The Giants’ Gabe Kapler has changed hearts and minds, but what kind of postseason manager will he be? (2024)

The side door opened, Gabe Kapler emerged in his athleisure hoodie and he made a quick study of the room.

He scanned the packed gallery of faces. This was the room where he had been introduced as the Giants’ manager barely two years ago, where he subjected himself to the inquisition, where he confronted every personal and professional criticism, both those well-intentioned and those that snapped with a taste for blood. This was where he defended himself not by justifying past events but by asking people to judge him on present and future merits.


In this room, an otherwise celebratory event — the hiring of a new public face for the organization — took on the dryly combative air of a deposition. The hope to change hearts and minds was merely that. A hope. Please give me a chance. Please see me for the person I’ve become. Please believe me when I tell you that I’ll bring as much attention and focus as I can to be a better person tomorrow. And in time, hopefully I’ll prove to you that I’m the right person for this job.

So much has happened since that politically charged day in November 2019, and who could have seen this coming? For the better part of two years, even something as simple and unassuming as a packed news conference in an indoor interview room would become an impossible event. Kapler’s first season as the Giants’ manager did not play out under the scrutiny that otherwise would be expected from the brusque timbre of his introductory news conference. All of a sudden, everyone had bigger things to worry about. The season turned out to be a 60-game dystopia in front of cardboard avatars and piped-in white noise. They were games played with a laff track. The Giants finished 29-31 and missed an expanded postseason by one game. They also ran the cleanest possible race with zero confirmed positive COVID-19 cases past intake testing.

Then came a season of slow and uncertain healing in 2021 that blossomed into so much more: a franchise-record 107 victories that nobody saw coming, the first NL West title in nine years, a September stretch for the ages, an interruption to the Dodgers’ eight years of divisional dominance, and a postseason setup in which the Giants, after running relentlessly for more than a month, got to cool their heels for four days, watch their archrivals escape the crucible of a wild-card elimination game, and wait for their arrival to begin Game 1 of an epic NL Division Series on Friday that will seem more like an interstellar collision on the shores of McCovey Cove.

Kapler walked into that same interview room on Thursday — his first media appointment as a postseason manager — and the air was completely different. It was like the whole event was a surprise party in his honor. He flashed a smile that was downright giddy.


“This is amusing,” he said, setting aside a displayed sugary sports beverage that he wouldn’t brush his teeth with. “This is so formal. I really want us to do this in the dugout.”

Everything about this will be new: the intense media focus, the formal interview room sessions with a stenographer speed-typing every word, the broiler-hot passion from the crowds, and yes, the increased scrutiny that will accompany every dugout decision. Managing in the postseason takes stomach and skill. Kapler is about to experience it for the first time Friday night when the 107-win Giants play host to the 106-win Dodgers in Game 1 of an NL Division Series.

We are about to discover the answer to a question nobody thought pertinent to ask two years ago: what kind of postseason manager will Gabe Kapler be?

“You know, I’m not sure that anything needs to change all that much,” Kapler said in a recent interview. “I don’t think anything will be a surprise. There are some teams that will handle postseason games much differently than regular-season games but I think there are more examples of teams that do it pretty close to how they do it in the regular season. So I think you’ll see us manage games very similarly.”

Five years ago, Brandon Belt took the loneliest walk.

He struck out swinging. He made the final out in Game 4 of the 2016 NL Division Series. He kept his head down and his eyes on his cleats until the moment he entered the dugout tunnel. But there was no shutting out the sound of an opponent, in this case the Chicago Cubs, celebrating on his home field.

The eventual World Series champion Cubs were the only postseason opponent to best the Giants during manager Bruce Bochy’s glittering 13-season tenure. The other 11 opponents, most of them solidly favored, were all turned aside. And yes, for effect, let’s rattle them off: the Braves, the Phillies, the Rangers, the Reds, the Cardinals, the Tigers, the Pirates, the Nationals, the Cardinals (again), the Royals, and finally, the Mets.

Now the postseason is returning to the shores of McCovey Cove. So many things are different, but two stand out. Their opponent for the first time in the history of both franchises is the Los Angeles Dodgers. And where Bochy once rubbed his chin at the dugout rail, a chiseled figure in aviators now stands.

