“Really, really impressive,” Kapler said.
At that moment, you wouldn’t have known whether the Phillies, currently stalking the Mets for first place in the National League East, had notched another win in a three-week stretch chock-full of them, or had lost a laugher by their largest margin all month.
As it happened, it was the latter. But even in the aftermath of an unsightly 8-2 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks in which the Phillies trailed by 8-0 in the third inning, Kapler could have had you convinced it was some sort of high-water mark for the franchise.
There has probably been more words spilled about Kapler over these past four weeks than about any rookie manager’s first month in baseball history.
He was already a polarizing figure — young (42), inexperienced, quirky, analytical, new-agey — before the Phillies played their first game under him. But after a disastrous opening week — featuring some ugly losses, some questionable moves, one colossal mistake and a loud chorus of boos greeting his introduction at the home opener — people from the Delaware Valley and across the country were questioning how much more Kapler the Phillies could take.
But of all the character traits folks have noted in Kapler — all of them true to some extent — it is another trait, one that doesn’t exactly fit the popular narrative about him, that has sustained him and will presumably continue to do so: his unwavering, relentless positivity. And as the Phillies — 15-9 and a half-game behind the Mets, entering a weekend series against the Atlanta Braves — are finding out, the feeling is contagious.
“There are new ideas, new energy around here,” said left fielder Rhys Hoskins. “There’s a new culture being established. What you’re seeing [in the standings] is not a fluke. We knew from the start of camp, with the energy that was brought, the new players we had coming in, and the maturation of a lot of the young guys we saw at the end of last year, we had a pretty good chance to do what we’re doing.”
This was never supposed to be the Phillies’ go-for-it year, coming off a 66-96 season that found the franchise in the late stages of a painful, multiyear rebuild. But then a few things happened that appear to have pushed them around the corner of that rebuild, and that have them now thinking the payoff may have arrived ahead of schedule.
First, their youthful roster managed to play over .500 (36-35) over the final 11 weeks of the 2017 season, with Hoskins (18 homers in just 170 at-bats) emerging as a future superstar and young players such as Aaron Altherr, Aaron Nola and Nick Williams also making breakthroughs.
Then, ace right-hander Jake Arrieta, stymied by a collapsing free agent market, all but landed in their laps in March, bringing the Phillies’ offseason spending tab — which also netted them veteran first baseman Carlos Santana and relievers Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek — to $169.25 million. Arrieta, who hustled through an abbreviated spring training to get himself ready to pitch by early April, is 3-0 with a 1.82 ERA through four starts thus far.
On top of it all, years of cost-cutting and a $2.5 billion television deal have positioned the Phillies for more big spending, whether it comes this summer, in the form of major trades, or next winter, when the best free agent class in many years hits the market.
As part of their makeover, the Phillies fired Manager Pete Mackanin, a 66-year-old baseball lifer, and replaced him with Kapler, a 12-year major league player and workout freak who had spent his post-playing days mostly toiling in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ front office and posting shirtless photos of himself on his health and lifestyle blog. Profiles of Kapler almost uniformly mentioned his predilection for scented candles, Norah Jones ballads and advanced metrics.
But a mere five games into the 2018 season, Kapler’s curious quirks and modernist viewpoints suddenly made him look, in the eyes of critics, like a hopeless neophyte who didn’t belong in a big league dugout. In the opening series at Atlanta, he pulled his starting pitchers early and wound up using 21 pitchers (including a position player) to cover 28 innings. Worst of all, in the third game, he walked to the mound and signaled to the bullpen for another reliever — only to realize no one had been warming. The Phillies rushed Hoby Milner into the game, but the incident earned Kapler and the Phillies a rebuke from the umpiring crew chief, a warning from the league and a barrage of punches from the Philly media. By the time the Phillies limped home to Citizens Bank Park, sporting a 1-4 record, Kapler was roundly booed.
But somehow, Kapler not only survived his horrific first week, he managed to dissect the problems into their component pieces, analyze each one and stitch the whole thing back together in a way that turned the messy opening week into a positive. He scribbled out and codified a list of “bullpen-usage guidelines” — mostly for his own benefit. Publicly, he took full ownership of his errors, and privately, he went around to individual players to apologize and vow to be better.
“I think he’s learned from it. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of [trusting] your eyes instead of the analytics,” said Altherr, a 27-year-old right fielder. “Things are going to happen, but it’s good he owned up to it.”
Hoskins is among those who believe the early stumble may have been the best thing that happened to the Phillies, and to Kapler. “I think it shaped who we are right now,” Hoskins said. “I don’t know how things would look now if that didn’t happen. Maybe we don’t play with the same chip on our shoulder.”
After an opening week in which almost nothing went right, the past three have been a joyride where almost nothing has gone wrong. The Phillies took advantage of a soft early schedule to jump out to what has been their best opening month since 2011 (18-8), which was also the last time they finished above .500 or went to the playoffs. And the Phillies’ front office is more convinced than ever that their unconventional choice as manager was the right choice.
“He’s so devoted to collecting opinions. After a game, it’s, ‘What did we do well? What did we do poorly? What can we improve?’” said assistant general manager Ned Rice. “That’s every night, whether we win or lose. It’s not just the 1-4 start, [and asking], ‘What do we change?’ We could win six in a row, and it would still be, ‘What could we have done better?’ I don’t think everybody’s like that.”
Asked this week whether Kapler has made adjustments since the disastrous first series, GM Matt Klentak told reporters, “He’s probably adjusted from yesterday to today.”
Like team president Andy MacPhail and several other members of the Phillies’ brain trust, Klentak and Rice came to Philadelphia from Baltimore, where they all saw Manager Buck Showalter set the standard for preparation and attention to detail. And they all see those same qualities in Kapler — just in a very different package.
“He’s obviously a different personality,” Rice said of Kapler. “But they’re both obsessed with preparation and outworking other guys. They don’t have an off switch.”
A case in point: On Monday, the Phillies had an off-day in the middle of a homestand, and rather than enjoy a 24-hour respite, Kapler drove to Reading, Pa., to see the Phillies’ Class AA affiliate in action. It’s something Showalter has been known to do, but not a typical off-night activity for big league managers.
Of course, Showalter probably wouldn’t have sat in the stands in a felt fedora and a leather jacket, as Kapler did. The Phillies’ new manager has a style all his own. It may not work for everyone, and it may not be like anything else the game has ever known, but it’s working for the Phillies.