Gabe Kapler's early mistakes with Phillies' bullpen could threaten the trust his players have in him | David Murphy

KAPLER29-e
Phillies manager Gabe Kapler, center, keeps his eyes on Phillies right fielder, Jesmuel Valentin, left, as he gets ready to bat against the Toronto Blue Jays on March 20, 2018, during a spring training game.

The first thing you need to hope is that it isn’t too late. It feels weird to write a sentence like that three games into a manager’s career, but, then, it was a weird weekend. Even if it is a little bit overboard,  the mere fact that such a thought cannot immediately be dismissed is stunning in its implications. If Gabe Kapler is as keen an observer of the human condition as he has presented himself since his first day on the job, he will know that one thing that all effectual leaders must possess is the unqualified confidence of those they are attempting to lead. More than authenticity, or boldness, or empathic concern, what a group of men needs before it follows you into battle is a reasonable belief that you know enough of what you are doing to avoid getting everybody killed.

Therein lies the challenge that suddenly stands in the way of Kapler and all of the lofty aspirations he has spent the last couple of months preaching. While a locker room is generally less questioning of authority than your average 25-person sample of the general population, it is still a place composed of beings endowed with capability for critical thought, and what those beings witnessed Saturday night was a breakdown so fundamental that it defies rationalization. Kapler, to his credit, did not attempt to manufacture any such reason regarding his breakdown in the third inning on Saturday night, when he summoned a reliever from a bullpen in which there were no relievers warming. The cover-up is always worse than the crime, and so is the justification, and after a demoralizing 15-2 loss that ended with a position player on the mound, Kapler did not engage in either. It cannot happen, it did happen, and the only thing that could be said is that it would not happen again.

But forgiveness is much easier to acquire than a restoration of faith. The former requires words, the latter often requires actions, and actions are constrained by the natural flow of time. It’s hard to prove a negative, but that is what Kapler must now do. He must find a way to make his players believe that what they witnessed was not the evidence of managerial ineptitude that a reasonable mind could construe it to be.

Camera icon CHRIS O'MEARA / AP
Phillies manager Gabe Kapler during spring training.

It’s difficult even to process that something so basic could end up being the undoing of a man with such an ambitious agenda, but, then, that agenda is precisely why the ramifications of such a basic thing are so potentially huge.

The two games leading up to Saturday’s fiasco offered a glimpse of the immense trust Kapler will need from his players for his vision for the season to materialize. His decision to keep Odubel Herrera on the bench on Opening Day is the sort of thing that will lead to some hurt feelings even in a best-case scenario. You can sit a guy down and make an air-tight case, complete with footnotes and PowerPoint slides, that proves beyond a reasonable doubt that he isn’t the best man for that day’s job. If the guy in question has been his team’s best all-around player for three straight seasons, he will have a difficult time accepting that he isn’t in the lineup for one of the most visible games of the season. Getting him to accept it requires a belief on his part that what you are doing really is in the best interest of the team. Give him a reason to question your ability to do so and you can see where that leads.

Poll

Who is the best coach/manager in Philadelphia?

Same goes for the decision Kapler made later on Opening Day, when he trotted out to the mound and took the ball from Aaron Nola when he was in the midst of a gem and had thrown fewer pitches than any other starter would throw across the major leagues that day. The statistical record offered plenty of evidence to support the decision. Last year, for instance, opposing hitters posted a .836 OPS against Nola his third time through the lineup, compared with .642 and .548 the first two times. Plus, the hitter at the plate in this particular moment was lefty slugger Freddie Freeman, and the Phillies had a reliever who’d held lefties to a .464 OPS last season.

Yet there was an equally compelling argument against the move, and it more or less played out in real life over the game’s last 4-1/2 innings. From an empirical standpoint, Freeman’s home run off Hoby Milner and the come-from-behind win it sparked do not prove that Kapler made a foolish decision. Sound reasoning sometimes yields unsound results. That’s just how probability works. But a player who is conditioned to rely on his experience first and foremost needs a certain level of faith that the man asking him to ignore intuition really does know what he is doing.

I like Gabe Kapler. Throughout spring training, you could see the benefits that his energy, enthusiasm, and disregard for convention can bring to an organization. I have always believed that a manager’s biggest impact is more holistic than strategic, and that his aptitude in the latter department should carry far less weight than his ability to build an environment that gets the most out of his players. But Kapler’s rough first weekend is the kind of thing that can undermine his ability to build such an environment. He was always going to need the benefit of an uncommon amount of trust, from both his players and his bosses. After Saturday, refortifying that capital should be his top priority.