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Thinker, Player, Kapler, Guy

Gabe Kapler is exactly the type of manager a modern front office desires: a double agent.

San Diego Padres v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Lost in the self-inflicted weirdness of yesterday’s press conference was the entire notion of why Gabe Kapler became the top candidate in San Francisco. Oh sure, Farhan Zaidi and Scott Harris talked a lot about his communication skills and his growth mindset and his communication, his willingness to communicate, his ability to communicate, and the strength of the systems and practices he put in place as the Dodgers’ farm director, but they never pivoted fully to why he’s the best man to lead the Giants into their next chapter.

It took his podcast with Alex Pavlovic — embedded here:

— to get even a sense of what he intends to do with the Giants. No, we don’t get a lot about him talking plainly about what he saw in the team last year and what he’s come to learn about them during the interview process and since being hired, but in this sit down interview he certainly does talk about how he will approach seeing the team and how he will come to learn about them this offseason, and it’s this rhetorical method that makes him the perfect 21st century manager.

But before I dump the premise on you, let me wind it back a little bit. On the face of it, Gabe Kapler might well be the face of the modern manager. These guys know what Statcast data means. They know what Baseball Prospectus is. They’ve probably had their Chrome browsers crashed by FanGraphs more than once. They’re younger.

And that’s the key.

As much as Farhan Zaidi has repeated the phrase “competing as deep into the season as possible”, he’s also pointed out at nearly every turn that he seeks to make the team younger. I assumed he meant on the field, but in the clubhouse works, too. Gabe Kapler is 44. Farhan Zaidi is 43. Scott Harris is 32. Bruce Bochy is 64.

If we assume no sinister intent — in this situation, the idea that baseball front offices are working tirelessly to hire inexperienced managers in order to control them — then it stands to reason that the point of all this is to hire someone who can both relate to the players and the front office. After all, front offices have been getting much, much younger for years now. The manager-GM relationship has always been a close one, but it’s been facing a generational crisis for, well, at least a generation.

So Gabe Kapler satisfies a crucial component of what the Giants’ front office is trying to do: remake the organization into a data-driven organization. Farhan Zaidi was brought in to return the team to its winning ways and his method is to remake the franchise’s culture. You can add more RAM to an old computer and make it a little better, but sometimes it’s just easier and better to buy a new supercomputer to do exactly what you need.

But the allure of Kapler has nothing to do with an android personality and a dispassionate zero sum execution of the front office’s decision-making. He’s also one of the guys.

When I listen to him, I can’t help but think he’s putting us on a little bit, like if Pat Burrell had gone undercover to teach an advanced philosophy course at Harvard. But when I read what players say about him I don’t feel like he’s been putting them on.

Sean Rodriguez, a former teammate who was then managed by Kapler:

“It was nothing but information and knowledge to be gained from him as opposed to ‘Oh, he’s just going to ride me and make me understand that there’s a respect factor and a lot that has to be earned in this game.’ I get that aspect, too, but there’s so many more comfortable ways you can have that conversation with young guys,” Rodriguez said.

Maikel Franco:

“He’s a guy who lets us play with confidence. Right now, it’s been amazing, and I think what’s really good is everybody is doing something different. We enjoy it and we have to keep it going. We’re in good shape right now and we’re playing the game in the right way.”

Aaron Altherr:

“There is a totally different attitude here,” Altherr said. “There is a lot more positive energy that’s flowing through this clubhouse, and obviously, that comes from winning. But a lot of that has to do with Gabe. He always comes to the ballpark with a positive attitude, and that started in spring training.

“He’s always smiling, running around, filled with a whole bunch of energy. That rubs off on the players and that creates that vibe that we can win. It feels great.

Bryce Harper:

“Gabe Kapler’s done a great job for us this year. He’s really [invested] in what we do and how we do as a team and as a franchise, and he really cares about his players, and he really cares about the organization, he really cares about the city.”

J.T. Realmuto:

“We feel like he’s done a great job for us. He gets the guys to play hard. We all love playing for him. He’s been our manager all year and nobody’s had anything to say about it. We’re obviously had a rough last couple of weeks and fell out of contention. For me, Gabe’s our manager. He’s a guy that this clubhouse really respects.”

