We can start here: For a long time I have believed that Ned Yost would not be the manager for the Kansas City Royals when they actually contended for the World Series. He always seemed to me a transitional manager, a pro who works well with management, follows the plan, does not hesitate to play young players and so on. That’s important for a terrible team. That also goes only so far. When the Royals were ready to actually win games, I figured that, one way or another, Yost would be replaced with someone who could match up with the best managers in the game and could instill a sense of confidence.
Yost filled that transitional role with Milwaukee. And just like in Milwaukee, Yost’s Royals teams gradually improved.
In Yost’s fifth year with the Brewers, they finally had a winning record.
It took Yost four years in Kansas City.
But he couldn’t finish the job in Milwaukee — he was fired late in his sixth season (even with the team winning) because Brewers management sensed that fuses were popping and things were going heywire. Now in his fifth season in Kansas City, it’s easy to sense the same thing. The Royals are one game over .500 and have been an erratic light show all year, at times looking unbeatable and at times looking like they would need a court order to score a run. They are a staggering 10-19 in one run games — staggering because such a dreadful one-run record usually reflects a leaky bullpen, and the Royals actually have one of the best bullpens in baseball.
The Royals lost one of those one-run games Friday night to Boston … and it was one of those rare games that you can blame directly on the manager. The Royals led by three runs going into the sixth inning, when starter James Shields got into a little trouble. With one out, he gave up a single to Daniel Nava, a home run to Xander Bogaerts, a ground rule double to Stephen Drew. After striking out David Ross for the second out, he was ready to face Jackie Bradley Jr., who is hitting .225 this year and is slugging .309. It seemed likely that Shields would get out of the inning with the lead.
Only then, Ned Yost made one of the most impossibly absurd moves of the season. I think baseball managers often get unfairly second guessed because ofte they are pressed into making SOME decision, and a certain percentage of the time a decision will turn out wrong even if it is the smarter choice. This was different. There was no real decision here. Shields, like most pitchers, had no problem with Bradley (strikeout, groundout to first). There seemed nothing to do but let Shields finish off the inning. You don’t bring in a reliever for Jackie Bradley at this point in his career.
Only … Yost did. Which is only the beginning of the insanity. He did not bring in any reliever. He brought in Scott Downs.
Now, I have no idea whatsoever why the Kansas City Royals even have Scott Downs. He’s a 38-year-old lefty specialist on his fourth team in the last two years. He struggled enough with the Chicago White Sox that they released him … and the White Sox aren’t exactly overloaded with pitching. It’s not Ned Yost’s fault that the Royals signed Downs*. But it is Yost’s fault that he brought Downs in the sixth inning of a one-run game to face Jackie Bradley Jr.
*Unless he specifically asked for Downs, which is possible.
I’m not sure the value of trying to figure out what was going on in Ned Yost’s brain when he made the decision, but let’s assume that he thought it would good to get a lefty-lefty match-up against Jackie Bradley Jr.
Three things, listed in ascending importance:
1. You don’t match-up with Jackie Bradley Jr.
2. While Bradley Jr., so far in his young career, hasn’t really hit anybody, he’s been better against lefties than righties.
3. There was NO CHANCE IN THE WORLD Bradley was going to hit once Yost brought a lefty.
Could you imagine the joy in that Red Sox dugout when they saw Scott Downs coming into the game? Boston hasn’t been given a gift like that since the Larry Bird draft. I’m sure manager John Farrell, after rubbing his eyes to make sure this was really happening, needed all of one millisecond to send lefty-killer Jonny Gomes to the on-deck circle. The Royals had James Shields against Jackie Bradley Jr. With one bold stroke of bizarro genius, Ned Yost turned it into Scott Downs vs. Jonny Gomez. Remember what Jean van de Velde did on the 72nd hole of the British Open? Yeah. It was like that.
OF COURSE Gomes homered, that’s not even the point here. If Gomes had somehow, against pretty much all reason, made an out it still would have been a spectacularly bad move.
The point is: Ned Yost is not good at this part of managing.
“I outsmarted myself,” he would tell reporters afterward, which is not at all what he did. People often compare managing to chess … and the comparison is usually silly. But this was exactly like chess. It was like Ned Yost was a beginner chess player, and he moved his queen to check the king thinking that was a bold and smart move and did not realize that his opponent had four pieces in position to take the queen. That is not outsmarting yourself. That is not knowing how to play chess.
Not remembering Johnny Gomes, not understanding that pinch-hitting for No. 9 hitter Jackie Bradley is no big deal in any inning, not appreciating that Downs can’t get out righties, and Gomes eats lefties for afternoon snacks … this is beginner’s chess. And at a time when the Royals are supposed to be contending.
Of course, Ned Yost doesn’t see himself as a transitional manager. He thinks — and he should think this, he should have confidence in himself — that he has the skills to not only develop a team but take them to the championship. But Yost’s self-belief is not the point here. Do the Royals really believe this? One of the toughest things in sports (probably in business too) is to make a vital change when things are going pretty well. I have long been in awe of Tiger Woods’ decision — after winning the 1997 Masters by a half billion shots — to tear up his swing and rebuild his game. It took the better part of two years and he emerged with the greatest golf game the world had ever seen. He would have been fine with his old game. But he wouldn’t have been the Tiger Woods capable of winning four Majors in a row.
The Royals have not won any Masters … but they did have their best year in two decades last year. And they’re sort of hanging in there this year. The easy thing — maybe even the fair thing — is to stay the course, let those young players keep developing, keep going under Yost’s steady hand.
But the Royals have to ask themselves that hard question — and they have to ask it with brutal, unkind honesty: Do they believe Ned Yost is the guy who can guide them from respectability to a title? That window is not going to stay open forever. James Shields will leave soon. Closer Greg Holland will probably leave soon too. The lineup and pitching staff are relatively healthy. Ask the Washington Nationals: It may look sunny as far as the eye can see but weather changes fast in sports.
The Gomes Affair was just one game in a very long season. But it is precisely the sort of loss the Royals cannot afford. Would it be fair to Ned Yost to switch managers now, with the Royals finally playing pretty good baseball after 20-plus years of incompetence? You could make a good case that it would not be fair.
But there’s that other question and it dangles over the Royals like a sword: Would the Royals have a better chance of getting to the playoffs and doing well there with someone like Davey Johnson or Dusty Baker or somebody who has won before? The Royals, I’m sure, would prefer to not face that question — but these are the questions you have to face if you ever want to win.