Before Gabe Kapler appears for batting practice at Citizens Bank Park, you don’t know what to expect. You’ve heard that the Phillies’ rookie manager is capable of anything. Tasting ice cream but spitting it out before ingesting the high-calorie treat. The shirtless photos clogging the Internet. Burning through a bullpen at breakneck speed.
Is that what the rebuilding Phillies really wanted? In this era of franchises being almost exclusively piloted by their front offices, does a strong personality like Kapler’s work in today’s version of baseball?
After some early stumbling around by Kapler, the answer appears to be yes.
Before Friday night’s game against the Mets, as the Phillies assembled for BP, Kapler came bounding up the dugout steps wearing a blanket with the likeness of catcher Jorge Alfaro as a cape. Kapler, 43, can be confused with the players when in uniform, and he appears to be in better shape than most of them.
Perhaps that’s why he fits in so well. If the key characteristic for a 2018 manager is to get along with everyone on his roster, mixing among them is critical, as is becoming the bridge between the clubhouse and the decision-makers upstairs. It sounds easier than it is, and Kapler — after his personal pitfalls — seems to be getting good at it.
After the Phillies started the season 1-4 on the road, Kapler was booed during the home opener. Given the patience of the Philadelphia fan base, that hardly was surprising. There are no honeymoons on Broad Street. Just a fragile, forever-shifting balance between love and hate. But Kapler’s Phillies are 21-12, and just like that, nobody wants to run him out of town anymore.
“It’s directly attributable to our baseball players,” Kapler said Friday. “The guys on the field do the work. They’re the ones who deserve to be highlighted when things go well. And they’re just doing a good job.”
Spoken like a manager worried that the dugout has been bugged by the front office. But despite his colorful reputation coming into the job, Kapler seems to embrace the more straight-laced role as the conduit for the suits’ corporate mantra.
On Friday, Kapler began his media briefing by reeling off the rehab updates without prompting — frequently, managers wait to be asked — and stood the entire time rather than sitting on the bench.
Kapler comes across as a high-motor guy, and that energy can be contagious for a young team like the Phillies, whose average age of 26.5 years is the lowest in the majors, followed by the Reds at 27.1. The Yankees (27.4) rank fourth.
That inexperience, however, is not limited to the kids in the dugout. Kapler made a few rookie blunders himself in the first week, most notably forgetting to allow reliever Hoby Milner to throw a warm-up pitch before bringing him into a March 30 loss to the Braves.
Umpire Jerry Layne and MLB officials chastised Kapler for his egregious blunder, which could have been dangerous to Milner if Layne hadn’t taken it upon himself to give the reliever five additional warm-up pitches. For a few days, Kap ler was a laughingstock around baseball, but he admittedly has focused on doing a better job of communicating.
“I needed to be — and continue to need to be — responsive to our environment and what it’s asking for,” Kapler said. “Try to learn from every experience, both positive and negative. Our process is the same after games when we win or when we lose. We go back and look at the things we did right. We go back and look at the things that we can do better. And then the next day, we do the same thing, so we’re constantly tweaking our process, constantly adjusting and constantly being responsive to the environment.”
That includes correcting mistakes, or at least moving on from them. You can’t expect first-time managers to be perfect, and it’s folly to grade them only a few weeks into a season.
The Mets’ Mickey Callaway was 11-1 through his first dozen games, then went 7-16 before Friday’s win over the Phillies. On Wednesday, because of a lineup- card gaffe, the Mets had Asdrubal Cabrera’s double wiped out for batting out of order and lost to the Reds, 2-1, in 10 innings. It doesn’t really get much more embarrassing for a manager, but there’s not much else to do besides fix the problem and push forward, just as Kapler has done since his first week.
In the town that famously booed Santa Claus, Kapler knows he can’t have a thin skin.
“I was and remain very cognizant and aware of the fact there are going to be difficult stretches and there are going to be really enjoyable fun stretches,” he said. “I’m going to be even and work a very strong process, no matter which direction the tide is going.”
The prevalent term these days among the next-gen managers is “process,” and in Philly, it’s not a dirty word. The fan base there heard it for years during the 76ers’ rebuild, and that group was just eliminated one round short of the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals.
Across the street at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies would happily take a playoff berth this season. And given that Kapler already has guaranteed one, he’ll apparently be the only person in Philly not surprised by it.
NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK
How the new managers have fared this season, through Friday:
Manager Record Pct.
Aaron Boone, Yankees 26-12 .684
Alex Cora, Red Sox 26-12 .684
Gabe Kapler, Phillies 22-16 .579
Mickey Calloway, Mets 19-17 .528
Dave Martinez, Nationals 22-18 .550
Ron Gardenhire, Tigers 15-21 .417
Time for NL to adopt the DH
Feel free to use that hashtag if you’d like, as we’re sure that more and more people must be coming around to the inevitable: It’s long past time for the National League to adopt the designated hitter, a feature of the AL since 1973.
We get the strategy of having a pitcher hit, and the purists’ argument for “real” baseball. But the recent arm injury to Jacob deGrom, who eventually landed on the DL because of a swing-and-miss, makes it too big a risk for the elite members of a rotation. And for what? Overall, pitchers are batting .105 with a .248 OPS, and even the best hitting staffs strike out 40 percent of the time — position players average about half that in what is becoming a K-infested sport.
When deGrom returns to start Sunday against the Phillies, the plan is for him not to swing — a prudent measure, considering that’s what aggravates his arm problem. As a fan, wouldn’t it be better to have a DH and see someone else hit — such as Brandon Nimmo, Michael Conforto, Yoenis Cespedes, etc. — depending on the day’s lineup? We both know the answer is yes. Plus, it just makes more sense to have universal rule for both leagues, so teams can be constructed in the same way, especially now with interleague play such a big part of the season.