People will not remember where they were when they heard that Gabe Kapler was fired as manager of the Phillies. Now: I remember that I was on a train platform on the way to an audition, the first in the series of about 75 places I had to go that day, and because I am writing about it now, I may always remember. But the normal, well-adjusted denizens of the world will not, in future years, trade stories about where they were at that moment. Because the rational response to the news is: Huh. Okay. And people don’t have the moments they think “Huh. Okay.” emblazoned in their memories.
Of course, I did say this is the “rational response,” which does cut out a significant portion of the Philadelphia fan base. (As always, I can say this, because I’m from Philly.) A lot of people were thrilled.
To be clear, the outpouring of joyful gifs came as no surprise. Kapler was not popular in Philly. I can’t count the number of times that I have decided not to engage with someone’s Twitter reply that hashtags #FireKapler.
A Bad Top of the 1st
But Kapler had a rough road. He seriously stumbled out of the managerial gate. Already on thin fan-opinion ice for removing Aaron Nola early on Opening Day of 2018, Kapler called in reliever Hoby Milner in game three before Milner had a chance to warm-up. It was horrifying. It was embarrassing. I became full-on #FireKapler. I remember arguing that the Phillies had worked so hard to rebuild their team, and now that all of their young players were reaching the majors, they were not going to be able to trust their own manager. Only I pounded on the bar rather than using italics.
However, when the Phillies went 15-10 that April, and went on to spend 39 delightful, improbable days in first place in the NL East in 2018, I reassessed my opinion. Clearly, my boys could win with Kapler as their manager. They seemed to like him. He was okay.
The #FireKapler Brigade
But just as clearly, not all Phillies fans could let go of their initial fire-breathing hatred of Kapler. But I believe the difference lies in the fact that I wanted to like Kapler, and they did not. They didn’t dislike him because of Hoby Milnergate. They disliked him because he wasn’t a name they already knew and John Farrell had been available. They disliked him for his West-Coast style and attitude. They disliked him because he had a lifestyle blog and touts coconut oil as a personal lubricant. They disliked him because he looks like a Ken doll (in point of fact, he does). But they also, plausibly, disliked him for the very things which are his greatest assets.
First of all, Kapler has an 80-grade positive attitude. I agree that this can create some troubling disconnect for fans when he said the Phillies would make the postseason after a 15-2 loss and then, well, they didn’t make the postseason last year. But by this season, reality seemed more incorporated into his positivity–a particular brand of hard work, in my opinion. Negativity is undemanding, and maybe even popular, while positivity takes work and makes a person an easy target for the naysayers. But above all, Kapler’s positive attitude probably goes hand-in-hand with the thick skin he had for criticism from all sources–which is good, because he got it from all sources–and his willingness to accept responsibility for his decisions. I think he probably took the blame for things that weren’t his fault, too.
Secondly, Kapler came to the Phillies as a manager with a strong knowledge of analytics and willingness to use them in game. I consider this a huge plus, but many people see analytics as the thing that’s ruining the neighborhood. But that’s because when analytics work, they’re not as visible. The Phillies may have been a little defensive-shift-happy in 2018, but a broadcast team only comments on the times a batter beats the shift, not the ten previous times the ball has been hit straight to perfectly-positioned fielder. People love to complain about a starter who was cruising being taken out of the game, but they might not know what the penalty is the third time through the order. And no, I’m not thinking of any Vince Velasquez in particular.
My Managerial Checklist
But for these reasons, I wanted to like Kapler. In my view, an analytically-minded manager who fosters a friendly clubhouse environment, rather than a dictatorial one, is the way of the future. The Phillies need to be a forward-thinking organization. I liked his positive attitude and the fact that the players seemed to like him. Nor did I mind that he was, in the view of his detractors, ‘inexperienced;’ I think that former players with knowledge of analytics position themselves very well to act as managers. Even if they haven’t been, hypothetically, the Director of Player Development for the Dodgers.
To be honest, I never did like the fact that he looks like a Ken doll. Look at him. It’s off-putting. But I am not that petty. He was everything I wanted my manager to be.
And yet, on the day that he was fired, I thought “Huh. Okay.”
And that is because despite adding Bryce Harper, JT Realmuto, Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen, and others, the Phillies finished the 2019 season at 81-81. One win better than their 80-82 2018.
