Giants manager Gabe Kapler defending more than rookie Wade Meckler in preaching patience

PHILADELPHIA — San Francisco Giants manager Gabe Kapler’s pregame media session in the visiting dugout at Citizens Bank Park was winding down Monday afternoon. He answered questions from local reporters who covered his norms-bucking and ultimately unsuccessful managerial run with the Philadelphia Phillies. He answered questions from Bay Area reporters who have watched his Giants continue to cling to safe harbor in the wild-card standings despite seldom resembling a seaworthy postseason team for the better part of two months.

When Kapler sensed that the questions were winding down, he volunteered his own postscript. He wanted to talk about his playing career and how difficult the transition was from Double A to the big leagues. He wanted to talk about how his heartbeat quickened as a rookie and how his nerves gave him a hair trigger for pitches out of the strike zone. Then he brought his story around to the point.

“I’m thinking about Wade Meckler in a similar way,” Kapler said.

A week ago, Kapler was ejected from a game while defending Meckler against an umpire’s generous strike zone. Now Kapler was raising his shield and defending the wet-eared rookie outfielder in front of the scribes. He didn’t want the kid to get buried in the press. He was pleading for patience.

“I just wanted to share that I think this is a young player that’s going to make the adjustment,” Kapler said. “That doesn’t mean he’s not going to struggle. Doesn’t mean that he’s going to make the adjustment today or tomorrow or the next day. But (he’s) a guy that over time for the San Francisco Giants can be really good. And I just share that because we’ve seen some rookies come up and struggle, and we’ve sent some of them back down. Some of them have made adjustments. It just doesn’t always translate immediately.”

It did not translate Monday night.

Meckler committed one error when he let a ball skip under his glove in center field. He escaped credit for another when he misplayed and then twice dropped Bryce Harper’s inexplicably scored inside-the-park home run. He went hitless in four at-bats while striking out twice. Since his debut Aug. 14, he has three singles in 23 at-bats with 13 strikeouts. He’d welcome a little luck, too. He made two crisp outs Monday, including a lineout to first base that the Phillies turned into a double play.

“Just a frustrating game,” said Meckler, who stood and faced reporters when they approached his locker. “I don’t feel crazy nervous. I’ve just got to make an adjustment.”

It is small sample-size theater, to be sure. But some movies are so cringeworthy that you don’t hesitate to walk out after 15 minutes. You just can’t envision it getting any better.

The Giants lost 10-4 to the Phillies on Monday, and it wasn’t all on account of their 23-year-old rookie center fielder who was rushed up so quickly after 92 minor-league games that he could have materialized on a transporter pad. The entire game had B-movie production values. Blake Sabol took a circus route to a fly ball in left field that sailed over his head. Third baseman Wilmer Flores made a wild throw to first base. Sean Manaea’s limited, two-pitch arsenal was far too predictable to the right-handed hitters who teed off on him. The Phillies piled on against Sean Hjelle, who stood 6 feet 11 on the mound and still simmered up to his neck in trouble.

To Kapler’s mind, the game was lost in the first inning after Joc Pederson hit a one-out homer and the Giants loaded the bases against Aaron Nola without adding to their lead. Johan Camargo, a player who somehow leaped from minor-league free agency to the top of the middle-infield depth chart in a week, grounded into a double play.

“For me, that’s almost the entire story of the game,” said Kapler, citing his experience in Philadelphia watching Nola settle in after a shaky start. “There’s other notes there. But I think that was it.”

But those other clanking notes are not so easily unheard. And once again, in his postgame session with reporters, Kapler preached patience with Meckler.

“It’s pretty obvious that he’s battling right now,” Kapler said. “He’s battling in every capacity. Obviously, it’s not good enough. It’s not helping us win baseball games. At the same time, this is when a coaching staff throws their support behind a young player, not just by saying that we think he’s going to be good, but by actually giving him tangible things to work on. So we’ll dig in with him. We’ll talk about what went wrong in today’s game. We’ll review film, and we’ll try to get him ready to be better tomorrow.”

Nobody said winning and developing at the same time would be easy or even watchable some nights. But it has its perks. The highly anticipated debut of a top prospect is at the top of the list. It will be appointment television for baseball fans in the Bay Area when left-hander Kyle Harrison, the most celebrated Giants pitching prospect since Madison Bumgarner, takes the mound in Philadelphia on Tuesday. His parents, brother, girlfriend and a couple of buddies will make the cross-country flight to watch from the stands.

Expectations should be tempered, though. Harrison completed five innings just once this season for Triple-A Sacramento, which was by design when it wasn’t due to high pitch counts. His heavily managed workload means the Giants might not have to aggressively throttle his innings down the stretch. Then again, unless your name is Alex Cobb or Logan Webb, throttling innings is part of the plan for starting pitchers here.

