The man behind the microphone was talking about competitive advantages and values at the margin and evidence-based decision-making and the importance of challenging long-accepted orthodoxies, and he was doing all this while wearing the ceremonial garb of a new Phillies hire: a crisp red ballcap pulled low on his brow and a bright white jersey buttoned over his shirt and tie.
For anybody who lived through the decline and fall of the previous empire, the scene was almost enough to bring a tear to the eye. Gabe Kapler might not be the most obvious choice to manage the Phillies, and the jury is still very much out on whether he was the correct one. But however it plays out, the organization’s hiring of a 42-year-old member of baseball’s avant-garde over a slew of more traditional candidates is as sure a sign as any that the progressive era of one of baseball’s last proud reactionaries is in full swing.
It’s understandable if you listened to Kapler at his introductory press conference two weeks ago and came away thinking him a little bit much. The line between sage and charlatan is often difficult to distinguish in the present moment, and Kapler wouldn’t be the first person in the Internet age to turn himself into an expert simply by acting like one. Absent a track record of success, one can do worse than to look the part and speak in vaguely defined abstractions. It’s not what you know that’s important, but what you make people think that you know. Quackery can become wisdom in the hands of the right salesman, and it’s pretty clear that Kapler knows how to sell.
Yet there is plenty to suggest that Kapler’s hiring is more than a case of wishful thinking. Beneath his polished appearance and proselytizing tone, there is a bedrock of substance. Take, for instance, the emphasis he placed on authenticity when explaining his communication style.
“More than anything else,” he said, “I am who I am, and I’m authentic, and our players today follow authenticity more than anything else, more than any other characteristic.”
This claim is not merely anecdotal. Studies in the social and corporate sciences increasingly identify authenticity as one of the more important attributes for a leader in any organization. Bill George, a senior fellow at the Harvard Business School and a former CEO of Medtronic, has spent much of the last two decades conducting research on the topic, including hundreds of hours of interviews with executives from a broad cross-section of organizations that support the notion that the 20th century’s command-and-control is a paradigm best consigned to history’s paper shredder. A baseball manager is one of professional sports’ most enduring archetypes, a grizzled, old-school, establishment figure who operates as if respect is a commodity that is his alone to award.
“In business, that grizzled guy would be a guy with gray hair and a big barrel chest who is 6-foot-2 and puts everyone down and dominates everyone around him,” said George, whose work includes two books: 2003’s Authentic Leadership and 2007’s True North. “That’s not what people are looking for. They’re looking for someone who is real, someone who makes them feel like they know where they stand.”
One characteristic common among frauds is a rigid insistence on the supremacy of one’s personal orthodoxy. This is a trait whose manifestations, while subtle, are difficult to disguise, because any expression of dissent is an implication of fallibility, and thus results in an almost compulsive need to contradict that dissent, so central is the presumption of infallibility to that person’s self-identity. If gods answered letters, they would no longer be gods.
From that perspective, one of the more encouraging moments of Kapler’s introductory press conference occurred when he explained his philosophy on building a coaching staff.
“Quite simply and directly, I believe in building diversity,” Kapler said. “I don’t want seven people in our dugout that think just like me.”
This is an illuminating statement on a couple of different levels. Regarding the manager, it suggests an abundant of self-awareness (because no man is omniscient) and an enduring self-confidence (because no man likes to acknowledge he isn’t omniscient), both of which raise hope that Kapler can avoid the kind of impudent bullheadedness that has presaged the fall of many intelligent men (maybe the elephant in the room wasn’t coconut oil but Chip Kelly).
The notion of assembling a diversity of thought is also a pertinent one for the Phillies organization as a whole. The previous general manager’s advisers included three of the men who preceded him in that job, including two to whom he’d directly reported as an assistant GM. The scouting director had been with the organization since before the 1994 strike. They were experienced baseball men with track records of success, but that collective experience led to a homogenization of thought. No doubt, there are efficiencies in monocultures, but there is also a shared susceptibility. The same strain of disease can infect the whole bunch. As in crops, the minds of men.
When the Phillies brought in Andy MacPhail to oversee their rebuild in 2015, one of the great unknowns was whether ownership had the will/foresight/humility to acknowledge that the organization’s problems ran deeper than a few bad harvests after years of plenty. The changes they made over the next couple of years — investments in analytics, the trade of closer Ken Giles, the avoidance of bad contracts — left little doubt that their intentions were sincere. But the Kapler hiring brought a new level of clarity to the vision. Whether or not he proves to be the right man for the job — and there are valid arguments both for and against — the thought processes that led to the decision are those of an organization determined to operate in a manner commensurate with the significant market advantages it holds over all but a handful of teams in the majors.
