The Phillies president was just like you last season. Sometimes, he couldn’t believe what he heard after he’d seen what he’d seen.
Jake Arrieta was a “horse" — after just 10 wins by September? Carlos Santana was having a “very good year” — hitting .215 in August?
These weren’t the only overstated assessments in 2018 from Gabe Kapler, but they got the most attention. So, why did Kapler so often say black was white, up was down, and Scott Kingery was a viable major-league player?
No matter how gloomy the weather, the skipper was Mr. Sunshine at every press conference. But it’s not always sunny in Philadelphia.
That’s a hard way to live in a sports-saturated, East Coast market such as Philadelphia, especially when the team melts down in the last six weeks of the season.
Team president Andy MacPhail, a native New Yorker and a blue-blood baseball lifer, took Kapler to dinner after the season. MacPhail suggested that Kapler be more candid.
“Andy MacPhail gave me some really sound advice that resonated strongly with me,” Kapler told me in the middle of spring training, tucked into an alcove at Spectrum Field. "He said, ‘You can still protect the bleep out of the players, but still be very balanced.’ "
MacPhail wasn’t the only person in the Phillies organization to offer that advice, said Kapler, who is surrounded daily by legacy employees. The message was the same: Rip ‘em when they need to be ripped. Be authentic, or you’ll be gone.
“I can share balance with you on what just happened in the game. I can say, ‘Here are some things we did really well, but here are some things we need to work on,' " Kapler said. “And I think fans need to hear that.”
Soon after the season ended, MacPhail announced his plans to talk to Kapler about his public face, because, MacPhail said then, “if you’re just overly positive, overly positive, you lose credibility with the fans after a while.”
One Phillies source observed that, when the manager bombards a cynical press corps with unsupported positivity every day, that cynical press corps will, every day, prepare a barrage of negative questions.
MacPhail came away from their dinner certain that Kapler would change. After all, Kapler, a 57th-round pick, continually reinvented himself over a 12-year career spent with six major-league teams and one Japanese club.
“If there’s one thing about Gabe nobody should dispute is, he makes adjustments,” MacPhail said as the Phillies hosted the Yankees on St. Patrick’s Day. “He could not have accomplished in his career what he accomplished without making a series of adjustments.”
And, this spring, Kapler has adjusted. To some degree.
When enigmatic starter Vince Velasquez gave up five runs in two innings against the Rays on March 11, Kapler said Velasquez needed to start hotter, throw early strikes, and rely on his power, regardless of the situation:
“One of the things that was difficult was, he fell behind in counts. ... We’re trying to put it all together with Vinny. We want him to establish a four-seam fastball at the top of the zone. We want him to get ahead. As he eased into the game, you saw some of the 95s and 96s flash. We want to see that from the jump. ... Even in a 2-0 count, I’m throwing you a fastball even if the last one got hit for a double. Layer on top of that: When I’m in an 0-2 count, I don’t need to be perfect and work into a 3-2 count to punch you out. I can throw you a couple of fastballs, and when you’re defensive in that 0-2 count, you might swing and miss a little bit earlier. I really believe it’s a mentality for Vince.”
He was just as critical of Jared Eickhoff, who gave up three runs in two innings that day:
“I didn’t think Jared came out with his best location today. When that happens, mistakes happen.”
This was not a one-time occurrence. Later in the spring, Kapler agreed that reliever Seranthony Dominguez hadn’t hit his stride, that Hector Neris’ split-fingered fastball was inconsistent, and that Victor Arano’s flawed delivery kept him from throwing his slider for a strike. Once, after Neris gave up two home runs, Kapler even sounded ... displeased?
“Neris’ split was good at times, and he also left it in the middle a couple of times," Kapler said. "That’s why you see some balls go out of the ballpark.”
Granted, those reviews might not seem scathing. And Kapler seems much more comfortable speaking in generalities than in specifics.
“Look, our rundowns can get better. Our turns around the bases can get better. Our fundamentals on defense can get better. And they need to get better,” Kapler said. “That, the latter, isn’t calling anybody out specifically. It’s not throwing anybody under the bus.”
You don’t have to run a guy over to say he stunk that day, or that month, or that season. Everybody could see it last season, even if Kapler couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. Or wouldn’t admit it.
Kapler called Arrieta “a horse” after Arrieta, the $30 million free-agency gem, gave up four runs in five innings on Sept. 17. That happened in the middle of a nine-game stretch for Arrieta in which he went 1-5 with a 6.35 ERA and gave up 10 home runs in the middle of the Phillies’ collapse.
The context of the quote referred more to Arrieta’s durability, as well as his proficiency earlier in the season, and it might have been less startling. Except, on Aug. 12, Kapler told everyone that Santana, the $60 million free agent, was having “a very good year.” Santana was hitting .215. Which was an improvement since, through May 22, Santana had been hitting .195.
This season, expect Kapler to be less forgiving if, say, new shortstop Jean Segura finishes April at .153, the way Santana did last season.
“For the better part of last year, I was very careful about protecting and guarding our players,” Kapler said. “I still feel that way. But I feel I’ve learned through Andy’s counsel — a man who’s seen the game from just about every angle possible — and from the fans in Philadelphia that they want me to demonstrate that I’m seeing the game objectively.”
Will he, in fact, demonstrate it? When Arrieta started slowly this spring, Kapler deferred to his experience. When $330 million free agent Bryce Harper went hitless in his first nine at-bats, Kapler gushed about Harper’s hustle.
Then again, Arrieta is in the second season of a three-year, $75 million contract, and Harper’s in the first season of a 12-year, $330 million deal, and both were negotiated by owner John Middleton. Both those players could probably get Kapler fired, so maybe Kapler believes he should pick his battles.
That would be a mistake. Honesty would be his best policy, and he’s been told as much, and not only by MacPhail over steaks and salad.
“I paid very close attention to what other people said about things I could improve, too,” Kapler said. “The one thing that came up again and again was: ‘Be as direct as you possibly can. You can be protective of your players while being direct and objective.’ ”
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