. . . Pat Burrell? . . .

“Man, what a teammate,” Burrell said. “Always there for you, would do anything for you. I mean, insanely positive.”

We can’t ignore this factor, and it looks like the Giants haven’t, either. Maybe they’ve cracked the code on Team Chemistry Above Replacement and Kapler’s an 8-chem player or maybe he’s close enough in behavior and persona to remind the front office of a current player. That’s invaluable for conveying very specific messages and instructions.

Kapler can be a conduit but also instant feedback because he knows how to speak the players’ language and the executives’ jargon. From that podcast:

An executive in Los Angeles once said to me, “Know where they’ve been, know where they are, know where they’re going.”

Can you remember a player or manager ever quoting a front office exec when telling a story about how they approach the game? Usually it’s some variation of “It’s like Connie Mack always said” or “Bobby Cox once said” or “Dusty Baker thought”, but Gabe Kapler has pioneered “Andrew Friedman notes”.

So when Zaidi and Harris come to him in January with their plan to remove Jeff Samardzija from his starting role and make him the 3rd-to-5th inning guy who plays left field in the 4th inning when a pair of left-handed batters are due up, he’s going to be the one to help them craft the message that at least gets Samardzija to try it one time.

His general approach reads like . . . a lot?

Sometimes I think we just present the players with information without really asking them what they want first.

- How much do you want to be coached?

- When do you want to be coached?

- How much information do you need? How much is too much?

- What’s the format that you want that information delivered? Do you want it on a card? Do you want to have a conversation with me about it?

- And then taking this customer service approach to the player. It’s not catering to them, it’s just saying, “I understand how you want this information and now I am prepared to deliver it to you in that format.”

Maybe it’s something that makes total sense in practice but when you hear him explain it comes off as unnecessarily complicated and overwrought, but at the same time: isn’t this how baseball players normally think and behave?

What are the constant stereotypes about baseball players? They’re superstitious. They compartmentalize. They are intensely focused on process. They have routines. They worship their routines. They go about their business. They like information that helps them. They don’t like being told what to do. But they want to gain an advantage and improve. But they also have to stay within themselves and control what they can control. And feel like they can be themselves.

However we might feel about Bruce Bochy and his methods, it’s fair to say that as down to earth has he seemed, he also seemed more like a dad wrangling kids. Gabe Kapler seems more like the fun uncle. It might not be what the Giants need long-term, but the front office deems it necessary now, and when you see what else Pat Burrell said to NBC Sports Bay Area yesterday, it’s easy to understand their thinking:

“One thing I do know that Gabe is gonna bring is a tremendous amount of energy and passion, and hopefully that can be something they can feed off of. He will be at the top step every night, and he will be positive.”

“Out of Farhan [Zaidi’s] words, I think he talked about the last couple years there has been some low energy. And [Kapler’s] gonna give you that,” Burrell said. “The only question I have is, does that translate to winning? Maybe. We’ll see.

”But for the fans and people that watch baseball, it’s really fun to watch players having fun out there, and I haven’t seen that the last couple years.”

Kapler spent some time yesterday talking about Brandon Belt and his plate approach. We’re about to find out if a manager coming at Brandon Belt from the place of “First, I love what you’re already doing” can work to coach him up.

We’re about to find out if a guy who feels like a modern player can boost the spirits of modern players and in doing so get them to play better. Maybe that was Farhan Zaidi’s assessment after a year of reviewing the organization: they have good players, but the data and coaching isn’t pushing them to perform closer to the higher end of their projections.

It’s a tough path to forge. Not only do the Giants have immovable vets who will be on the team in 2020, they have a whole batch of new players in their system who they’d like to have play and think about baseball in a particular way. It doesn’t make sense for prospects to work their way through the system with coaches and managers who practiced and preached a certain approach to the game and then have a major league manager, the final boss, be an inversion of that approach. Given Kapler’s experience as an organizational remodeler, making him the franchise’s new figurehead means the Giants have figured out their plan and executed it.

Now we’ll see if it works.