The inevitable and expected happened on Thursday, as the Kansas City Royals announced that Mike Matheny would be their new manager, taking over the for the retired Ned Yost. This move can be traced all the way back to last November, when the Royals brought him into the organization to be a special advisor to player development.
While this was expected for months, it has also been a very unpopular hire within the Royals fanbase, with many like myself pointing out many of the issues that led to his dismissal in St. Louis. This hire has left many shaking their head and wondering why the Royals braintrust felt giving Matheny a second opportunity at managing was wiser than taking a chance on a younger option like Pedro Grifol or Vance Wilson.
If I am truly being fair here, lets look at some of the positives that pop up on Matheny’s resume. Under his leadership, Matheny guided the Cardinals to the playoffs his first four years at the helm, including a World Series appearance in 2013 and leading baseball in wins in 2015 (when the Royals won the World Series over the Mets). He accumulated a record of 591-474 over his six and a half seasons in St. Louis, which is impressive for someone who had never managed before and was following in the footsteps of the legendary Tony LaRussa.
What eventually led to his dismissal in St. Louis has been well documented and feels like a list of ‘Do-Nots’ for any manager to follow. He showed a preference to veterans, struggled with communication when met with resistance, was not open-minded to advance analytics, showed poor decision-making when it came to tactical decisions, neglected fundamentals and was not open to outside advice. If you really want a window into why so many Royals fans (and analysts within the game) have been against the hire, this is probably a great way to start.
So with all that said, why was Matheny Dayton Moore’s choice? For one, he is an old school leader who follows in line with Moore on how the game should be played. Both are firm believers in a style that focuses on putting the ball in play, bunting runners over into scoring position and a love of the sacrifice fly. In some ways Matheny is an extension of Ned Yost, at least when it comes to the tactical side of a managers job. As a baseball fan, this part isn’t the worst thing in the world, as the ball being put in play more has proven to be a more exciting product to watch and one that was very successful for the 2014-2015 Royals teams.
The issue lies in the problems that arose in St. Louis near the end of his run. The Royals are in a rebuild (whether Moore acknowledges it or not) and with that comes a higher focus on young talent. Matheny showed a tendency to lean toward his veterans while the younger players would ride some pine if met with any struggles. At this point of development, the younger players in Kansas City will need the playing time and a long stint on the bench won’t really do them any good. Yost was great working with the youngsters, even going back to his time in Milwaukee. This was one aspect of Ned’s managerial style that he was praised for and one that Matheny would be smart to adopt.
Maybe this will change for Matheny since he is in a different situation than the one he was anointed in St. Louis. Matheny was thrown into the pressure cooker when he was hired by the Cardinals, as he was replacing a legend in Tony LaRussa and left with a roster that was playoff-ready. There was no rebuild going on during his stint in St. Louis and the expectancy to win was much higher than it is going to be in Kansas City the next two years. We should know pretty early whether or not Matheny has changed in this regard and it will be interesting how he handles a different side of the game, one that can expect more lows than highs.
Another issue that has to be addressed would be his communication skills. Matheny was known as someone who would shut down for long periods of time and sometimes even ignore certain players. This can’t happen in Kansas City and is a big part of my concern with him taking over this job. He will be working with younger players who need feedback on what they are doing correctly and incorrectly and having a manager that isn’t there to teach them is a major problem. During the press conference on Thursday, Matheny talked a lot about “growing” and acknowledging his “blind spots” and for this to work, this can’t be just talk.
So is it just talk? Obviously at this point there is no way to tell but Moore saw enough that he felt the change was real. Matheny did take an analytics course to grow his knowledge and even hired a consultant to help him deal with the media. At the very least, these are signs that Matheny wanted an opportunity to manage again and was willing to take the steps necessary to make it happen. He was very stubborn during his first managerial job when it came to not only the use of analytics but also taking any other comments, opinions or suggestions as a form of growth. Matheny would be wise to soak in everything that is tossed his away and at the very least consider the advice that is sent his way. If he is serious at growing, he needs to be an open-minded manager.
