Column: Phillies manager Gabe Kapler tries to avoid a failure to communicate
When Gabe Kapler was the Dodgers’ farm director, descriptions of him varied from “creative” to “weird,” and that probably remains the case after his first few months as the Philadelphia Phillies manager. He’s as open to unconventional ideas now as he was then.
Take a conversation Wednesday afternoon at Dodger Stadium that started with an inquiry about who would replace utility man Pedro Florimon as the team’s emergency pitcher. Florimon, who has pitched twice for the Phillies this season, is scheduled to undergo surgery on a broken foot.
Kapler named rookie Jesmuel Valentin, only to pause to redirect the conversation.
“I should actually have this conversation more openly about the way we think about using a position player to pitch,” Kapler said. “It doesn’t have to be just emergency-emergency, you run out of pitching and now you have this guy. You could also use that guy, theoretically, to save an arm for the following day.
“I think it’s sort of become embarrassing to use a position player. I don’t really see why.”
Because the player could get hurt.
But Kapler insisted Jose Canseco was a high-profile exception, not the rule.
“If you go back in the history — and we did some of this research — position players getting hurt pitching, it’s a very small list,” Kapler said. “And consider the personnel. You never want to expose anybody, but who is most likely to stay healthy?”
I started to think the Dodgers made a mistake three winters ago by hiring Dave Roberts to manage their team instead of Kapler. With Kapler in charge, maybe Yasiel Puig would have pitched by now.
Why not? Puig has crashed into countless walls, whipped around surface streets at close to 100 mph and lived to tell about it.
Watching him pitch would be ridiculously entertaining for fans. Who wouldn’t want to know how hard he could throw? Or, say, a particular team’s shortstop?
“I understand where you’re going there and this is actually a fun conversation,” Kapler said. “I think of it just the opposite way. In a perfect way, the way that works is throw the ball as slowly as you can, lob it over the middle of the plate, see how quickly you can get contact because, eventually, guys will hit into outs and the inning is over and you will not have used your bullpen.”
Well, that’s no fun.
The exchange was playful, but also a reminder of why the Dodgers might have chosen Roberts to replace the departed Don Mattingly.
Kapler was a longtime employee of Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers president of baseball operations. He scouted for Friedman in Tampa Bay and ran his minor league system in Los Angeles.
Friedman and Farhan Zaidi were comfortable with Kapler’s willingness to think outside of the box, but the team’s owners must have wondered how far outside was too far outside. Controlling owner Mark Walter was enamored with Roberts from the start.
Kapler acknowledged he was heartbroken when he wasn’t hired for the position.
“I gave everything I had to that process and it was a long one,” Kapler said. “I worked really hard leading up to that moment and I also worked really hard to be really good in the process. Ultimately, I think Doc just did a tremendous job and was the absolute right choice for this job and has done a tremendous job since.”
Kapler said he learned from the experience, as he did from every other experience in baseball, whether it was as a player or in another role.
“That’s the most important thing I can convey,” he said.
Still, when he was hired by the Phillies this off-season, he was initially viewed in no-nonsense Philadelphia as a caricature of a sabermetrician. The fans and media were ready to pounce the moment he failed, which he did by making 26 pitching changes in the first five games of the season, including one for a pitcher who hadn’t yet warmed up. Kapler was booed at the team’s home opener.
Reliever Pat Neshek asked to meet with Kapler on April 1 to relay the concerns of a fatigued bullpen.
Kapler invited Neshek to his hotel room and they spoke for two hours.
“It was just nice,” Neshek said. “I never had a manager do that.”
Kapler did more than listen. He adapted, allowing starters to pitch deeper into games and relievers to face multiple hitters.
He has also made it a point to connect with his team’s large Latin American contingent.
“He might say only a word or two in Spanish, but he finds a way to communicate,” said Valentin, who is from Puerto Rico.
Kapler said the emphasis came from a failed stint as a player in Japan.
“I would say the most difficult part of playing in Japan was not being able to communicate the way I wanted to communicate,” he said. “I’m inquisitive when I connect with people. I ask questions. I’m trying to learn. It was difficult because everything was through an interpreter. And we still have some of that with our Spanish speakers. But I’m committed to building strong relationships with our native Spanish speakers. That is as important as anything that I do.”
Whatever Kapler is doing is working. The Phillies lost 96 games last year and weren’t supposed to compete for another season or two. They’re now one of three teams bunched at the top of the National League East.
Kapler said he wasn’t concerned by how the season started.
“I don’t see things in short periods of time,” he said. “I see everything as a long process. So I don’t ride that wave.”
Asked if being a farm director influenced him to be like that, Kapler said he didn’t think so.
But he didn’t rule it out either.
“I think that’s an interesting thought,” he said.
And that’s what Kapler is to Philadelphia at the moment, an interesting thought. A couple of more seasons of this and maybe he can be more.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez
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