Harrison said he won’t question how he’s used. When you are making your debut, you are literally just happy to be here.

“They tell me it’s the same game wherever you go,” the 22-year-old prospect said. “So I’ll keep that in mind. I trust my stuff. Just do the best I can and help the boys win.”

The Giants will have to clear roster space for Harrison as well as for right-hander Ryan Walker, who is expected back from paternity leave. Based on everything Kapler said about Meckler, it doesn’t sound like the scrappy outfielder will be among those who will be sent out.

On the surface, it seems admirable that Kapler would so proactively express support for Meckler. Defending your players is what any good manager is supposed to do.

But Kapler was also defending the reputation of his front office. The Giants took a significant risk in promoting Meckler and committing a 40-man roster spot to a player who wouldn’t have to be protected from the Rule 5 draft until the winter leading up to the 2026 season. It isn’t often that an eighth-round pick becomes the fourth player in his draft class to make his major-league debut. And the Giants’ 40-man roster already was stuffed with outfielders, to the point that they outrighted Luis Gonzalez, who was last year’s NL rookie of the month in May.

But Meckler hit .377 with a .472 on-base percentage across five levels of the farm system. He met every aggressive minor-league promotion with another hailstorm of base hits. So the Giants made a bold evaluation about his big-league readiness. If that evaluation backfires, it’ll have consequences beyond any bruised egos.

So you could argue that Kapler was defending more than a struggling young outfielder. He was defending the organization’s decision-makers. He was defending the process and philosophies with which they make those decisions.

Most times, those two actions — defending a player and defending the organization for valuing that player — go hand in glove. But not always. There are times when a manager chooses one over the other.

One of those moments arrived in Kapler’s postgame session, too. The manager was asked why Manaea all but abandoned his changeup while whittling down his pitch mix to his four-seam fastball and sweeping slider. Manaea threw 20 changeups in a game as recently as July 22. In seven outings since then, he has thrown the pitch just three times. It’s not as if the pitch was ineffective, either. Opponents were batting .229 against it. The pitch was an especially valuable wrinkle at times against right-handed hitters. It was his worst pitch only if you go by expected slugging percentage, which is determined by the quality of contact against it.

Whatever the reason, Manaea hadn’t been throwing it. And the Phillies have scouting reports just like everyone else. Edmundo Sosa hit a two-run homer in the second inning and tripled to drive Manaea from the game in the fourth. Alec Bohm also took Manaea deep in the third.

Did Manaea lose confidence in the pitch? Or were the Giants following the data and instructing Manaea to whittle down his repertoire to his most effective pitches, just as they did with Jakob Junis and his slider or Scott Alexander and his sinker?

Kapler and Manaea gave vastly different answers.

“I don’t think he has a great feel for his changeup right now,” Kapler said. “I’ve seen the changeup be really good. I stood in against it in (spring training). It’s a good pitch, but when you don’t have a good feel for it, sometimes you put it away until you do. So he’s working on it, and when he has a lot of confidence in the pitch, he’s gonna rip it. He’s just not doing it right now because I don’t think he has confidence in it.”

Manaea, in sparse and halting language, made it clear that he hasn’t lost confidence in his changeup.

“Honestly, I haven’t thrown it, so that’s all there is to it,” Manaea said. “I feel good with it but just haven’t thrown it. They haven’t called it.”

Was the changeup a pitch that could have helped him against some of the Phillies’ right-handed hitters?

“Yeah, I don’t know,” Manaea said. “I have it. They just didn’t call it.”

It must be noted that the change to Manaea’s pitch mix was working wonderfully prior to Monday night. He had allowed one run in 15 innings over his previous six appearances as a bulk reliever who follows an opener. His fastball is holding its mid-90s velocity and has been overpowering in the second half. He hadn’t allowed a home run since May 17. His streak of 53 1/3 consecutive innings without getting clipped was the longest active homerless run in the major leagues. He has made 21 of his 28 appearances with at least three days of rest, and his overall workload of 83 2/3 innings is well below where he’d be as a conventional starter. Manaea remarked last week that he has never felt fresher in August, physically and mentally.

A compelling case can be made that Manaea is the pitcher who has responded best to being used in the unconventional scheme. He’s also not a boat rocker who will throw a coaching staff or an organization under the bus.

But he is a truth-teller. Asked a direct question Monday night, he gave a direct answer — one that conflicted with his manager’s explanation.

When those conflicts are revealed, it’s fair to wonder: Who is Kapler most interested in defending?

(Photo: Jeff Robinson / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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