MIAMI — It was a weekday afternoon in the middle of June last year, two months into Gabe Kapler’s first season on the job, and the Phillies manager was having a spirited discussion with one of his critics.
"I have little to no interest in breaking tradition for the sake of breaking tradition," he said. "I have little to no interest in being different for the sake of being different."
The topic was Kapler’s approach to bullpen usage, but it could have been about almost anything. From lineup construction and defensive positioning to the metrics he uses to predict a player’s performance and deploying a pinch-hitter in the second inning, Kapler had a polarizing effect on most baseball traditionalists because he was unlike anything that they had ever seen.
And the 43-year-old former outfielder’s ultra-progressive view of the game — some called it radical; others deemed it overmanaging — became the dominant narrative in a season in which the Phillies spent 39 days in first place before crumbling like a sand castle in August and September.
This year was supposed to be more of the same. Sure, owner John Middleton spent nearly half a billion dollars to improve the Phillies, but for as much as fans wanted to see Bryce Harper in red pinstripes, they were almost as curious to watch how the manager’s philosophies would fly in an older, more star-studded clubhouse.
Would the players buy into what he wanted to do? Would they revolt? Only one thing was certain: The Gabe Kapler Show was not to be missed.
It has been notable, then, that Kapler has been staying mostly out of the spotlight. And it isn’t merely because the Phillies got off to a smashing start. There’s something different about him. He has adjusted to better lead a more talented team with greater expectations.
“Part of it is that there’s a lot less tinkering required with this roster,” general manager Matt Klentak said this past week. “We’ve got eight position players that generally play every day; we know who our five starters are. I don’t want to say it’s plug-and-play, but it’s a more traditional roster construction, which lends itself to more traditional managerial tactics.
"But I don't think that's the full extent of it. I think the other part is that Gabe has really learned a lot and made a lot of key adjustments. And right now, it's working. I suspect that it will continue for the rest of the year."
At the end of last season, Klentak and team president Andy MacPhail met with Kapler to discuss those adjustments. And they went beyond MacPhail’s suggestion that Kapler be more candid in his public assessments of players, even if it meant being critical.
Klentak and MacPhail love that Kapler is always thinking, often outside the box, about how the Phillies can be better. They appreciate that he questions the status quo and doesn't default to convention because it’s the way that things have always been done. Those qualities led the Phillies to hire Kapler in the first place.
But there are also times when the best thing a manager can do is let his players play, which is exactly what Kapler is doing in ways both obvious and subtle.
To wit: He used the same batting order, save the starting pitcher, for nine of the first 11 games. That included keeping Maikel Franco in the No. 8 spot despite a six-game start in which he went 7-for-18 and slugged .944 with three homers and 10 RBIs.
Franco might have done even more damage if not for being walked intentionally six times, a byproduct of batting in front of the pitcher. But Kapler resisted messing with a good thing, not that it ever stopped him before.
"I continue to think that where [Franco] is in the lineup is a really good spot for him," Kapler said recently. "I think he has very little pressure on him there. He's forced to be more patient at times and see a few more pitches. I think that locks him in further."
Indeed, Kapler has given greater consideration to the human element when making decisions. Consider: He believes a team’s best hitters should bat second and fourth. But Harper feels most comfortable in the No. 3 spot, so Kapler acquiesced, unlike last season, when Carlos Santana batted second through the end of April even though he told Kapler that he disliked that spot in the order.
“Last year, we really had to look for every strategic advantage, so lineup optimization factored that in,” Kapler said. “This year, because our lineup is going to be very good naturally and there’s going to be more consistency to it, we’re thinking about how we can make our guys most comfortable.
"I know Bryce likes hitting in that 3-4 range. If a guy is confident and comfortable, my inclination — and this is not scientific; it’s just a gut — is that he’s going to perform better.”
Managing by his gut? Is this Gabe Kapler or Charlie Manuel?
Another example: The Phillies deployed a defensive shift 22.1 percent of the time last season, according to StatCast, higher than the league average of 17.4 percent. Kapler even experimented in spring training with switching the outfield alignment from batter to batter. Talk about wacky.
>> FROM AUGUST 2018: The Phillies are using defensive shifts more than ever. Do they work?
But through 11 games, the Phillies have shifted only 12.4 percent of the time, far less than the league average of 23.8 percent. And the defense has been better overall.
"We're positioning our defenders a little bit more conservatively than we did last year," Kapler said. "I accept responsibility for positioning our defenders, as a group, a little bit too aggressively at times, maybe too risky at times."
Don’t mistake Kapler for a converted traditionalist. He still believes strongly in a bullpen without roles. He still dives into metrics before making decisions. He will keep bucking convention when it’s appropriate.
"He continues to challenge his own beliefs, ask a lot of questions, do a lot of research, and explore ways of improving," Klentak said. "But that is always measured against the potential downside, and we've seen a lot of examples so far in the season where we could be more aggressive and we consciously chose to be a bit more traditional.
“That doesn’t mean we will never push the envelope again, but I think there’s a very healthy balance of pushing forward while also recognizing the realities of this roster and this team.”