Recently, the prospect team here at Baseball Prospectus ranked the Dodgers the top farm system in baseball on the strength of the league's finest combination of high-end talent at the top and depth throughout. In my 2016 team preview a few weeks back, I talked at some length about the front office and scouting department overhauls—and the funding structure behind them—that paved the way for this transformation. Current Director of Player Development Gabe Kapler was part of the wave of front office hires by the organization in 2014, and I sat down to talk with him about how he views his role and how the organization is going to go about turning its giant minor-league collection of tools into big-league talent that will help the club win games.
Wilson Karaman: So to get started, you are the Director of Player Development for the Los Angeles Dodgers. I know every front office has its own internal flow charts and allocations of responsibility, so first things first: If you could, discuss what your primary responsibilities are and who you’re interacting with on a day-to-day basis within the organization.
Gabe Kapler: My primary responsibility is to help every human in our department become the strongest version of themselves. Player development is human development, and so we think of developing the man first and the baseball player second, or the man first and the staff member second. And so I always view our primary responsibility in player development as developing the human being.
As it relates to who I interact with on a day-to-day basis, all of our field staff of the minor-league affiliates, all of our front office staff on the PD side, some select executives, there really are no boundaries.
WK: Are you traveling to see the affiliates frequently, or are you primarily working with field reports that you get?
GK: Both. I travel to see the affiliates and I work out of Los Angeles.
WK: When you’re out in the field with affiliates, how much of that time is you working with players one on one, in small groups, or all together? Are there particular messages that you find yourself emphasizing with players?
GK: My work at affiliates is determined by what the situation needs. Our coaches are exceptionally talented and are best equipped to do most of the one-on-one work with individual players. More of my time is spent on communicating with everyone—players, staff, trainers, performance coaches—and learning as much as I can about the people so I can support each of them best. We have some overarching baseball themes in PD, like ensuring we are in our strongest and most powerful physical condition to perform, controlling the strike zone on the field as pitchers and hitters. But we also emphasize the themes of being resourceful, improving communication and being empowered. We want our players and staff to continually seek to get better and to be mentally resilient.
WK: So what was your pitch for this job? What were the top priorities for you going into the process that got the Dodgers on board with your vision?
GK: Well, I certainly didn’t have a sales pitch. My mission was honestly exactly what I just laid out, which is to develop human beings. That’s still my mission and what deeply inspires me every day.
WK: To dive into that a little, I know that you have talked a lot about committing yourself to nutrition and physical development, as what got you to your ultimate level as a successful major leaguer. When you talk about developing the human, do you see those components as central?
GK: We take a holistic approach to developing our people, and that definitely includes nutrition, that definitely includes strength, and power, and it includes communication skills. It includes the willingness to be flexible and to be resourceful. Teaching resourcefulness is something that we believe strongly in. All of those things are in addition to the traditional elements of player development—delivery mechanics, approach at the plate, and that includes simple things like attacking pitches inside the zone and being passive outside the zone.
But there’s nothing that’s off limits when it comes to holistically developing a person. We don’t feel like we have all the answers, by any stretch, but we don’t want to leave any stone unturned either.
WK: With regard to the mental side of development, do you have a specific person or people who helped you along in your career whose philosophies you’re bringing to bear now?
GK: I think we, all of us human beings, are a product of our environments, with what we read, what we believe, and what we find important. And then we take little pieces from those people along the way and we create a big pot with a bunch of different spices. I don’t want to attribute anything to any one individual.
WK: What’s your philosophy on failure? How do you teach players and people to prepare for it and to overcome it?
GK: Avoiding failure is not a noble goal. This isn't to suggest we should take wild risks. We should continually evaluate upside and minimize downside. However, it is only by taking calculated chances that we can make any progress. If you never fail, then you have never attempted to achieve what you’re capable of. Whenever we experiment with a new plan, whether it's a new delivery tweak, approach at the plate, or something more radical, there will be a period of discomfort. That's natural. However, we ensure that any of our adjustments are well reasoned and backed by evidence, and we aim to communicate not just the "what" but the "how" and the "why." We spend a lot of time working to lay foundations of trust over weeks and months, encouraging mental resilience in our players and staff, and emphasize that we can trust in the process. Results will come in time.
