Ned Yost shows willingness to adapt as Royals go deeper in playoffs

Royals manager Ned Yost, right, has come under fire for some decisions but has been lauded for others as his club has rocketed into the playoffs. By all accounts, such is the nature of the beast.
Royals manager Ned Yost, right, has come under fire for some decisions but has been lauded for others as his club has rocketed into the playoffs. By all accounts, such is the nature of the beast. The Kansas City Star

Dave Eiland approached Ned Yost in the wake of Kansas City’s most devastating defeat this September. The rubble had yet to clear from a Sunday afternoon catastrophe, when Yost used Aaron Crow over his more talented relief brethren, then cited self-imposed restrictions to defend the decision after Crow surrendered a grand slam against Boston.

The phrase “Aaron Crow’s inning is the sixth” still rang in the ears of infuriated fans when Eiland spoke with Yost. Eiland coached the Yankees’ pitching staff during their World Series championship in 2009, and felt his boss needed to adapt for the coming challenge. No longer could the team rely on the routine, with Kelvin Herrera limited to the seventh inning and Wade Davis to the eighth.

Yost needed to adapt for the team to flourish.

“I told him, if we get to the postseason, we’re going to have to do it,” Eiland said on Saturday afternoon after an optional workout at Kauffman Stadium before the third game of the American League Division Series. “Obviously, you’ve seen that.”

The next night, Yost used Herrera in the sixth and Davis in the seventh. The Royals lost, but Yost was undeterred. He was willing to listen. Here in the first three games of the playoffs, he has already used both Herrera and Davis for multi-inning stints. He has displayed trust in 21-year-old rookie Brandon Finnegan. He insisted his offense run wild when erasing a four-run deficit in the American League Wild Card Game.

He also exposed Yordano Ventura to the first high-leverage relief appearance of his career in an elimination game. He allowed Jason Vargas to face the fearsome, right-handed heart of Anaheim’s order in two days later. So Ned Yost can change. But his decisions still may rankle observers.

With James Shields on the mound and a two-game advantage on their side, the Royals stand on the verge of their first berth in the American League Championship Series since 1985. As the team ventures deeper into October, as they face national scrutiny and daily foofaraw, Yost may become a punching bag for pundits. At this point, he already has, even as his team continues to win.

Therein lies the difficulty in evaluating Yost as a manager, according to conversations with rival executives and scouts who followed the Royals this season. The officials requested anonymity in order to speak freely about Yost, now in his 11th season as a big-league manager and the longest-tenured skipper in Kansas City history. Yost shepherded the team to 89 wins this season, the franchise’s most since 1989.

“I think given the talent that they have, that’s probably right around where you would expect them to be,” one executive said. “I don’t know that Ned Yost has won them many games. I don’t know that he’s actually cost them as many as people would like to put at his feet.”

Assessing a manager is a tricky business, because the job itself is so complicated, marked by long hours, little sleep and thousands of unseen decisions.

A manager must understand the proclivities and placate the egos of millionaires. He must practice game theory while engaging in strategic competition with his counterpart in the other dugout. He must carry out the wishes of his front office while asserting his own say in on-field matters. He must explain himself to reporters, the surrogates for an often-offended fanbase, on a daily basis.

Only 30 of these jobs exist, and Yost has held one for more than a decade. He earns raves for the faith he displays in his players. The players rewarded him with energetic performances. He made a conscious effort to improve his bedside manner with the media this season, an effort that has at times faltered.

Yet here in October, the spotlight will shine on his in-game decisions, which rival executives feel is the weakest portion of his portfolio. Based on the criticism Yost received in the first week of the playoffs, this is not a controversial opinion.

After the victory over Oakland on Tuesday, future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez harangued Yost for his bullpen decisions and said Yost deserved to be “the ugly goat” if Kansas City had lost. Earlier this week the Orange County Register referred to the Royals as “the laughingstock of the sport” because of their manager. If Yost stopped at a newsstand Saturday morning, fresh off two victories in California, he could have seen a headline in The Wall Street Journal branding him “The Dunce.”

It is unlikely he saw the story. Yost says he limits his reading to the CNN homepage and NASCAR updates through Fox Sports.

“Look, I’ve been criticized my whole career,” Yost said before game one. “So it doesn’t really matter.” He added, “If the manager puts in a player and he gives up a three‑run homer, it’s the manager’s fault. I put him in. It’s something that we all deal with every day, and it doesn’t really bother us too much.”

He weathered plenty during his tenure in Milwaukee. The Brewers fired Yost with two weeks left in the 2008 season as they limped into the playoffs. As Yost reflected on that season, he blamed himself for being too much of an activist, for seeking solutions rather than allowing his players room to solve problems.

When Kansas City hired him midway through the 2010 season, Yost vowed to learn from the lessons of his previous job. To long-time observers, his tactics have improved since then. “A lot of times he would change the game plan, go with his instincts, then not go with them,” one executive said. “I always thought he was in between on some of his moves and his strategies.”

His bullpen usage in 2014 reflects a reliance on structure. With Greg Holland as the closer, Yost installed Wade Davis as his set-up man. The eighth inning belonged to Davis, and rarely did he pitch elsewhere. Davis appeared in the seventh just once this season. That frame belonged to Herrera, who emerged from the middle-relief morass with an outstanding season.

The trio served as a safety net this season. The team went 72-1 when leading after seven innings. Yost did not have much calculus to deliberate in these situations, which advanced the notion among evaluators that Yost is more of a calming caretaker than an advanced tactician.

“He’s not going to steal you any games,” one executive said. “But he’s also not going to kill you, either. Unless he decides to double steal.”

In the first inning of this team’s first playoff game against the Athletics, Yost called for a curious play on the bases. A rally fizzled when Billy Butler drifted off first base on a botched play with Eric Hosmer on third. Butler possesses feet weighed down by lead, and hasn’t attempted a steal since 2012. “Probably not the guy you want in that spot,” the executive deadpanned.

Yet the mistake also opened a door. Oakland catcher Geovany Soto was injured when he tagged out Hosmer at the plate. Into the game came Derek Norris, and the Royals ran wild. They matched a postseason record with seven stolen bases and came back to vanquish Jon Lester and the Athletics.

The victory set them on a path to Sunday, when they can move one step closer to a pennant. Slings and arrows may stand in Yost’s way, but the team is still standing. So is their manager.

“I’m happy for Ned,” one executive said. “Because I know he’s taken it on the chin a lot.”

To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to Follow him on Twitter: @McCulloughStar.