September 28, 2013

Ned Yost must change for Royals’ 2014 mission to be a success

On Sunday, the Royals finish their most successful and interesting season in a generation. They have definite strengths and weaknesses, which is another way of saying they are like the vast majority of teams they will compete with next year. That’s why manager Ned Yost needs to change to make 2014 a success.

The Royals will not, as it turns out, fire the manager after their most successful season in decades. And by the reaction around town, you’d think David Glass had knocked on each fan’s door and personally punched them in the nose.

There is a strong case both for and against Ned Yost, and in a backward way, the fan debate is a positive sign. The Royals matter again, in the way that only


baseball teams have mattered the last 20 years or so. They finally have players good enough that the generally overstated role of a big-league manager is important. Let’s be honest: Trey Hillman was overmatched, but, hey, Casey Stengel wasn’t going to do much with that bunch.

Today, the Royals finish their most successful and interesting season in a generation. They have been baseball’s best and worst team over separate three-week stretches. They have the game’s best defense, but worst power hitting. They have the league’s best bullpen, but at least two holes in their lineup.

In other words, they have definite strengths and weaknesses, which is another way of saying they are like the vast majority of teams they’ll compete with next year.

That means this is one more critical offseason in The Process. It is general manager Dayton Moore’s job to maintain a very good pitching staff and address obvious needs on offense.

And now that Moore has gone public with his support of manager Ned Yost, it’s Yost’s job to validate the confidence.

Which means he must change.

Yost’s approval rating in Kansas City is similar to that of higher taxes and the Raiders. These things are hard to gauge, of course, and harder to explain.

With Yost, it seems to be a combination of a handful of backfired strategic moves, an often gruff personality and the fact probably few fan bases in baseball actually like their manager.

In reality, the most important thing a manager must have is the support of the players. Managers are usually fired once they lose their players’ support, and this is likely why Moore decided to keep Yost: The players like him.

Yost has been with this group for most of four seasons. He is the only big-league manager Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Sal Perez, Greg Holland, and Danny Duffy have known. Alex Gordon’s shift to the outfield happened a few weeks after Yost took over.

He was the manager in Milwaukee when Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar were coming through the system. Yost was the manager in Kansas City when Luke Hochevar went to the bullpen, when James Shields changed the clubhouse and when Jeremy Guthrie got another chance.

Yost and this group have history. They know one another’s rhythms, each other’s priorities. They know one another’s fears and triumphs and unspoken communications. He always supports his players in public, and in turn they listen to him in private. There is value in this.

His track record on strategy, like all managers, is mixed. Managers make too many decisions for it to be anything else. The mistakes are easy to remember and point out, like what we might as well call “the Guthrie game” in Detroit, or batting Escobar second in the order 69 times.

What’s harder to remember are successes like the hit-and-run that keyed a win in Chicago when Gordon called Yost “our player of the game,” sticking with Holland as the closer when fans wanted Kelvin Herrera and enough feel for his bullpen that the group leads the American League in ERA and WHIP.

Remember, the Las Vegas bookmakers predicted the Royals would win 78 or 79 games this year. They have a chance to win 86. Yost has had a hand in the team’s modest success, no matter what the prevailing fan opinion is.

But he also needs to evolve from the manager who can take a team to the front door into one who can knock it down.

And to do that, he must make a few simple but important changes.

Yost spent a chunk of the last offseason declaring the Royals were in “Phase 2” of their rebuild, which meant no more talk about developing, no more talk about patience, no more talk about much of anything besides winning


It all sounded so good. Except when the Royals started losing in May, Yost went off on a rant that included the line “instant gratification just doesn’t work (in baseball).” Then, two months later, he was still saying “it takes time” and making what was at best a misleading comparison of Moustakas’ struggles and six specific Hall of Fame players.

But those are just PR issues. Major-league managers are required to talk so often they’re bound to make conflicting points.

The more important issue — the one Yost and everyone else inside the Royals’ power structure should be thinking about this offseason — is what the manager could’ve done to take the bite out of the losing streaks that effectively sank the team’s postseason chances.

Good teams don’t go 4-19, as the Royals did in May, and playoff teams don’t usually lose seven in a row, as the Royals did in August. Especially not when they’re built on pitching and defense.

If Yost had everything under control, the Royals wouldn’t have begged George Brett back into the dugout to be the team’s confidence coach as much as hitting coach.

There are sensible defenses for Yost in each of these situations, and for many managers, that’s as far as it would go. But Yost is still the manager who took the Brewers to the brink of the playoffs five years ago, only to be fired with 12 games left in part because some thought he was tensing under the pressure. That experience stayed with Yost, and he’s vowed to be different in his second managerial chance.

That’s logical and natural. But a musician is no good if he can play only one note. Yost has enough capital with his players to push them, to get on them, to make them uncomfortable. He does some of this, always behind closed doors. He needs to self-evaluate whether more of it could’ve helped avoid the team’s dives.

Yost also needs to never waver from his word about “Phase 2.” Escobar can’t be hitting second during a historically weak season because of a gut feeling. Starting pitchers can’t stay in a game longer than they should because he wants to get them a win.

With the Royals entering what will almost certainly be their last season with Shields, 2014 becomes the year that will define a massive organizational reset that’s now more than seven years in the making.

Glass has given Moore confidence, and now Moore has passed it on to Yost. This group will succeed or fail with Yost as the manager.

Yost needs to make subtle but important changes to rise to that challenge.

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