Inside the Farhan Zaidi-Gabe Kapler dynamic that's pushing the Giants: Kawakami (2024)

Farhan Zaidi wasn’t sure about his next step, because it was going to be an enormous one. He felt good about a lot of things, felt challenged, felt intrigued. But he didn’t really know if he wanted to do this quite yet. There was hesitation. There was uncertainty.

Then he got on the phone with Gabe Kapler and a lot of things started clicking into place — from the time of these first conversations, in fall 2014, and into the deeper baseball destinies of both men. It started back then, though, when Zaidi was an assistant general manager for the A’s and Kapler, then the Dodgers’ farm director, was assigned by team president Andrew Friedman to help convince Zaidi to leave his role with the A’s and take the Dodgers’ GM job. To be Kapler’s boss for the first but not the last time.


“This is kind of a cool piece of the puzzle: I got to be a part of the recruiting team to bring Farhan to L.A.,” Kapler recalled recently on my podcast. “Andrew Friedman trusted my read and trusted my interest in getting to know Farhan and then ultimately understanding that we would end up working closely together, Farhan and I. …

“And I think that was the beginning of our relationship. It’s progressed a lot since then, but I think that was an important first step in starting the foundation of what we have now.”

Of course, Zaidi wound up signing on with the Dodgers under Friedman and stayed there for four seasons before the Giants hired Zaidi as their team president in November 2018. After Bruce Bochy’s final turn in 2019, Zaidi had a managerial vacancy. And though it wasn’t quite synchronized — Kapler almost got the Dodgers’ managing job in November 2015 (they hired Dave Roberts instead), then left to manage the Phillies in October 2017 and wasn’t fired there until mid-October 2019, weeks after the Giants’ search had begun — this Giants constellation had actually begun to align years ago.

So when Zaidi made the final call on his new Giants manager, possibly the biggest decision of his tenure, it was an obvious call to hire Kapler and produce a new iteration of their best baseball selves.

“Before anything, I saw it in the way Farhan talked about Gabe before Gabe even came out for the interviews,” Giants CEO Larry Baer remembered of the Giants’ search in late 2019. “He just said, ‘We’ve got to interview Kapler.’ He didn’t say we had to hire him. But just as the process was starting, he said, ‘We’ve gotta interview Kapler. He’s super-solid and I know him.’ And whatever happened in Philadelphia, it wasn’t like it was a failure. …

“One thing Farhan was really good with the organization was (convincing everyone to) reserve judgment. It was going to be largely his decision. He’s gotta have a manager he selects. But there was so much in the press. He just kept saying, ‘Have a chance to meet him.’ To everyone. To Greg (Johnson, the team chairman) and myself, everyone that was around that process.”


You have to meet Kapler. You have to talk to him. Just like the way Zaidi started talking to him at the end of 2014 and never really stopped.

Now, even after Tuesday night’s painful late-inning loss to the Dodgers, the Giants still have the best record in baseball in Kapler’s second season as manager and Zaidi’s third season running the baseball operations. And Zaidi and Kapler are now melded together in the baseball world as closely as Bochy and Brian Sabean, who led the Giants to three World Series championships. We don’t know what the Zaidi-Kapler relationship will ultimately bring to this franchise, but we know it connects directly to 2014, when Kapler reached out to Zaidi to talk about joining the Dodgers.

“I had really good conversations with Andrew through that process,” Zaidi recalled of his 2014 deliberations. “He kind of suggested that I connect with Kap. And we really hit it off.

“One of the things that I think makes Gabe a good leader and a good manager is he’s just a great listener. He has a really empathetic nature. I think he’s just really good at getting people talking, making people feel comfortable. So that was really valuable for me. We talked substantively about a lot of stuff, but for me, thinking back to those conversations, I just felt very comfortable in that relationship and it made me feel more comfortable when it felt like a really big leap at the time.”

