How Gabe Kapler, Giants put together innovative coaching staff

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·18 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Kapler's vision for Giants coaching staff helped quick turnaround originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

During the first week of February in 2020, three months after Gabe Kapler's introductory press conference and a few days before the start of his first spring training as manager of the Giants, Kapler and his hand-picked coaching staff met in San Francisco for a two-day retreat.

They introduced themselves and discussed philosophies, processes and coaching methods. They planned out spring training. They boarded buses and took a guided food tour of The Mission. They visited murals around the city that depicted the history of San Francisco and the Giants. They had pleasant conversations and uncomfortable ones. They also played poker in the Gotham Club.

"Alyssa took the whole pot down," pitching coach Andrew Bailey said last week. "She's a shark. That was her first time ever playing poker and she took the whole tournament down."

It was a sign of things to come.

On Sunday, that coaching staff gathered with the players in front of the mound and took a picture to celebrate the NL West title. The story of how the Giants got from that initial retreat to 107 wins in 20 months is about brilliant roster construction by the front office and execution by players young and old. 

But you cannot tell that story without the coaching staff, perhaps the youngest and most inexperienced in the game's history, but also maybe the most curious, the most creative and the most collaborative.

When Kapler put the 13-person -- 12 men and one woman -- group together, there were some snickers and raised eyebrows around the game. But on Sunday, Kapler stood on the field at Oracle Park and talked about the vision his players had in chasing an NL West title. Kapler had his own vision, one about what an ideal big league coaching staff should look like, and in his second stop as a manager he got to implement it.

"It's been a different approach, for sure," said Ron Wotus, the lone holdover from Bruce Bochy's staff. "I think it's quite a bit different, but I think it's worked out very, very well."

USATSI

Nick Ortiz went to the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich as a boxer and turned pro when he came back. Three years later, he was the No. 5 ranked welterweight in the world, but his son gravitated toward another sport. 

Nick Ortiz Jr. was drafted by the Red Sox in the 34th round in 1990 and played 15 seasons in the minors, including 133 games in Triple-A. He played 16 seasons of winter ball and three in independent leagues. One year was spent with a team that didn't have a home stadium and played the entire season on the road. 

Ortiz then became a coach in his native Puerto Rico, and in 2016 the New York Yankees made him a scout. A year later he managed their rookie ball team in the Gulf Coast League. Somewhere along the way, Ortiz once again started thinking about reaching the big leagues. On the day before Christmas in 2019, he got a call from a man he had never met before. 

Kapler found out about Ortiz from Philadelphia Phillies coach Jose Flores, who, like Ortiz, is from Cidra, Puerto Rico. Kapler and Ortiz connected over the phone and then got to know each other with long text message conversations. Ortiz felt comfortable with Kapler right away, confiding in him and telling stories about his father, who had passed away at the age of 44. 

When Kapler called Ortiz to ask him to officially join his staff as the quality assurance coach, the emotions came pouring out. At the age of 46, Ortiz was finally headed to the big leagues. A couple of days later, he went out and bought a Giants hat and placed it on his father's tombstone in Cidra. He took a picture and texted it to Kapler.

"It was an appreciation for all of the things that we went through together," he said. "One of the goals that I had was to make it to the big leagues and the advice that my father gave me many times was to continue to fight for it. It was finally done."

Kapler recalls that conversation with Ortiz as his favorite from a hectic period during which he was making dreams come true for coaches who thought they were years from the big leagues. For Kapler, the process was also years in the making. 

Kapler is in San Francisco in large part because of the four years he spent as director of player development in Los Angeles, where Farhan Zaidi was general manager. He took that developmental approach to his beliefs about coaching.

Kapler said he started learning about a lot of his current coaches back in 2014, his first year with the Dodgers. Over the years, he kept tabs on potential rising coaching stars around the game, and he wasn't looking in the big leagues. Of his 13 current coaches, just one, Wotus, has more than 10 years of big league experience. Nine had never been on a big league staff before Kapler reached out. Few of them had ever met him or even talked to him, but Kapler had long had an eye on young coaches he believed could be part of his dream staff.

