Unpacking the Trey Hillman Hire

Its now been a few days since the Royals announced that Trey Hillman will manage the team in 2008, in what was an unexpectedly quick managerial search process, at least publicly. Less than a day after Hillman was mentioned as a serious candidate, the Royals went ahead and made it official, a full four days before the bells, whistles, and middle aged man in a suit with a baseball jersey draped over him coronation cum press conference. In the days since, we've had a seal of approval column from JoePo (not surprising) and lots of nice quotes from both unnamed insiders and blogosphere netizens thrown the Royals' way. Here at Royals Review, the Hillman-is-Hired post swelled to 100+ comments, the vast majority of which were ranging from positive to giddy. Buddy Bell burned through about three times as much goodwill as he had actually earned during his September to forget, so its likely that a re-hiring of Tony Muser would have been greeted with applause. Still, there can be no denying that the incredibly small, not really like us in anyway, group of people who get to be "baseball people" in this country all like Trey Hillman, just like they all like Dayton Moore. For whatever thats worth, that is the reality.

Honestly though, if you want to reach any conclusion from this hiring, it should be an incredibly muted one, one fully aware of just how limited in importance a baseball manager really is. In fact, this is just what I would suggest we all take away from this brief news cycle; namely, this just isn't that big a deal. In reality, the manager is much more important to the men who have to write 162 game recaps a season than it is to anyone else.

Baseball just isn't like other sports in a few simple but very profound ways. First, attitude and desire, beyond a minimum requirement of paying attention and caring, just aren't as important in baseball as they are in other sports. A linebacker may benefit from playing with an animalistic rage , but that isn't going to help you hit a curveball. In fact, its going to hurt you. Thus, baseball has developed a whole counter-mythos of how a good manager can keep a team "relaxed", which is mostly just another brand of hokum. Still, you can read a mid-June recap story and pretty regularly see a pregame screamfest or fishing trip or a nod to something less printable credited with making all the difference. Second, for all the obsession with small-ball, putting runners in motion, etc. there still aren't actually "plays" in baseball to anything like the extent there are in football or basketball. Not in terms of quantity, not in terms of precision, and not in terms of importance. Even a blessed decision to bunt is only relevant because over 200 earlier pitcher/hitter battles all went in a certain direction. Thirdly, over the course of both a game, and a season, everybody has to play. Thats the beauty of the batting order. Its obvious, but I don't think we give it enough credit. A basketball coach can have LeBron take every big shot (hell, every small shot too) but you can't do this in baseball. Imagine a basketball game in which the players had to shoot in a predetermined order throughout the game: it be a wildly different sport. Over the course of a full game, the difference between the best and worst batting order is, roughly, a run. Again, thats at the worst extreme. What matters is who is in the batting order at all, not the particular sequence.

Yes, to an extent, a manager can influence the handling of the pitching staff more strongly, but not as much as you might think. The days of guys throwing 135 pitches for no reason are over, and, at the same time, the days of a non-closer-centric bullpen aren't fully here yet. Moreover, our game, once again, isn't the NFL, no matter how much Selig wants us to treat it as such. Over 162 games, a thin roster is going to become apparent, and, at some point, Scruffy McScrub is going to take the mound with a game on the line, but baring multiple injuries, Matt Cassell is never going to lead the Patriots down the field with the game on the line.

Even a seventeenth-century English poet with a drinking problem and a penchant for biting and vindictive satire couldn't do much damage as a manager.

Just to extend the point, imagine for a moment the worst possible manager. He arranges the lineup completely backwards, always bunts at the wrong time, calls for double steals with Billy Butler and John Buck on base, pulls the starter at the wrong time for 162 consecutive games and manages the bullpen with the use of a Magic 8 Ball toy and an astrolabe. If this manager has a particularly weird and uneven roster -- a big if -- his behavior might cost the team something like 15-20 wins. Again, this is with, say, a renaissance poet brought to life as the manager. Maybe 20 wins, if he takes the '03 Giants and bats Bonds 9th, etc. etc.

Well, as we might say, Andrew Marvell, isn't walking through that door. So among guys that could end up with the job, what are we really talking about here? Over the course of 162 games, I'd suggest somewhere between 3-6 games, and thats at the extreme. For most managers, its probably much smaller. Remember, who are these guys all managing against? Guys exactly like them, who are all managing the same way.

Lets look at a situation that I think is fairly realistic as an example: the game is tied in the bottom of the 7th, and Ross Gload explodes for a  single to lead off the inning. Hillman then lifts Gload for a pinch-runner, say, a Joe McEwing type, who will play the last two innings at first. Hillman then orders that Alex Gordon, who's hitting .280/.355/.511 in his second seasons, to drop a bunt down, because he believes that Emil Brown, who stands on-deck, is a good "RBI-man".

This is, I think, a series of bad decisions, all down the line. The odds are pretty good the McEwing type is going to bat again and taking the bat out of Gordon's hands to ask Emil Brown to rope a single -- a single that also can't be a rocket-shot to left field -- both hurts the chance of a big inning, and isn't a great bet to begin with.

Nevertheless, Gordon bunts, while both team's TV guys praise the move and talk about Hillman's Japanese experiences and style.

