The first time I had a one-on-one conversation with Ned Yost, here’s what he said to me:
Most reporters are full of s--t, and now that I’ve read some of your stuff, I know you’re full of it, too.
I had written that Salvador Perez made a lousy effort to block a pitch, and Yost corrected me: He said it was a cross-up on signs, and the catcher’s failure to block the pitch had nothing to do with effort.
I said I’d go back and write a correction; Yost said he wasn’t asking me to. He simply did not suffer fools gladly. If you asked a stupid question, he’d let you know just how stupid it was.
Any question beginning with: “Wouldn’t you say ...” or “Wouldn’t you agree ...” was doomed to failure. If, on the other hand, one managed to ask a question that interested him, Yost didn’t mind talking ... in fact, he could be downright chatty.
Managing a game is just one part of what a big-league manager does; organizing spring training, dealing with the front office and the media, making sure everyone gets the right amount of practice and keeping the clubhouse happy immediately come to mind, too.
But we tend to focus on game management because it’s the part of the job we can see … and a number of critics didn’t think Yost was all that great at it.
Sometimes Yost deserved criticism for moves that backfired; other times he didn’t.
The Royals — to an unusual degree — gave players a green light to bunt or steal as they saw fit. So there were times Yost had to drag himself to a postgame news conference and take the heat for a move he had nothing to do with.
So why give players that freedom?
The Royals believed players on the field can see things nobody else can see, and they should have the freedom to react to those things immediately. If a player was going to make a mistake, he should make an aggressive one; don’t miss an opportunity because you were too timid to try.
As one Royals front office executive pointed out, had Eric Hosmer been brought up playing in another system he might not have risked running home in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 2015 World Series in New York.
As third base coach Mike Jirschele once said, one of the reasons he felt free to take a chance in Game 6 of the 2015 ALCS — sending Lorenzo Cain home from first base on a single — was that he knew if the decision didn’t work out, Yost would still back him up.
Some people saw Yost’s defense of his coaches and players no matter what as a weakness; the people who played for him saw it as a strength.
The Dunce and the Chess Master
In 2014 the Wall Street Journal ran a column with the headline “Ned Yost and Buck Showalter: The Dunce and the Chessmaster.” It was a piece previewing the Royals-Orioles playoff series. Showalter was the Chessmaster; three guesses who got the role of the Dunce.
But Showalter had sometimes been ridiculed for over-managing during games, and the Royals took advantage of that.
That season the Royals led the American League in steals, and before the ALCS the Royals talked up their running game. They didn’t care that Baltimore was good at stopping the run. The Royals were still going to steal bases.
But the real plan was something different.
According to people behind the scenes, Showalter took the bait and wanted his pitchers to speed up their delivery times to home plate. But when a pitcher speeds up his bottom half, his arm sometimes fails to keep up — and that can mean pitches left up in the zone.
In Game 1, the Royals hit three home runs.
After Jarrod Dyson got thrown out trying to steal second base (one of the Royals’ three stolen base attempts in the series), he went past the Baltimore dugout and the Orioles players made fun of him for having the word “ZOOM” shaved into the side of his head.
Dyson — never at a loss for words — said they were right. He was going to get “BROOM” shaved into the other side of his head.
The Royals took advantage of the Orioles’ pitchers attempts to speed up their deliveries, went on to bat .280 while slugging .417, and swept the Orioles in four games.
The end of an era
During Tuesday’s news conference addressing his retirement after Sunday’s final game of 2019, Yost admitted that when he first started managing he had to have his thumb on every little thing.
But after getting fired in Milwaukee, he had time to think about what he might do differently if he ever got another managing job.
Eventually, Yost decided to put more trust in his coaches and players: hire and acquire good people, show them what you want them to do and then get out of their way and let them do it.
Giving power away, allowing the players and coaches the freedom to make their own decisions, led to a wild style of play that took the Royals to two World Series.
That style of play might not be completely dead, but it’s not the direction in which baseball is currently headed.
These days players consult positioning cards before deciding where to stand. Catchers look at wristbands before deciding what pitch to call. Front offices want to control everything and managers better know what the analytics say before they make a move.
Go against the percentages and you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do if it doesn’t work out.
When Yost walks out the door Sunday, there’s a good chance he’s taking that style of play, and style of managing, with him.
It just might be the end of an era.