So what happens if Kapler and Zaidi hadn’t connected back then? Maybe Zaidi would’ve stayed with the A’s under Billy Beane and David Forst and had an entirely different career arc; maybe Kapler would’ve had a very different experience, too. They probably wouldn’t be together right now at the foundation of this bright new Giants era.

But the two men hit it off immediately and the Dodgers had their front office ready to go and the trace elements of the Giants’ future leadership core were beginning to formulate.

“That was a really big part of me getting comfortable with going to L.A.,” Zaidi said. “I mean, really big. I’ve told Gabe that. He knows that. It was smart by Andrew; he knew who his best recruiters were.”

When you talk to either man about those conversations in 2014, the answers almost always end up as direct references to the present: What they figured out about each other then and through their time together in L.A. is what illuminates the relationship, and the success, right now.

“I thought he was really inquisitive and charismatic, interesting, smart,” Kapler said of the 2014 talks with Zaidi. “He had strong opinions and he was willing to share those strong opinions. He held me accountable and continues to hold me accountable, which I respect and need. I need people around me that are challenging my perspective. He’s also open to have his perspectives challenged and I have a great deal of respect for that.”


So what’s the working dynamic between the two? On one side, there’s the big, booming voice and swaggering presence of Kapler, a 12-year veteran with six MLB teams and a magazine-cover model advocate for healthy living and exercise. On the other, there’s Zaidi, a wry personality with no playing experience but a brilliant academic background and analytics focus with the A’s and Dodgers.

That doesn’t seem like an immediate match of kindred spirits, does it? They are similar ages, though (Kapler is 45, Zaidi 44). And look at it this way: One of Kapler’s main traits is his earnestness. One of Zaidi’s main traits is his ability to re-think and re-evaluate everything he sees, especially the ones presented to him with the most earnestness.

The way this works, it seems, is that Zaidi appreciates Kapler’s enthusiasm and open-mindedness and Kapler appreciates Zaidi’s demands for proof of concept and creative thinking. They’re sounding boards for each other. Put GM Scott Harris into this mix, too; these guys discuss, debate, deduce, analyze and flat-out argue. And change their minds if given a better argument. If you want to understand Kapler, Zaidi says, you have to understand this process.

“There are times the public perception doesn’t really match the Gabe I know,” Zaidi said. “I think because he’s arguably, like, the fittest man on the planet, I think people make extrapolations from that. In all seriousness, just his lifestyle and being really healthy, almost gives people this perception that he lives life, sort of … I hate even saying this, but in a very disciplined or almost robotic way. I think that causes people to sort of project a certain persona on him. Which is completely inaccurate.

“To me, the things that stand out about him is he’s really empathetic, he’s a great listener. He’s really flexible in moving off of his positions on things. … He’s become really good friends with my younger brother (Jaffer), who I’m very close with. And I think that just speaks to his own warmth of personality.

“That’s a side of Gabe that as he’s gotten more comfortable in San Francisco has started to come through more. And from a personal standpoint, I really enjoy seeing that. Because I want our fans to know him, not just as a manager but as a person. Because I think they will appreciate him even more.”

Inside the Farhan Zaidi-Gabe Kapler dynamic that's pushing the Giants: Kawakami (1)

Zaidi’s ties with Kapler go back to their days with the Dodgers. L.A. nearly hired Kapler as their next manager in 2015 before ultimately going with Dave Roberts. (Kyle Terada / USA Today)

If you want to present your best case in these discussions, you’d better do the work. You’d better think it through. You’d better have data and details. You’d better not just be riffing. And Baer says the most similar thing about Zaidi and Kapler is their commitment to grinding through the work.

“There is one very striking commonality, one striking characteristic they have in common. You’re right, their styles are different. But the one thing they have in common is they both work extremely hard,” Baer said. “That, I’ve seen in spades. Farhan is not going to get outworked and Gabe is not going to get outworked. And that’s a pretty good combination.


“Yeah, stylistically, there’s definitely differences. But that’s good. Sometimes when you’re talking to players … I know they do debriefs at the end of the season with players, an exit interview. I think it’s an advantage sitting in a room and you get two different styles as opposed to just exactly the same.”

