Should the Giants fire Gabe Kapler? A closer look at the 2023 season

The general discontent around the 2023 San Francisco Giants is justified. They’ll need to sweep the Los Angeles Dodgers this weekend just to finish .500, and at the risk of dropping spoilers in the first paragraph of an article, that’s not gonna happen. It’s been a disappointing season. It’s been a dull season. Now is the spring, summer and fall of our discontent.

However, the paradox of this specific discontent would make Yogi Berra pause. It’s a two-parter that goes something like this:

First, the roster is a dud. No stars. Lots of players who are almost OK without quite getting there. Free agent flops. Rookies who aren’t ready. Lots of strikeouts, limited power. Everyone has to be platooned. There are often only two or three starting pitchers in the rotation at a time. The bench is weak. Random waiver claims cycle through willy-nilly before disappearing into the mists. This is a roster that’s devoid of the kind of talent it takes to make the postseason.

Second, manager Gabe Kapler is the reason this roster didn’t make the postseason.

Do you see the Yogi-ism there? It’s very much a “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded” kind of sentiment. You can’t hand Michelangelo ballpoint pens and expect him to create the Sistine Chapel. He’s just a turtle, for crying out loud. And it’s fair to assume that there isn’t a manager alive who could have maneuvered this group to 90 wins. Take Corey Seager and Marcus Semien away from Bruce Bochy in Texas, replace them with Brandon Crawford and Thairo Estrada, then check the standings. There isn’t enough strategy, discipline, vibes or clubhouse cohesion that a single manager can provide that turns a bad roster into a winning roster.

To be clear, I think the first part about the roster is a little much. It wasn’t that bad of a roster. Some of the biggest free-agent swings (Michael Conforto, Mitch Haniger, Ross Stripling) didn’t work out, but before the season it looked like a roster that could win 84 games, which means it was the kind of roster that could sneak its way into 89 wins … or 79 wins. So if your argument is that the difference between those outcomes is manager-based, you’re out of Yogi territory. Go wild. Blame away. It’s just odd when fans claim the roster construction was a disaster and the manager was the difference in the season.

Here’s one of my luke-warmest takes, one that I’ve held for years: Managers don’t mean nearly as much when it comes to in-game success as you think they do. Maybe in the postseason, but not over a 162-game season. Bochy couldn’t get the 2009 or 2011 Giants to hit the ball out of the infield. Kapler managed the Giants to a pinch-hit home run record in 2021, but that had more to do with luck than genius. This isn’t to say that managers aren’t important, because they are. They’re always going to be unable to make a great team out of a bad roster, though, at least in a way that can be reliably repeated.

If you’re an anti-Kaplerist and you’re thinking that I’m letting him off the hook for the 2023 season, please, save your vitriol for the end. I’m building toward something.

However, I do think Kapler did pretty OK with what he was given. The main power threat on the roster was a slugger who didn’t slug much, someone who shouldn’t be used in the outfield and who has some of the worst numbers against left-handed pitching since he came into the league. The other main power threat missed most of the season. Kapler was given only two starting pitchers that he felt comfortable stretching out, and a vast menagerie of rookies and veterans that needed to be handled much differently. To update this earlier look at the reliever workload, the Giants led the majors in bullpen innings pitched, but they were 25th in the league in reliever appearances.

Here are the leaders in pitches thrown from pitchers who made at least 80 percent of their appearances in relief this season:

4. Jakob Junis
15. Tristan Beck
31. Camilo Doval
33. Tyler Rogers
151. Taylor Rogers
186. Scott Alexander
225. Luke Jackson
247. Sean Hjelle

Ryan Walker “started” too much to qualify for this list, but he would have ranked 52nd in pitches thrown if he did. John Brebbia would have been 196th. Again, this is for a team that used bullpen games every three or four times through the rotation. Their bullpen should have been ground into cornmeal, but it wasn’t.

Jakob Junis threw a lot of pitches in relief, but it was a manageable workload. (Darren Yamashita / USA Today)

If your eyes are drawn to Junis’ high ranking, note that he appeared in 40 games and threw 1,389 pitches. Logan Webb appeared in 33 games and threw 3,182 pitches. So while Junis didn’t quite get a starter’s rest and a starter’s number of appearances, he came very close, while throwing roughly half the pitches that a typical starting pitcher might throw in a full season. The Giants ranked 10th in appearances from pitchers on zero day’s rest, and they were closer to 26th place than first.

