The majority of baseball fans had the same reaction to the San Francisco Giants hiring Gabe Kapler as their new manager: “huh?” But from the Giants’ perspective the hiring shows that the organization is rapidly evolving under president Farhan Zaidi.
Kapler is taking over for Bruce Bochy, who is, at least for the moment, calling it a career. This is as rough of a managerial transition as humanly possible.
Bochy was an old-school baseball mind. Sure, he toyed with a bullpen day every here and there in 2019, but Bochy managed on instinct and tendencies rather than purely numbers. He also had a roster that embodied such an approach.
The Giants core is Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, and Evan Longoria. When you think of those players, is your brain filled with images of modern-day, launch angle hitters or veterans who have played the game the same way throughout their entire careers?
The bulk of those players won a World Seres with the Giants this decade, and Bochy was present for all three championships; there was no reason to change the approach. Then in 2018 the Giants hired Zaidi, which was an indicator that the approach was changing. And now one year into his presidency, the dugout is changing.
It’s the transition that many teams across Major League Baseball have embarked on over the last few years: traditional to analytical thinking.
Kapler is a mixed bag. On one hand, he has made his managerial approach no secret. In his first year as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies (2018), Kapler openly discussed how he’s managing his team based on analytics. Naturally, some in Philly freaked out, wanted the skipper fired, and couldn’t get behind him. Some of those individuals likely never changed their minds on the matter.
The early results didn’t help.
Despite leading the National League East in the summer, the Phillies went on to miss the 2018 playoffs and finished the regular season 80-82. In the offseason they added Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen, and David Robertson. Its impact? The Phillies logged one more win than they did in 2018 and finished fourth in the NL East. Kapler was consequently jettisoned.
The Giants are meshing old-school players with a new-school manager who’s a former player. It’s a bizarre combination that’s going to take a long time to produce desired results.
Zaidi has and will continue to be tasked with making pivotal decisions in the early stages of his reign as team president. He opted to, for the most part, stand pat at last season’s MLB trade deadline in hopes of the Giants making the playoffs, hired Kapler to replace Bochy, hired Scott Harris as general manager, and could lose his ace, Madison Bumgarner, to free agency this offseason.
Now Zaidi has to formulate a roster that can compete. The Giants have missed the playoffs and finished with a losing record in each of the last three seasons. While they have a dedicated fan base, they may run out of patience if the results don’t improve.
Kapler is a project. He’s likely not going to manage a playoff team in 2020 or even 2021. He has several veterans accustomed to playing the game in a generic way, and as their careers wind down they’re likely not going to want to change. Small ball, fundamentals, and relying on experience to grind through at-bats is the name of their game, not a formula that calculates probability.
Typically when you try to win based on analytics or specific data, you’re building from the ground up and focusing on long-term results rather than short-term ones. Kapler had a turbulent run in Philadelphia, but now he’s in a situation where his approach is valued.
The most puzzling part of his hiring is how long the process took. Of course, you don’t want to rush such a vital decision, but the Giants were one of the last teams in MLB to decide on a new manager — and by several days. Kapler’s name was continually mentioned as a candidate for the position, but the Giants took six weeks to make a final decision. Did they want to make it seem as if they interviewed a handful of candidates and felt Kapler was the best option, rather than just jumping the gun and hiring him from the get-go?
It’s a new-school mind hiring a new-school manager. Kapler is perceived as an oddball who has made some mistakes as a manager in years past such as the handling of his pitching staff. There are two ways to view the matter. You could argue that it was growing pains and him getting accustomed to the position. On the other hand, you could argue that his formula for decision-making was a disaster.
At the end of the day, this hiring will define Zaidi’s time with the organization. This was his decision. He’s going from franchise royalty to an enigma. He also has a roster that’s years away from contending and a farm system in need of severe replenishing.
In the midst of these struggles, some will clamor that the Giants don’t know what they’re doing. At the same time, Giants ownership doesn’t green light these decisions if they’re not in it for the long-term results too.
One thing is for sure: this isn’t your father’s Giants. It’s an organization adapting to the times.