PHILADELPHIA — The first day went well, and the second day went even better.
If Bryce Harper and the Philadelphia Phillies keep having days and weekends like the one they just had, no one will be asking whether his record-setting 13-year, $330 million contract was a huge mistake.
Three games into the season, Harper has two home runs and the Phillies are 3-0. One weekend in, Harper is right for Philadelphia, and Philadelphia is right for Harper. And the manager who attracted so much attention last year is right for him, too.
“I think it’s the perfect fit,” Phillies bench coach Rob Thomson said.
He was talking about Harper and Gabe Kapler, the second-year manager who can match Harper’s intensity, if not his $25-plus million annual average salary. It’s the relationship everyone will be watching, maybe more than any other manager-player relationship in the game—maybe more than any relationship between any two people in baseball.
Harper attracts attention, as does Kapler. While both have their supporters, both have plenty of detractors, too. And for everyone inside the Phillies clubhouse who sees this as a match that will work, there’s someone on the outside equally convinced it won’t.
There are no issues for now, which is either a sign that Harper and Kapler are off to a great start or it’s still the honeymoon period in a marriage that came about when Harper agreed to terms with Philly on Feb. 28. They’ve only had four weeks of spring training and three regular-season wins together, all of which were filled with standing ovations and home runs and curtain calls.
There shouldn’t be problems yet, but it’s still notable how the two lead characters in this drama describe each other.
“He’s very genuine,” Harper said of Kapler. “He really cares about his players. A guy everyone on this team wants to play for.”
“He’s the kind of guy who is equipped for this moment,” Kapler said of Harper. “The biggest stage, the brightest lights. And he’s so smart.”
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Kapler, who believes in analytics but also believes in people, has gone against his usual thought that the best hitter on a team should bat second or fourth. Instead, he put Harper in the No. 3 position he often occupied during his seven seasons with the Nationals.
Harper, who likes coming up in the first inning and having runners on base, made clear that he wasn’t making demands about the lineup or anything else.
“It’s his job to be the manager, just like it’s my job to be a player,” he said. “If he would have hit me second or fourth, I would have been all for it.”
Kapler may be the boss in title, but the power dynamic is understood. Harper has the security of the longest contract in the game.
If Harper walked around the Phillies clubhouse like he owned it, no one could challenge him. But he doesn’t. He walks in like any other player, just one with more eyes on him. His locker looks like every other locker.
And when he was celebrating the three wins over the division-champion Atlanta Braves that began this Phillies season, he looked very much to be part of a team.
It’s a team with more talent and more veteran leadership than Kapler’s 2018 Phillies. While the talent and the money spent have plenty of people around MLB saying Kapler is already on the hot seat, the influx of respected veterans like outfielder Andrew McCutchen should give him a better chance to succeed.
“It kind of gets the load off him, because you’ve got more veteran guys in the clubhouse who are able to manage the clubhouse,” McCutchen said. “We’re able to hold each other accountable. It’s not like he has to go out of his way to do it. His job is to manage. He can go and focus on the things he needs to focus on because he knows the guys in this clubhouse are going to take care of each other.”
That wasn’t always true in 2018, when a young Phillies team spent 39 days in first place but faded over the season’s final month and finished below .500 at 80-82. The clubhouse issues were significant enough that veteran first baseman Carlos Santana smashed a television after he saw some of his teammates using it to play Fortnite during games, according to ESPN.com’s Jeff Passan.
Santana didn’t blame Kapler, telling Passan: “I like Gabe because he’s a very strong guy. It was tough for him, especially his first year. But sometimes the manager can’t control the clubhouse because everybody [is] doing their thing.”
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
Ultimately, the manager is responsible not only for how his team plays, but also for how it acts. The 2019 Phillies are expected both to play and act better.
“Gabe is so smart,” Thomson said. “Everybody makes mistakes, but you very rarely see Gabe make the same mistake twice.”
Kapler has evolved over the past year. While his belief in the numbers can still frustrate some traditionalists—he used seven pitchers in Saturday’s 8-6 win—Kapler has adjusted to the team and players he has now. He has vowed to have more of a set lineup, for example.
“Last year, we really had to look at every strategic advantage, and so with the lineup, we often factored that in,” Kapler said. “This year, because our lineup is going to be very good naturally and because there’s going to be some consistency to it, we’re thinking about how can we make our guys most comfortable. I know Bryce likes hitting in the 3-4 area. I know Rhys [Hoskins] likes hitting in the 3-4 area. I know McCutchen is very comfortable in the 1 spot.