This is Gabe Kapler’s first chance to manage in the postseason. He has reshaped his turbulent narrative in every regard while leading an actively managed roster to a franchise-record 107 wins. Now begins the unfair task of measuring up to his predecessor, one who blew on dice and pushed every correct button. And the initial test will come against the only second-place team in major-league history to win 106 games.

What kind of postseason manager will Gabe Kapler be?

The first baseman who trudged off the field to end the final postseason of the Bochy era thinks he has an idea.

“You have to use numbers when they’re needed and you have to use instincts when needed,” Belt said. “That’s what you’ve got to have in the postseason. Boch was really good at having those instincts for what needed to be done or what changes needed to be made. I think Kap has it too, and that’s going to serve us well in the playoffs.

“There’s definitely been a difference between this year and last year. Kap’s grown and gotten better in my opinion and I think our record attests to that. He’s let the veteran guys take over the clubhouse when needed. As a veteran group we needed to step up this year and I think we did.”

Giants president Farhan Zaidi telegraphed his preference even before it became a possibility. At his post-mortem press conference after the 2019 season, when asked how he would sketch out his ideal qualities in a manager to replace Bochy, he mentioned that there could be a benefit in hiring someone from the outside world who learned from their mistakes on the job. Another franchise’s misfortune could work to their benefit. Kevin Nealon couldn’t have sent a stronger subliminal message: he was speaking about Kapler.


Almost at the instant the Philadelphia Phillies fired Kapler with a year to go on his contract, Zaidi called Giants CEO Larry Baer. “Whatever you might think,” Zaidi told him, “we have to interview this guy.”

Zaidi understood that Kapler would be open to out-of-the-box suggestions. He wasn’t slavish to any particular dogma. He would treat a season like a petri dish because trial and error is the only way to learn best practices. And the Giants did engage in their fair share of strategy and subterfuge. When they opened the 2020 season at Dodger Stadium, they were TBA beyond their first starter. They had left-hander Drew Smyly shift his throw day into an inning of relief. They attempted to take a hyper-smart approach to level out their talent deficit against the Dodgers. They attempted to scheme their way to a victory.

You got the sense: Kapler’s Giants weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel. They were trying to invent the hovercraft, which would render the wheels useless.

That is not how the Giants operate now. They plan to match up conventionally with Logan Webb and Kevin Gausman in the first two home games of this series. And for all the ways their roster is actively managed, including 406 pinch-hit plate appearances that obliterated the major-league record, they prefer to use a conventional approach the rest of the way.

And they prefer to remain nimble with a manager who is less adherent to a pregame script and more reliant on using the information in the moment to read and react.

“We haven’t used a quote-unquote script at all this year,” Zaidi said. “Gabe gets a lot of input from players and coaches in the moment. Before or after a game, our conversations are more about, ‘How do we feel about players, who do we feel most confident about in a left-on-left matchup, who do we like in the eighth and ninth inning today?’ The strategy falls out of that rather than being on a script. It’s, ‘Let’s be on the same page with how we view the roster. And then trust that we’ll think through those situations when they come up.’ That gives him the freedom to read and react while watching the game and not being overly tied to, ‘Oh, third time through (the lineup).'”

The Giants might go to their bullpen early, if only because their relievers led the majors with a 2.99 ERA and the days off baked into the postseason schedule will make them less likely to be concerned about conservation. But Kapler will not be reading off a script. There won’t be a Blake Snell moment for the sake of it.


No decision is scrutinized more than when to take a starting pitcher out of a game. Kapler vows to take a holistic approach.

“Very similar to the way we’ve done it,” he said. “It’s checking in with our pitchers at every turn, understand how they feel going into the game and being responsive to all the signals we get from them from the first pitch on. It’s velocity, it’s sharpness of secondary weapons, it’s strike throwing, it’s command, it’s feedback from our catchers and it’s feedback on the physical wellness of the pitcher. And it’s not being beholden to any specific moment in the game where you have to get that guy out of there.