The fact of the matter is, while it is a bad call, it also could still "work". Bunts lead to errors with a small but real increased frequency, and, who knows, Emil might rope a single, as might John Buck behind him.

The bottom line is that baseball is a game of failure, and the odds were against Gordon succeeding anyway. If Mike Brown draws a play that takes the ball out of LeBron's hand's and puts it in, say, Drew Gooden's, thats a much larger discrepancy, especially factoring foul-call potential. Furthermore, even though this is basically the nightmare scenario of small-ball use ,even if Hillman wanted to, he's only gonna get one or two chances all year to do this.

As long as the manager doesn't get anyone injured, doesn't egregiously bury a young player for no reason and correctly fills out the lineup card, its all good. (The last manager we had was iffy on all three.)

Sadly, the coverage of sports in this century has become moralistic and personality-driven, which  has made coaches, in all sports, dis-proportionally obsessed upon. I'm not old enough to fully state if it was always this way, but my sense is it was not. Essentially, every postgame contest now gets squeezed into a "this guy choked/this guy is clutch" narrative, when 90% of the time nothing remarkable happened. Quite often, "this coach can't win the big game" or "this coach pulled the pants down on the other coach" is also a part of the equation. There are many reasons why this kind of analysis might be appealing -- the desire to reduce a football game played by scores of mostly African-American men to a battle of wits between two middle-aged white guys seems to be commonplace -- but more often than not its just not correct.

With Trey Hillman -- yes, I should say something about him -- there will be a strong desire to revert to this narrative. His supposed strengths are an emphasis on the morally-superior "fundamentals" and his strong character, which includes his religious beliefs. The players themselves are not immune to this way of thinking. Even a robotic, atheistic manager would get his share of praise if the team played better. As I've tried to show before on this site, sometimes on  back to back days the story can completely change. One day the manager keeps 'em loose, the next he won't let 'em back down, and on and on...

So with regards to Trey Hillman, if you seek a RR verdict, here it is: as with the Bell firing/mystery, what is actually most important is what we can learn about Dayton Moore from all this. While it may sound backwards, the desire to play smallball is actually scarier than any attempt to play it. If Moore's idea of fixing the offense is to bunt more as opposed to signing a guy who can actually, you know, hit, then that is the problem, not the bunts Hillman later calls. If Dayton Moore looks at Jorge de la Rosa and thinks the problem is "fundamentals" and hustle, and not an inability to know where the ball is going, then that is the problem.

I don't fully discount the "leader of men" aspect, although I do think it is both greatly overblown and irrelevant most of the time. If the Royals hired me, they would quickly have a problem in the clubhouse because I wouldn't get any respect, guys wouldn't listen, probably wouldn't respect curfew, wouldn't take extra BP, etc. But, just like in the Andrew Marvell is now the manager scenario, the Royals aren't going to hire me. Ninety-five percent of the guys who get hired are from central casting, and get respected as long as they themselevs don't act like buffons. Trey Hillman, no doubt, is in that category.

In baseball terms, Trey Hillman is merely a figment of Dayton's imagination.

A professional baseball team is not the same as a group of waiters, office clerks or teachers. On the whole, these guys are already incredibly driven -- there is no real straight from high school phenomena in baseball -- and fixated on success. Moreover, and this is a key distinction, in their job, unlike most of ours, performance is rewarded mightily. While its easy and fun to bemoan the salary structure, the fact that a 10% improvement in performance can bring a 50% improvement in pay probably, on the whole, produces an ever increasing talent level. Its something of an insult to think that these guys really need a manager to inspire them beyond a certain point.

Personally, and I do mean that literally and in reference to what Hillman's personality might be, I like the fact that he paid his dues. He's managed in the minor leagues and he's managed very far from home. I admire that, and it makes him someone I want to root for. Buddy Bell was a vaguely-liked good ole boy insider who had already received numerous chances before the Royals mysteriously hired him. This is not the case here.      

I also like the fact that he has been willing to adapt and change his ways, even if I still believe that under no circumstances is setting a record for sacrifices a good play. You aren't winning because of that as it is, you're winning because of your pitching staff.

Hillman has had to work for this and he's shown an open mind, which is more than we can say for the last guy. For that, we should all be happy.

Still, this is the sportswriter's holiday, not mine, and it is their task to start getting the story templates ready for a long season. Beyond the dithering over fundamentals and small ball we're sure to see, there's the fact that Hillman's a fresh voice, and he's young, so there can be good fodder there. A historically minded piece might be a return to Whiteyball, although this will require DeJesus and Gator actually successfully stealing bases. Heck, there might even be the "Buddy laid the foundation, now its paying off" angle, which we're seeing with Cowboys coverage right now. Most interestingly, there is the sensitive matter of Hillman's religion. We don't yet know how often he'll mention it, and generally speaking the press corps usually handles these things rather gently, only busting out a direct reference or story about it rarely.

In sum, its a press conference and a happy day for Trey Hillman. Its also possibly another set of clues into just what team Dayton Moore wants to build. Its possible that looking at three or four transactions next month will be both more worthwhile, and more relevant.

And don't be afraid to call me out next May, when I'm already jaded and posting that Hillman cost us the game.

   

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