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The Giants don’t need a scapegoat

They do, however, need a better team.

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Gabe Kapler walking off the Oracle Park field at night. Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The San Francisco Giants got started on the offseason a little bit ahead of schedule. Still with rivalrous games to play, exciting rookies to showcase ahead of next year, and a franchise legend to send off in style, the Giants accidentally hit the publish button on the favorite offseason talking point of every mediocre team since the dawn of time: should we fire our manager?

With Giants ownership only two weeks removed from pledging to support the 2024 ticket of president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi and manager Gabe Kapler, the should we fire our manager? discourse seemed likely to start and end with the fanbase. Then came the reports from reputable publications like The Athletic and the San Francisco Chronicle, detailing — or perhaps vaguely alluding to — some cultural disconnect in the clubhouse. Such reports should always be taken with a grain of salt, not because they’re wrong but because finding discontent in the September clubhouse of an underachieving team is a bit like those videos of people catching fish that have been frozen in lakes; if you’re willing to brave the atmosphere, you’ll easily find what you came for.

But reports beget questions and questions beget answers. And in this particular case, answers beget lighter fluid where I expected a fire extinguisher.

Zaidi, long viewed — fairly and accurately or not — as a packaged deal with Kapler, made the final appearance of his weekly scheduled in-season KNBR interviews on Thursday. Shortly into the discussion, Zaidi was asked about the security of Kapler’s job and, where one expected to find a he’ll be here in 2024, we were instead presented with an I just think we have to look at everything.

Ownership’s lone contribution to that answer did little to dampen the flames.

And then, shortly afterwards, the news dropped: Kapler had been fired with three days left in the season.

My first instinct to Zaidi’s radio remarks, which were sandwiched by admissions of failure to properly team build, was that they were PR disaster mitigation. Quotes from Greg Johnson have made it clear that the critical fan sentiment has squarely made its way into the San Francisco Giants Baseball Club LLC cubicles. And the online takes from fans who have not forgotten Zaidi’s prior offseason pledge to be aggressive, chase generational talent, and make the team younger and quicker have spread in ways that only social media apps — even poorly-run and quickly dying social media apps — allow.

Earlier in the interview, Zaidi said, “I was on Twitter, my favorite past time, the other day.” The middle four words of that sentence may have been said sarcastically, but the bookending words were not. He need only spend 10 seconds on Elon Musk’s hellscape app to feel the relentless pressure of a fanbase imploring them to chase any and every upgrade imaginable.

The Giants need to get better, in virtually every way possible. And throughout his 15 minute radio segment, Zaidi acknowledged a need to get younger, faster, more powerful, more stable, and more cohesive. In other words, a need to get better across the board.

But those were acknowledgments of what needs to change, not a promise of what will, and that feels calculated. Even if Zaidi and Johnson had intended to retain Kapler, that’s a sentiment to share in private doors rather than public halls. For a fanbase increasingly convinced that the Giants are comfortable with mediocrity, nothing is gained by pledging to run any part of this equation back. The public-facing messaging needs to be that the Giants are dissatisfied (they are), determined to get better by any means possible (they are), and exploring all avenues for doing such (like so many of their starting pitcher matchups, TBD).

That was my read. I was wrong. I was literally 30 seconds from publishing a version of this article when the news broke, forcing me to pivot from Will the Giants fire Gabe Kapler? to The Giants fired Gabe Kapler.

And the meat of my article, the thesis, has not changed even as the news and words have. It’s a pretty simple thesis. You already read it when you clicked the link.

The Giants do not need a scapegoat.

San Francisco’s season was, in a word, a failure. In two words, an [insert your favorite amplifying modifier here] failure. But the goal is to build a non-failure in 2024, not reprimand those who partook in the failure of 2023.

Sports are not parental discipline. There’s no value in handing a Playstation out for a passing grade or grounding someone for a failing grade. The goal should always be to look forward. History, particularly recent history, informs how we look forward, but acting in a reactionary fashion has, historically, almost always failed in sports.

The Giants certainly know this. They, at times, take it to an extreme. If Joc Pederson homered in his first three at-bats of a game, he’d still be pinch-hit for when the opposition switched to a left-handed pitcher. If there’s one critique about the team that feels wholly fair, it’s the nearly-blind insistence on focusing on what they believe will work rather than on what actually has.

Which brings us to Kapler. Scapegoats, while commonly used, accomplish nothing. Having a fall guy does little beyond giving fans who have devoted their entire online persona to wishing certain people will lose their jobs a week or two of celebration and respite from their scheduled negativity tweets. Taping a face to the milk carton of a mediocre season accomplishes nothing beyond short-lived satiation for a fanbase’s squirmy desires.

Don’t let other franchises’ reactionary moves fool you. There’s only one reason to ever fire a manager: if the future team will be better as a result.

Or, you know, if they’re a scumbag. But not because the prior year was unsatisfying.

If you could briefly relieve yourself of logical thinking, you might listen to Zaidi’s interview and conclude that he was in danger of firing himself. “We have to look at everything” was an exceptionally mild-mannered critique of Kapler relative to how Zaidi admitted failure in building a team that was fast, powerful, and built around long-term contracts. Part of that is Zaidi’s insistence on holding himself accountable, but part of that is because it’s true.

Above all else, the Giants weren’t talented enough in 2023. And it’s here where I remind you that Bruce Bochy ended his legendary Giants tenure with a losing record. Manager be damned, all good baseball teams have one thing in common: good baseball players.

Had Anna Karenina taken place on a baseball diamond instead of in Imperial Russia, Tolstoy might have written that, “All good baseball teams are alike; each bad team is bad in its own way.”

Zaidi, it seems, has identified much of what has made the team bad or, as the more accurate case may be, tediously mediocre. And while Friday’s dismissal may please the 90% of the fanbase that isn’t enamored with Kapler’s chiseled jaw and borderline-NSFW ASMR videos documenting the nation’s finest beaneries, firing him accomplishes nothing if he’s not squarely part of the Giants unique equation for being a middling ball club.

Perhaps he is. If the reports of chemistry and clubhouse issues are a strong and accurate indictment of Kapler, then the Giants needed to act swiftly. If his ability to manage personalities is viewed as a detriment, then the decision was incontrovertibly the right one.

But if the Giants are merely looking for a scapegoat, then they should have put in ear plugs and moved right along. The way to contend in 2024 and beyond is to be a better team, not to slap the wrist of a club we’re all quick to forget about.

This isn’t an article saying the Giants should have retained Kapler. It’s merely an article saying the Giants don’t need the performative gesture of assigning a face to a failed season.

Good baseball teams fervently focus on how to be better tomorrow; bad baseball teams try to damage control the public perception from yesterday’s flop.

The Giants don’t need a scapegoat; they need a better team.