It’s a managerial mantra, an unwritten yet evergreen basic truth of baseball that has endured since John McGraw and Connie Mack wore suits and neckties in the dugout. Put your players in a position to succeed.
That is, don’t ask a power hitter who can’t bunt to attempt a sacrifice. Expect disappointment if a fly-ball pitcher remains on the mound when a double-play ground ball is needed.
Hundreds of these decisions, maybe even thousands, confront a manager every year. And it’s safe to say that Gabe Kapler, the postseason-bound Giants’ skipper, has made the correct call regarding his personnel much more often than not during this season.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s the hands-down manager of the year,” Giants third-base coach Ron Wotus said recently. “It’s clicking on all cylinders on how he wanted to do it. He deserves a lot of credit. He has really adjusted and adapted to the personnel, whether it’s analytics or old-school or managing people. He has done a tremendous job. He’s the leader of the club.”
As “old-school” managers did, Kapler delegates a significant portion of authority and responsibility to his staff. There’s nothing old-school about the size of that staff — 17 coaches and assistants, as listed daily on the Giants’ roster distributed to the media. It’s believed to be the Major Leagues’ largest staff.
“Just like the players have a role, the coaches have a role, too,” said left-hander Tony Watson, who, as an 11-year veteran, possesses the most experience among Giants relievers.
Kapler assesses their feedback, and lo and behold — San Francisco has maintained baseball’s best record through most of the season.
Kapler has “platooned” his lineups to create the best possible matchups depending on whether the Giants are facing a left- or right-handed starter. This strategy extends to his player substitutions. One of the more extreme examples of this occurred on Sept. 3 against the Dodgers, when Kapler replaced LaMonte Wade Jr., a left-handed batter, with right-handed-hitting Austin Slater. It was only the third inning of a scoreless game, but Kapler preferred Slater at the plate when the Dodgers summoned left-hander Alex Vesia to relieve right-hander Phil Bickford with the bases loaded and one out. Slater singled home a run, and the Giants proceeded to win in 11 innings, 3-2.
“He’s brought in pinch-hitters and relief pitchers in the right situations all the time, it seems like,” said shortstop Brandon Crawford, one of the few everyday Giants players.
Wotus served under managers Dusty Baker, Felipe Alou and Bruce Bochy during his 34 years on the Giants’ staff. Though Wotus obviously hails from an older generation of baseball, he raved about Kapler’s managerial skill.
“I think he deserves all the credit in the world,” Wotus said. “Anytime you change a culture, it takes time, No. 1, and you’ve got to get buy-in from the players.”
As Wotus pointed out, “It’s a new system; it’s a new philosophy. Usually you’re built with your starters, your front-line guys and then you have your bench; maybe you have a little platoon here and there. But we kind of went with depth. With a right-handed lineup and a left-handed lineup. So that’s new, especially in the National League. And it’s paid huge dividends.”
This, of course, was the path plotted by Farhan Zaidi, the Giants’ president of baseball operations. But during games, establishing the rhythm of the Giants’ performance begins with Kapler, who’s in his second season of managing the team.
With the Giants assured of a postseason appearance yet striving for the National League West crown, Kapler has sought to keep his players focused.
“I think our players have talked about that recently, about keeping their foot on the gas,” he said. “I think you can be both measured and calm and very in the moment and be looking to push the accelerator, always. I don’t think you have to be one or the other.”
Crawford cited similarities between the current Giants’ mindset and the one that the club maintained in 2012 and 2014, when he played on World Series-winning teams. “The feeling we have in the clubhouse is that it doesn’t matter who’s in the other dugout,” he said.
Thanks to Kapler, the Giants can concentrate on sustaining their own excellence.
“Team” becomes first when you’re winning,” Wotus said. “And it all starts with Kap.”
Chris Haft is a longtime baseball scribe who covers the Giants for The Examiner.