All of this, while relying heavily on bullpen games. The Giants didn’t miss the postseason because they couldn’t prevent runs; they were comfortably above the league average in ERA and Adjusted ERA. People like to yell at me on Twitter that Kapler ran the bullpen into the ground, but I can’t find any evidence of that. I can only find evidence against that assertion. The Giants had more games using three or fewer pitchers than any other team in baseball.

That all took planning and diligence. One of the areas that a manager does have a disproportionate impact on a team is with pitcher usage. Just ask Jim Brower, whose elbow has been setting off smoke alarms in every room he’s been in since 2004.

The biggest impact a manager has during the season, however? Tone. Vibes. Steadiness. Helping the 35 to 40 disparate personalities that cycle through the clubhouse handle the grueling and ridiculous slog through a 162-game season. Not making the veterans feel unimportant, and not making the rookies feel like failures.

If that’s the actual measure of a manager, those results are mixed. I can’t imagine that Crawford liked Mark Mathias pinch-hitting for him in the ninth inning against Aroldis Chapman. I can’t imagine LaMonte Wade Jr. or J.D. Davis likes being pinch-hit for in the fourth inning. But Baggs has a good handle of how the players actually feel when they know that they’re off the record, and here’s what he’s reporting:

By all accounts public and private, Kapler has maintained good relationships with his players on an interpersonal basis. Even though pitchers Ross Stripling and Alex Wood complained about their roles this season, neither of them has voiced a grievance about Kapler. Both pitchers have said that they maintain positive relationships with the manager. Several other players, approached recently for an informal opinion, praised Kapler for remaining positive and supportive.

The biggest dig out of the clubhouse that I’ve read was via Ann Killion and Susan Slusser in the San Francisco Chronicle:

One player told Slusser that Kapler couldn’t lose a clubhouse that he never had, before quickly backing off the comment as “too strong.”

That’s not the greatest thing to read, but it’s also telling that the player immediately identified it as a bit too much. If the job of a manager has a lot to do with tone, vibes and steadiness, it doesn’t seem like Kapler’s performance in that arena was the reason the Giants collapsed. Not according to the players, at least.

Here’s the twist, though, and the reason why I asked you to read the whole piece before leaving an angry comment. Yes, it’s a manager’s job to set the tone, vibes and steadiness of a team, but not only for the players.

He needs to do it for the fans, too.

It’s possible that managers primarily need to set the tone for the fans. As in, that might be the most important part of the job, or at least tied with pitcher usage and clubhouse cohesion.

And here’s where the marks are low. Kapler wouldn’t tell Don Mattingly to shave his sideburns, but he would definitely pinch-hit Homer Simpson for Darryl Strawberry to get the platoon advantage. He’s not above going against the spreadsheet in the interest of player and fan service — letting Alex Cobb go for a no-hitter comes to mind, as does Webb’s most recent complete game — but you’re always aware of who is managing a Giants game. Fans don’t like to think about managers unless the team is winning. And they definitely don’t like to think about managers when the team is winning. The Kapler experience makes that impossible, in great part because he was given a roster that had to be managed to the 17th decimal place, but still.

For example, he used literally Mark Mathias to pinch-hit for Brandon Crawford in the ninth inning of a game. You can’t create vibes in laboratory conditions that are strong enough to withstand that kind of move.

This isn’t a minor concern, but a major one. The goal is to win, but the goal is also to entertain. This is an entertainment business, first and foremost, and the Giants are the furthest from entertaining that they’ve been in a while. The roster didn’t help. Pretty sure Kapler didn’t either, though.

My diagnosis is that the Giants need better players. That’ll solve a lot of problems. Most of the problems. Possibly all of the problems? If that happens, there will be plenty that can be forgiven throughout the organization.

But if the Giants go with a normal rotation next season — like the fans and the players want — Kapler’s diligence with making sure his middle relievers and bulk-inning guys are rested shouldn’t be as crucial. And if they’re going with a normal lineup without as many platoons and marginal hitters — like the fans definitely want — having a manager who can push the buttons the front office thinks he should won’t be as important, either.

The vibes in the stands will be what’s important. Possibly as important as the vibes in the clubhouse. A managerial change might not be coming in the way that a loud subset of fans want, but the manager should change if the Giants games are going to be easier to watch.

Start with getting better players first. Then work on the kind of baseball that fans want to see. The manager has a lot of jobs, some of them more important than others. It’s time for the Giants manager next season, whomever it might be, to focus more on the tone that’s being set in the stands. Because it sure wasn’t great in 2023, and it won’t be sustainable if it doesn’t change in 2024.

(Photo: Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

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