- Gabe Kapler loves to dead lift 555 pounds, hoard statistical analyses and fire up his players. Will Philadelphia embrace the wily 42-year-old manager? Or will the city despise him?
Fluorescent lighting. As with most everything in life, Phillies manager Gabe Kapler has given it considerable thought, which is why fluorescent lighting has joined processed food, energy bars, team rules, large wooden desks, cardio, television and the Washington Nationals among the obstacles to avoid in achieving Kaplifestyle, his self-branded belief system designed to promote the best version of you (six-pack abs included, shirt very much optional). The evil of fluorescent lighting explains why early one morning during spring training in Clearwater, Fla., Kapler worked in his office by the light of slow-burning “leather mahogany” scented candles while Norah Jones played softly on a desktop speaker.
“One of the things that I’ve noticed when we bring players in here, they come in to hang,” he said. “That’s what I was really trying to create—a place where people really want to come in and sit down. You turn on the lights in here… ”
He reached for the light switch on the wall, setting the fluorescent ceiling lights ablaze.
“It’s like a jail,” he said, then, cringing, flipped them off.
A laptop and a tablet with keyboard sat on Kapler’s small desk, which is designed for use while standing. He said he chose it because it’s less imposing and because research from a “renowned scientist in the emerging field of molecular exercise physiology” determined that standing burns 100 calories an hour. A large leather sofa faced a narrow, floor-to-ceiling chalkboard filled with inspirational notes, including the initials of his two teenage sons, his favorite description for how he wants his team to play (Be Bold) and quotations, including “Every champion was once a contender who refused to give up” (unattributed) and “The unity of our country’s people is not only the dream of men, but an unbreakable commandment of destiny” (South American liberator Simón Bolívar).
It was 7 a.m. on what for everyone else was a rare off day. Kapler had been in uniform for more than 90 minutes. “It is meant to get people to come in and sink into the chair a little bit and talk,” he said of his office’s design. “When do you get into your best conversations? Probably when you’re relaxed.
“We want the exact opposite of the principal’s office. Principal’s office, cinderblock walls, jail cell ... let’s move away from that.”
Similarly, baseball is moving away from the traditional profile of a manager. The trend toward youthful, data-obsessed front offices has reached the dugout. This year five teams, all with playoff aspirations—the Phillies, Mets, Red Sox, Yankees, and Nationals—replaced veteran skippers with someone who was eight to 26 years younger and had no major league managing experience. In the revised hierarchy of the preferred skill set, the ability to connect with young players and a comfort with analytics rose above experience. Philadelphia sacked Pete Mackanin, 66, to hire Kapler, 42, who for the past three years served as the Dodgers’ farm director.
Where Kapler stands apart from his fellow rookie -managers—Mickey Callaway, 42, of the Mets; Alex Cora, 42, of the Red Sox; Aaron Boone, 45, of the Yankees; and Dave Martinez, 53, of the Nationals—is the forcefulness of his beliefs. He needed just three games to make himself the talk of baseball—almost all of it for the worse—with moves and explanations that ranged from the bold to the bizarre. But then, those could also be modifiers for the route Kapler took to the Phillies’ job.
With his chiseled physique, square jaw and fierce blue eyes, Kapler evokes the cool ferocity of a Jason Statham movie character. In the style and pitch of his oratory, he resembles Tony Robbins. Kapler talks about “optimizing defenders,” about how managing is like parenting (“We have set that foundation with a lot of love and a lot of care”), and about how he must lead by example by being “the healthiest and strongest version of myself.”
He might begin a response with, “To answer your question succinctly and directly...,” or he may take up to 12 seconds to think before starting in. Rather than wait for questions in his postgame media sessions he launches directly into a clean, clinical dissection of the day’s work, while being sure to look reporters in the eye and call them by name.
Kapler believes his team, one of the youngest in baseball, is ready to challenge Washington in the National League East because many of his players are “in this stage in their careers where they have the physical capability, their bodies are recovering at the right pace because of their age and, frankly, their hormone production is where it needs to be to keep them healthy and strong.”
