CLEARWATER, Fla. — This wasn’t a story about a drill. It was a story about the videotaping of a drill. Gabe Kapler was telling it to a gaggle of media that had assembled at Spectrum Field in advance of the first official workout of spring training. The first-year manager had been at the Phillies’ offseason headquarters since Feb. 1, working out with a contingent of players that he estimates as representing about 30 percent of his roster.
On Tuesday morning, the workout featured a ball-feeding drill that was the brainchild of first-base coach Jose David Flores, whose duties include overseeing the team’s baserunning and infield defense. As Flores put players like J.P. Crawford, Scott Kingery, and Maikel Franco through their paces, Kapler was so impressed with what he saw that he took out his phone and began recording a video of the drill so that he could share the moment with Flores later.
“I just thought that it changed the energy of the entire day,” Kapler said. “So if I videotape that drill, and I send that to [Flores], like, ‘Flo, that drill was insane, the whole day was changed because of that drill you put together,’ and he gets to look at it like, there’s Kingery, there’s J.P. Crawford, there’s Will Middlebrooks, there’s Maikel Franco, and they’re all doing this drill that I just brought today? I mean, think of all the people who benefit from that: all of the players, because maybe Flo shares it with them, Flo feels good about himself, and that energy just starts to permeate, it just starts to seep into the rest of camp.”
Energy is a word that we’ve heard a lot since the Phillies turned their lineup card over to Kapler back in late October. We’ve heard it from the people who have worked around the former big-league outfielder throughout the various stops in his post-playing career and we’ve heard it even more often from the man himself. Often, it comes imbued with a certain strain of apprehension, a cautionary wait-and-see regarding the various turns for the worse the impact of that energy might take over the course of a 162-game season.
But if you listen to Kapler talk, you should notice two things about his intensity: It is both unceasingly positive and intuitively self-aware. That first characteristic is one whose potential benefits need no rehashing in a city where the scent of stale beer still lingers along a Super Bowl parade route. One thing we learned from the Eagles’ run was that an intense self-confidence can have a dramatic impact on a team’s performance between the lines, and everything we’ve heard from Kapler thus far suggests he is determined to build an environment that fosters the development of an intense self-belief.
“One of the questions I’ve been asking a lot of our players is: What does it mean to play boldly?” Kapler said. “What does it mean to deliver a pitch boldly? What does it mean to take a swing in the batter’s box boldly? What does it mean to communicate boldly? What I’ve gotten in return is: with conviction, with fearlessness, courageously, with intent. So [we’re] asking our players to compete like that, building an environment without fear. We know that when we walk into a room or out onto a field and we feel like we’re going to be judged, condemned for every little thing, we get paralyzed and we can’t act, and then we lose that boldness, we lose that conviction, we lose that intent. So the thought process is [to] create the environment where people feel like they can be bold and comfortable.”
That might sound like a batch of buzzword stew to us weather-hardened Northeast cynics, as well as the traditionalist baseball establishment with which we are familiar. But Kapler doesn’t come across like some TED Talking guru, and the reality is that there is no such thing as a toxic level of positive energy, provided it comes from an authentic place and is channeled into actionable steps toward a well-defined goal.
“I have gotten nothing but human, normal interaction from our guys,” Kapler said. “Shake hands, look them in the eye, tell them how happy you are to be working with them. And I’ve gotten just the same in return. No, I haven’t felt any preconceived notions. Do I think they may have read a thing or two and may have some ideas? Sure. But they’re going to find out I’m not coming in to take food away. That’s not my job. My job is to come in and help them be confident, help them be strong. Not to make decisions for them, but just to ask them questions. Be a good thought partner to them.”
Murph’s bottom line
The reality is that the upcoming season and every season after will almost certainly come down to what it always comes down to: the players, both as individuals and as a collective roster. There might be some idiosyncrasies to Kapler’s approach that end up serving as minor plotlines to the season ahead, but the Phillies will, in all likelihood, finish where their talent level says they should. Of course, environment can play a significant role in one’s ability to maximize his talent and reach his potential. Kapler seems to take his responsibility for building such an environment the way he takes everything: very, very seriously.