SAN FRANCISCO — Twenty-four hours after pinch-hitter LaMonte Wade Jr. led the Giants to one of their most dramatic comeback victories of the season with a go-ahead, two-run home run at the Oakland Coliseum on Aug. 21, manager Gabe Kapler tested his players’ confidence.
With the Giants trailing 1-0 in the eighth inning the next day, Kapler pulled Wade, one of the majors’ best clutch hitters this year, back from the on-deck circle and sent pinch-hitter Donovan Solano to the plate to face A’s lefty A.J. Puk.
“To be honest, everybody in the dugout was like, ‘Uh, alright, let’s hope this works out,’” Giants pitcher Kevin Gausman said.
Solano isn’t known for his power, but he yanked a fastball from Puk over the left field fence anyway for a go-ahead two-run home run in a 2-1 victory.
“If you’re coming from (Kapler’s) perspective, you look at our team and all the weapons we have, why wouldn’t you feel confident?” shortstop Brandon Crawford said. “For the most part, we’ve come through in situations that he puts us in.”
The Giants’ 18 pinch-hit home runs this season passed a major league record set by the 2016 St. Louis Cardinals and are one of the many examples players point to in explaining the influence Kapler and his coaching staff have had on the club’s success.
As the Giants prepare to host Game 1 of the NLDS Friday at Oracle Park, the 107-win club has stunned the baseball industry and rewritten record books thanks in large part to the leadership of a manager few in the Bay Area thought deserved the job.
In November 2019, Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi hired Kapler to succeed Bruce Bochy, a beloved figure in San Francisco who guided the franchise to unprecedented heights and will eventually be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The choice of Kapler was unpopular for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to several noteworthy gaffes during a two-year stint as the Phillies manager in which Philadelphia failed to clear .500.
Aside from his shortcomings with the Phillies and his commitment to an analytical approach some fans saw as antithetical to Bochy’s successful style, many in San Francisco viewed Kapler’s handling of alleged assaults in 2015 by Dodgers minor leaguers during his tenure as Los Angeles’ farm director as disqualifying.
A Major League Baseball investigation in 2017 cleared Kapler of any wrongdoing, but he spent a portion of his introductory press conference with the Giants expressing regret for his handling of the incidents and justifying his hire to a massive segment of the team’s fan base that felt skeptical he was the best choice for the job.
Zaidi’s decision to hire Kapler, who had spent three-plus years working alongside him in the Dodgers’ front office, was a product of their familiarity and close friendship, but also of the belief that Kapler’s interpersonal skills and process-oriented approach would best position the Giants to contend for division titles and World Series championships.
Two years into Kapler’s tenure, the Giants have set new San Francisco-era records for regular season wins and home runs, rejuvenated the careers of homegrown stars Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt and earned the trust of a clubhouse that had a right to be doubtful of his qualifications.
“What I’ve appreciated from him so much is the consistency,” Posey said. “It’s day in, day out, he’s been the same guy. Even if we’ve hit a couple of skids throughout the year, you don’t see anything different. He’s positive on the bench, thinking ahead, thinking along with the game and it’s been a pleasure to work with him.”
Kapler could have reacted to the initial concerns surrounding his fit in San Francisco by surrounding himself with a veteran staff of experienced coaches, but a manager with a background in player development instead chose to assemble an unproven, untraditional group that would bring new techniques, new teaching methods and a fluency in the data that drives modern-day decision-making to the dugout.
“They’re a teaching staff,” reliever Tony Watson said. “You could see the improvement of guys throughout the roster, one through 26. It wasn’t just the young guys that were coming up and still developing, you saw Buster, (Crawford), (Longoria) and Belt changing their swings and changing the way they go about their days. That’s a tribute to all 14-15 staff members and being able to relay information and ideas.”
Bench coach Kai Correa, hitting coaches Donnie Ecker, Justin Viele and Dustin Lind and the first woman to be a full-time major league assistant coach, Alyssa Nakken, were among those who had never played or coached in the majors, but over the course of two seasons, all have received credit for transforming the culture within the clubhouse and helping veteran players continue to unlock their full potential.
“It was a lot of unknown names and a lot of guys who had their first time at the major league level so there’s a little bit of understanding it was going to take some growing pains,” Gausman said. “But I’ve been around a lot of staffs and this is the most prepared coaching staff I’ve ever been around.”