Every day is a TED talk. Kapler speaks with the buzzword-packed enthusiasm of an entrepreneur, which is what he was in 2012, when after a 12-year big league career as an outfielder he helped launch an Internet startup to connect players with fans. (Egraphs.com shut down less than a year after its launch.) In 2013 he started his blog, Kaplifestyle, telling Yahoo! Finance he was “branding himself authentically” by writing about topics that were “fully focused on my belief system”—as well as posting scores of photographs of himself shirtless. This managing gig, he believes, is right in the wheelhouse of his life-coaching skills, even if it requires wearing a top.
“More than anything else, I’ve been thinking for a very long time about how people develop,” he says. “I’d had a concept that I strongly believe in, which is that when people are comfortable and they’re confident, they are also better at life and better at their job. So I guess I think about that nonstop: How can we make our players more, not less comfortable? How can we provide you with every resource on the planet to make you comfortable and confident? That drives everything.”
When Philadelphia hired Kapler, Brewers executive Doug Melvin, who traded for Kapler in Texas and signed him as a free agent in Milwaukee, told Phillies president Andy MacPhail, “My only worry is he is so full of energy that is there somebody there who can say, ‘Gabe, just tone it down a little bit.’”
Kapler was so hellbent as a player that he once ruptured his Achilles rounding second base—on a teammate’s home run. “I like Gabe. He just goes hard at everything,” Melvin says. “It’s about him, and when you’re managing, it shouldn’t be about you. There are going to be stories about him because he is polarizing. I know there are some people rooting against him. I hope he does well.”
When the Dodgers searched for a manager to replace Don Mattingly after the 2015 season, Kapler began as their leading candidate, according to a team source. But Los Angeles backed off over concerns that Kapler might alienate some players with the extremity of his style. It hired Dave Roberts, then 43, who also had no major league managerial experience. He has guided the Dodgers to the NL Championship Series and the World Series.
“He’s a salesman,” said one L.A. staffer about Kapler. “Salesman is a dangerous leadership trait. Finding the right dial setting is a matter of common sense. On a scale of one to 10, Gabe always wants to be a 10, when the truth is, six fits a lot.”
The Phillies so far are energized by Kapler. “Positive reinforcement is the thing with him and he brings that attitude every day,” veteran reliever Tommy Hunter says. “It’s refreshing and different.”
Says pitcher Nick Pivetta, “I had a couple of buddies from the Dodgers’ organization who said, ‘He’s awesome and he’s going to bring a whole new atmosphere to the organization.’ I’ve loved it.”
One member of the Philadelphia front office says he was aware of Kapler’s critics and kept up his “radar” in spring training for signs that players might not be buying into his style. “Not once,” the source says, did he see any such sign. “No eye rolls, no raised eyebrows. It’s been genuine.”
The regular season, with its consequences and scrutiny, quickly turned into an uncomfortable crucible for Kapler. On Opening Day in Atlanta he benched 26-year-old centerfielder Odubel Herrera, the team’s leading hitter over the past three years and a former All-Star, because of statistical-driven matchups. That same day he pulled his starter, Aaron Nola, after only 68 pitches and with a five-run lead, largely because he worked off a pregame script. His bullpen yielded eight unanswered runs in an 8–5 loss.
In three games against the Braves, Kapler used 21 pitchers to cover 28 innings. Embarrassingly, Kapler, in the third game of the series, walked to the mound and signaled for a reliever—though no one had been warming. Eventually Hoby Milner, working a third straight game, entered, but not until after his allotted time to warm on the game mound had expired. Out of concern for Milner’s health, umpires allowed him five warmup pitches. In a rare public rebuke of a manager, crew chief Jerry Layne said afterward that whoever was responsible for the gaffe “should have to answer to major league baseball.”
In his postgame remarks Kapler reacted to the controversy by, for the first time, guaranteeing the Phillies would make the playoffs. Two days later, after conversations with many players and staff members, including GM Matt Klentak, Kapler said he had rethought his bullpen usage and how “to be really good at it going forward.”
“Someone from the front office needs to say they understand there may be some mistakes in Gabe’s development as a manager and they will sit down and address it,” one rival executive says. “He has to focus less on nutrition, sleep rooms, conditioning [and] education of analytics and focus on game management. No one will second-guess what fatty foods are being served.”
