Gabe Kapler’s first season as a big-league manager is going well. Following a tumultuous 1-4 start that had more than a few Philadelphia fans in a tizzy, Kapler’s club has gone on to become one of baseball’s biggest surprises. Considered not yet ready for prime time by the vast majority of prognosticators, the youthful Phillies instead lead the National League East under his guidance.
Kapler himself was viewed by many as not yet ready for prime time. The 43-year-old former outfielder’s previous managerial experience consisted of one year in the minors, and that was back in 2007 in the South Atlantic League. He spent the past three seasons as the director of player development for the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he furthered his reputation of being innovative, if not a bit unorthodox, in his methods and approach.
He’s been a rock in his current role. With the month of August upon us, and his team firmly in contention for an unexpected playoff berth, Kapler has shown that he’s very much ready for prime time. He’s also proven — and this is something he expects from his players — that he can take a punch and get back up to fight harder and smarter the next day.
Gabe Kapler: “As a player, you don’t have a choice but to live and breathe the phrase ‘control what you can control.’ Baseball can be a brutal game. You square up every ball and nothing drops for a hit for two weeks straight, and every day you watch your average drop further with no end in sight. You feel sick, but you know, because of how many times you’ve done it before, to stay the course. You’re confident that you can recover.
“As a manager, I find myself leaning on that phrase even more than I did as a player. I trust in it, especially with recent exposure to the natural ebbs and flows. I’ve seen it work for people I trust and respect. While this season has been enlightening on many levels, my belief that our commitment to preparation, process, and constant iteration and improvement is the one constant, controllable aspect of this job.
“Tommy Lasorda has a fairly famous quote: ‘No matter how good you are, you’re going to lose one-third of your games. No matter how bad you are, you’re going to win one-third of your games. It’s the other third that makes the difference.’ The best teams will have stretches of losses. When these streaks happen, a storm starts to brew outside for every club that goes through it. The fan base is frustrated; the media is mirroring their emotions. There’s a desperation that builds and emotions run high. It conjures up the same sick feeling of being in a slump as a player.
“We work hard to maintain an even keel during those times. Our job inside the clubhouse is to be the rock, to stay our course because we know that the tide will turn. Panicked decisions rarely result in positive outcomes. Instead, we trust in what has lead to our successes and our wins.
“I have an incredible group of staff members surrounding me who put in an impressive amount of work. This group knows nothing is too small to care about. We support our players by providing them with small, digestible nuggets of information. Our players are smart and very well-equipped to take that information and translate it into on-field success. Perhaps as a result, they see an extra pitch or steal a strike. Added together, up and down our lineup, we seek to score an extra run here and aim to prevent one from crossing the plate there. We have confidence that the preparation of our team of coaches and executives to track down the information and communicate it, and the preparation of our players to incorporate and execute on it, leads to wins over time.
“There isn’t one road map for this, though every team is trying to achieve it. Each player is a unique individual, and they have unique needs. Our job is to support those needs and create a cohesive whole. It can be challenging at times. Fans see the end result, but they rarely get a chance to see the work by dozens of people that goes into what happens when the lights go on at 7 p.m. They feel the frustration of a strikeout in a big moment or the despair of a home run by the opposing club. They experience the sinking misery of a missed catch. In that moment, we all share in the agony together.
“One thing I’ve learned is that people often want that feeling validated. They want to hear me say ‘That was really bad and I’m angry about it.’ They want me to call players out, maybe flip a spread table. I understand that. As humans, we look to others to see that our feelings are shared and reciprocated. It’s also something I know doesn’t benefit our club.
“There’s not a player on our club who doesn’t feel the cost of failures and errors to his core. Players don’t fail because they lack care or have some sort of malicious intent. They fail because they, like all of us, are human and will do so at times. Publicly pointing out mistakes doesn’t create confidence, it doesn’t inspire, and it doesn’t prevent them in the future. Rather, our message is to take the punch, to get back up and to fight harder and smarter the next day.
“That doesn’t mean we stand still in the face of failures. The more I learn, the more I realize that I do not have all the answers and that I am not always right. Early in the season, we had well-publicized challenges with our defensive alignments. That wasn’t acceptable to us. We spent hours, days, and weeks diving into what was happening, and why, and continue to do so. Dozens of members of our organization were tasked with identifying all the ways we weren’t succeeding, and most importantly, coming up with ideas on how we could improve. We adjusted our alignments, we practiced differently, we studied differently. We took a step, we evaluated the impact of that step, and we iterated on it to come up with our next step. We are still imperfect.
“The exact methods will change, but our devotion, as an organization, to preparing as hard as we can doesn’t waver. That is what we trust in. We strip out all ego and search for the best answer for our team at this moment in time. We don’t care who finds it. We question everything. This commitment is what we can control, and it’s what I believe has defined us as a team this season.
“We have a long way to go, and we believe in the unit.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.