Today is the first game of the American League Divisional Series, the ALDS for short, which is also referred to as 'something the Kansas City Royals will never experience.' Until this year, at least.
If you've been in a coma for the past week and are wondering how the Royals got to this point, the simple answer is that they won the most bonkers game that I've ever seen in my life. The complicated answer involves calculus, sorcery, grit, and probably some peanut butter and/or rubber bands created by MacGyver himself; it is impossible to explain how that game happened. But it did, and the Royals won in a joyous manner.
However, all was not well in Royal-land. What made for a good baseball game in hindsight was also some appalling decisions by skipper Yost that, should a similar thought process be repeated again, bring very grave things upon the Royals. I did not write this column yesterday to let the euphoria percolate some more, but now that it's settled and there are some games to be played, I think it's time to confront an unfortunate fact:
Ned Yost is a ticking time bomb. At some point, his blunders, often critical errors as shown in a particular pitching change Tuesday night, will explode, and Yost will harm the team and the fanbase. It's practically impossible to fire Yost now, but he is almost certainly not the right man for the job.
Let's go over some history before we get to his playoff sins.
As many of you know, Yost was manager of the Milwaukee Breweres from 2005-2008, an up-and-coming, small market team mainly comprised of a core of home-grown players seeking the first playoff berth in over two decades. Sounds oddly familiar, doesn't it?
Yost was fired with 12 games to go because of two things: 1) an overall collapse in hitting which was not his fault and 2) a continuing string of inexplicably bizarre managerial decisions that were completely his fault. Joe Sheehan explains a particular example from a Baseball Prospectus article from September 15, 2008:
In the eighth inning of yesterday's first game, the Brewers were tied 3-3. Guillermo Mota allowed a leadoff single to Jayson Werth, and was lifted for Brian Shouse so that Shouse could face Chase Utley and Ryan Howard...Utley sacrificed Werth to second, setting up Shouse versus Howard.
Yost elected to walk Howard to face Pat Burrell. This was... well, it strains my vocabulary to find the right word for it...Howard is at .228/.313/.458 against lefties in his career, .212/.287/.410 this year. Howard. Can't. Hit. Lefties. Shouse, on the other hand, is in the major leagues for exactly one reason: lefties can't hit him, to the tune of .175/.192/.289 this year, and .211/.263/.325 for his career, which includes a bunch of years when he was barely a major leaguer. Manuel sending Howard up against Shouse was a continuation of a theme for the Phillies: not hitting for Howard when he has little chance of doing something good. He was giving Yost an out, and Yost gave it right back.
That set up Shouse versus Pat Burrell, which cried out for a right-handed reliever. After all, Shouse is a pure specialist (.307/.390/.455 vs. RHB career; .293/.371/.446 this year). The only way walking Howard even might make sense is if Yost were to bring in a righty to try and get a double play out of Burrell. Burrell doesn't have the big platoon splits he showed earlier in his career-he's a dangerous hitter against both kinds of hurlers-but leaving Shouse in to face him was asking for trouble.
A few pitches later, the Phillies led 7-4, and what was a reasonably winnable game got out of hand in a hurry do to managerial malpractice.
It's not just pitching matchups that Yost has struggled with, but his rigid, robotic way of managing pitching roles out of the bullpen. It is as if Yost is unaware that, yes, you can move relievers from their usual spots and, no, there is not a rule preventing said thing from occurring.
In an recent event that shows this as well as a continual struggle with lefty-righty matchups, my colleague Shaun Newkirk advocated the firing of Yost with a wonderful takedown of an extraordinarily poor decision made against Boston...on September 15, 2014, six years to the day from Sheehan's BP column. Essentially, Yost decided to use the disappointing Aaron Crow to face lefty Daniel Nava, who mashes righties, with the bases loaded. For some reason, he didn't want to go with a left-hander because of cosmic reasons we will never fathom. Even so, if he was stuck on using a right-hander he could have gone with Kelvin Herrera, a much better option than Crow. But then he said this:
Aaron Crow's inning is the sixth inning. Kelvin's is the seventh.
It was the final out of the sixth inning. Crow gave up a grand slam to Nava, and the Royals lost the game. Everybody saw that outcome--except for Yost.
There are other examples of his questionable decisions, such as his refusal to use his closer in the top of the ninth on the road except when he did so in the opener because he wanted to win the game, or when in another game against the Red Sox in July Yost allowed Johnny Gomes to hit against a lefty and Yost admitted he 'outsmarted himself,' or when he went hunting with Jeff Foxworthy.
There's a pattern here. So let's come back to the playoffs.