Harris, who was hired just a few days before Kapler in November 2019, says that self-aware humor is a hallmark of this link.

“They’re very good at keeping things light,” Harris said. “I also think that their relationship just makes it comfortable to be around them.

“Every time we’re talking to a player and the subject of Japanese baseball comes up, Farhan’s eyes widen and he needles Kap with something like, ‘Hey, Kap, tell him about the batting title you won in Japan.’ And it always lightens the mood because, in case you didn’t know, Kap’s slash line in Japan looks more like a pitcher’s than a power-hitting outfielder.

“But it’s those types of comments that they make to each other that lighten the mood and keep us centered and focused on what’s important without taking ourselves too seriously. I don’t think you can have that type of relationship without longstanding connections that date back over a number of years.”

For the record, in 2005, when he was 29, Kapler played 38 games with the Yomiuri Giants and slashed .153/.217/.261. But he also fought his way back to the majors after that, stitching his way through five more MLB seasons. And as Harris added, the Japanese baseball callbacks indirectly and importantly underscore Kapler’s long and varied playing career against the backdrop of Zaidi and Harris’ purely executive backgrounds.

I asked Zaidi: Does Kapler ever tease you back?

“Oh yeah, definitely,” Zaidi said. “We have a long history of giving each other grief.”


Zaidi’s example: When they were together in L.A., Kapler wanted to start a Twitter account featuring some highlights from their minor-league system. Many MLB teams do it now, but back then that was a relatively cutting edge use of social media.

“At the time, I had some concerns with it because I said we’re going to post these positive messages and then the comments section, people are going to … who knows what direction the comments are going to go, people are going to be snarky and it’s going to kind of undermine the positive messages we’re trying to get out there,” Zaidi said. “And (Kapler) kind of disagreed and we agreed to run a test account.

“Jaffer volunteered to be a commenting troll, so we were at this thing for a few days, where Gabe would post on sort of a private thread, messages that he would send out every day, and my brother would send out these sort of trolling responses. And eventually, Gabe just dropped the idea. Again, it was actually a really good idea. We have a player development account (@SFGProspects). Most teams do, I think, now. So that was one I was clearly wrong about.”

OK, that’s not really about Kapler teasing Zaidi, but it illustrates the general rapport. Kapler fires off ideas, Zaidi thinks them through, they figure it out together.

And when an idea like Kapler’s request for 13 assistant coaches with the Giants, the largest staff in MLB history, gets through the gauntlet, it usually works. It’s not just about advanced analytics and new methods. It’s about figuring out what works, day by day.

“It’s really hard to challenge people if there isn’t an underlying trust that ultimately you’re pulling on the rope in the same way and you have each other’s backs,” Zaidi said. “We really get into it, you know? That is sort of the public narrative that exists — I guess he and I are one example. But I think about my time with the A’s with Billy (Beane) and David (Forst) and think about my time in L.A. with Andrew and I think the perception is I’ve been working with like-minded people in all those spots.

“But I had a lot of really animated conversations, let’s just say euphemistically, with those groups as well. Again, that just comes from trust. There’s so much gray area in baseball, whether it’s strategy, whether it’s player evaluation, that even if you sort of have some common ground in terms of foundational principles, which I think is true, there’s still so much room for debate and sort of subjective evaluations and takes. That’s where you can get into it.A lot of people that work in baseball and professional sports are competitive people, can be stubborn people and sometimes I think those more-passionate conversations are a lot of the fun of the game.”

Zaidi had a pending managerial opening during the 2019 season as Bochy headed toward retirement, but Zaidi says he wasn’t watching Kapler’s final days in Philadelphia eagerly anticipating that the Giants were about to have a shot at a top candidate.

No, for Zaidi, watching Kapler twist in the wind with rampant and accurate reports of his imminent firing but a delayed decision by Phillies management was mostly just irritating.