Kapler is a walking search engine. Each of his decisions is likely to be backed by some research that he’s done or some quotation that he’s found. His blog is permeated with quotes from the likes of Karl Popper, Vladimir Nabokov, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Farquhar Tupper, and studies from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
(He has curtailed his blogging lately—his last post, “Understanding Respect,” is from February 2017—and says he “probably” will stop altogether because “people will take one thing and blow it up.” Thanks to his blog, for instance, he became the only manager ever to be asked at his introductory news conference about his recommendation of using coconut oil as a “personal lubricant.”)
“If you ask me what my hobby is, I don’t have a traditional hobby,” he says. “I’m not a golfer. I don’t fish. I don’t even watch TV. You give me a block of two hours? I want to sit down and drink coffee and scour information, just because I’m interested in it. That is my happy, fun time. I might research whether people really enjoy coming to work more when there’s music playing. The answer in my opinion is yes. And what I’ve come to find is there is some science to back that up.”
In Clearwater, Kapler kept music playing constantly between his office and the clubhouse. He started the team’s workouts later to encourage sleep and recovery (an approach a few other teams also adopted). He switched his rightfielder and leftfielder during innings to put the better defender on the pull side. He used precise defensive shifts against hitters who never played above Double A. He held “player plan” meetings with every player, handing them sheets loaded with advanced statistics. For instance, Kapler showed leftfielder Rhys Hoskins that when he swung at two-strike pitches in the zone he batted .413; when he chased two-strike pitches he hit .083. “I’ve been impressed by everything he’s done so far, especially the energy he brings,” Hosinks says. “When he walks in the room, you know it.”
Kapler is so into analytics, according to one Phillies staffer, that “we have analytics to tell the third base coach when to send the runner,” based on data showing how well an outfielder throws moving to his left or right.
One of Kapler’s former colleagues with the Dodgers says Kapler “never read a scouting report” there because it did not contain objective information. Says Jeremy Zoll, who worked under Kapler in L.A. and is director of minor league operations for the Twins, “Gabe is the best I’ve seen at using information and including as many viewpoints as he can. He’s easily the most disciplined person I’ve been around in my lifetime, whether it’s his workouts or willingness to try crazy diets. He’s so comfortable in his own skin.”
Kapler is a fan of eating grasshopper and goat. His “dream life” includes hunting in the Santa Monica Mountains, killing and eating deer, rabbits and mountain lion, and raising sweet potatoes. He likes his coffee black and his Scotch neat. He sticks to a clean diet “95% of the time,” and says when he does go off track, such as with a rogue slice of cheesecake, “I specifically plan out those indulgences because I think they’re really important to have balance in life.”
He came to a disciplined lifestyle and fitness fanaticism only after a phase of teenage profligacy. Kapler grew up in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Tarzana. His father gave piano lessons, at least when he wasn’t feeding his wanderlust by hopping on open train cars. He honored his wife’s request to update his whereabouts via pay phones.
At 13, Gabe discovered the joys of weightlifting. He and some buddies would take a bus 10 minutes to Pioneer Chicken, a fast food joint, where they first stuffed themselves on chicken strips and French fries slathered in a sweet red sauce, then worked out next door on Nautilus machines. “That made my passion for weightlifting,” he says. “I’m not sure I’ve ever shared that with anyone, by the way—the Nautilus part of it.” (Kapler previously wrote about it, including the Nautilus part, on his blog in 2014 and again in 2015.)
At Taft Charter High he was “an average city-section baseball player,” he says. He weighed 175 pounds and never hit a home run. Still, because he was athletic and had a knack for squaring up baseballs, Cal State Fullerton, one of the best programs in the country, gave him a scholarship. It took him only a few months to blow it.
Kapler says he wasted his time “partying a little bit, not going to class at all,” downing double cheeseburgers, fries and industrial-sized sodas from the Del Taco next to his dorm, then drinking cheap malt liquor at night. The Titans’ coach, the late Augie Garrido, called him into his office one day.
“You’re not ready for this program,” he said. “You’re better off at a junior college.”
