The Royals looked dead in the water just a few weeks ago, but as we approach September, they are right in the thick of the Wild Card race that seemed out of reach not long ago. At many times this season, the Royals seemed to be dead, having spent all their energy on a championship last year. But here they are, baseball’s version of the cockroach, refusing to go away. If the Royals come all the way back and make the post-season once again, could Ned Yost be your 2016 American League Manager of the Year?
I will start by saying that the “Manager of the Year Award” is one of the stupidest awards in the history of stupid awards, right below “Best Kiss” at the MTV Movie Awards and ahead of any Grammy Award. The award is typically given as recognition for the manager who was able to keep a lousy team from sucking as much as people thought they would suck. Bobby Cox won a bajillion division titles with the Braves, but only won “Manager of the Year” three times with them. Tony Pena had exactly one winning season, but he took a seemingly terrible Royals team and won 83 games, so he won “Manager of the Year.” That right there removes and validity the award may have had.
But it is still an award, not unlike the C. Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence. And if voters want to reward the manager who has overcome the biggest obstacles to field a successful team, it might just be our own Ned Yost.
Now look, we fully realize there are a lot of criticisms about Ned Yost, heck we’ve been a big part of that. From his starting lineup, to his bullpen management, to his defensive positioning, Ned Yost has earned some blame. But look around the league, EVERYONE has criticisms of their manager. My feelings on Ned Yost are akin to what Winston Churchill had to say about democracy - Ned Yost is the worst manager in the league....except all the others.
But Ned has done a lot of things right as well. First, although there has been a poor move here or there, Ned Yost has done a fantastic job overall managing the bullpen. Royals relievers lead the league in ERA once again. The last time the Royals were not top five in the league in reliever ERA was 2011. Despite a changing cast of characters in the bullpen, Ned Yost continues to get terrific reliever performance. Greg Holland is out? Go to Wade Davis. Wade Davis is out? Go to Kelvin Herrera. He has gotten great performances out of minor league free agents like Ryan Madson and Peter Moylan, as well as rookies like Matt Strahm.
He has also done a great job not overworking the bullpen. Royals relievers have only thrown the sixth-most innings, despite a poor rotation this year. Even last year, when the Royals led the league in relief innings, they had the fifth-fewest appearances in the league on zero days rest, according to Baseball-Reference. Ned Yost is very cognizant of the rest his bullpen needs and how to delicately manage them without overworking them.
Second, the Royals have been successful despite the second-worst offense in the league. The Pythagorean expectation has been used before as a crude way of crediting “the little things” a team is doing better or worse than you might expect their win-loss record to be based on their runs scored and runs allowed. The Royals are five wins better than their Pythagorean expectation, the same margin they exceeded last year, when they won 95 games. Could it be that Ned Yost maximizes every ounce of potential from his pop gun offense?
Perhaps Ned Yost’s best attribute, and the one least noticeable by fans, is his management of the clubhouse. The Royals are a tight-knit group that works together as a team towards the same goal. “Keep the line moving” is not just a mantra to throw on a t-shirt, it is a way to play the game for these Royals. Ned Yost also deserves credit for his patience with players. While sometimes his patience may be to a fault, a lot of times it has worked out as players work things out with their swings as Kendrys Morales eventually did and Alex Gordon is doing lately, or as Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy have figured things out in the rotation.
The best argument for Ned Yost, however, is that there aren’t any other obvious candidates. Cleveland’s Terry Francona is a decent candidate, but everyone has acknowledged the Indians have been talented for years, they have just underachieved until now. Boston’s John Farrell has had a good year, but with the talent he has, some feel he has actually underachieved, and he may be on the hot seat. Toronto’s John Gibbons reached the ALCS last year, so it is not a surprise to see him back in contention, plus he had to be separated from one of his players in a disagreement. Baltimore’s Buck Showalter is well regarded, but the Orioles have had a talented team for several years now. Detroit’s Brad Ausmus was nearly fired earlier this year. Seattle’s Scott Servais has done a decent enough job for a team most thought was a decent team, but does not seem like a stand out candidate.
Jeff Banister of the Texas Rangers is probably the favorite for taking a team many thought would regress and leading them to the best record in the league. But the Rangers were a good team last year, so it shouldn’t have been that big of a surprise that they won this year. Also, Banister won it last year, which may actually hurt his chances this year. Why? The assumption last year was that Banister took a flawed Rangers club and reached the playoffs. This year, the Rangers have run out to the best record in the league. Maybe they were more talented than we thought? Paradoxically, Banister is likely to get even less credit, despite more success.
The same phenomenon hurt Ned Yost last year, when he surprised everyone by having the Royals rush out the best record in the league. But by winning his second consecutive pennant, it just validated that maybe he had a good club, not superior managerial skills. Then what has changed this year?
For starters, he is missing a few key components from his past pennant teams, namely James Shields, Ben Zobrist, and Johnny Cueto. But more importantly, the team has been hit hard by injuries to Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and Wade Davis. Ned Yost will receive a lot of credit for overcoming those obstacles, and getting good production from unproven players like Cheslor Cuthbert, Paulo Orlando, and Matt Strahm.
Ned Yost will also benefit from the narrative of the Royals coming back YET AGAIN, from a big deficit to make the playoffs. Writers and fans may be tired of the Royals, but they love a comeback story. There may also be a nice personal comeback story for Ned Yost, the manager infamously fired from a playoff team with two weeks to go, who could not even use his first name at Starbucks, ridiculed by newspapers before his post-season run, whose last name became a joke for poor managerial decisions.
The Royals still have a ways to go, and Ned Yost has some managing left to do. But if the Royals can reach the playoffs, they might have the Manager of the Year in their dugout.