Exit Ned Yost. Enter… Mike Matheny?

Baseball News
3 weeks ago

Yesterday, Ned Yost announced that he would retire at the end of the season. While the news came as a surprise, the man himself has always kept a healthy perspective on the game. Based on Alec Lewis’s profile, he’ll leave the game feeling fulfilled and ready for the next chapter of his life. His departure, along with a juicy rumor that Royals special advisor and former Cardinals manager Mike Matheny will replace him, made for an eventful Monday morning in Kansas City.

As a skipper, Yost was never a visionary strategist. He’s not analytically inclined by nature, and he struggled in game states that require managers to play the percentages. Too often, his choices looked reflexive and dated: He liked having his fast shortstop lead off, OBP be damned. His good players bunted far too often. He didn’t always know when to deploy his closer. Managing the bullpen proved particularly challenging.

In one 2014 game, Yost summoned young Danny Duffy into a tied, extra-inning contest on the road, and then turned to Louis Coleman after the lefty loaded the bases. All that time, he had all-world closer Greg Holland ready to go, but he never got to pitch; Baltimore walked it off against Coleman. Later that year, Yost brought in a lefty specialist specifically to face (then) feeble-hitting Jackie Bradley Jr. with one on late in a one-run game; the Red Sox predictably inserted lefty-basher Jonny Gomes, who socked a two-run homer to give Boston a one-run win. After that episode, the manager memorably took responsibility, saying he’d “outsmarted himself.” Perhaps more than anyone over the last decade, Yost earned an almost anti-analytic reputation, becoming the face of what sabermetric seamheads spent so much time ranting about on Twitter.

But as Yost’s time in the dugout stretched on, the criticisms of his tactical acumen felt like an increasingly small slice of the story. For subscribers of the iceberg theory of managing, it’s clear that he compensated with other strengths. Yost always absorbed the blame whenever things went haywire, a point that both his bosses and charges acknowledged and appreciated. He also had a steady hand with young players. In Milwaukee and Kansas City, he helped turn perennially losing teams into playoff-caliber squads, happily shepherding young talents through the inevitable growing pains. Notably, a number of highly touted prospects who began their big league careers slowly — Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Jorge Soler, and Adalberto Mondesi among them — eventually blossomed. Might they have done so sooner under another manager? Perhaps, perhaps not. Regardless, most of the best prospects under Yost’s watch figured things out eventually.

Throughout his time in charge, Yost was a player’s manager. He rarely brought in a pinch hitter for the feeble-hitting Alcides Escobar, hoping more at-bats would boost his shortstop’s confidence. He trusted young players in big situations, a tendency best exemplified by his choice to lean on Brandon Finnegan, a professional for only three months at the time, in extra innings in the 2014 Wild Card game. He preferred defined roles in the bullpen, and while that’s not necessarily the optimal way to use your relievers on paper, it’s something most players prefer. He also had a well-earned reputation for resolutely backing his players in the press.

Occasionally, his public championing took a turn for the weird. When then-Brewer CC Sabathia lost a no-hitter because of a controversial scorekeeping decision, Yost was understandably upset, blasting the ruling as “a joke.” His bark reflected the clubhouse’s mood, and he undoubtedly earned some goodwill for backing his player. But as the public sparring bled into a late-season losing streak, Yost was criticized for letting it become a distraction, and the incident fed the perception that he wasn’t sufficiently attuned to his team’s dwindling Wild Card lead. Milwaukee eventually replaced him as the manager with just 12 games to go, the latest that the manager of a playoff team has ever been dismissed in big league history.

Of course, Yost being who he is, everyone felt bad. Former Brewers General Manager Doug Melvin, the man who fired him, seemed miserable about it (“[Yost] didn’t have all the answers for what is going on the last two weeks and I’m not sure I have all the answers.”) and still speaks well of him. To his credit, Yost took the high road. In the wake of the most agonizing and embarrassing moment of his professional life, he gamely said “I really hope this works and they get the jump start they’re looking for.”