“To be honest with you, my initial reaction, as the Phillies were making a decision on him and ultimately decided to let him go, was I really felt for him as a friend,” Zaidi said. “I didn’t really care for how they managed that process. It was very public in a way I thought was unfair to him, really dragged things out as opposed to kind of making a quick decision, which I think he deserved and anybody in one of these types of positions deserves. You just kind of want some direction and certainty. …

“Ultimately when they made their decision, I shifted a little more to professional mode and thought, you know, this is a name that we should be adding to our candidate pool. Because I was involved in a process where he was one of the final candidates (for the Dodgers’ opening in 2015) and was a really strong candidate and now he had additional experience to his name.”

Clearly, Zaidi didn’t think Kapler did a bad job in Philadelphia, where Kapler’s teams registered 80- and then 81-win seasons through an almost constant run of mini controversies and criticism. And clearly, once he was fired, Kapler focused on the Giants’ opening.

“I was immediately interested in working with Farhan, immediately interested in this position for any number of reasons,” Kapler recalled. “The first and foremost, I thought this was a city that would fit my personality very well. And I kind of knew some of the people that were working in the organization, obviously the history with Farhan and understanding what that might be like.”

Zaidi was ready to do this. He made sure Giants ownership was ready, too. All sides knew that this wouldn’t be the most popular hire in the world to fill Bochy’s legendary spot after Kapler’s very public bumpy run in Philadelphia, but they were ready for this.

Inside the Farhan Zaidi-Gabe Kapler dynamic that's pushing the Giants: Kawakami (2)

The Phillies hovered around .500 with Kapler as manager, but a few very public blunders contributed to a negative perception and his firing after just two seasons in charge there. (Geoff Burke / USA Today)

“My experience is that the most important relationship in professional sports is coach/general manager or coach/head of football, whatever,” Baer said. “More important than anything. They’ve got to be able to fill in each other’s sentences. They’ve got to … not always agree, but respect one another. We had that with Brian and Dusty (Baker), we had that with Brian and Boch. And we definitely have that with Farhan and Gabe. That’s something you just gotta have. And you can’t force it.”

Beyond Kapler’s huge public persona, there was a far larger obstacle for public acceptance of this hiring — the controversy and harsh outside condemnation over the way Kapler (and his superior, Zaidi) handled alleged assaults on women by minor-league players in the Dodgers’ system in 2015. New stories about the incidents surfaced just as the Giants were zeroing in on Kapler.


It would’ve been a lot easier for Zaidi in the moment just to skip past Kapler’s candidacy and hire one of the other reported finalists, Joe Espada from the Astros’ staff or Matt Quartraro from the Rays. Either one of them could’ve been very solid choices. But Zaidi wasn’t going to move off of Kapler, which, in some ways, was a signal that Zaidi was not moving off of his own character judgment over years.

“I know without any shadow of doubt that as these situations unfolded, his first priority was to do the right thing,” Zaidi said of Kapler’s handling of the 2015 incidents. “Looking back, I think we’ve both had time to reflect; I think we both would’ve done things differently. But I don’t think we made any mistakes out of ill intent. It was just poor judgment and lack of experience.

“So I never had to question that part of it and I felt very strongly about my ability to talk ownership through those situations and convince them that he was the right guy. But unfortunately, the way the world is right now, you don’t just deal with the reality of what you know, you deal with the perception. And we knew that no matter what we said or how we tried to address things, there was going to be a perception that we were going to work hard to have to get past and might never get entirely past.

“Just kind of having ownership’s understanding and support of that was really important in the process. They had a chance to meet Gabe and felt strongly about the person they got to meet and asked him tough questions. Anytime you make any type of decision, there’s a short-term reaction and then you have the rest of history to play out.”

At the introductory news conference on Nov. 13, 2019, Zaidi and Kapler made opening statements taking some blame for their decisions in 2015 and announced a franchise-wide commitment to issues of domestic violence (they’ve since launched a program, Futures Without Violence, to work with players and coaches at every level in the system).