Professional sports are no longer the domain of wildcatters and traveling salesmen. The games are still the games, but those games are now won and lost in a complex economic arena in which billion-dollar companies compete against each other for the same fixed pool of talent, the scarcity and sophistication and transparency of which have drastically diminished the ability to find value through traditional means. Maybe there’s a kid on some farm in Nebraska throwing cow pellets against the barn at 105 mph, but chances are the local travel ball team is going to find him first, and by the time your flight arrives in North Platte, he’ll be playing at a showcase in front of 31 other scouts.
Information is the original currency. Power has always flowed to those who possess it. Once upon a time, possession was primarily a function of access. If you knew what you were looking for, and where to look, the advantage was yours. Now, everybody has access to the same information. The advantage goes to those who have the best understanding of what that information means, of what it says about the optimal way to position defenders, to pitch to hitters, to allocate payroll dollars, to treat and prevent injuries, to prepare for games, to travel, to sleep, to build strength and ingest nutrients. It goes to those who can glean from it lessons on the relative importance of physical characteristics, from heights and weights and ages to skill sets.
To some, that might read as a verbatim rebuttal of the turn that our national pastime has taken and that the Phillies are now taking with it. If simply reading about it is enough to overwhelm the mind, what about the guy who has half a second to decide if he is going to swing at a Clayton Kershaw slider? All the smoothies and urine tests and sleep monitors got Chip Kelly one fewer playoff win than Ray Rhodes. There is some validity to such thoughts, which is why it is important to note that the competitive advantages will also go to the teams that best integrate their processes into an efficient, intuitive, functional whole.
This, I suspect, more than anything, is why the Phillies made the decision to move on from Pete Mackanin. I suspect that, in the Phillies’ vision of baseball’s brand-new world, the least important things that a manager does will be the things that we’ve traditionally assigned the most weight. A team with the right information processes can design an algorithm that spits out the best hitter or pitcher to use in any situation, and that decision will have been informed by far more variables and a far keener measure of probabilities than any human mind is capable of.
Maybe that doesn’t sound like fun, but if you’re operating on the premise that winning games is the most fun thing of all, then you’d better get used to it. The same logical chain leads to a future in which a machine can inform a manager after every pitch the optimal type and location that the next pitch should be, based on variables ranging from the batter’s past performance in similar counts against similar pitchers to information from that day’s injury report. Maybe you’d dismiss such information because of the human elements it cannot account for, but let’s see what you say when you’re up by a run with two on and one out in the bottom of the ninth and Joe Carter is stepping into the box for a 2-2 pitch.
Which pitch do you trust more:
A) The one that has been selected based on a finely tuned set of variables that your scouts have exhaustively determined to be the most relevant to the situation at hand, weighted at their exact levels of importance, and drawing upon every scouting report your team has on file, and every major-league pitch that batter has ever seen, up to and including the most recent pitch of that inning?
B) The one that Mitch is feeling good about.
You probably don’t need to be reminded, but this test is pass/fail.
We don’t have to like it, but we have to accept it. It isn’t just inevitable; it’s already here. That lends an extra bit of sadness for the fate of a guy such as Mackanin, who played the loyal and willing soldier right up to the end. He spent his entire life preparing for the job the Phillies handed him, and did a perfectly capable job once he had it, and then the job itself changed. In Kapler, the club identified a person whose intellect, ethos, and intuition were perfectly suited for the unique role a manager can occupy within an organization.
Competition breeds specialization, and specialization breeds a need for leaders who have the ability to recognize how all the specialties fit together and are comfortable with and capable of integrating them into a contextualized whole. He can weigh the desire to record a high-leverage out with the understanding that Hector Neris will be 10 percent more effective tomorrow and 3 percent healthier the rest of the season if he sits this one out rather than pitching a third game in a row. He can weigh the desire for the call-up of a young player from the minors with the implications on his development. He can explain to a pitcher why the evidence says to throw a slider in a particular count, and he can explain that he understands his hesitancy.
“That’s part of what we’re embracing here, is Kap’s willingness to ask questions and to move the organization forward, to try to be more progressive, as he said, to hunt value on the margins,” general manager Matt Klentak said. “If you look at any great leaders, they are going to have both succeeded and failed in their lives. That’s generally true of all successful leaders. I think to really achieve and to really excel, you have to be willing to take risks.”
Like our pop quiz earlier, Kapler will be judged pass/fail, with the most likely outcome falling at one of the extreme ends of the spectrum: lunacy or brilliance, with little in between. However it plays, one thing we can say without question is that the organization is headed toward a vastly different future than the one he faced as a player.