Right now, names like Fredi Gonzalez and Alex Cora appear to be the likeliest choices for the Detroit Tigers’ managerial openings. But, as was reported on Sunday, a faction of the Tigers’ front office — presumably the analytics department — continues to push for Los Angeles Dodgers Director of Player Development Gabe Kapler. In a period of transition for the Tigers organization, Kapler represents the perfect opportunity to hire a manager capable of playing a major role in modernizing the franchise.
The 42-year-old Kapler is a former outfielder who was drafted by the Tigers in the 57th round of the 1995 draft. That round doesn’t even exist anymore. Kapler wasn’t a guy with the raw talent and presence on a baseball diamond that makes scouts drool. That he rose from baseball oblivion to play in the majors for 12 seasons is impressive on its own. He built a long major league career with brains and work ethic far more than with natural ability. Along the way, he picked the brain of just about everyone he came across and has long been marked as a manager in the making.
Kapler joined the Dodgers front office after the 2014 season in his current role, and a year later was thought to be a lock to take over as manager when Don Mattingly was fired.
Numerous people in industry have told me in past 24 hours that they will be surprised if anyone but Gabe Kapler is #Dodgers’ next manager.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) October 23, 2015
That tweet didn’t end well, as the organization eventually settled on Dave Roberts instead. It tells you something that Kapler went from an outside-the-box hire as Director of Player Development to a guy everyone expected to take over as manager in just one season. That was the kind of impact and impression he made on one of the best organizations in the game. Dodgers president Andrew Friedman has spoken of Kapler in glowing terms all along the way.
"He's incredibly bright, he's a tremendous leader of people, and he's an exceptional communicator," Friedman said in November 2014 when Kapler was hired. "It's so hard for players, who are so mired in it, to sometimes see the bigger picture or even look at it from a different perspective. Gabe is incredibly skilled at seeing things at different perspectives."
Kapler’s only managerial experience came as manager of the Greenville Drive, the Boston Red Sox Class-A affiliate in 2007 during his temporary retirement as a player. While that’s more experience than Alex Cora, one of the other popular candidates for the Tigers’ job, has, it certainly doesn’t match up to other choices like Fredi Gonzalez. However, while all these names no doubt have their own attributes, Kapler is the one best suited to lead the Tigers into a new era of competition driven as much by data and innovation as by more classic coaching methodologies.
By personality, intellect and open-mindedness, Kapler would be focused any and all pathways to success. He was the first to take nutrition seriously in the minor leagues, overhauling the diet served in the Dodgers’ affiliates. He was also an early adopter of exit velocity and launch angles as better measures of a player’s contact than batting average. Anecdotes abound of Kapler sitting down with players and converting reams of data into actionable ideas for their improvement.
In short, this is a guy regularly described as being uniquely skilled at combining data and old-fashioned coaching. At using new methods and new technology to create a culture of forward-thinking experimentation and innovation in an organization. Developing such a mindset throughout an entire organization is rapidly becoming a dividing line between winning and losing franchises.
Take the Houston Astros, for example. An anecdote from a recent Tom Verducci article on the Astros is revealing in terms of that organization’s culture of informed experimentation and use of technology. Carlos Correa put a drill taught by Carlos Beltran to handle high velocity fastballs into practice early this season. Justin Verlander took advantage of high speed cameras the Astros employ on their pitchers to improve his hand position on his slider and gain a bit more bite. Both those little edges gained paid off in huge ways in Game 2 of the ALCS in which Verlander put together perhaps the most remarkable performance of his career and earned the victory when Correa turned around one of Aroldis Chapman’s missiles for the game winning hit.
That’s a narrative arc that sells itself by illustrating both traditional and modern methods of learning. A veteran with a stellar career behind him showing a burgeoning superstar a drill he learned to handle a specific challenge years earlier. And a new piece of technology illustrating minute differences in a player’s mechanics, allowing to make the subtle adjustment that unlocks a new level of performance.
Both pathways to improvement are important. The lineage of baseball knowledge is still transmitted through coaches and players using their experience and senses to diagnose issues and devise solutions. But the Verlander anecdote illustrates a whole new world opening beyond anything having to do with what we’ve typically called advanced metrics to this point.
Far from explaining why on base percentage is so important, or why wOBA is superior to OPS as an overall offensive metric, the new edges teams are developing are the result of direct measurement of each individual athlete’s mechanics and movement patterns, as well as the actual motion of the baseball itself while in play. From exit velocity and launch angle to the fine details of pitching and swing mechanics, new tools are constantly being devised to measure what is actually happening on the field.
The interplay between technology used in Statcast and tools like the Astros’ high speed cameras is rapidly changing how teams prepare players and equip them with the most detailed information possible. The next big key is in learning how to take all this information and make it usable to players of widely varying backgrounds, success levels and interest. While many teams’ culture is still overly mired in tradition and hierarchy, organizations like the Astros, Cubs and Dodgers are pointing the way forward while reaping the benefits on the field.
Organizational culture is a term that has been heavily discussed by business gurus for years. And certainly clubhouse culture is not a new concept either. They aren’t the same thing, but both have gained currency over the years as two of the more important features of successful companies and baseball teams alike. Finding ways to integrate different departments and perspectives, and put the work of the analytics department, or advanced scouting, to use in practice on major league baseball fields is an act of translation that a lot of possible managerial candidates out there may not be skilled in. Kapler operates in that capacity already as Director of Player Development for one of the most innovative organizations in the game today.
It’s easy to overemphasize Kapler’s credentials as some kind of a radical innovator. Those are simply the points that stand out most in his favor to many. Facility with turning data into actual useful, teachable information is a necessary attribute for a major league manager nowadays. And Kapler is more experienced and forward-thinking of these fronts than any candidate in discussion. He’s the type who is always looking for ways to do things better. But, he’s also a very solid baseball man with a little managerial experience, who played at the highest level not through outlandish raw ability, but through maximizing his tools with intelligence, hard work and an open-minded approach to learning.
The Tigers may ultimately choose to go in a different direction. Kapler doesn’t appear to be the favorite at the moment. But there is a unique opportunity with Kapler to build upon the progress the Tigers have made in developing their analytics department and opening up to innovation. They know they fell far behind during Dave Dombrowski’s tenure, and they’ve invested a lot of resources in catching up. Now they need a manager that can take the reins and lead them in the direction they’ve already correctly committed to go.
Gabe Kapler is the guy to weave this fresh approach into their organizational culture. He’s the best choice to combine the old and the new school and make the “Tigers way” into something more than a nice idea. The team is young, building a quality farm system, and freshly released from the crippling effect of years of high expectations. This is the right time, and Kapler is the perfect candidate to take them in this new direction.
Seize the opportunity, Tigers.