The Gabe Kapler decision is in John Middleton’s hands, and Phillies must decide what they want in a manager (2024)

Thirty-three minutes after this Phillies season ended Sunday evening, Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto embraced. The clubhouse was filled with people and boxes and the loudest sounds came from the packing-tape gun. The Phillies finished 81-81, and this is what six months of mediocre baseball feels like.


“We had a lot of expectations,” Realmuto said after a 4-3 loss to the Marlins, “and we didn’t live up to them.”

Realmuto tapped Harper on the side. Harper, whose locker is next to the catcher’s, stood. They hugged. They smiled. They were major acquisitions last offseason and they made the Phillies watchable. They were the sources of motivation within the clubhouse. They provided the leadership — by example. Now, they were dressed and ready to head their separate ways.

Then, Gabe Kapler caught Harper’s attention and asked the superstar to come with him. The two men disappeared into the manager’s office as everyone else packed.

The attention is on Kapler because that is what the Phillies chose the moment they hired him. All across baseball, the manager position has been devalued as front offices exert more influence on lineup and in-game decisions through data-based suggestions. The manager is now an extension of the front office. The people who installed Kapler wanted radical change at the ground level. They wanted someone who could connect with players while expediting management’s directives. They wanted someone who could talk to reporters twice a day and champion the front office’s mission so they didn’t have to do it.

That will not change — with or without Kapler.

So it is fair to wonder, as the Phillies entertain a potential overhaul, what the vision actually is from the executive offices. They could fire Kapler and replace him with a more-experienced, higher-profile manager. But would that person push back more often against the front office? If the Phillies needed more balance in the dugout, but the manager is an extension of the front office, can the Phillies be expected to change course?

Kapler began his final postgame news conference of the season with a dramatic soliloquy about the clubhouse culture that formed during a mediocre season. He was not wrong; the group inside that room bonded and it was legitimate. They liked playing for Kapler because he let them do whatever they wanted to do. The players questioned some of his tactics and many were skeptical about how information was prioritized and disseminated.


Inside the clubhouse, Harper and Realmuto were the models. The push did not come from the manager’s office.

“I’m a big believer in people leading without really saying anything,” infielder Scott Kingery said. “Just the way they play the game. Harp’s a huge example of that. He’s making $330 million but he’s trying to turn singles into doubles. It’s stuff like that. I’m the type of guy who feeds off energy like that. Guys will work their ass off. That’s what I like to see. That’s what motivates me to want to play well and be successful for my team.”

The Gabe Kapler decision is in John Middleton’s hands, and Phillies must decide what they want in a manager (1)

Bryce Harper addresses the crowd before the final game of the season. (Eric Hartline / USA Today)

It was a fitting coda to this season. The Phillies paraded a bunch of relievers who were not in their initial plans to the mound for Game 162. They started a player who called the fans “entitled” at shortstop on Fan Appreciation Day. They collected 13 hits and 10 of them were singles. They hit two homers, both by a reserve player who became known during the summer for his bamboo plant that doubled as a good-luck charm.

And they lost to the Marlins, the worst team in the National League, who happened to beat the Phillies 10 times in 2019.

When it was over, Kapler waited at the far end of the dugout. He greeted everyone from the bullpen. Then, three minutes after the final out, Kapler headed for the dugout exit. John Middleton waited for him there and the two shook hands.

The Kapler decision, according to multiple team sources, is in Middleton’s hands. The owner was present last week for organizational meetings held in a conference room outside of Washington while the team was in town. There is division within the front office about whether Kapler should remain manager. His apologists point to meaningful adjustments Kapler made this season. His detractors wonder if the manager’s message is ignored inside the clubhouse and cite the team’s lack of urgency as a reflection of Kapler.

It is telling that the Phillies have not yet issued a definitive statement about Kapler’s future.

The Gabe Kapler decision is in John Middleton’s hands, and Phillies must decide what they want in a manager (2)

Manager Gabe Kapler shakes hands with owner John Middleton after the Phillies lost the final game of the season to finish 81-81. (Eric Hartline / USA Today)

The Phillies stumbled with a compromised roster. They did not make significant deadline additions. It is a results-based business and the manager is one layer of insulation for a front office that must consider the realities of this market. Perception matters, and those market realities influenced why the Phillies settled on the sort of contract they offered to Harper but not to Manny Machado. “Thank you, Harper!” fans chanted in the ninth inning to acknowledge the star, who produced an .882 OPS, the fourth-highest mark of his career.

