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June 13, 2018

Phillies GM Matt Klentak not concerned with manager Gabe Kapler's learning curve

The crusty old-schoolers carp about how he uses his bullpen, how he deploys his players defensively, his unbridled positivity, even after a blowout loss, and the new-fangled analytic ways he manages.

Overriding all of that is a strong bottom line: Phils’ manager Gabe Kapler and his team are winning. 

After the Phillies' ownership group brought in Matt Klentak — only in his mid 30s — to serve as general manager the forward thinking GM took a chance on Kapler and his unusual baseball philosophy. It's shown to be a successful move, though not without some bumps.

June has been a struggle, so far, but the Phillies are 34-30, three games behind the National League East Division-leading Atlanta Braves (38-28) and two games behind the defending NL East champ Washington Nationals (36-28), who combined, the Phils still have 23 more games against (16 vs. Washington and 7 vs. Atlanta).

More importantly, as of Wednesday, June 13, the Phillies are still playing relevant games. Kapler may be learning on the job, but he’s learning quickly. The Phillies didn’t win their 34th game in 2017 until July 23, which by then they were sitting at the bottom of the NL East with a 34-62 record, 24.5 games out of first place. This is the first time the Phillies have been over .500 this deep in June in five years, since they were 31-30 on June 6, 2013. Their record is the most games they’ve been over .500 since the last time they made the playoffs, in 2011, when the Phils were 51-30 on June 29, 2011.

Kapler has made some mistakes along the way. But his good moves so far have outweighed the negative, and his positive approach has been contagious.

“Anytime a first-year manager is hired, there is a reasonable expectation that there is going to be a learning curve, and Kap was surely tested early in that first week of games, in a pretty high-profile way,” Klentak told PhillyVoice. “The thing that I like about Kap that makes him unique is his willingness to ask questions, and his willingness to make adjustments.

“He is incredibly hard working and he’s willing to admit that he was wrong, and make adjustments for the good of the team. Already, in just a few short months, we’ve seen some pretty impressive adjustments made by him, made by our coaches and made by our players. We’ve had four or five punch-in-the-gut losses this year and every single time, we responded the next day, or responded by winning four out of five games. We’ve not let that affect us, and I think that is the sign of a confident team that believes in itself and they’re not going to get too down.

“Believe me, I watch the games, and I ride the emotions, along with the fans. But these guys believe in themselves. Their manager believes in them, their coaches believe in them, and these guys believe in themselves. The effort level, from one through 25, has been strong through spring training.”

That, Klentak noted, was the strong belief the team has in Kapler.

June is a survival month for the Phils. Where the Phillies season goes could depend on them getting through June still five or six games over .500.

“I said earlier, I think this June schedule is going to test us, it already has,” Klentak said. “We’re running up against some really good teams and the record is what the record is. But, what I’ve been impressed with is how our guys have gone to battle. We haven’t won every game, but we’re in games to the very end, and we’re responding the next day [after tough losses].

“We can learn something about a young team by how they respond to top-caliber top teams. There are correctable things that come as part of a young team, and you hope that with repetition, guys learn from experiences and the next time they’re more prepared to make that play. It’s a confident group and much of that has to do with coming through the system together, and they won together at virtually every level—they don’t know any other way. That’s a great thing. We can talk about player development not being about wins and losses, but I don’t think that’s true. I think winning matters at every level of organized baseball.”

The Phillies are 34-30, after dropping a pair of games to Milwaukee over the weekend by a combined 24-7. They responded with a pair of wins, one without the benefit of a hit driving in a run (4-3 over Milwaukee on Sunday, June 10).

Right now, Kapler finds himself in a managerial incubator, growing and learning with his young team. And right now, it’s been a successful process—the bottom line says so.

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