Not surprisingly and quite logically, the issue dwarfed almost everything else about Kapler’s introduction so thoroughly that nobody really asked Zaidi about his personal ties to Kapler or why he really felt this was the right choice. I was there. I asked questions. I certainly didn’t ask about their history together, except for the handling of the 2015 incidents.

“I think we both understood that we were going to have questions to answer and we were going to have to take responsibility for mistakes that we made in the past,” Zaidi remembered. “That’s always a difficult and humbling experience. I think what we really took out of it was resolve to be better as individuals, leaders and to be better as an organization.”


What was Giants ownership’s position? After meeting with Kapler and talking it through with Zaidi, the top-level ownership representatives decided that they would trust Zaidi’s call on this.

“There was an MLB investigation and a Giants investigation (into the 2015 incidents and allegations of mishandling by Kapler and Zaidi), so we felt comfortable with what was being presented by Farhan and Gabe on that topic,” said Baer, who at that time was recently back from an MLB suspension after a public altercation with his wife.

“There was a strength from Farhan and from Gabe at the first press conference. That was tough. You were there. There aren’t many press conferences introducing a manager or a major personnel addition … there aren’t many press conferences like that. Gabe answered lots of questions. And I happened to be sitting next to his two sons at that press conference. I felt for them having to hear their father go through it. But I also knew that they were really proud of their father for his strength.I think everybody felt they were incredibly supportive of one another and would get through it.”

Most new managers start their tenures with some optimism and things have to go badly from there to darken the mood. For Kapler and Zaidi, it worked the opposite way: Kapler was viewed skeptically by the Giants public from Day 1 and it was up to him and Zaidi to change the environment.

I asked Harris, who sat at the podium alongside Kapler during the news conference: Was that experience almost like going through a long losing season just in their first day together in San Francisco? Could that have strengthened the Kapler-Zaidi bond even more?

“I don’t think that that necessarily strengthened their relationship,” Harris said. “I could see how one could suggest that that may have. But when I go back to that period of our tenure here in San Francisco, I’m just reminded of the conviction that we all had in Gabe being the right manager for the Giants right now.

“I think a hallmark of Farhan and Kap’s time here is they’re more focused on getting to the right answer, not being ‘right.’ I think there’s a greater focus on the group decision than on any individual opinion. And I think that has served us well since we’ve all been here.”

Then came the 2020 season, which actually started then stopped when spring training was shut down at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, then restarted months later with a quick summer camp leading into a 60-game regular season without any fans in the stands and with safety protocols dominating teams’ activities.


Unprecedented times. Unprecedented situations for everybody.

And Harris and Zaidi both note that Kapler and his huge new staff of assistants had some adjustments to make on the fly. Early on, Kapler’s handling of the starting pitchers raised some eyebrows, especially among the veterans. Though he had already the backing of veterans like Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford and Evan Longoria, there was some work to do with the pitching staff.

“I think there was some momentum towards letting the starters go deeper in games and certainly eliminating the frequency with which we used openers,” Harris said. “I think Kap was open and responsive to all of that. I think it shows in how he has managed the starters since, specifically Johnny Cueto.”

It didn’t start well, though. There were a few baffling bullpen decisions that led to a few major implosions and some devastating losses leading to an 8-16 start. It was a bizarre time, so it was hard to put into context. No fans were there to boo. Kapler was getting criticized, but while the world faced this emergency, the baseball picture was slightly out of focus. But it was up to Kapler to keep his team sharp.

“I do remember starting 8-16 in 2020 and I remember specifically our defense was underperforming and we suffered some tough breaks that led to some disappointing losses,” Harris said. “But Kap stayed positive the whole time. He doubled down on meeting with the coaches about how to address specific weaknesses and I think some of those meetings translated to really important gains in terms of our defensive ability and execution out on the field.

“I think whenever he’s faced with adversity, he just works harder. I think that’s what helped us start to change the narrative around our season and him after that 8-16 start last year. And certainly, the momentum that he built with the coaches and the players seems to have bled into this season and is one of the main reasons why we’re off to such a great start.”