When the Phillies committed to Kapler, it was a vote for an unconventional approach. No other manager has black-and-white photos of Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. along one wall of his office. Kapler, from the moment he became manager, touted his authenticity and strong communication skills.

The talking points would be different for a more experienced manager. But there are other teams with openings. The Padres, Cubs, Giants, Pirates and Royals are searching for new managers. Philadelphia would be a prime job, but there is no guarantee that the top candidates would take it. They would have tough questions for the owner and general manager about what is valued most here.

Harper might have similar questions. Will he speak to management?

“Whenever they ask,” Harper said. “Whatever it is, I’ll be there no matter what. Being through here for a long time … these are decisions that are going to absolutely need to be talked about with myself, I would think. So whoever calls or asks, I’ll be there.”

The Gabe Kapler decision is in John Middleton’s hands, and Phillies must decide what they want in a manager (3)

“I’m proud to be a Philadelphia Phillie,” Kapler said, “and will do it as long as I’m able.” (Eric Hartline / USA Today)

Late in the game, a man seated about 20 rows behind the Marlins dugout, unfurled a bedsheet. “Analytics say fire Kapler,” it read, in messy handwriting. But this decision is not a referendum on analytics. Successful teams use data to drive their decisions. The Phillies have invested significant money in a technological infrastructure that is still behind the elite clubs. The Phillies will continue to invest in it.

When baseball teams make a change, they often search for the opposite of what they are replacing. But, if the Phillies hired Joe Maddon or Joe Girardi or Buck Showalter or Dusty Baker, they would ask that experienced manager to incorporate data into his personnel decisions. (Maddon, for what it’s worth, follows many of the same principles that Kapler does. He’s just done it longer.) That will be a hallmark of this organization so long as the current regime remains in power.

More than anything, the Phillies must ask themselves why a revamped roster that featured an improved clubhouse culture and a manager who learned from his initial mistakes failed. They will blame injuries. But there is a good core group of players who played a lot in 2019 and they were inconsistent. How can the Phillies bring the best out of them?


In Harper and Realmuto, the Phillies have a heart and backbone.

“The vibes start at the top,” veteran bench player Logan Morrison said. “Bryce comes in positive every single day, leading by example. Playing really, really stinking hard. A lot of guys on this team play above and beyond hard. It’s really cool to see — especially out of a guy who just signed a $330 million deal. He doesn’t have to do anything. But it’s really fun to watch.”

Remember what it felt like on Opening Day? When Andrew McCutchen took the first swing and hit a baseball over the wall? When Rhys Hoskins crushed a grand slam and enjoyed a curtain call? When the stadium was packed and it reminded you what unbridled fun at the ballpark felt like?

The Gabe Kapler decision is in John Middleton’s hands, and Phillies must decide what they want in a manager (4)

Gabe Kapler and Rhys Hoskins hug in the dugout after Sunday’s game. (Eric Hartline / USA Today)

Kapler watched Game 162 from his standard spot — perched on the dugout steps, lunging forward on his left leg. He hugged his players and coaches, one by one, in the dugout when it ended. Cameras captured his every move.

“I’m proud to be a Philadelphia Phillie,” Kapler said, “and will do it as long as I’m able.”

For two years, the Phillies experimented on the ground level. They found someone who embodied the front office’s quest to pursue every competitive advantage, no matter how marginal it was. And, now, the people in charge must decide again what it is they really want.

(Top photo of Gabe Kapler: Matt Slocum / Associated Press)

The Gabe Kapler decision is in John Middleton’s hands, and Phillies must decide what they want in a manager (5)The Gabe Kapler decision is in John Middleton’s hands, and Phillies must decide what they want in a manager (6)

Matt Gelb is a senior writer for The Athletic covering the Philadelphia Phillies. He has covered the team since 2010 while at The Philadelphia Inquirer, including a yearlong pause from baseball as a reporter on the city desk. He is a graduate of Syracuse University and Central Bucks High School West.

The Gabe Kapler decision is in John Middleton’s hands, and Phillies must decide what they want in a manager (2024)
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