“If the game is telling us the pitcher can cover several more innings or is the best option to get the next three or four hitters out, we’re going to be reading the game. That’s what we’ve done. I don’t see any reason to get away from that.”

When Kapler began to put together his staff in San Francisco, there was never a doubt that one candidate would be deemed a priority. In his previous stop with the Phillies, he couldn’t sell to management that someone like Kai Correa, who had never played at the professional level and barely got his feet wet as a coordinator in the Cleveland Indians system, could be ready for a promotion to a big-league coaching staff.

But Kapler loved Correa’s thoughtfulness and attention to detail. He loved his unconventional ideas about practicing nearer to game speed to enhance skill development. He saw someone who could teach. And he viewed the major leagues as just another level of development.

Correa, the Giants’ bench coach, considered it an invigorating challenge to plot out a major-league spring training in 2020. When everything got shuttered by the pandemic, he focused on the positives he could control. A second summer camp wasn’t an obligation. It was more runway.

“For most of us, coaching in a major-league stadium was new,” Correa said. “So coaching in an empty major-league stadium wasn’t a letdown versus coaching in a full stadium. Getting to work with players of this caliber every single day was an honor, even if you had to do it wearing a mask and working weird hours.”


There was nothing about 2020 that could be construed as beneficial. But for Kapler and his staff, the strange and shortened season did confer some advantages. Everything about a transition from the Bochy era would be upsetting. In the context of a 60-game season and a global pandemic, it just became one more adjustment to make. And because players and coaches had to bubble up and take care of one another, it might have allowed the collaborative culture that Kapler hoped to inspire to coalesce without rankle or resistance.

Here’s the dynamic that’s easy to forget when it comes to Kapler and his 13-person coaching staff: they weren’t only learning about the players. They were learning about the manager who hired them, too. Kapler didn’t hire his buddies. He exhaustively searched all levels of the industry and beyond for the people who had the coaching skills that he deemed important.

What has Correa learned after 222 games alongside Kapler in the Giants dugout, often wearing matching black-framed eyeglasses?

“The biggest thing that jumps off the page to me is how introspective Kap gets about all things and how that always funnels back to how he manages,” Correa said. “He thinks about interactions, he thinks about processes, he thinks about relationships, he thinks about decisions, and because he’s always sharpening his sword in all these different departments, they come together cumulatively into making better decisions. And he forces you to bring your A game as well, to have the same level of conviction and share a variety of options and ask the same quantity of questions.

“I think part of Kap’s genius is he can have conviction and yet not have this overwhelming assertiveness that takes you off your position so you never voice it. It’s an openness. You can propose the wildest idea or ask what could be a dumb question and it’d be encouraged and spark conversation. Yet at the same time, he has the conviction to make the decision he feels is right in the moment. For me, working with somebody on a daily basis, that’s the ideal combination.”

At his contentious introductory press conference, when Kapler confronted the domestic violence incident he awkwardly handled as the Dodgers’ farm director, spoke to the lessons learned and sought to mitigate the shock of replacing a franchise icon with whom he had almost nothing in common, one Giants player attended and sat in the front row.

Buster Posey opted out of last season for family reasons. He more or less became the 14th member of Kapler’s staff this season.


Kapler shared a moment from the regular-season finale, when he walked to the mound to take the baseball from Webb in the eighth inning with the Giants on the verge of clinching the NL West.

“One of the things I said to him was, ‘Hold on a second, take a pause and when you walk in, be fully present. Appreciate this moment, take it all in, absorb it. Don’t be in a rush to get to the dugout,'” Kapler said. “And Buster looked at me and said, ‘I just told him the same thing.’

“That’s what this is all about, right? We’re doing all we can to appreciate each one of these special moments, and we’re also very good as a team at moving on and getting ready for the next challenge. And we’ve got some significant ones ahead of us.”

From nearly a dozen interviews with Giants players and coaches, it’s clear that nobody has influenced Kapler’s in-game managerial style more than his decorated, three-time World Series champion catcher. Posey offers his opinion on a pitcher’s stuff from inning to inning. He is a conduit to the clubhouse. He has become a lodestar whose brightness overrides any temptation to seek a minor statistical advantage in one area that might inadvertently weaken another.