Less than two years later, he was back in the manager’s chair. How you evaluate Yost’s time in KC likely reflects how you consume baseball as a whole, as his tenure feeds several narratives. He accrued a losing record overall but retires as the Royals winningest manager. His questionable bullpen decisions birthed the infamous #Yosted hashtag, but he also expertly deployed Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis down the stretch in 2015. His lineups always raised eyebrows, but his players loved playing for him. And of course, the flag will fly forever.

As the franchise bids farewell to one of the few remaining faces from that championship team, the sendoff will inevitably turn to talk of what comes next. Should the scuttlebutt prove true, Matheny will be the man of the hour.

If we’re evaluating skippers solely by how well they manage by The Book, the Royals are poised to hire the one man who may be less orthodox than Yost. Matheny’s questionable maneuvers in big moments were as constant as the clenched jaw he wore throughout his tenure in St. Louis. Perhaps his worst move was to give the ball to Michael Wacha — who hadn’t pitched in 20 days — in the ninth during a tied elimination game on the road; unsurprisingly, Wacha looked rusty and allowed a three-run homer to Travis Ishikawa. Matheny was roundly criticized for putting Wacha in a tough spot, and the decision was emblematic of his strategic deficiencies.

The new gig would also present a different challenge than Matheny faced in his previous job. In St. Louis, he piloted experienced teams who were annually strong postseason contenders. From Lance Berkman and Matt Holiday to Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina, he always had a steady group of veterans whom he could count on, both on the field and in the clubhouse. The mission looks very different in Kansas City, where the Royals have lost 100 games in each of the last two years and have barely a 32-year-old in sight. With Soler, Mondesi, and Hunter Dozier, the club has an exciting core. But there will be plenty of growing pains in the years ahead as Dayton Moore builds around them. Mentorship is a big part of Matheny’s new assignment, and it’s unclear how his time with the Cardinals prepares him for it.

Questions about Matheny’s ability to settle young players into his lineup dogged him throughout his time in town. Promising players like Kolten Wong, Tommy Pham, and the late Oscar Taveras struggled for regular playing time, while Wacha and Shelby Miller bounced between roles.

Those concerns loom particularly large in the wake of a 2018 report from Mark Saxon at The Athletic, in which Matheny was quoted as saying “the game has gotten a little softer.” The full context of that quote offers little relief. He was defending Bud Norris, who had come under scrutiny for his treatment of young pitchers, Jordan Hicks in particular. “Bud’s going to continue to do what he thinks is right as a veteran,” Matheny said. “You have to respect that.”

From the outside, it’s difficult to comment decisively on whether Norris’ behavior qualified as bullying; only those in the clubhouse can fully speak to that. But based on Hicks’ response to questions about whether he found Norris’ influence helpful — a clipped “I have no idea. No comment.” — Matheny’s remarks looked almost derisive. He was fired less than a week after publication, and the incident provided fresh ammunition for observers who felt that the manager struggled to relate to the game’s youngest generation of players.

As has long been the case, it’s very difficult to assess the fit between a new manager and his club. There is no WAR for skippers, and nothing to prevent an old dog from learning new tricks in his time away from the helm. Perhaps Matheny has reflected on his previous shortcomings. Maybe he can help a young roster develop, instill a winning culture, and implement a more seasoned in-game decision-making process than what characterized his time on the other side of Missouri.

But this seems like a bad idea. The Royals, without going through any extended hiring or vetting process, seem close to giving the reins to a retread, a bad tactician with a history of underwhelming clubhouse leadership. Matheny may well be the right man for the job, and it’s possible that the Royals brass has given the matter an extended inquiry behind closed doors. Still, Yost’s impending departure was not common knowledge until this week. Under the new circumstances, a more probing look at the managerial talent pool appears prudent.

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