With this said, the biggest reason I don’t feel Matheny is the right hire for Kansas City is because to me he isn’t the best choice. To me, the best choice has been in the Royals dugout for years now and his name is Pedro Grifol. Grifol has been with the big league club since 2013, when he was brought in as a special assignment coach when George Brett was hired as interim hitting coach. Grifol has also served as the quality control coach, catching coach and hitting coach during his tenure in Kansas City. While he was with the Mariners organization, Grifol was a manager, scout, coordinator of instruction and Director of Minor League Operations. You could probably name it, and Grifol has done it.
So why do I feel he is the best choice? Not only does his wealth of knowledge in all aspects of the organization help, but he is also bilingual, has the respect and admiration of the current players and has watched many of the players move up through the organization as well as watching the current crop that is still down in the minors. Grifol has shown an ability to learn and grow and is someone thought highly of not only within the Royals organization, but other organizations as well. Currently he is on the short list of candidates to become the new San Francisco Giants manager and has been considered for managerial jobs in the past in both Detroit and Baltimore. Grifol would have walked into the Royals managerial job with a leg up on everyone else while having all the tools that organizations look for in their field generals.
So with that said, why the choice of Matheny over Grifol? Managerial experience is almost certainly one of reasons, but there is another reason that isn’t talked about as much but one I addressed just last weekend. Dayton Moore is a deeply religious man and so is Mike Matheny. We have seen over the last few years Moore get more and more aggressive with this beliefs being pushed out in public, most publicly with his battle against pornography. As Royals fans, we have known about Moore’s faith for years and for the most part it has never been a big issue. Craig Brown at Royals Review talked extensively about this the other day (which I highly recommend you click that link) and I felt better after reading it because I wasn’t alone in believing that Moore hired Matheny in part because of his religious beliefs.
I know some will disagree with this, but much like Matheny talked about his “blind spots” when it came to managing, I firmly believe Moore’s “blind spot” is his faith. Part of that faith is believing in second chances and in my opinion that is what is going on here. Moore sees Matheny as a good Christian man and wants to reward him for that by giving him another managing job. By no means am I saying Matheny shouldn’t be given a second chance at some point. Far from it. At some point I do believe he should be given that second chance, as long as he has shown that he has learned what failed him during his first managerial job.
But he is just 15 months removed from that firing, which feels too soon. Add in a candidate in Grifol that feels like the superior choice and you start wondering “why Matheny?”. It seems very apparent where the dots are connected here and why Matheny was Dayton’s choice. Personally, I have no issue with anyone and their religion. As comedian Katt Williams would say “You do you, Boo-Boo”. But when it comes to baseball and hiring coaches or signing players, I care nothing about religion. I want the best person for the job, the person who will give the team the best opportunity to win. Unless they are just an absolutely deplorable human, it doesn’t matter to me whether you praise Jesus, Buddha, Allah or any other deity. I want the best person for the job and Matheny is not that person for the Royals.
Moore has made his decision and I will call it now: this move will be the beginning of the end for Dayton. Over the last couple years, he has made some questionable moves and we’ve seen his decision making become more and more questionable. It used to just be free agent signings or trades but now it has started to seep over into whether his personal belief system is on a higher plain than winning. Need more proof? Look no more than his defending of Luke Heimlich. Moore’s want to give people a second chance almost gave the organization a giant stain that would have been hard to recover from. It is obvious what his mission is at this point and on a daily basis I question more and more whether or not that goal is winning. The hiring of Matheny could very well be his eventual downfall, especially with new ownership getting ready to move in.
So it is very obvious that Matheny being hired by Kansas City was not well received at my house. The hope for those of us who dislike the move is that he proves us wrong and he has truly changed his ways. For the longterm health of this organization, I hope that his hiring won’t push back the progress that has been made these last few years. The good news is this: when Ned Yost was brought in, many like myself looked down on the hire and eventually Yost proved us wrong. Now it’s Matheny’s turn. For our sanity, I need to be wrong.