It all sounded so good. The Phillies, Gabe Kapler promised at his introductory news conference, are going to play with the same level of intensity that Chase Utley always played with on his way to becoming one of the most popular Phillies of all time. They’re going to make razor-sharp turns around the bases and when the ball arrives in the hitting zone they’re going to be in powerful and athletic positions.
So let’s all jump into our time machine, recently augmented by Philly.com’s analytics department, and fast forward to the Tuesday night, April 10 game against the Cincinnati Reds at Citizens Bank Park. The night does not go well for Odubel Herrera, who was signed as a Rule 5 draft pick during the dark ages when Ruben Amaro Jr. was still the general manager and extended for five years by Matt Klentak, the current general manager who has a firm grasp on analytics and loves what the crunched numbers tell him about his center fielder.
In the bottom of the third, Odubel strikes out on three pitches and does not appear to be in a particularly powerful or athletic position when he swings at strike three, a pitch that was inside and about three inches above his ankles. In the sixth, with the Phillies down by two runs, Herrera takes a turn around third base that reminds us more of a Jersey jughandle than a fresh razor blade. He proceeds to run through a stop sign from the third-base coach and is thrown out by 10 feet at home. In the eighth, Herrera pops up and slowly makes his way to first base.
Now we’re in the clubhouse afterward and the new manager has some questions for Herrera.
“Que pasa, Odubel?” Kapler asks. “Why no andale on every play?”
Kapler holds up his hand with an open fist and informs Herrera that he ran through the universal sign for stop at third base.
“Lo siento,” Odubel tells his manager. “Nunca mas.”
Team translator Diego Ettedgui delivers the message from Herrera to Kapler in English: “I’m sorry. Never again.”
Until next time, of course.
Sure, our time-machine scenario was an exaggeration, but so was Kapler’s portrayal of what we can expect from the Phillies in 2018. He’s not the first manager to stand up at his introductory news conference and make promises he cannot possibly keep and he will not be the last.
The Phillies in general and Klentak in particular were sold on Kapler’s abundance of energy and desire to succeed at all things in life.
“Gabe Kapler is incredibly prepared,” Klentak said. “That came through in the interview process.”
It came through at the news conference, too.
“If he brings the same level of preparation and grit to the Phillies that he brought to the field as a player, our fans are going to love this guy,” Klentak said. “He has a unique ability to connect with people. We saw this in the interview process. He can connect with players. He can connect with the media. He can connect with the front office. I think that bodes very well for our young roster.”
The fans will love Kapler’s zest for life, but only if he wins. Utley is not a legend here because he hustled on every play and continued to play that way even as his knees betrayed him. He is adored because he helped the Phillies win the World Series. The fans here love Jimmy Rollins, too, even though he did not run out every ground ball. They’ll love Odubel Herrera, too, if he ever plays center field for a World Series winner.
What’s most important for Kapler now is helping Herrera and all his teammates get to the next level as players. There was a feeling in that clubhouse at the end of the season that the Phillies were headed in the right direction under manager Pete Mackanin and his coaching staff. Hitting coach Matt Stairs had gotten through to Aaron Altherr. Pitching coach Bob McClure had helped Aaron Nola and some of the bullpen arms take giant steps forward. Larry Bowa had helped Freddy Galvis, Cesar Hernandez and Maikel Franco become better defensive players. Juan Samuel had turned Herrera into a quality center fielder.
Kapler said he believes he can help those players go to another level through better fitness, eating and by communicating with them in a different way, including texts and Twitter. Maybe he’s right. We’ll see.
It’s also fine that Kapler embraces the same kind of analytic thinking that managing partner John Middleton has fallen in love with since becoming the leading voice of the franchise. The Phillies, under Amaro and former team president David Montgomery, were too resistant to that line of thinking for a long time.
Now, everyone,including the manager, is on board.
“I would advise we look at the teams that just finished competing in the World Series,” Klentak said. “Look at the teams that competed in last year’s World Series. These are among the most progressive organizations in baseball.”
That’s true. It’s also true that the World Series MVP was George Springer, a first-round draft pick of the Astros when Ed Wade was the general manager in Houston. Wade, a more traditional baseball man, was fired by Klentak near the end of the season. The point is that the more traditional minds in the organization still hold valuable information, so the Phillies would be doing themselves a disservice if they are not heard.