WK: Moving on to the actual structure of your system right now, the team obviously did some work on the international front this past year, and there’s been a sizeable influx of foreign players into your system over the last several months. I know you had a brief stint in Japan at one point in your career, so maybe you can speak to some of the challenges that go with that. What do you think are the hardest parts of the adjustment process for a player who’s going to play in a new country and a new culture for the first time, and what if any systems have you guys put in place to help manage those transitions?
GK: I think the biggest challenge is that human beings are so variable and that we can’t—it doesn’t make any sense to say ‘Japanese Player A is like Japanese Player B.’ Or that one player will respond to stimuli like the guy that came before him. Before we come from any particular country we are human beings, and for that reason we are so, so unique. I don’t think there is a formula, and trying to make our cultural acclimation formulaic is extraordinarily problematic. I think the best system, and the one that we’re utilizing regularly, is trial and error.
WK: What do you see as the next vanguards for player evaluation, in terms of, say, technological innovation, that are starting to come into play? And I’m thinking biomechanical or neurological evaluation, DNA testing, anything along those lines or something totally different? What do you see making the biggest impact on how you understand players and foster their growth and development?
GK: I would say that the removal of dogma can be the most transformative—and it’s not technological obviously—but being willing to take everything at our disposal, all the tools, not discount them because they feel uncomfortable, assess them accurately, and then use them as valuable evaluation tools and weigh them appropriately. It’s less pointing at one thing, and I think the ability to be open-minded about everything at our disposal, and test everything, use it according to what our research teaches us.
WK: You’re talking about integrating new information more effectively?
GK: Well, you’re asking about what technology is next, whether it’s virtual reality, or biomechanics, or whatever it is that’s sexy in the moment, and my point is that using everything is ideal. What’s innovative is to not chase the shiniest thing and worship it.
WK: From a resource standpoint regarding those shiny things, with the Dodgers’ financial advantages, do you feel like you have the flexibility to invest in the techniques or strategies you need to invest in?
GK: I’ll answer that by saying that we in player development feel very supported.
WK: Where does a system this deep and talented come from, and where do you see the Dodgers’ minor-league system going over the next couple years? Do you foresee a shift in how you’re building or managing the talent in the system?
GK: I think building a deep farm system is the result of effort across an entire organization, and it’s not just PD. In other words, baseball operations, analytics, R&D, scouting, player development, even in many ways marketing, all play an integral role in building the PD system, and I think we’re on the right track.
WK: How did you feel all of your assorted roles around the game—as a player both here and abroad, a manager, working in the media—how did that experience prepare you to take on a job like this?
GK: I was fortunate to see the game from many different angles, and continue to do so. Most importantly, it allowed me to learn from any number of exceptional humans. Building an organization, leading an organization, takes the combined effort of hundreds of people working many different jobs.
WK: What attracted you to the Dodgers in the first place?
GK: The people here. I knew them and wanted to work with them. I think we come to work every day to do things, inspire and be inspired. I felt like LA was the place for me to do just that. And also, I love Los Angeles and was born and raised here. Every neighborhood from the grimiest to the glitziest turns me on. And if you’ve never spent time in Echo Park, you’re missing out. Character and culture galore.
WK: NELA! Nice. Did you grow up a Dodger fan?
GK: No. I grew up a Blue Jay fan.
WK: Blue Jays?!
GK: I did! I did…Fred McGriff was my favorite player as a kid, and my teams are all over the map. I like the Jets, and the Philadelphia Flyers, and the Blue Jays, the Houston Rockets…I was just all over the place. And we had plenty of good teams in LA, it just wasn’t my thing at the time.
Gabe Kapler played 12 seasons in the majors, along with a brief stint in Japan during his career. Along the way he also managed the Greenville Drive, Boston’s A-ball affiliate, for the 2007 season. After retiring he worked as an analyst for Fox Sports and also served as a coach for Team Israel during its WBC qualifier in 2012. The Dodgers announced his hiring in November of 2014.