Gabe Kapler, Phillies manager, becomes face of ambitious change

The four Phillies executives met the franchise’s future, first, at a rented office space last month in Center City — a few miles from the possible distractions and attention of Citizens Bank Park. They spent almost 12 hours with Gabe Kapler, and the interview bled into a posh dinner outing. They talked about baseball. They talked about life. They did this with most of their managerial candidates.

They knew Kapler had separated from the pack; he is a deep thinker with an intense persona that will charm any young baseball executive. The search party wanted some validation beyond that.

So, when Kapler returned last Friday to the ballpark for another daylong interview, the Phillies peddled him to every area of the organization. He met with the owners. He met with the clubhouse employees. He met with the quants from the R&D department. He met with three scouting directors, the public-relations staff, the athletic trainers.

That, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said, is when he knew.

“To see the way he connected with so many people on so many levels,” Klentak said, “was pretty powerful.”

The Phillies will ask Kapler, 42, to be the public face of their progressive movement. It is an ambitious transformation, one that will require Kapler to not just unite a clubhouse of 25 different personalities under his unorthodox ideas. It will demand more than Kapler evoking the grittiness of Larry Bowa and Chase Utley, as he did Thursday in his introductory news conference, and preaching principles from his lifestyle website.

Change is hard. The Phillies want to enact change, both macro and micro, and they have pushed Kapler to the forefront of it all.

“What you’re seeing in front of you is authentically me, and sometimes to a fault,” Kapler said.

He stood on a dais in the ballpark’s basement, tugged on a white No. 22 jersey and red Phillies hat, and declared: “This feels right.”

That large personality has generated strong opinions about Kapler throughout baseball. The word often used to describe him — by former teammates, executives, coaches and scouts who have dealt with Kapler — is “polarizing.” He has his friends. He has his enemies. That makes him like any boss in any industry.

But Kapler is the biggest persona in the room and baseball is an insular fraternity built on tradition. He will break that down within the walls of the Phillies clubhouse. Kapler is an extension of the front office, driven by data to make decisions, although the Phillies tried Thursday to downplay that dynamic.

“It was important for the candidates to know, coming into the Phillies if they were hired, that they weren’t just working for the general manager,” Klentak said. “They’re working with all of us. It was important for people at the Phillies to feel a part of this, to feel like they played a role in this, that they are invested in this decision the same way that I am.”

One of the more important forces, owner John Middleton, was struck by Kapler’s outside-the-box thinking. Middleton has emphasized the club’s need to seek outside opinions, which were suppressed in the decades before he gained power. Kapler spoke his language.

“I’m a reasonably intense guy I’ve been told, so I think we connected literally on a visceral level,” Middleton said. “When we started talking about what people should be doing in the offseason and how they should be thinking about their goals for the offseason and how they should be using the offseason to train… he kind of won me over.”

One of Kapler’s baseball guardians is Andrew Friedman, the president of baseball operations in Los Angeles who is regarded as one of the best young minds in the game. Friedman and Klentak are friends.

“When I talked to Andrew, he was very supportive of Kap’s candidacy,” Klentak said. “That means a lot to me because I really value Andrew’s input. I respect his contributions in the industry.”

The Phillies, Kapler said, will “hunt value on the margins.” Every team is knowledgeable now in analytics. Kapler will lobby for changes to the way the Phillies prepare, how they train, and how they eat.

First, he will have to win the players’ trust.

“My personality is multi-faceted like every human being in this room,” Kapler said, as a few dozen media members listened and a horde of Phillies officials watched from the back. “I’m engaging. I’m warm. There’s no question about it: I’m intense and I’m passionate.

“And, more than anything else, I am who I am and I’m authentic. Players today follow authenticity more than anything else, any other characteristic.”