Inside the Farhan Zaidi-Gabe Kapler dynamic that's pushing the Giants: Kawakami (3)

Now in his second season with the Giants, Kapler has led them to the best record in baseball so far in 2021. They’re 80-50 under him overall since starting 8-16 last year. (Charles LeClaire / USA Today)

After the 8-16 start, the Giants finished the regular season on a 21-15 run to get to 29-31 and weren’t eliminated from the expanded playoff format until the final day of the regular season. There was some momentum. And Kapler’s experience running the Dodgers’ farm system added another layer. While Zaidi and Harris continue to deliver waves of new players at the margins of the roster to try to gain a percentage edge at every roster spot, Kapler has made the most of it.


“The term ‘collaborative’ has become a little bit of a tired buzzword in baseball, but I don’t think anybody does it better than he does, honestly,” Zaidi said of Kapler. “He will actually seek out our feedback on a move he made in-game at some point, whether it was the previous night or a couple games ago. He really wants to know what people think and whether it makes sense to make an adjustment.

“From a front-office standpoint, it’s a very low-maintenance relationship because he’s so good at staying connected, staying engaged and seeking our input.”

Zaidi and Harris both saluted Kapler’s decisions during this year’s home opener, when the manager went longer with Cueto than most of us imagined was possible and definitely longer than any analytic analysis would’ve suggested. Kapler could’ve pinch-hit for Cueto in the seventh inning, up 2-0, and didn’t. He could’ve pulled Cueto after the eighth and didn’t, and finally could’ve pulled him after the Rockies’ lead-off triple in the ninth prompted a mound visit and hoots from the crowd, anticipating the pitching change. But Kapler left Cueto in, to great Oracle Park roars of approval. Cueto eventually came out two batters later to let Jake McGee record the final out, but the point was made and the game was won, 3-1.

“I will say I really enjoyed it,” Zaidi recalled with a chuckle. “One of the dangers of the analytics revolution, if you want to call it that … is we deal a lot of times with the illusion of false precision. We can kind of cut up the data and say, ‘This player gets really bad results on down-and-away breaking balls.’ But you might be looking at 15 pitches and your pitcher might execute perfectly there and he just happens to get a hold of that one and hit it out of the park. …

“In some ways, the fact that we have more data and more information has made us dangerously confident in certain of our player evaluations, of our in-game strategy moves. And that’s one of the things that Kap and Scott and I talk about a lot. Being a major-league manager is a lot of 51-49 decisions. And a lot of times it just comes down to your judgment, your judgment call, and so many different factors, like the mood in the dugout, the vibes you’re getting from a certain player, whatever it is. When you’re talking about a 51-49 decision, of course those things should matter.”

On that April day, Kapler felt the mood. Looked in Cueto’s eye, at least metaphorically. Maybe even listened to the fans. He improvised a little.

“It’s just one example of the ways that he’s getting increasingly comfortable using his judgment,” Zaidi said. “Because I think that’s something underrated or underappreciated about Gabe. Because he’s been around the game his whole life, he’s seen it from so many different perspectives. I think his baseball feel and instincts are really as good as anybody I’ve been around. I think for him to be as good a manager as he can be, that’s gotta be part of the equation. …

“I remember just laughing at the scene. It wasn’t even about the decision, it was about going out there, getting booed and walking back off, getting cheered and the way Johnny plays to the crowd. Moments like that are fun for us.”


Farhan Zaidi praising his manager for ignoring the metrics and going with a feel of the moment, just for a bit? Gabe Kapler winning the love of Giants fans? There might be some rocky moments ahead or it might be a sprint to a championship finish line. But the whole thing, however it ends, will be shaped by Zaidi and Kapler’s commitment, innovation, daring and true leadership singularity, first formed almost seven years ago.

(Top photo: Eric Risberg / AP)

Inside the Farhan Zaidi-Gabe Kapler dynamic that's pushing the Giants: Kawakami (2024)
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