Ned Yost is 20 minutes or so into a conversation that’s hit everything from launch angle to base-running technique to marriage to smoking deer meat (OK, I brought that one up).
He has talked about the Royals’ plan to change baseball (again), and about his part in it, but the general theme has been this:
As in, why is he still doing this?
This is asked a lot now. Some in the organization expected him to retire after the World Series championship in 2015, and then after Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain left in 2017, and again after 104 losses in 2018. He’s still here.
Truth is, some in the organization wonder if he should retire. It’s a minority view, but still. It’s there. Maybe a fresh voice would be good. Yost has done everything. He’ll be remembered forever. He has a good life waiting for him after baseball. So, again: Why?
Yost has answered this question a thousand times — including once so passionately at a sponsor’s event that his wife joked she wanted him to manage five more years — but perhaps never quite like this:
“I have more fun now than I’ve ever had doing this,” Yost said. “I don’t have any pressure on me. When I sit back and look at where I am in my life, I’ve got everything I’ve ever wanted. Everything. My farm’s paid off, my houses are paid off. I don’t owe anyone a penny. I’ve got money in the bank. I don’t need anything.
“So the pressure of winning daily, like, ‘I need to win or I’m going to get fired,’ it’s not there. So what it’s done is allowed me to walk through this door every day and enjoy every single aspect of this job. Every single aspect of it. From being with my coaches, being with the players, being with the front office. Every day.
“Someone said to me the other day, ‘Spring training is really long.’ I’m like, ‘Really?’ Seems like it’s been three days for me because I’ve enjoyed every day so much.”
There’s a lot to unpack here, and some of this is Yost’s natural hyperbole. He has trained himself to be relentlessly positive publicly, and that should always be remembered.
But there’s an underlying truth here, too. Yost does have an objectively wonderful life. He and Debrah have been married more than 40 years and still flirt. They have young grandkids. He has a dream job, the rare big-league manager with real juice beyond the clubhouse. We should all be so lucky.
He is different now, too. Everybody notices it. His first job as a manager in Milwaukee ended when he became the first man fired in the middle of a pennant race. His second job was with the Royals, and progress came slow enough that many fans wanted him fired a few different times before the success.
Back then, he had a tendency to white-knuckle things a bit. The most important part of his evolution came in 2014, when he backed off somewhat and gave his coaches more autonomy.
That generally aligned with the team’s loosening up, and whether it’s coincidence or not, success immediately followed — a pennant that year, and a world championship the next.
The product is a more relaxed Ned: the full Ned, you might say. He jokes more. He defers questions to his coaches more. Watching him now is watching a man at home.
“Our young players before, they had so much pressure on them to perform,” Yost said. “I don’t have that either. I don’t have that pressure anymore that I felt that they felt to win a world championship. Because we’ve done it. I know how we did it. I know how we’re going to do it again. So it’s all clear to me now.”
This can go both ways. It’s subjective. One man’s loose is another man’s disengaged, and there were times last season that some in the organization wondered if he had the same commitment. The same fire.
It’s a criticism Yost has disputed, and with a logical argument. The 2018 Royals weren’t going to compete. That was obvious early, so Yost’s focus had to change from winning every game to developing every game. From competing to preparing to compete.
“You can only do with what you’ve got,” he said. “I can’t sit here and play cards with you and put a nine of hearts down and hope it’s a king, and then be pissed it’s not a king.”
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. The Royals’ bullpen was awful. The front office believed it might be a problem before the season, but the result was worse than they imagined: last in strikeout rate, last in Fangraphs WAR, second-to-last in ERA, and bottom quarter in inherited runs, walk rate and home runs.
They blew 51 leads and lost 25 games when tied or ahead at the start of the seventh inning. They lost 25 times in that situation combined between 2014 and 2015.
But the idea that Yost let some stuff slide didn’t come from nowhere. The challenge, then, is to get closer to the right balance.
Yost’s job this season is more difficult than expected, too, because of Sal Perez’s season-ending elbow surgery. Perez is the Royals’ best player and was the MVP of the 2015 World Series.
Yost met with coaches and officials in the offseason with a plan of how to be more available and present as a leader this season. That’s a lot to replace, even if you’re the type to chuckle at the Royals’ chances of competing with or without Perez. But that was never the point.
This season was always going to be about squeezing the most juice for the future, and Perez was an important part of that. He was a connection to the past, and talented enough to help into the future. He hit in the middle of the order and his energy touched everyone in the clubhouse — hitters and pitchers, Americans and Spanish speakers.
That’s a collective effort now, and the players are the ones who do it or don’t. But Yost is the manager with a championship ring, so a lot will fall on him, too. Not just this year, but as far into the future as he’s willing to go with this new perspective.
“It’s totally different,” he said. “Now, it’s all about the city for me. It’s about the organization, the players. Before, it was, ‘We had to win.’ That’s it. We had to win. Win. Win. Wasn’t about the city. I wanted the players to experience it, but we had to win. That was it.
“It was everybody. We were fighting it. Zack Greinke, he wanted out. ‘Zack, we’re going to win.’ (He replied): ‘I’ve heard that before. I don’t believe it.’ So it was your own players saying that.
“But I never dreamed — never ever dreamed the impact a world championship would have on a city. Never dreamed it. Whatever I thought it was, I missed by a mile. The impact for a city. The pride a city feels when your team wins a world championship. Totally underestimated that. Shocked me, to this day.
“So, I want to do that again for them. I do it now because I would like our fans to experience it one more time while I’m still here. That’s it. Yeah. That’s all.”