CLEARWATER, Fla. – It is an unusual place Gabe Kapler finds himself in as he begins his rookie season as a major-league manager. On one hand, his first Phillies team is among the youngest in baseball and coming off a 96-loss, last-place season. That’s the kind of results that typically buy time for the new guy. How can he be expected to have a good team right away when he inherited such a bad one?
Welcome to Philadelphia, Gabe.
High expectations for the 2018 Phillies actually are not unreasonable. As managing partner John Middleton recently noted, the Phillies were among baseball’s biggest spenders in the free-agent market, adding starter Jake Arrieta, first baseman Carlos Santana, and relievers Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek. The Phillies, under former manager Pete Mackanin, also finished strong last season, going 37-38 after the all-star break, including a 10-10 record against the five playoff teams they faced. They also received a huge jolt of offensive energy down the stretch from rookie Rhys Hoskins, who hit 18 home runs in 170 at-bats.
Kapler was on record early in spring training as saying that the Phillies had the ability to surprise people, and that was before they added Arrieta to the mix. Larry Bowa, the former Phillies manager and bench coach who was in uniform throughout spring training as a special instructor, does not agree with the new manager.
“I disagree with the statement that you’re going to surprise people,” Bowa said. “We surprised people in the second half last year. That’s over with. We’re done surprising. You have to win more than you lose right now.”
Again, welcome to Philadelphia, Gabe.
“That’s not putting pressure on anybody,” Bowa said. “That’s making guys out here do what they’re supposed to do.”
Kapler, 42, does not mind if Bowa or anybody else wants to apply immediate pressure on the first-year manager. He sees the world differently from most and, unsurprisingly, his thoughts on pressure are distinctive, too.
“I feel pressure to prepare better and to work more diligently than the competition,” Kapler said. “That’s always how I’ll feel. It doesn’t matter what the expectations are on wins and losses or how good your team is. I feel that same pressure independent of those things.”
It is not a stretch to think that the new Phillies manager is more stressed by the process of getting ready for a game and a season than he actually will be once the games begin. If we’ve learned anything about Kapler during the six weeks of spring training, it is that he obsesses over preparation and evaluation.
“One of the things I pride myself on is going back and saying, ‘How’d we do?’ ” Kapler said. “Evaluating it, win or lose, good or bad, how can we do it better. I think that’s true in research. So if you have a new initiative you put into place, let’s test it, and if it’s not working, let’s try something else rather than trying to get comfortable with things. I don’t want us to get comfortable with things we’re doing well. I want us to do them better.
“It’s something I’m thinking about constantly around the clock. Is this practice most effective, or can we do it better? Are our at-bats where they need to be? Can we do them better? Is our pitch sequencing strong enough, or can we do it better?”
No matter how much thought and time Kapler puts into preparing his players, he will be judged the same way every other manager and coach in Philadelphia has been. Bowa’s sentiment that the Phillies should be able to win right now is likely shared by the fans. In fact, no Phillies manager has been under more pressure in his first season to win since Charlie Manuel replaced Bowa in 2005.
Manuel, of course, is a Philadelphia legend now as well as the franchise’s all-time leader in wins, but he remembers how difficult those early years were. The nadir, of course, was a well-documented spat with the late Dallas Green, who had previously ripped Manuel’s managerial techniques during a radio interview.
“At first because of names like [Jim] Leyland and some of the guys that they interviewed, the fans didn’t know anything about me and that made it kind of tough,” Manuel said. “Because we hadn’t won in a long time, expectations came from that. I went through an adjustment where the fans and the media had to accept me, and the only way they could accept me was for us to win.”
Kapler will not be immune from that same scrutiny, but he believes his passion for winning will match or even exceed the expectations of the Philadelphia fans.
“I want to win,” he said. “I can’t even express to you how important that is. I understand very well what the expectations are. What matters is this: Do we bust our butts between the lines? Do we give every bit of energy we have? Do we sacrifice our bodies for the good of the team? That matters, and then the second thing that matters is are we winning baseball games? Those two things are at the forefront of my mind all the time. It’s what drives me and everything we do around here.”
Perhaps, but things are also going to be driven by data-driven analysis more than at any other time in Phillies history, and that can create skepticism among the old guard.
“I think [Kapler] definitely has great communication with the players,” Bowa said. “There are a lot of meetings. I know that. Sometimes meetings are great, but the thing I’d be cautious with is that with a young team there can be overload.
“I’m a believer in looking at all the sabermetrics. There is a lot of good stuff. There is also a lot of stuff that I know my eye test can tell me just by being around baseball. Sometimes, the eye test tells you a little bit more than the numbers tell you.”
Manuel’s advice to Kapler as he embarks on his first season as Phillies manager is to simply be himself.
“Stay your course and put blinders on,” Manuel said. “You definitely have to take some criticism, because that’s coming. But you have to be yourself and stick with your plan.”
Exactly how Gabe Kapler intends to run a game has remained a bit of a mystery throughout spring training. But once the regular season begins Thursday in Atlanta, his actions will speak volumes. If they also translate into victories, he will have nothing to worry about.