On Friday the Giants announced the firing (not dismissal. You dismiss someone from a room or children from school. When it’s a job you “fire” them.) of Gabe Kapler, the Manager who was somewhat of a polarizing and perplexing figure during his tenure under Farhan Zaidi. Kapler was not a popular choice by the fans of the baseball literati when he was hired in 2019. He had been unceremoniously ousted by the Phillies owner in his previous stint as a Major League Skipper. He came in with baggage from his Dodger days where his association with Zaidi began. In fact, from the beginning the hiring stank of nepotism. Why is it a so-called baseball genius like Zaidi has to hire one of his buddies to Manage a Major League team? That was the first question I asked when I heard the news. It was a question never answered really. But if you really know how the power game works in Major League Baseball Hierarchy these days, it was clear to me that Zaidi wanted a “yes” man as his Manager, someone who would abide by the Analytics-driven model of baseballing and someone who would know his place within the new hierarchy of front office-Field Manager relations.
Baseball’s Hierarchy in 2023
Here is my unscientific explanation of today’s Major League Baseball hierarchy:
President of Baseball Operations (A BS title if there ever was one!)
Manager (makes line ups and pitching staffs, in-game decisions, based on a model and a system devised by the President of Baseball Ops. and they cannot be questioned.)
Here is the Baseball Hierarchy when Brian Sabean was hired by the Giants in 1996:
Manager (who independently ran his club and made his decision during and before games, without interference or orders from the brass above)
In all likelihood I am over-simplifying but you get the picture. The truth is the GM and the Manager are always in dialogue but the baseball culture pre-Analytics era understood that the GM stays in the office and the Manager handles the dugout and the game. It’s that simple for a reason.
As you can see that “President of Baseball Operations” role was created because someone decided there was a need for another rung of decision-making when in reality there was not. The GM was the GM. Even in today’s corporate world the GM role is considered the main decision-maker and over-seer of a business. The President is usually synonymous with the owner or majority owner in a corporate context. So, back to baseball, when the Giants made Brian Sabean President of Baseball operations, a so-called promotion, and then Sabean made Bobby Evans the GM, a whole new shift took place in a baseball club’s governance or operations. It was a way for Brian Sabean to anoint his protege and then set sail into the sunset, so to speak.
What am I getting at? Well this shift is contemporaneous with the shift towards an Analytics-first approach to evaluating baseball players, building a roster and making in-game decisions. This has been a paradigm-shift in Major League Baseball and the Giants, with their hiring of Farhan Zaidi in 2018 have been dramatically transformed as a result. With the President of Baseball Operations essentially making the decisions such as drafts, foreign player signings, and Managerial hires that the GM pre-2000 used to make, the GM role has become pretty much an errand boy and an assistant to the President, in other words, powerless.
For those of you interested in learning more about what “Analytics” really means in a baseball context read this great site at Syracuse University on Sabermetrics.
When a Manager Is No Longer a Manager
The Managerial role has been affected by this metrics evolution as well. No longer is the Manager an independent decision-maker fo line ups and in-game decisions. No matter what they say, no matter what BS puppets like Dave Roberts and Gabe Kapler spouted after games, trust me, the pinch-hit and starting pitcher decisions, to name two were pre-fabricated based on the above numbers/analytics-based way of looking at baseball games. Managing under this rubric is now akin to reading a chart. Pinch hit a scrap heap pick up for Brandon Crawford? No problem if that’s what the books says. Make players play out of position in the search for “versatility” to prioritize hitting matchups? No problem, if that’s what the book says.
How else can one explain the baffling, awful decision made by Rays Manager Kevin Cash to remove Blake Snell in game 6 of the 2020 World Series with the Rays winning and the pitcher cruising? In fact, his quote after the game was something akin to “That’s what our book says.” I kid you not! I can name many other insipidly awful, by-the-numbers decisions from Gabe Kapler alone. It’s clear that it’s a model that emphasizes numbers to a fault and fails to contextualize many decisions. It is a model that is now coming to its end game. With Gabe Kapler’s firing, Farhan Zaidi is trying to save his job and re-start the Giants as he heads into the final year of his contract. WIth the Kapler firing Zaidi is admitting his nepotistic choice was a failure. It happens. Sometimes we hire a friend or an acquaintance, a brother or sister, a cousin or neighbor for a job simply because we know them. It’s a terrible idea to begin with and in this case for the Giants, it was nothing short of a disaster.
Imagine running your marriage or raising your kids by prioritizing numbers and metrics? Why on Earth should we let this philosophy run and ruin our beloved Giants? Because the Athletics won more games than they should have a few years ago? Give me a break!
How Bad Was Gabe Kapler’s Tenure Really?
It was bad. Make no mistake, very bad. Yes, there was 2021 and Gabe Kapler deserves credit for that amazing 107-win season. He deserved that Manager of the Year Award. But before and since the Giants never finished above .500. They never made the postseason. They became a boring team and many managerial moves were simply terrible. How about using relievers for 60% of your rotation? All those horrible pinch-hitting moves before the seventh inning? All those terrible mealy-mouthed platitudes after losses? All those line up changes? All those defensive moves? The Giants were a disaster this season and that disaster was written on the wall of the Analytics bathroom. It was clear for all to see and it is a testament to the denial and stubbornness of the Zaidi/Kapler regime that they never evolved, that they never thought to dispense with the openers and let pitchers start games consistently and pitch through trouble for the long game.
Gabe Kapler may be a good guy. He may be a person worthy of our respect but a Manager in the Major Leagues has one job and one job only: to win the World Series. That’s the ultimate goal and Gabe Kapler never came close. He never even won a postseason series. Now, we can say “well it’s not his fault. It wasn’t his roster, yada yada yada” but at the end of the day he failed to win and that’s all there is to it. We could also look at Zaidi’s decision to fire his guy as an admission that it is time to change a philosophy, time to find a new way of thinking about evaluating baseball players and making in-game decisions. It will all depend on the next hire. If Zaidi hires another “yes man” then I can tell you right here, right now, he will fail too. If, on the other hand Zaidi hires a more respected Manager who has shown he can win, someone like Buck Showalter, Craig Counsell or Bob Melvin, then it may be cause for hope. I’m not endorsing either guy as our next Giants Manager. I am only saying that the firing of Gabe Kapler could represent a new era for the Giants and a way forward for Farhan Zaidi to keep his job after next season.
2024 will be a very interesting year for the Giants indeed. If the new Manager rocks. If the rookies roll. If Farhan makes some savvy trades and free agent acquisitions then maybe, just maybe the Giants will be on the road to being interesting and a winning franchise again.
Who Should the Giants Hire as their New Manager?
I could write a book about this question. It’s particularly interesting given that the new Manager may outlast the President of Baseball Operations who hires him. I could write a laundry list of qualifications for the job but the man I would choose, all things considered is Ron Wotus. I would hire Wotus because you hiring from within the Giants family, the family that saw three World Series. Wotus was Bruce Bochy’s right-hand and left-hand man in that glorious era. Wotus is respected by the players and brass alike. Wotus has the demeanor and smarts. I also believe Wotus has the ability to tell Farhan to go and jump in the Bay when it comes to in-game decisions and other Analytics notebook metrics baseball codes. Maybe I am dreaming. But it is the choice I would make with the information I have. I would not hire a re-tread like Showalter or some young, inexperienced buck who never Managed even a Little League team. I would hire Ron Wotus. There you have it!