After allowing the first-inning home run, James Shields settled down gradually, particularly cruising through the fourth and fifth innings. Unfortunately, Shields ran into some trouble in the sixth, allowing two baserunners. At 88 pitches, and knowing that this was an elimination game, Yost pulled the plug on the prized starter.
So here's the stage: your bullpen is completely rested. Your arguably top four arms are ready to go: Kelvin Herrera, excellent high-octane arm for his entire young career; Wade Davis, best reliever in the American League for the year with an ERA of exactly 1; Greg Holland, best closer in the American League; and Brandon Finnegan, greenest of rookies but with filthy stuff from the left side and a mound presence far beyond his years. Brandon Moss, Josh Reddick, and Jed Lowrie are coming to the plate for Oakland. Moss and Reddick are left-handers who have shown a significant platoon split for their career, and Lowrie is a switch-hitter.
Now, this is what I would think would be Yost's list of decisions from most likely (for him) to least likely:
- Put in Finnegan, which either capitalizes against the platoon split of Moss/Reddick or forces a switch for Oakland, giving Davis/Holland the platoon advantage later in the game
- Put in Herrera, as he can go two innings and his experience and strikeout potential are reliable in this situation, even though the platoon advantage is lost
- Think about putting in Davis to most effectively and most reliably defuse the problem for about 5 seconds because that's technically a possibility but so is riding a bicycle out to the mound to change pitchers
Yost chose option number 4: put in Yordano Ventura, who has pitched in relief twice since starting A+ ball in 2012 and only once with Kansas City, and who had thrown over 70 pitches in a rough outing two days previous.
As probably the sixth best option at his disposal, this did not go well, and Ventura proceeded to throw two wild balls and groove a fastball to Moss. Moss hit a no-doubter home run to put the A's up 5-3. Yost then put in Herrera for two innings, trolling the fans because if that was an option you would think that, you know, he would have done it sooner. After the game, he continued to infuriate fans with reasons that were distinctly different from reality.
"Ventura came into a game earlier this year and actually won it for us by throwing an inning-and-two-thirds of relief," Yost said. "He was lights‑out, and we got to that point where we just wanted to bring the gas. We wanted to bring the gas for the sixth."
Why did you want to bring the gas? Why not just get outs? Is he aware Herrera also throws 100 MPH? What about platoon splits? This decision never made sense.
After that bit, Twitter was a mess. Despite the players lauding the fans for never giving up, we absolutely gave up. It was as if someone popped a balloon. All the air, energy, and heart went out of us instantly--except when Ned realized that he should probably change pitchers and the fans heartily booed him as he walked onto the field.
During that time, there was widespread shock and anger among the Twittersphere. It was a consensus: Yost's decision was inexplicable, unforgivable. Here's a great list of specific Twitter reactions; note the ones Tweeted around 9:00, as the game was not yet decided then. I even got in on the action.
@royalsreview So...are we all going to duke it out to see who gets to write the Fire Yost column or what?— Matt LaMar (@LaMar_Matt) October 1, 2014
Of course, then the Royals came back and won, and changed the narrative. Yost's mistake was let off the hook because the Royals won their first playoff game in 29 years. Yost escaped eternal ignominy that would have accompanied that brutal loss.
But this is important: Yost's tactical errors are just as important and deserve to be criticized even though they won.
Another way of saying this is that the Royals won in spite of Yost, and not because of him. This is true. After winning this game, there's absolutely no way that Yost is fired. And, to be clear, I don't think he should be fired now; that would be a giant and unnecessary upset to the psyche of the team, which, though unmeasurable, is important to their performance.
But I do think that Yost is a bad man for the job. It's not just pitching decisions, either; the Royals sac bunted four times. That's four outs Yost gave away for free. I know playing for one run is understandable, and it might have worked better in another timeline, but when you're relying on Jason Nix to drive in a run with two outs maybe you just aren't doing it right. As the playoffs go on, who starts will also be a huge deal, and Yost's decisions here will affect the entire tone of a series. He's chosen Jason Vargas, a lefty against a lineup that hits lefties well, for the crucial game one starter. That decision will resonate for years if Vargas doesn't pitch well and the Royals eventually lose the series.
Ned Yost isn't going anywhere. He probably shouldn't be in the position he is, but that's a moot point now. He has his merits, as his decision to continue to be aggressive on the basepaths paid dividends in the Wild Card Game. However, he has a history of inane, surprising, and exasperating decisions that pop up without warning.
The pressure is higher than it ever has been for Yost. Let's just hope it doesn't set off the bomb.