Get Yer Pitchforks
On the day that John Mallee was fired as the Phillies hitting coach and replaced with Charlie Manuel–a PR effort to salvage a squandered trade deadline–I wrote: “I hate the which-coach-or-manager-is-to-blame-game, it feels uncomfortably Marie Antoinette to me.” In order to not devolve into my “did you know Marie never said ‘let them eat cake'” speech, let me clarify: it feels like a figurehead, who perhaps isn’t personally to blame, has been made a scapegoat.
On the one hand, the role of the manager is to be the figurehead, the scapegoat. Managers function as the lightning rod for fan opinion, because it’s comparatively easy for fans to see themselves doing a manager’s job. Fans can think that they wouldn’t have put Joe Kelly in for that second inning, or they wouldn’t have left Jack Flaherty in to throw 104 pitches with a double-digit lead. But they cannot think–they can’t really think–that they could locate, or hit, a 99 MPH fastball.
And Kapler made for the perfect scapegoat. Opinion on him never soared, to say the least, and it constituted the next-most-convenient move for Middleton to make, having fired the hitting and pitching coaches.
The fact exists that a manager’s record is always a referendum on his ability. But this fact has always frustrated me. I doubt Kapler is to blame for his 161-163 record, but I don’t know how to separate his potential from those numbers. I wish there were advanced stats on managers to dive into, here. At this point, we all know that a pitcher’s win-loss record is mostly bogus, but besides that and a few bullpen moves, it’s how we judge managers. And that’s dumb.
But as much as I’ve decried equating a manager to his win/loss record, I have to face this truth: I feel kind of 161-163 about Gabe Kapler’s stint with the Phillies. Am I part of the problem?
Kap’s Out: Photo Review
On the day, a personally busy day as I mentioned, that the Phillies dismissed Gabe Kapler, my wonderful friend and esteemed sportswriter Joe Posnanski politely demanded a photo review (also, you should buy his new book). He calls it an “Ellen Face,” but he is referring to my tradition, which you can find on the Turf here re: Jason Vargas and here re: Jay Bruce, of taking a picture to show how I feel about a Phillies trade or acquisition.
At first, I told him that I didn’t see that the picture would be worth anything, because, without pinpointing it as I have done in the subsequent days, I felt 161-163 about the move. But I acquiesced, because it is hard to deny someone so delightful something so easily done. (And you can see how hilarious it is, now, that I thought I didn’t have much to say about it.)
But in fact, my 161-163 emotional life does not stem from a review of Kapler. It’s a review of the move. On the one hand, I like him. He checks the boxes of the manager I want. And personally, the one time I met him, I found him to be exceptionally nice, not just a person having a pro forma conversation with a fan.
On the other hand, a reason has to exist as to why a team this talented ended up with a .500 record. It’s probably not Gabe Kapler. But in the spirit of scientific inquiry, I’m willing to test that variable. After all of last offseason’s upgrades yielded a single additional win, it feels like insanity to go into the 2020 season without making any changes, but somehow expecting better results.
And I think John Middleton, the owner of the Phillies, feels the same way.
John Middleton, the People’s Man
When I was last on the excellent “The Good Phight” podcast “Hittin’ Season,” I recall saying something to the effect that John Middleton was the only person in the Phillies organization that we could trust to be feeling the same anxiety as the fans.
And at the time, I meant it as a positive for Middleton. Particularly because it was in the context of me laying into Matt Klentak, the Phillies General Manager, for not doing more to address Phillies pitching at the trade deadline. If Stroman was to be had at that price, why not? Or at least pick up a reliever that wasn’t released by his former organization! Given that the Phillies bullpen had a sign all year that said AT THE HOSPITAL, BE BACK IN–with one of those little clocks with movable hands pointing to the year 2020. I’m not going to get further into that rant now, but suffice to say that I think Klentak deserves more blame for the Phillies faltering down the stretch than Kapler does.
But I think now there may be some troubling implications for Middleton’s consideration of the fan viewpoint.
Oh Man, the Press Conference
Anyone who watched the Phillies press conference on the Kapler firing and did not leave with a sense of deep unease, I can only suspect they were under the influence of medication.
It became abundantly clear that Middelton forced Kapler out against the wishes of Klentak and Andy MacPhail, the Phillies President of Baseball Operations. That Middleton was the driving force behind the firing came as no surprise; after all, he and Klentak have occupied kind of Good Cop/Bad Cop roles since the days of the Bryce Harper sweepstakes, with MacPhail playing the role of No Cop/Is He a Cop?/Maybe Plainclothes Cop?/Unclear.