Kapler left and called his father. “Dad, I just lost my scholarship,” he said. “I’m coming home.”
“I knew I had blown a real opportunity, but it was one of the biggest turning points my life,” says Kapler. “It was a huge wakeup call for me. It really started me on a diligent regimen and I became very routine-oriented. Because I was out of my element, my routine was a mess. I had no routine. None. I think maybe I was scared to death that I was not going to be good at baseball anymore, not be good at school and not be a really good version of me.”
He enrolled at Moorpark College, in Ventura County. In 1995 the Tigers selected Kapler in the 57th round, a round that no longer exists. Of the 143 players picked in the 16 drafts with a 57th round, between 1965 and ’97, only one who signed made the big leagues: Kapler.
“One thing I never understood was that meant I was behind a lot of people,” he says of his draft status. “My naïve nature led me to believe at that point we all got thrown in the same pool, so the first-round pick from Miami and the 57th-round pick from Moorpark JC were on a level playing field. I just had to beat that dude out. I had no idea that wasn’t even close to being true.”
Detroit sent him to Jamestown, N.Y., where he was slotted on the depth chart behind an eighth-round pick out of the University of Michigan, who Kapler says “just got hurt and I got in the lineup. Without that break, I don’t think I play baseball much longer.”
By 1999 he was the minor league player of the year. He parlayed his numbers and his buff body into a shoe contract before he even had a major league deal, appearing in K-Swiss ads training in a sleeveless top.
Every spring training the Tigers would distribute a printout with a list of team rules. Every year Kapler would throw it in the trash. He was insulted that the team treated players like children. Something else bothered him: “I knew the first time I heard players say to rookies, ‘You’re way too comfortable,’ that that didn’t make sense.”
Stardom escaped Kapler, but he carved out moments of glory in a career spent largely as a backup. He was on the field with Detroit in 1999 for the last out at Tiger Stadium, just as he was with Red Sox for the last out of the 2004 World Series. In between, in 2000, he hit safely in 28 straight games, setting a Rangers record that still stands. He bulked up to as much as 215 pounds, and happily posed in nothing but briefs for fitness magazines.
On the day after the 2006 season, in which he hit .254 in only 130 at bats for Boston, Kapler and Ben Cherington, the team’s assistant director of player development, ran into each other in the clubhouse. Cherington mentioned that he needed a manager for the Class A affiliate in Greenville, S.C., and wondered if Kapler could recommend someone. Kapler, then 31, took that to mean his time might be up as a player. Says Cherington, “I was not laying the cheese. I asked him just to think about any names. That was it.”
The next day Kapler called Cherington.
“I’ve been thinking,” Kapler said. “Maybe you should consider me.”
“That makes no sense,” Cherington told him. “You can clearly still play, you’d have to take a massive pay cut, and if you ever do want to manage you can do that when your career is over.”
Kapler persisted. Over the next several weeks he persuaded Cherington he was ready for the job. As it happened, he wasn’t. He still had playing in his blood, and after a season of managing returned for one year with the Brewers and two more with the Rays.
Under Kapler, the 2007 Greenville Drive, the youngest team in the South Atlantic League, finished 58–81. From the moment Kapler drove his Harley into spring training camp he loved counseling young men. He welcomed conversations that ranged from where to find a laundromat to problems with a girlfriend. The players enjoyed his competitiveness and fitness. A story circulated that they looked out the windows of the team bus one day to see their manager running aside it rather than riding in it.
“I don’t know where that story came from,” Kapler says. “But I ran in Greenville every day. I ran outside the stadium. I ran to my weight training sessions. That’s more of who I am.”
Years ago Kapler replaced distance running with sprints, which he believes are better for maintaining lean muscle, burning fat and gaining or maintaining speed. He sprints twice a week and lifts three times a week, with a special fondness for 555-pound dead lifts, 335-pound squats and 225-pound overhead presses.
Another Kapler story that made the rounds in Greenville was that he was so fanatical about his diet that the only way he would “eat” ice cream was to spit it out after tasting it. “It never happened in Greenville,” he says. “It happened with my girlfriend at the time, who became my wife, who’s now my ex-wife. We were walking together and I was on a very strict chicken-breast-and-beans diet, and she was eating an ice cream cone. And I was like, ‘That looks amazing.’ I took a bite of it and spit it out, because I wanted the flavor but didn’t want to go off track. That story got told by somebody else, and it became their story that they saw it happen.”
