from the decision to remove Aaron Nola after just 68 pitches in the first game he ever managed with the Phillies, a decision that ultimately led to the Phillies losing to the Atlanta Braves to open up the 2018 season. That was among a slew of questionable decisions that the former Red Sox outfielder made early on in his tenure as Phillies manager.
In each of Kapler’s seasons, the Phillies probably won as many or more total games than what would be expected from the rosters that they had. However, the path to how they got there was bumpy. In two Septembers under Kapler, the Phillies went 20-36, with managing partner John Middleton citing the late-season collapses – and his belief there wasn’t a reason it wouldn’t happen again – when he dismissed Kapler following his second season.
The biggest thing that Kapler may have had working against him is that he’s uber-positive. It wasn’t an act, that’s really how he views things, and it’s probably a good quality to have during the trials and tribulations of a 162-game season. But it didn’t come off as relatable to many Phillies fans. Northeastern sports fans are typically cynical to begin with, and Kapler took a job where he inherited six consecutive years of missing the postseason. Perhaps the only way that positivity would fly with portions of the fanbase is if the Phillies returned to the postseason for the first time since 2011, which didn’t happen, at least in part because of the aforementioned September collapses.
However, predictions that Kapler would burn out in a Chip Kelly-type fashion have proven laughable. Like Kelly, Kapler took a job with a seemingly down-on-their-luck San Francisco franchise after a few seasons in Philadelphia. But Kelly lasted just one year as the head coach of the 49ers before being fired. Kapler’s Giants seemingly overachieved by going 29-31 – a game better than the Joe Girardi-managed Phillies – in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Now, his team in San Francisco looks like a legitimate World Series contender in his second year managing the team, which was hardly predictable back in April.
Meanwhile, the Phillies, in Girardi’s second year, are still dealing with many of the same problems that plagued Kapler during his two seasons in red pinstripes. The roster is too top-heavy, there’s not enough talent to work with in the bullpen and the organization isn’t consistently developing former draft picks and international signings into impact major leaguers.
As was the case during Kapler’s tenure, Girardi has made plenty of decisions in 2021 that have been second-guessed. The manager isn’t above being criticized even if he isn’t handed a playoff-caliber team, but it’s clear with Girardi – as it was with Kapler and Pete Mackanin – that the biggest problem in the organization isn’t the person presiding over the team.
Perhaps being fired after the 2019 season was actually a blessing in disguise for Kapler. It forced him to make some adjustments to how he manages, and perhaps allowed him to land in a market that his personality is a better fit for. Reunited with Zaidi – who he had previously worked with during his time in the Dodgers front office – Kapler looks as though he’s going to lead the Giants to the postseason for the first time since 2016. Meanwhile, if the season ended today, the Phillies would miss the playoffs and post a non-winning record, extending both streaks to 10 years long.
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