"You're following and watching and learning and asking lots of questions, and usually when a coach is in another organization -- Donnie Ecker with Cincinnati, Justin Viele with Los Angeles, Dustin Lind with Seattle, Kai Correa with Cleveland, the list goes on and on -- you're not permitted to necessarily build the kinds of relationships where you get to ask about career ambitions," Kapler said. "You can network a little bit, but it's not the same. A lot of that has to do with curiosity. It is, for all of us, a form of scouting. 

"You want to build the strongest organization possible and in this case the strongest major league staff possible. I think that just comes with being inquisitive and learning as much as you can about people."

Before coming to San Francisco, Kapler spent two seasons as manager of the Phillies. His staff there included some intriguing young hires, signs of what was to come, but the big roles went the traditional route. Pitching coach Rick Kranitz had already held the same job for three other organizations, and hitting coach John Mallee had just had the same role with the Chicago Cubs. Kapler's bench coach, Rob Thomson, had been a bench coach with the New York Yankees. 

Kapler won't say whether building his current staff was impossible in Philadelphia, but it's not hard to figure out what the situation there was. After signing Bryce Harper, the Phillies intended to contend right away. There was no time to experiment with new hires.

"There are, understandably, some boxes that need to be checked in those situations," Kapler said. 

When he was let go, Kapler immediately became the favorite to replace Bochy. He arrived at the interview process with an exhaustive list of options presented on a spreadsheet that was color-coded, tiered and included dozens upon dozens of names. There were names for every spot, and more names in case those initial coaches were blocked from interviewing by their current teams. 

Kapler also arrived with a new philosophy. 

The Giants had eight coaches in Bochy's last year. Kapler pitched Zaidi and general manager Scott Harris on hiring more coaches to improve their "pupil to teacher ratio."

"It didn't seem like the most compelling analogy to me, comparing a Major League Baseball team to a classroom," Zaidi said, smiling. "But I, Scott and others were just very open-minded to it, because we have a lot of belief in Kap and his process and you know that when he brings something up he has put a lot of thought and energy into it. 

"The one thing that I did feel very strongly about with our history was his network, the way he researches people. His process is really second to none. Regardless of how many people were on the staff, I knew it was going to be a really good group."

It came together over the next three months, with Kapler completing the large staff by hiring Alyssa Nakken, the first female coach in big league history, and Mark Hallberg, a young A-ball manager who had spent six years teaching in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. Nakken and Hallberg were two of the five coaches who had previous Giants ties, but neither had been anywhere near a big league staff. In that respect, they fit right in.

Viele, one of three hitting coaches, came from A-ball. Bullpen coach Craig Albernaz had been a minor league field coordinator. First base coach Antoan Richardson was a minor league field coordinator for the Giants. Of Kapler's 13 initial hires, only five had previously been on a big league coaching staff. Included among the newcomers was Correa, who took on the most important role. 

Correa had interviewed with Kapler when he put together his Phillies staff. Two years later, adding him was a must. Kapler knew early on in the interview process with the Giants that he wanted Correa to go from Cleveland Indians minor league infield coordinator to bench coach in the big leagues. It was a monumental leap, but Kapler wasn't concerned.

"We knew that he was going to be comfortable taking on a lot of responsibility and managing a pretty big workload," Kapler said. "We just bet on Kai to learn the things that he didn't know in time, and we knew that we were going to surround him with people that were going to develop along the way -- Wo is perfect from that viewpoint -- and other people that would challenge him and ask him to make adjustments, and he has."

There were other similarities, including the fact that most of the staff was young enough to still be playing. Viele, 29 at the time he was hired, actually did play with Mike Yastrzemski in the minors. He joined forces with Ecker, 33 at the time he was hired, and Lind, who was 31, to form the hitting group. 

Ecker grew up in Los Altos rooting for the Giants. When he interviewed with Kapler, he wasn't sure if he was going to get the job, but he was sure the organization was headed quickly in the right direction. He called family members and told them Kapler's Giants were going to do good things. 