This story from his Drive days, Kapler admits, is true: After watching his shortstop lollygag in pregame drills, Kapler grabbed a glove, ran to shortstop and began diving for groundballs. “When I see players not doing the things that require no talent, it’s frustrating,” he says. “And I was frustrated and demonstrating it didn’t take talent to bust your ass between the lines.
“No, I won’t do that here. That’s probably not effective or appropriate. What is effective and appropriate is for me to be the healthiest version of myself so I can support this group.”
After losing 96 games last year, Philadelphia spent $169.2 million on Hunter, starter Jake Arrieta, first baseman Carlos Santana and reliever Pat Neshek to supplement seven starting position players and four starting pitchers who are in their 20s—their peak hormone production years. In a major market with a new $2.5 billion television deal, the Phillies are in prime position to spend big on the next free-agent class, which includes Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson.
Kapler’s inexhaustible energy is helping fuel optimism, along with the organic food, juices, and gourmet coffee and espresso machine in the clubhouse. “Look at him—he’s a stud,” says the 250-pound Hunter, “so obviously he is doing something right. I’m sure my wife would like me to look like that, too.”
For what teams want in a manager, Kapler, armed with his data, his search engine and a fast Internet connection, is not just on the cutting edge but also on its very tip. Still, whether he succeeds or fails will come down to the oldest of managerial skills.
“The paradigm has shifted enough that information is much more accepted as part of what makes a team go,” says Cherington, now vice president of baseball operations for the Blue Jays. “So the timing for someone like Kap is better now than 10 years ago.
“Ultimately, and Kap knows this better than me, it’s about managing the people in that room. Because he’s so interested in people and their particular stories, that gives him a chance. But something we all need to be aware of is that not everybody else is as passionate about the things we are. Awareness is important. It’s about making sure we’re surrounded by people who can give us honest feedback so we’re aware of those blind spots.”
One chilly spring training morning in Tampa, a solitary figure in a Phillies uniform and warmup jacket pushed through the visiting clubhouse door that leads to Steinbrenner Field, past the sign that prohibits running on the main field and directs such training to a practice field. He walked to the leftfield line. A few Yankees gathered willy-nilly like gulls in the morning light on the rightfield line, waiting for their team stretch.
Today was a sprint day for Kapler. For the next 20 minutes, the manager of the Phillies ran as hard as he could. He would sprint toward centerfield, bringing his knees up high, turn around, walk back to the leftfield line, and do it again and again and again—each time adding to the length of his sprint, until he was sprinting all the way from the leftfield line to the batter’s eye in centerfield.
At that moment on the stadium loudspeakers Bruce Springsteen sang about a friend who used to be a big baseball player, and about how glory days pass you by in the wink of a young girl’s eye. Kapler, knees high, air rushing in and out of his lungs, heard none of it, not with his ear buds in.
Chasing the best version of himself as fast and as hard as he can, Kapler quickly made himself a rarity in today’s game: the manager as protagonist. His first game in Philadelphia as manager of the 1–4 Phillies attested to the choppiness of his wake. Kapler was roundly booed twice by Phillies fans—once upon his introduction and again upon his first pitching change—and publicly needled about his lineup by one of his own players, outfielder Nick Williams, who upon being left out of it for a fourth time in six games said, “I guess the computers are making it, I don’t know.” The two of them talked before the next game.
“It’s a managing people job more than anything else,” Kapler said about being a big league manager, “which is really the exciting part that lights me up more than anything else. I really enjoy helping people become stronger versions of themselves. That is really what drives me more than anything else.”
The audaciousness of his playoff guarantee after game three of 162 will be exhumed in September, either with awe or ridicule. Already, however, and even by the dim flicker of candlelight, it was easy to see that Kapler is helping to make a dormant franchise—to borrow one of his favorite words—bold, if nothing else. It’s a start. As Simon Bolivar also once said, “The art of victory is learned in defeat.”