Gabe Kapler, who guided the San Francisco Giants to a franchise-record 107 victories in just his second season, was named National League Manager of the Year by the Baseball Writers' Association of America on Tuesday.
Kapler received 28 of 30 first-place votes and joined Dusty Baker, a three-time winner, as the only men in Giants history to receive the award. Craig Counsell finished second in voting after leading the Milwaukee Brewers to the NL Central title. Mike Shildt was third -- a month after he was fired over what St. Louis Cardinals president John Mozeliak described as philosophical differences. Counsell and Shildt received one first-place vote apiece.
Bruce Bochy, the legendary Giants manager who guided the franchise to three World Series championships, announced Kapler as the winner on MLB Network. Kapler replaced Bochy after the 2019 season, but he never aspired to follow in his footsteps -- simply because he never believed he could.
"My goal is obviously to support the players and what their goals are, create an environment that's helpful for players to grow and develop and for staff members to also grow and develop," Kapler said. "And so those things are happening as my main focus, rather than what is truly impossible, which is to replace someone as successful and legendary as Bruce."
The Giants went into 2021 with the sport's second-oldest roster and 40-1 odds of winning the NL West, but Kapler -- bolstered by a robust, forward-thinking coaching staff and a savvy front office led by Farhan Zaidi -- presided over a team that blew past expectations, holding off the star-laden Dodgers to claim its first division title in nine years. Under Kapler, the Giants finished the regular season with the second-best run-differential, the fourth-highest OPS and the second-lowest ERA.
Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford and Evan Longoria tapped back into some of their prime form to bolster the offense; Kevin Gausman, Alex Wood and Anthony DeSclafani, all obtained through one-year commitments, outperformed their contracts to make up a formidable rotation. Around that, Kapler utilized an array of platoon bats and specialized relievers to persistently maximize matchups. The Giants set a major league record with 18 pinch-hit home runs, and their bullpen led the majors with a 2.97 ERA.
The Dodgers pushed hard over the final two months, acquiring Max Scherzer and Trea Turner before the trade deadline and winning 43 of their last 56 games. But the Giants, who added Kris Bryant at midseason, were only two games worse after the start of August and ultimately won the NL West by a game, snapping the Dodgers' streak of consecutive division titles at eight.
After a tightly contested season series, the Dodgers and Giants engaged in an intense NL Division Series that wasn't decided until the final inning of the final game. The Dodgers ultimately prevailed, but the challenge of eliminating the Giants -- most notable with the overuse of their starting pitchers -- cost them in the following round.
Kapler spent 13 years in the majors and quickly built a reputation as an analytically savvy, outside-the-box thinker who could also relate well to players. He was hired as the Dodgers' farm director in November 2014 and became a finalist for the managing job that ultimately went to Dave Roberts a year later. The Philadelphia Phillies hired Kapler as their manager heading into the 2018 season but fired him after missing the playoffs in back-to-back years, prompting Zaidi, his boss with the Dodgers, to bring him in shortly thereafter.
The Giants missed the expanded playoffs by one game during the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season, then led the majors in wins and extended Kapler's contract through 2024.
Over the years, Kapler said, he has learned to listen more intently to the needs of his players and use the information to inform his in-game decisions. The Manager of the Year Award was a crowning achievement for a man who oversaw two second-half collapses in Philadelphia and was roundly criticized for his unorthodox methods.
Kapler was asked if he felt validation from that.
"I have to be putting one foot in front of the other and focused on the job that I have in front of me," he said. "There just isn't enough energy to be doing anything else. Last couple years I've been really focused on helping to build that environment that I mentioned. And we're doing it with a lot of great people in this organization in San Francisco -- in the front office and everybody under the clubhouse roof, but also [people] across the organization who have been working really hard to put together a really excellent baseball operations department. We've got a lot of work ahead of us, but I think we've taken some pretty big steps in the last couple years."