The only holdover from Bochy’s last staff in San Francisco, third base coach Ron Wotus, sat alongside Posey at Kapler’s introductory press conference and has provided an invaluable connection from the past to the present.
“One of the best things they did was keeping Wo here,” Gausman said. “Having a guy who is of the old-school mentality, has been there and done it, been in the organization for a long time, I think keeping him on was one of the smartest moves they did.”
Throughout the 2021 season, Giants players touted the depth of their 40-man roster as their greatest asset. It’s allowed the team to plug holes in a year where nearly every major contributor has missed time due to injury, but the depth is part of a larger theme of organizational synergy that’s a product of the management styles of Zaidi and Kapler.
Relief pitcher Camilo Doval is an example of the synergy in practice as he went from never having thrown a pitch above A-ball to being protected on the Giants’ 40-man roster following instructional league play in Arizona last winter. Kapler had kept close tabs on Doval after the 2020 season and following an invitation to major league spring training, Kapler, the Giants’ front office and farm director Kyle Haines considered the best way to develop Doval while also squeezing important innings out of him.
Despite early-season struggles, the rookie picked up back-to-back saves during the final week of the regular season as Kapler showed no hesitation moving Doval into a high-leverage role with closer Jake McGee on the injured list. And while Doval’s stretch run has drawn comparisons to then-Angels rookie Francisco Rodríguez’s finish to the 2002 season, Kapler realizes he might have to rely on experience ahead of electric “stuff” when the postseason arrives.
“We’re going to be paying attention to the intensity of the games,” Kapler said. “(Doval) has demonstrated he’s comfortable in pretty much every intensity level, but these games over the last couple of days are even going to be potentially elevated from that standpoint and the postseason, every step of the way, a little bit more is on the line.”
The Giants’ stunning run to the top of the National League West caught outsiders by surprise, but inside the organization, the foundation was laid during the truncated 2020 season. San Francisco finished a 60-game schedule at 29-31 and fell short of qualifying for the playoffs on the final day of the season, but ended the year on a 21-15 run that gave players enough confidence to enter 2021 with the belief they could challenge for a division title.
“Winning obviously is key and it’s much easier to buy into something when you see the results on the field and I think it’s two-fold,” said Darin Ruf, who platooned in left field in Alex Dickerson in 2020 and emerged this season as one of the Giants’ best hitters. “We as players have to buy in to have positive results and have confidence to go out and perform well and when those things mesh together, when you have players that buy in and trust it, I think you see the product of that.”
Ruf is one of many Giants players who might receive everyday at-bats elsewhere, but is usually deployed in situations where Kapler can create a matchup advantage. While Ruf has proven he can hit for average and power against right-handers, the Giants almost always have him at or near the top of the lineup against lefties because he owns an OPS above 1.000 against southpaws this season.
“The communication is unbelievable,” Ruf said. “Being in a bench role almost my whole career and coming over the last few years, the communication on everything from the lineups to when you might go in the game and the consistency of the moves he makes, you can almost anticipate it.”
Ruf is one of many players who made important contributions last season and have shown improvement in 2021. Kapler’s emphasis on player development at the major league level has clearly paid off, but the players aren’t the only ones stepping up their game.
“He’s changed from last year to this year,” Crawford said of his manager. “Not just the perception of him coming into his first year, but from last year to this year, he’s definitely changed some things and I think he deserves a lot of credit for doing that. He came in with a pretty analytical approach to managing games and lineups and he definitely still uses it, but he’s also listened to a bunch of different people.”
Kapler’s on-job growth has turned him into the front-runner for the National League Manager of the Year Award, and while that might stun fans who followed him closely in Philadelphia, it’s not a surprise to those who work closely alongside him.
“I think Gabe is constantly improving,” general manager Scott Harris said. “Anyone who knows him knows that he looks inward first. He’s very introspective and always seeking process adjustments that allow him to reach one more player or make one more better decision in-game or build a better culture in the clubhouse.”
From veterans to rookies and stars to role players, Kapler has found a way to reach everyone in the Giants’ clubhouse. The trust he’s earned off the field is reflected in his team’s confidence on it, and it’s all culminated in an unlikely shot to bring another World Series trophy back to San Francisco.