Ned Yost has departed, off to hunt in Georgia with buddy Jeff Foxworthy, so the Royals will begin the task of looking for a manager for the first time in nearly a decade. The looming ownership transition adds a wrinkle to the process, but it appears Dayton Moore will be given the task of seeking out the next skipper to see this rebuild through.
The Royals have been said to prefer someone with managerial experience, and they will consider internal options such as bench Dale Sveum, who has such experience, and Pedro Grifol, who does not. Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at external candidates, but first, let’s look at the people they currently have in the organization.
Pedro Grifol, Catching/Quality Control Coach
The 49-year old Grifol was a career minor leaguer who spent 13 years with the Mariners as a minor league coach and manager, as well as director of minor league operations. He joined the Royals as a roving minor league hitting coach in 2013, and took over as Royals’ hitting coach in July of that year after George Brett stepped down, He was re-assigned to catching instructor the next May as the team struggled on offense, and has served in that position ever since.
Grifol has served as an ally of the analytics department and a conduit for integrating their ideas with players, telling Rustin Dodd, “I love combining the old-fashioned gut feel and looking at the large sample numbers to see how they match.” He was credited with connecting Jorge Soler with a private instructor that helped the slugger have a career season in 2019. Grifol seems to have the same attitude as Yost in delegating to players and giving them some freedom, telling Alec Lewis of The Athletic:
“When people are allowed to be themselves, if you’re good at what you do and you take pride in what you’re doing, you hold yourself accountable.”
Grifol was considered, but not interviewed, for managerial positions in Detroit and Baltimore. He is bilingual and has frequently served as an interpreter for the Spanish-speaking players on the team. His familiarity with the players and experience as a coach on a championship club could allow him to be a popular fit with the players. However, his lack of big league experience as a player or manager could undermine his authority. He has managed teams in the minors and in winter ball, and there have certainly been quite a few managers who have had success despite the lack of a MLB playing career.
Jason Kendall, Special Assignment Coach
Kendall actually isn’t with the Royals organization anymore, taking this year off to spend time with his family. But he wants to manage now - openly lobbying for the Pirates managerial job - and he could be considered for the opening in Kansas City. Kendall has no professional coaching or managerial experience at any level, but he did enjoy a 15-year career as an All-Star catcher, spending his last season with the Royals. There has been a recent trend of hiring managers without any coaching experience, including Aaron Boone, Brad Ausmus, Robin Ventura, Walt Weiss, and Mike Matheny when he was first hired.
The 45-year old Kendall has helped develop players and assisted with coaching duties, spending six years as a special assignment coach with the Royals. His role included reviewing scouting reports with Salvador Perez. Kendall would take an old school approach as manager, stressing accountability. He outlines many of his managerial philosophies in his book Throwback, which he wrote with Kansas City Star writer Lee Judge. In that book, Kendall decries some of the modern developments with baseball, criticizing pitch counts and not believing in lefty/righty platoon splits, instead preferring pitcher vs. hitter matchups.
On the other hand, he does believe in getting on base, and he was very adept at drawing walks and setting the table as a hitter. He says Billy Beane’s philosophy is great, adding “you get on base, you score - absolutely, that’s common sense.” He thinks the leadoff hitter should get on base, and the #2 hitter should also get on base, but be able to handle the bat. He believes in playing small ball at times, but also playing for the big inning.
He’s an ass kicker, has the respect of (most) players, and is absolutely hooked on baseball. There are some rough edges there to smooth, but if he wants to manage -- and Lee would know this much better than I -- he’d be very good.
Kendall would be quite a gamble, but he certainly embodies many of the hard-nosed, old school values they espouse.
Mike Matheny, Special Advisor to Player Development
The 49-year old Matheny was hired as a special advisor to the Royals last year after his dismissal by the Cardinals, a team he managed for just over six seasons. That hiring led to speculation he would be Yost’s successor, seeing as this was the exact same process that led to Yost getting the manager’s job.
On paper, Matheny has a very impressive résumé. He was hired without any coaching experience following a 13-year MLB career as a catcher, and won 90+ games three times with the Cardinals, winning 55.5 percent of his games overall. In just his second season he won 97 games and won the 2013 National League pennant, falling to the Red Sox in the World Series in six games. His teams were in the top five in the National League in fewest runs allowed every year from 2012 to 2015, leading the league in 2015, a year in which they led baseball with 100 wins. His teams bunted frequently, even for the National League, although they did not steal many bases.
However Matheny’s teams dropped off significantly in performance in his last two and a half seasons, missing the playoffs in each of those years. Several of his strategies came under fire from Cardinals fans, including his rigidity to bullpen roles, using “pitcher wins” and “saves” as factors in decisions, using small sample sizes to inform lineup decisions, and wearing down his bullpen. He finished dead last among all active managers in Baseball Prospectus’ Reliever Management metric at the time of his firing.