"I left that process knowing that whether I was lucky enough to be handed this opportunity, I was happy for the Giants," he said. "I was like, man, they're going to be in a really good place. I just thought the thoroughness of the process told me the way they were going to do all things."

A few days later, Ecker -- who had one previous big league season as an assistant hitting coach for the Cincinnati Reds but was so highly thought of that the Reds initially blocked him from interviewing -- got a text from Kapler. 

"You want to do this?" it read.

With that, he became a big league hitting coach. Ecker was once such a promising high school quarterback that the University of Nevada offered him a full ride before moving on to a young prospect named Colin Kaepernick, and he views this staff through a football lens. He was impressed that Kapler didn't hire his friends or people he had played with, as has been the tradition in baseball. He went after the best coaching prospects, period. That's something Wotus noticed as the group was put together.

Wotus has spent 33 years on a big league coaching staff, more than the rest of the group combined, and Kapler viewed him as a crucial bridge between the new staff and players and the previous generation of Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt.

Wotus interviewed to be the bench coach with the Chicago Cubs and the New York Mets after Bochy's final game, but his heart was in San Francisco, and Zaidi told him to be patient. He hit it off with Kapler right away, and at that introductory press conference, Wotus was sitting in the seats next to Posey. He was the only coach in attendance, and Kapler quickly put him to work. 

USATSI

As he looked around during that initial retreat, Wotus did not see youth or inexperience. He saw himself. 

Wotus was in his late twenties when Dusty Baker made him third base coach, and he stayed on under Felipe Alou and Bruce Bochy. The longest-tenured coach in franchise history was put in touch with most of the newcomers interviewing for jobs, and he supplied input during the process. As he made calls, a theme started to stand out. Only three of Kapler's new hires had ever played in a big league game. 

Bailey was a two-time All-Star in eight seasons as a reliever. Brian Bannister, the director of pitching, had a 5.08 ERA in five seasons with the Mets and Royals. Richardson got 20 at-bats for the Braves and Yankees.

"It was very unique, there's no doubt about it," Wotus said. "I've coached with a lot of people over the years and most of them were major league players. That was the norm."

RELATED: Giants, Dodgers set to make MLB history in NLDS matchup

So how did such an inexperienced group, with just about no big league experience, reach a veteran club? How did they convince Crawford to dramatically alter his swing? How did they convince Kevin Gausman to become a two-pitch guy?

Kapler goes back to the traits he had looked for in all of the up-and-coming coaches, and still does: Intellect, talent, empathy, care, commitment. He lists them off without ever mentioning actual skills as a baseball player. If you can teach, you can teach, it doesn't matter to Kapler if you're teaching big leaguers or high schoolers. 

"I don't think being a former player makes you a good coach," says Bailey, the AL Rookie of the Year in 2009. "I think being able to relate to people and blending the information that's in the game nowadays and understanding how to communicate with people is the priority. If you can blend those together you're a pretty good coach."

Bailey was the most well known of Kapler's choices, but even he took a huge step up in responsibility. He had two seasons on a big league staff -- one as the Angels' video replay coordinator and one as their bullpen coach -- under his belt when the Giants called then-Angels GM Billy Epler and asked for permission to interview Bailey. His only connection to the Giants was Zaidi, who had been with the A's when Bailey was their closer. When Bailey interviewed, Harris asked him what he was going to suck at in his first year as a pitching coach.

"I said, 'Everything about being a pitching coach,'" Bailey recalled, laughing. "I've never been one before."

He also had never met Bannister, who came from the Red Sox, or Ethan Katz, who was a minor league pitching coordinator for the Giants before Kapler made him the assistant pitching coach. They blended their philosophies and went about getting buy-in from the players, which every coach mentioned as a key to the Giants' success the last two years. 

