January 30, 2023

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Former Phils skipper talks challenges of managing

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This story was excerpted from Todd Zolecki’s Phillies Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Gabe Kapler did not want to dive too deep into this conversation, and understandably so.

But after he was asked Monday about what it’s like to be back in Philadelphia (again) and if he is more of a “feel” manager with the Giants than with the Phillies (he manages for one of the most analytically-savvy organizations in professional sports), he chatted for a couple minutes about the differences between a successful manager and an unsuccessful one.

The conversation was framed around his struggles with the Phillies and how it might relate to Joe Girardi’s struggles with the Phillies.

Kapler’s struggles cost him his job. Girardi’s struggles could cost him his job. Kapler was asked, doesn’t it just come down to the talent on the field?

“I think it’s a combination of a lot of factors,” Kapler said. “I think it’s many, many things all the time. Literally, hundreds of variables, if not more. I wouldn’t put it on one thing.”

The Phillies fired Kapler following an 80-82 season in 2018 and an 81-81 season in 2019. He joined the Giants in 2020. They missed the postseason that year, but they won the NL West with 107 victories in 2021. Kapler was named National League Manager of the Year. Entering Tuesday, San Francisco was 26-21 this season, good for the third NL Wild Card.

Meanwhile, the Phillies entered Tuesday at 21-29, 12 1/2 games behind the Mets in the NL East and seven games behind the Giants.

Maybe it’s not Girardi, just like maybe it wasn’t Kapler, just like maybe it wasn’t Terry Francona before him.

It could be the Phillies’ defense. It is last with -20 outs above average, according to Statcast, and -22 defensive runs saved, according to Baseball Info Solutions. It could be the bullpen. It has the highest walk rate (12.1 percent) in the game. It could be the high-priced offense not scoring runs as expected.

“I think any analysis of things that are going on for other baseball teams, there’s so much that happens behind the curtains that it would be silly for me to think I know anything about what’s happening here,” Kapler said. “We have our own challenges across the board. I’m so focused on the Giants, I can’t be focused on the other teams.

“You’re not going to get me to have commentary here.”

It is a touchy subject, of course. Girardi bristled at a question on Sunday about his job status. But those questions come when a team with a franchise-record payroll underachieves. They come when a manager is in the final year of a three-year contract and the front office said it will not exercise his fourth-year club option. (Not yet, anyway.) They come when the president of baseball operations does not issue an emphatic vote of confidence.

“Joe’s been fine,” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said last week in Atlanta. “I talk to Joe. I communicate with him all the time. I’ll just say this: my support of a manager is that they’re managing. Right? If I didn’t support them, they wouldn’t be managing. Joe’s our manager and I’m happy to be working with him. Hey, we’re all in a position that we’re not happy with the way the club has played. Joe, myself, the players. We have to be better.”

The feeling here is that if a change happens midseason, it will be for change’s sake.

Could a change spark the Phillies to the postseason for the first time since 2011? Sure. It has happened before. But they are rare occurrences.

MLB.com’s Sarah Langs found that since 1969, 174 teams have had multiple managers for more than 20 games each in a season. (Note: this list is not limited only to managers fired, but also managers who leave for personal/medical reasons, etc.) Still, of those 174 teams, only 14 (eight percent) made the postseason.

It last happened with the 2009 Rockies. The 2003 Marlins and 1978 Yankees fired their managers midseason. Each won the World Series. The 1983 Phillies, 1982 Brewers and 1981 Yankees fired their managers midseason. Each lost the World Series.

Some of those teams had festering issues between the manager and the players. This does not feel like one of those situations.

It does not mean the Phillies will not feel the need to try something at some point to save their season. It just means the change that fans are seeking is far from a sure thing.

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