Gabe Kapler didn’t blink much, literally or metaphorically. As he was grilled about his past of admittedly mishandling multiple assault cases, while being introduced as Giants manager in a forum that usually calls for celebration, Kapler appeared either well-coached or well-prepared for the interrogation that was coming.
If he didn’t look overwhelmed addressing the dark of his past, it’s not the first time he’s had to open up to a skeptical audience and explain where he erred.
In 2018 spring training, his first as a big-league manager, Kapler used one of the first days of camp to sit down with the Phillies and detail exactly what happened in 2015 in Los Angeles, where the most notable case involved a 17-year-old girl alleging she was assaulted by other partying women in a Dodgers prospect’s hotel room. A Dodgers minor leaguer recorded the footage and put it on Snapchat. The girl later alleged she was sexually assaulted by a prospect in the room. Kapler alerted Dodgers higher-ups, but not police, and tried to orchestrate a dinner with the victim and involved players.
“He explained the whole situation,” said one member of the 2018 Phillies, who requested to remain anonymous. “That’s one thing that people need to know about Gabe: He’s never going to hide from the truth. … He will tell you directly to your face what’s going on. He’s always going to be truthful. That’s what I appreciated most about him — when he came out and spoke directly about that incident, it was very refreshing to hear someone say what they needed to say.”
Of course, hiding from the truth is exactly the charge leveled by some at Kapler after the incidents were publicly unknown until reported upon three years later. Farhan Zaidi insisted at Kapler’s introduction that the manager “never tried to hide anything,” with the two pinpointing their misstep at not seeking help from experts in the field. Kapler has taken the questions and the heat, and the Giants hope he survives the offseason and then can be judged for his work on the field.
That is where he failed in Philadelphia, going 161-163 in two playoff-less seasons, the second of which included Bryce Harper and a lot of young talent who didn’t take the necessary steps forward. Kapler, who was Dodgers farm director under Zaidi, has been praised for his work with younger players and getting them into the right mindset to succeed.
Zach Eflin, whose up-and-down ’19 season finished with a 4.13 ERA, saw Kapler evolve as a manager.
“The second year I really think he took a step up, and it really sucks that we had all these injuries and what not, and a couple player-performance issues, including myself, that really gave him a bad look,” the starting pitcher said over the phone. “But at the end of the day, he was really there for us the whole time. All he ever did was preach confidence. For that we’re really grateful for him.”
Eflin is a Kapler defender, and among the Phillies, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t have Kapler’s back. Eflin’s belief in his fired manager is particularly noteworthy because of the disagreements he had with staff, including Kapler, who wanted the former first-rounder to throw more four-seamers, the more swing-and-miss pitch, and cut back on his groundball-inducing two-seamers.
A misplaced four-seamer, thrown hard and up in the zone, “goes a long way,” Eflin said.
The 25-year-old, relying on that four-seamer, struggled so much in June he was demoted to the bullpen. He returned to the rotation in August and, shifting back to his favored two-seamer, finished the season strong.
“There was communication there,” Eflin said about working with Kapler. “He was a firm believer in my four-seam and really believed I had the ability to be a power pitcher.
“… Last year was more of a defining year trying to figure out who I was. I [now] know I could do what the staff wanted me to do, I know I could do what I wanted to do. It’s about finding that perfect blend and then putting it in the game and getting outs. So there for a while I lost who I was, and I fell in love with throwing a four-seam up and all that stuff. … I think it was really just trying to find the perfect recipe on who I was as a pitcher and communicating that with the staff.”
They worked together and found the common ground that enabled Eflin to put up a 2.80 ERA in six September starts.
The common compliment seemingly everyone from Kapler’s past gives involves his communication skills, which Zaidi has cited as a big reason this unpopular hire was the right one.
In 2018, the Phillies spiraled down the stretch, going 8-20 in September. Roman Quinn, who was a big part of that team and who lost much of his 2019 due to injury, said communication with the manager wasn’t the problem.
“We were pushing toward the playoffs. There were a couple times I needed a day off because my body felt banged-up,” said Quinn, one of the fastest players in baseball. “And every time he was communicating with me — ‘Hey, Roman, how are you feeling? It’s been five days since you got a day off. Can you go today or do you need a breather?’ — that really helped.”
The communication, even with the little things, extended off the field.
Asked how everyday life was different under Kapler, as opposed to other managers, Quinn said: “You usually don’t see the lineup until you get to the field that day. But he lets you know ahead of time — he’ll give you a text to tell you what the lineup is.”
“There was never really any stress going into the ballpark,” Eflin added. “It was a pretty laid-back environment.”
That sort of environment led to good and bad. Multiple players contacted praised the culture in which “there were no strict rules,” one said. But Carlos Santana smashed a TV during that 2018 collapse, unhappy that players were playing what he felt was too much Fortnite.
Kapler changed from Year 1 to Year 2, becoming more hands-on, and said at his Giants introduction that he met with Phillies players before the 2019 season, seeking a balance that would let the players be comfortable without getting too comfortable.
What did not change from Year 1 to Year 2 in Kapler’s tenure in Philadelphia was the diet. A notoriously health-conscious eater who reportedly rid the Dodgers kitchens of junk food made a significant imprint in Philadelphia, too.
“I think he definitely opened the eyes of a lot of guys on the team — and a lot of guys kind of just stayed the same,” said Eflin, who put himself in the latter category — a healthy eater who was allowed to indulge occasionally. “The food did change. It progressively got better and better since he’s been around. Everything in that kitchen went straight health.”
From farm to table, changes are coming everywhere to the Giants.