“With a young catching group last year, Kap and (pitching coach) Andrew Bailey had to proactively manage the game plans,” Zaidi said. “When you have experienced catchers like we have this year, you provide them input but you know those guys can take it from there. Nobody can read and react to how pitchers are throwing in a game like the catchers can. There’s only so much you can see from the dugout. So having those eyes on the field has been really, really valuable for all of us.”

And Kapler has brought what even Bochy struggled at times to provide: a consistent demeanor with no emotional snaps when things aren’t going to plan.

“This is something that Buster has talked about at length,” Correa said. “The facial expressions, the high fives, it’s all very even. And I think most people, regardless of their age or thought process, are drawn to managers who are the same people every day. The game is so difficult and the moments are so trying and the season is so long. There are so many variables in play on a given night. So it becomes such a huge factor if your manager isn’t one of those variables, if he’s a constant in that equation.


“I’ve been next to him for two years now. It’s the same seat, same guy, same bubblegum every day.”

Sugar-free, of course.

All of this isn’t to suggest that the postseason won’t require some shifts in strategy.

The Giants hyper-aggressively managed games as if they were postseason games all season. There’s been a lot of attention paid to their major-league record 18 pinch-hit home runs, and perhaps less paid to their major-league record 406 pinch-hit plate appearances that obliterated the previous high of 359 set by the 1965 New York Mets.

They might give slight pause to their strategy to empty their bench early in the postseason, if only because the automatic runner won’t exist in extra innings and there’s less certainty that a stalemate will be resolved in relatively short order. That change could be a double advantage for the Dodgers, who were just 6-13 in extra-inning games.

Although Belt’s thumb fracture and Max Muncy’s dislocated elbow take two similar pieces off the chessboard, the Giants have plenty of roster options to play first base while the Dodgers are a bit scrambled at the position. Muncy also has hit eight home runs against a pitching staff that allowed the fewest homers in the major leagues. Put another way, Muncy accounted for 5.3 percent of the home runs the Giants have allowed this season. And his absence gives the Giants one fewer left-handed bat to fear as they seek to tailor their bullpen to maximize matchups.

Kapler’s other conundrum is to determine a pecking order in his late-inning relief, and even though Tyler Rogers has allowed six earned runs in six innings against the Dodgers this season, he’s also held them to a .250 average while facing a total of 26 batters. So it’s hard to argue that he’s far too familiar to them to be trusted in an important situation.


Left-hander Jake McGee, who might be a smidge less important with Muncy off the roster, will be full go despite not pitching for three weeks because of an oblique issue and he could be used “in a variety of situations,” Kapler said.

If the Giants have a scant lead to protect in the ninth, the decision to deploy Rogers vs. McGee vs. flamethrowing rookie Camilo Doval will come down to those pregame discussions between Kapler and Zaidi in the manager’s office. They will place their trust in the pitchers that they collectively believe will be ready to meet the moment.

It’s almost comical to look back at Kapler’s first game as the Giants’ manager and realize that they lost 8-1 at Dodger Stadium, that he pinch hit for Brandon Crawford in the seventh inning, that a destabilized defensive infield broke down and that, and a few days later, he goofed a visit to the mound that forced Rogers to face an extra batter.

Kapler asked for the chance to prove himself. He asked for open minds, both from the fans and the players. He received it and he ran with it. The Giants pulled off one of the greatest accomplishments in franchise history by winning a division in which their archrival collected 106 wins. Now they’ll look to defend their gains and their processes and their faith in one another.

A five-game series is not a referendum. But it absolutely would define them.

“This is an analogy, and it’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words,” Kapler said. “We want to see the whole staircase. But let’s just take the steps right in front of us. And when we get to that step, we’ll have more information. I really mean that. How will we manage games and balance conservation with backs-against-the-wall situations? I mean, there are just a thousand variables. It’s hard to see the whole puzzle.

“So let’s take one step at a time.”

(Photo: Lachlan Cunningham / Getty Images)

The Giants’ Gabe Kapler has changed hearts and minds, but what kind of postseason manager will he be? (2024)
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