“If these guys are comfortable, my inclination is that they’re going to perform better.”
That goes for all his players, but Kapler has even more incentive to keep Harper comfortable and get him performing at his best. Because if Harper’s playing well, he gives the Phillies the best chance to win.
While his past few seasons were marred by a mix of injuries and disappointing statistics, Harper is still the guy who produced one of the best offensive seasons in MLB history when he hit 42 home runs with a 1.109 OPS in 2015.
The Phillies didn’t sign Harper solely for his impact on the field, but also because “he’s part of the brand we’re building,” Kapler said. Last week, Major League Baseball announced Harper’s Phillies jersey is already the best-seller in the game. The team also set records for most jerseys sold in the first 24 and 48 hours after Harper signed.
Eventually, winning has to go along with the marketing. It’s Kapler’s job to make sure Harper and his other stars do enough of that.
Matt Rourke/Associated Press
“I’ve always thought the best way to get the most out of a player is by doing two things,” Kapler said. “The first one is supporting them like crazy, and the other one is challenging them like crazy. Sometimes you have veteran, established top-of-the-line players who probably don’t get enough of the challenge.
“People are afraid to have the conversation with them. And I think Bryce really welcomes that.”
Some who knew him with the Nationals may disagree. An NL executive familiar with his time there describes Harper not as a bad guy, but said “he’s a bit of a diva.” Coaches, he said, were sometimes told to approach him with kid gloves.
Kapler’s goal is to build a strong enough relationship with his star that issues can be discussed out loud, not in hushed tones anonymously.
“I don’t think you can raise the bar or challenge them or ask for more without first devoting yourself to the support component,” Kapler said. “Right now, all of my attention is going to be focused on supporting Bryce and observing Bryce. In order to support and challenge someone, you have to get to know them. My first job is to establish a relationship with Bryce and letting him know I want to know the person and not just the baseball player. I don’t think players can be as good at their jobs as they can be if they’re only being thought of as a number on a jersey.”
In Harper’s case, part of that is understanding the scrutiny he has been under since Sports Illustrated dubbed him “Baseball’s LeBron” and put him on its cover as a 16-year-old in 2009. Everything he has said or done since has been analyzed and overanalyzed, which may make him more prepared than most to deal with the pressures of a $330 million contract.
Kapler may be better prepared than most managers, too. While he was never the player Harper is, he did come to the major leagues in 1999 as the Detroit Tigers‘ top prospect. He didn’t have Harper’s talent, but they approach the game in a similar way, looking for every edge and never giving an inch.
Kapler has also been around big contracts before. While with the Rangers in 2001, he watched Alex Rodriguez deal with the pressure of joining a new team with a then-record 10-year, $252 million contract.
Like Harper, A-Rod was liked and hated and scrutinized. Even the smallest comment could become an issue.
Take what happened shortly after Harper signed with the Phillies. In a radio interview, he said he would do what he could to convince Mike Trout to sign with the Phillies (Trout later signed a contract extension with the Los Angeles Angels). As a result, the Angels complained that Harper may have violated the sport’s tampering laws. When reporters asked Harper about that, one suggested he may have been “called into the principal’s office.”
“I’ve never been called into the principal’s office,” Harper responded. “I don’t really know what that means. I’m not sure what you’re trying to ask.”
One National League executive saw the exchange on television and took it as Harper questioning why he would ever need to submit to authority. But a former major league player watching the same exchange had the opposite reaction.
“I don’t think people realize what a good kid Bryce was,” the former player said. “I mean, I knew the principal’s office in every school I was in because I was always sent there. I doubt Bryce ever was.”
Some will scoff at Harper’s answer. Nor did everyone believe Harper when he said he was happy to see Trout top his record contract days after he set the mark. Or that he was thrilled to go to Philadelphia, or to sign a contract with no opt-outs. That’s the way it is when you are more than a player—when you are a brand unto yourself.
And as long as he and Kapler are both in Phillies uniforms, some people will always doubt that the relationship will work.
For now, though, it is working. Everything about Harper and the Phillies is working, even in unexpected ways.
“The last week of spring training, we sent Bryce to the minor league camp to get some at-bats,” Thomson said. “I get a text from the field coordinator saying, ‘I’ve just seen one of the best things I’ve ever seen. He hit a ground ball to second base, and he ran as hard as anyone we’ve had in camp run to first base. So now, we can tell everyone in camp: If that guy can do it, you can do it.’
“That’s what you’ve got.”
That’s what the Phillies have. It’s Kapler’s job to make sure that’s the Harper people think of.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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