Exit Ned Yost. Enter… Mike Matheny?

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.

We hoped you liked reading Exit Ned Yost. Enter… Mike Matheny? by Brendan Gawlowski!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




newest oldest most voted
sadtrombone
Member
Member
sadtrombone

Okay, so hiring Matheny would obviously be a huge mistake. But I think it’s also true that the Royals might have trouble hiring their top choice among the actual potentially good managerial candidates. How many openings are there going to be? We know the Angels, Padres, Giants, and Royals fit here. Maybe the Cubs. The Blue Jays? Mets? Phillies? Pirates? Of those teams, the Royals are only clearly a better opening than the Pirates. And this isn’t a team that’s likely to be paying for the best managerial candidates anyway (Girardi, Showalter, Maddon).

dl80
Member
Member
dl80

I think I’d also rather be the Royals manager than the Giants, at least going forward for the next 3-4 years.

sadtrombone
Member
Member
sadtrombone

I would agree. It’s not clear the Giants understand how bad their team is going to be.

Sliver57
Member
Member
Sliver57

As someone whose favorite teams in beisbol are the Royals and Giants, I’m not sure that I’d agree with that. Farhan Zaidi ‘s going on last 11 months as the Giants GM gives me a lot more optimism in how he’s going to spend the upcoming winter than Dayton Moore’s last 13 years do. For a start, we’re not seeing speculation about how Zaidi’s about to hire Matheny. Sure, the young pitchers in the Royals pipeline are something to dream on that the Giants don’t have, but the cupboard isn’t bare, either, and I trust Zaidi’s process.

sadtrombone
Member
Member
sadtrombone

I think that in 2022, the Giants job is going to be very attractive. Ownership is willing to spend, the young talent will be almost ready, and while we don’t know a lot about Zaidi’s ability there’s not a lot of reason for worry either. But the expectations are very high in San Francisco, and they don’t have any real help coming except Joey Bart. Do you want to be the manager who takes over for Bruce Bochy and runs up a couple of 90-loss seasons, only to get fired when help is on the way?

td2g
Member
td2g

The Giants have a better team than the Royals as it stands now and also have at least a slightly deeper system. Add to that the fact that Zaidi showed this season he can at least put together a respectable team with aging veterans and the right Quad-A guys and I don’t think the Giants are heading toward another 90-loss year. A few years without the playoffs, sure, but Bart is far from the only piece they have in the system.

sadtrombone
Member
Member
sadtrombone

How many players are under contract next year and are better than a league-average starter? Yazstremski is the only one, and that’s assuming what he’s doing isn’t a mirage (I’d expect some regression, but he’s been so good he’ll still be above average). The only other players this year were Bumgarner, Dyson, and Smith, who are all free agents.

How many league-average players do we think are going to be on the team in 2020? Posey, if he can be not awful at the plate to offset the inevitable regression of his insane defensive numbers. Longoria, if he can stay healthy. Belt, if he can stay at 1B and have better offensive luck. Pillar, if he can hold off the decline of age. Shaun Anderson, if he can improve. Donovan Solano, maybe. There is not a single player who you can comfortably project to be a league-average starter in 2020, unless you think Longoria is back.

That leaves the team looking for improvements with Dubon, Joe McCarthy, Mike Gerber, Chris Shaw, Sam Wolff, and Jaylin Davis. and maybe Joey Bart (who would displace Posey from his biggest source of value–his catcher defense). Their most likely contributor is Melvin Adon, who could be a good reliever.

There is only way this team is going to avoid being bad in 2020, and that’s if they spend a lot of money. I suppose you can’t rule that out but if they do that, then that raises the expectations further. It’s a no-win.

Smiling Politely
Member
Member
Smiling Politely

Without going through a rigorous process–in which an org would actually discuss the specific criteria it values, articulate them, then design a process to find someone who meets them–how would they even know what “good” is? They shouldn’t be trying to find some famous/big name, but rather, see who’s out there, under the radar, and can make an impact (you know, like rebuilding orgs should do everywhere).

The worst part of this is the feeling that the Royals view the last 3 years as a success to be continued rather than as a death spiral to be avoided.

(edit: great point about the Royals being cheap, though an unknown name could still be a sneaky good hire for less than, say, SD would have to pay Bochy)

sadtrombone
Member
Member
sadtrombone

I do think there are some managers who are just “better” than others. Mike Matheny is probably the worst option. Buck Showalter is probably the best (I acknowledge not everyone shares that position). I would maintain that’s true for almost any team.

Beyond that, I do think there are “fits”–the right manager at the right time. But it is a bit of a risk. Recently, everyone wanted to hire Callaway and Martinez and now everyone is wondering if they’re goners (well, Callaway, at least). It seems like the common play here is to look for a bench coach from a recent contending team (Joe Maddon, Alex Cora, and probably many others fit that definition).

Jamie
Member
Jamie

Wait, did Brad Ausmus get fired without anyone reporting it? Typical East Coast media bias.

sadtrombone
Member
Member
sadtrombone

Nope. I was just wrong.