Matheny is admittedly old school in his values and philosophies. That may have caused tensions in his clubhouse that ultimately led to his dismissal. Players complained of double standards, impatience with young players, and rolled their eyes at his strategies. The final straw seemed to be an article at The Athletic that revealed how hard veteran Bud Norris was riding rookie Jordan Hicks, much to the displeasure of Hicks, with Matheny simply laughing it off. Matheny was fired three days later.
Many have suggested that the Royals job is Matheny’s to lose, with USA Today’s Bob Nightengale essentially reporting it is a done deal. Kansas City Star columnist Sam Mellinger wrote this week that “Mike Matheny is the most likely, and this is not a guess” although he provided caveats. Beat writer Jeffrey Flanagan has also cautioned that a final decision has not been made yet.
Perhaps Matheny has learned how to better manage a clubhouse from his first experience. Ned Yost went from being an over-managing boss in Milwaukee to a skipper who could trust his players in Kansas City. But his old school approach, his reluctance to embrace analytics, and the “uptight, stressed, humorless” clubhouse he ran should give Royals fans pause.
Dale Sveum, Bench Coach
Sveum enjoyed a 12-year MLB career as a shortstop, before becoming a minor league manager in the Pirates organization. He was a third base coach for the Red Sox in 2004 and 2005, known for aggressively waving runners home. In 2006, he joined Ned Yost’s coaching staff in Milwaukee. After Ned Yost was surprisingly fired with two weeks to go in the season, Sveum led the 2008 Milwaukee Brewers in the post-season, losing to the Phillies in four games in the Divisional Series that year. He did not get the full-time job the next spring, instead returning to the staff as a hitting instructor.
He was hired by Theo Epstein to manage the Cubs in 2012 during their rebuild, but lost 197 games in two seasons before they let him go. In Chicago, Sveum was criticized for the slow development of infielder Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo. He was also criticized for his tactics and not living up to the lip service he gave to sabermetrics. A study by FiveThirtyEight found he would have been one of the worst managers in bullpen management had he managed the minimum number of games for their study. Despite the losses, Cubs players respected Sveum and were said to work hard for him.
The Royals hired him as third base coach in 2014, although he took over as hitting coach a few months later after Grifol was re-assigned. Under Sveum, Mike Moustakas completely re-invented himself to spray the ball to all fields in 2015, then re-invented himself again as a pull hitter, enjoying his best power season ever. Eric Hosmer also enjoyed some of his best seasons under Sveum, Salvador Perez increased his power, and Whit Merrifield emerged as a solid hitter. On the other hand, the Royals were near the bottom of the league in runs scored every year under Sveum except their championship season. In 2018, Sveum moved to bench coach.
Sveum was hired early on in his career by two of the most early adopters to analytics, the Red Sox and Cubs, and was said to be “comfortable using analytics as a tool to help manage.” Rustin Dodd described Sveum as a “willing liaison” between the analytics department and the on-field staff. Sveum has been praised as a great baseball mind who makes friends along every stop.
The 55-year old Sveum may not have a gaudy win-loss record, but he may be the best mix of managerial experience, acceptance of analytics, and clubhouse leadership to make him a worthy successor to Yost.
Vance Wilson, Bullpen Coach
Wilson was a MLB catcher for eight seasons, joining the Royals as a minor league manager in 2011. He spent seven seasons managing in the minors, moving up the ladder to manage the Northwest Arkansas Naturals from 2014-2017. With the Naturals, he led several young players currently on the big league team including Hunter Dozier, Whit Merrifield, and Adalberto Mondesi. He joined the Major League coaching staff in 2018 as a bullpen coach.
Wilson has been said to be well-respected around the game and a good communicator. Executives have called him a potential future manager, and his former manager Jim Leyland heaped praise as well.
Leyland offered praise for his former player Vance Wilson, now an @MLB managerial candidate: “No matter what was going on, he was into the game mentally. I knew he was a sharp baseball guy, and I’m happy that he went to manage in the Minor Leagues all those years.” @MLBNetwork— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) October 1, 2019
The 46-year old Wilson has been around winning cultures, leading the Naturals to the post-season in consecutive seasons, and reaching the championship game of the Arizona Fall League as a manager in 2014. He was awarded the Dick Howser Award in 2016 for the top player development person in the organization.
Pitching coach Cal Eldred praised Wilson for his honesty with players, saying he has the “perfect combination of knowledge of statistics and analytics paired with the personal relationship to help develop players.”
Wilson is inexperienced as a big league manager, but he may be worth the gamble if he can blend analytics with the personal relationships he has developed with players. His terrific reputation around baseball could help, as could his experience working with several of the players already on the team.
Others: Third base coach Mike Jirschele is not interested in the job and first base coach Mitch Maier seems unlikely to be considered. Wilmington Blue Rocks manager Scott Thorman is developing an impressive body of work as a minor league manager, but is too inexperienced for a managerial job, as is minor league manager Tony Pena, Jr.
Tomorrow, a look at the potential external candidates for Royals manager.