At the same time, Kapler was working on buy-in from his coaches. His philosophy is one of collaboration, and when he put the staff together he didn't envision traditional roles. He hired a staff that was interchangeable in ways. Correa coaches the infielders, but so do Wotus, Ortiz and Hallberg. Richardson and Nakken help the outfielders. Ortiz and Nakken are among those Kapler highlights for helping him stay on top of everything during games. Bailey, the pitching coach, has been helpful with replays. Ask a Giants hitter who helps him prepare for a big pinch-hit at-bat and you might get a half-dozen different answers.

"I think the responsibilities of a coaching staff could be covered by a wide range of individuals, and you don't have to have the traditional stay-in-your-lane style," Kapler said. "You can have some crossover there, some really comfortable crossover if you have the people on board that are open enough to want to run it that way."

This staff has been, and while they admit the conversations are often difficult, the end goal is raising the bar for the staff, the players and the organization. Nakken describes that initial retreat as uncomfortable at times because of so many varied perspectives and approaches, but it set a tone. 

"We have challenging conversations constantly," she said. "I told Kap recently that it's a really good thing. Every time we come out of a hard time, the bar has been raised."

That's one way to get to 107 wins, and it could lead to an entirely different kind of challenge for Kapler. 

Instagram/AndrewBailey37

After a four-year minor league career that never got past A-ball, Katz went back home to Los Angeles and became the pitching coach at Harvard-Westlake High School. His timing couldn't have been better. Future big league starters Jack Flaherty, Lucas Giolito and Max Fried came through the program while Katz was there, and Giolito brought up his name when his White Sox were looking for a new pitching coach last offseason.

If Kapler was already losing young coaches after a 29-31 year, the outside interest should only ramp up after a season that caught the entire industry by surprise. This is a copycat sport, and just as other franchises have raided the Tampa Bay Rays in recent years, they surely will do the same with Kapler's Giants.

Ask around the organization and industry and Correa, Ecker and Albernaz are mentioned often as potential future managers. Front office executives from other teams already have started to sniff around, and Kapler knows he could lose additional coaches in the next couple of years.

"I think if any of our coaches have opportunities that they're excited about going forward in their careers, I think it's something to be celebrated and explored. Maybe explored and celebrated in that order," he said. "Any time teams have success and coaches do really good work, others around the game notice, and I think that's a good thing. I think it's a good thing for our staff and the game."

The Katz example will only encourage other organizations. The White Sox finished second in the AL in ERA in his first season, but the Giants were just fine after he left. They were second in the NL. 

Kapler went out and hired J.P. Martinez, a 39-year-old who fit right in with the rest of the staff. A ninth-round pick by the Minnesota Twins in 2004, Martinez never reached the big leagues and began his coaching career at Isidore Newman High School in Louisiana a decade ago. He had never coached in the big leagues before and had no connection to the Giants. He didn't know Kapler or Bailey. 

On a Friday afternoon last November, Martinez, then the assistant minor league pitching coordinator for the Twins, got a call from director of player development Alex Hassan. He was told Kapler would be reaching out the next morning. Martinez asked Hassan a question that nearly a dozen other Giants coaches might have asked their bosses a year earlier. 

"I was like, 'How did my name come across their desk?'" Martinez said. "He didn't have a real definitive answer."

Just as the Giants turned to Camilo Doval when Jake McGee got hurt, or LaMonte Wade Jr. when Brandon Belt went down, Kapler plans to just go with the next man -- or woman -- up when holes need to be filled on the staff. He has thoughts about what the next frontier is for coaching, but they're not any he wants escaping Third and King. Nakken was the first woman hired to his coaching staff, but she won't be the last. It wouldn't be a surprise if at some point Kapler hires someone from a different sport entirely.

Zaidi and Harris gave Kapler the runway to follow his vision, and ownership signed off on a few more lines to the budget. Most importantly, the players bought in, embracing a staff that was unlike any the game has previously seen. That will only embolden the Giants to keep pushing the envelope.

"I think a lot of people took leaps of faith," Bailey said. "Obviously the front office and Kap took leaps of faith on all of us. So far, so good."

Download and follow the Giants Talk Podcast