But that Middleton would continue to employ a regime who he appears not to trust is troubling. Perhaps great organizational governance will happen with a cabinet of rivals, but it doesn’t feel like that’s what we’ve seen with the organization. It seems like we’re seeing a directional disconnect. Clearly, Klentak stands on notice now that his managerial pick has been deemed a failure. I’m not alone in prognosticating that if the Phillies don’t improve in 2020, Klentak’s job is next.
And ultimately, that leads to an organization that feels 161-163 about things. And 161-163 kinds of measures. The Phillies organization dimissed the hitting and pitching coaches, but retained the rest of the coaching staff. (Although a new manager could insist on some more replacements.) Klentak publically leads the charge in the search for a new manager, but who among us believes he has the final say-so?
Populism, Yeah, Yeah
And here, my friends, is where the night gets darkest. I have always liked Middleton, particularly in comparison to other owners, and no, I don’t mean any Wilpons in particular. He really wants to win, which shouldn’t be as unusual of an ownership quality as it is. I like that he’s comparatively forthright. And the Phillies organization is filled with the nicest people, who have treated me like a princess when I am, in fact, a dweeb.
But Middleton may have ousted Kapler because he cares about fan opinion, and the fans, on the whole, never liked Kapler. And that is troubling. It’s nice, as a fan, to feel that someone sees it from your point of view. But fan opinion should not be a determining factor in these decisions. I realize it’s difficult for me to make this point, since I’m a fan, and it’s my opinion. But it doesn’t get more “Marie Antoinette” than firing someone specifically because the mob was against them. Especially since the mob maybe never wanted to like an LA Ken doll with a lifestyles blog, and didn’t give him a fair chance. He never said “Let them eat coconut oil,” guys.
An Alternative History?
But as long as I’ve referenced President Lincoln, Marie Antoinette and Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, let me backtrack to my initial reaction to the Kapler firing, and from there, put myself in Middleton’s (probably pretty fancy) shoes.
As I said before, the Phillies can’t flip the whole organization over to 2020 and make the playoffs by hoping for a different outcome with the same variables. If I’m Middleton, maybe I like the organizational team I’ve assembled, even though–or maybe because–I don’t always agree with them. And if it’s me playing Middleton, I even like Gabe Kapler. But I fire him. Because I have to start somewhere to see what’s not working. And I don’t fire Klentak, and I don’t fire every last coach, because my hope is, I won’t have to replace everybody.
And this way, I can test the variables, one by one. It doesn’t have anything to do with mob rule. It’s the spirit of scientific inquiry. Philadelphia is Benjamin Franklin’s city, after all. You’ve got to send that possibly apocryphal key up on that kite or some shit.
These are both plausible explanations. Time will tell.
The Next Manager
However, time could tell sort of soon. If I’m John Middleton, I’m still going to look to hire–excuse me, approve Klentak’s findings for–a coach that relates to analytics and players, regardless of experience. And although he paid lip-service to finding the next Craig Counsell in the press conference, I highly doubt that the Phillies go with the same model of manager as Kapler. And that disappoints me.
Because, as I wrote on Thursday, I fear that the firing of Kapler will be an indictment of his excellent attributes. I worry it will be viewed as the failure of analytical management in Philadelphia, which should be absurd for anyone watching the teams currently in the postseason.
But I think the pendulum is going to swing the other direction. I’d rather the firing of Kapler not be a judgment on the process that hired him, but I think it will be.
These are my general thoughts and fears, but I am not going to delve into the Phillies’ options for their next manager here. I will attack that in a separate piece, because this one is already as long as Moby Dick, but without all the fun chapters about whale stuff.
I did not begin this aimless, back-and-forth examination in the best of spirits, and I feel my hopefulness has only waned. In some ways, I envy the people responding to the news with joyful gifs. But, like Gabe Kapler, I strive to remain optimistic, even if I call myself ‘a realist optimist.’
And so, I have these thoughts for Gabe: I think he will be an excellent and successful manager somewhere and sometime, with organizations like the Giants and Cubs already giving him a call. Gabe, may you have Terry Francona’s career–who, let us recall, was also run out of Philadelphia.
And I will always treasure this, as one of my favorite managerial responses from getting tossed from a game, for its blend of simplicity and over-complication:
And for better or for worse, I will always think of Gabe Kapler when I think of coconut oil, perhaps for the rest of my life.
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