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Mike Matheny isn’t as sure of a thing as we think he is

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We just don’t know what the new Matheny will be like

St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny (22) walks off the field after changing pitchers during the sixth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium.
St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny (22) walks off the field after changing pitchers during the sixth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium.
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

In the introductory press conference for brand new Kansas City Royals manager Mike Matheny, Dayton Moore kicked things off with a few statements of his own regarding Matheny and the hiring process. The first substantive thing Moore said was, and I quote, “We went into this with a completely open mind.”

Because General Manager Speak is its own entire language that could be taught alongside Klingon and Esperanto, I will not claim that Moore is lying here. But if you examine it as English and not GM Speak, it is a blatant and hilarious falsehood. While the Royals’ manager search included the interviews of multiple in-house candidates and apparently some external ones,* it was abundantly clear to everyone else in the process that this was a courtship and Matheny was the one both courting and being courted.

*The names of these external candidates never became public, and as a result I am forced to conclude that the Royals interviewed only one such candidate, that person being Manti Te’o’s girlfriend.

Put it this way: when news broke that Matheny was going to be the next Royals manager, perhaps you were surprised that Royals Review’s rather thorough article about the news was posted extremely quickly. Why is that? Our Managing Editor, Max Rieper, had pre-written it, as is relatively common when there’s expected news (I myself did this for our article about the Royals’ selection of Bobby Witt with the second overall pick this year).

What is not common is that Max wrote it in November. Last November. You know, when the Royals hired Matheny as a special advisor, a similar position to the one that Ned Yost occupied before he ascended to the manager spot in 2010.

Matheny was the Royals’ first choice, and vice versa. If I were to translate Moore’s comments from GM Speak to English, I think he was trying to say that the Royals were deliberate and thorough. This much is true, as the managerial opening has been open for more than a month. Moore wanted to do his due diligence in selecting the right guy and wanted to make sure, much like an organ transplant, Matheny would take, both with new ownership and with the rest of the team. Ultimately, Moore received the approval of current and future ownership to pull the trigger.

The internet’s reaction to the signing—well, at least Twitter—has been overwhelmingly negative. That’s because there’s a lot of criticisms orbiting Matheny, who was canned by the St. Louis Cardinals last July.

With that being said, I’m not sure that a lot of these criticisms are unique to Matheny. And, furthermore, they probably don’t matter as much even if they do, for the following reasons:

  • Managers aren’t nearly as important as you think
  • Almost every manager takes a more-or-less identical approach to most in-game situations
  • Pretty much every great pro sports coach was fired earlier in their career

To cover the first point: managers just aren’t a big impact on the overall health of an organization. Managers don’t draft players, make trades, develop players in the minor leagues, scout, hire front office staff, sign players, determine payroll, or handle minor league player promotion. Baseball teams are gargantuan organizations, and a big league manager, by definition, only has a small kingdom over which they can rule. General managers have an exponentially larger impact on an organization.

To cover the second point: do some managers do things differently? Of course. But 75% of all managerial decisions will happen the same no matter if you have Terry Francona or Ferry Trancona. Got an exhausted right-handed starter nursing a small lead and runners on base with a left-handed power hitter coming up? Every manager will bring in their lefty specialist if they have a good one. In addition, every manager makes decisions that look like mistakes in hindsight. Every one. Baseball is mean.

To cover the third, and most important, point: Terry Francona, Joe Maddon, and Joe Girardi are all World Series-winning managers that got fired and then immediately snatched up by other teams. Ned Yost, Tony La Russa, and Joe Torre were fired in previous manager positions and went on to win a World Series with other teams. Bad coaches are fired all the time. Good coaches, however, are also fired all the time. They all make mistakes.

Matheny certainly did make mistakes, enough to be fired from an organization despite a track record of winning. Indeed, his handling of Dexter Fowler and the Bud Norris/Jordan Hicks situation is a sizable black spot on his record—a black spot that deserves its own deep dive. Without going into that deep dive right now, those concerns are warranted.

However, while Matheny’s press conference was interesting, what came after behind closed doors to the daily beat reporters was truly interesting. Of particular interest, as relayed by Jeffrey Flanagan, is a stark awareness on Matheny’s part in regards to the mistakes and weaknesses that led to his departure from St. Louis (emphasis mine):

“I made no bones about it [last year] with Dayton that, ‘Hey, I’m meant to manage again. I love managing,’” Matheny said. “And I had enough conversations with other people in the league that there might be other opportunities, but they are rare and they are fleeting. You can become irrelevant. So it comes back to what can I do to get better to keep myself relevant, in case I get another chance.

This is a really fascinating statement because Matheny is brutally honest about the rarity of managerial openings (and by extension the amount of qualified candidates for those openings), the fact that he might not get another chance, and that he needed to actively make changes to his approach to stick if he ever became a manager again.

We actually have evidence that Matheny was proactive about addressing one of the core criticisms of his approach, that of his old-school, anti-analytics approach. Through no direction of the Royals, Matheny took a baseball analytics class offered by the organization Sports Management Worldwide. In his press conference, he went out of his way to mention Dr. Daniel Mack of the analytics staff by name and praised their work.

It’s fair to wonder about the opportunity cost here. There are no shortage of qualified candidates without Matheny’s baggage. Some, like Raul Ibanez, are bilingual and well-respected already around the league. Perhaps Pedro Grifol would be a better choice.

However, we don’t know that. We don’t know what Ibanez or Grifol or Carlos Beltran or whoever would be like as a manager. We can guess, but we don’t know. And in Matheny’s case, I’d argue that we also don’t really know. Not as much as we think.

As much as it’s difficult to exercise empathy for a millionaire in one of the most exclusives jobs on the planet, Mike Matheny is still a human being. Getting fired is awful no matter who you are. That Matheny would want to be better after a very public failure is human nature. The Royals have had a year to make sense of whether or not a new Matheny would be a good fit, and by all accounts it seems mutual. Matheny’s just not as sure of a thing as we think he is.