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Is it time for a change?

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The natives are restless

Chicago White Sox v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

There has been a lot of clamoring in recent weeks in Royals Nation, wanting changes made to the operation of the Royals. Firing the manager seems to have the most traction, though jettisoning some of the overpaid, under-performing free agents in favor of the kids in Omaha draws a close second. I don’t intend for this to be a “let’s get the pitchforks and fire someone” type of screed, but more of an analytical look at the history and the numbers. Let’s take a closer look at this and try to work through and see if in fact some changes would be beneficial.

Recently I bought a 12-pack of the new orange-vanilla Coca Cola. I love Classic Coke and I love Cherry-Vanilla Coke. I’ve been a hard-core Coca Cola addict (yes, that’s an accurate description) since I was weaned from my mother, and had she given me the choice then, I might have selected Atlanta’s finest, thank you very much. But this orange-vanilla stuff is absolutely awful. It’s got the taste and aftertaste of a very bad cough syrup. I’d drink from a Paris sewer before I’d try the orange-vanilla swill again. I gagged down half a can, dumped the remainder in the sink, packed up the 11 unopened cans and left them in a friend’s garage. One of these days he’ll happen upon them, wondering how the hell did 11 cans of orange-vanilla coke end up in his garage. I wish him well.

The moral of this story is that back in April of 1985, Coca Cola announced plans to replace their classic Coke formula with something called “New Coke”. Coke and Pepsi had been battling it out for cola supremacy for several decades and the honcho’s in the Coca Cola home office were certain that this change would be the one that would permanently propel them past Pepsi.

It didn’t. In fact, New Coke was an abysmal failure. One of my favorite writer’s, John Coit, accurately called the New Coke: Sugar Plum Fairy Gag Juice. And it was. It was a poor imitation of Pepsi. Coca Cola addicts worldwide revolted. Sales plummeted. By July, the big shots in Atlanta admitted that, yes, they had been wrong, and they were bringing back the old Coke formula, which henceforth would be known as Coke Classic. I’d only felt that kind of jubilation when my children were born, when the Royals won the World Series and when Elliott Spitzer got busted with a call girl. The point being, just making a change for change sake can sometime backfire.

Ownership

Let’s look at the current mess that is the Royals, starting at the top. David Glass has owned the Royals since April of 2000, when he purchased the team from the Kauffman estate for $96 million. To his credit, Glass was the only credible bidder who made a commitment to keeping the team in Kansas City. During the 20 seasons of Glass’ ownership tenure, the Royals have enjoyed four winning seasons. Four. 2003, 2013, 2014 and 2015. The team has made the playoffs twice and has gone to two World Series, winning in 2015.

When Glass bought the team, he was quoted as saying, “I think we can get back to the postseason fairly rapidly. I am very competitive and despise losing. I would work very hard to make sure we have a team in Kansas City that is competitive, that is fun to watch. The fun goes out when you lose all the time.” If that is in fact, how David Glass feels, he must be miserable, because the Royals are 1,392 and 1,751 during his tenure. That’s a .443 win-percentage. And it only took them 14 seasons to get back to the postseason! Outstanding!

The team’s founder and original owner, Ewing Kauffman, owned the team solely or in majority (a few short years of splitting ownership with Avron Fogelman) from its inception. For this purpose, we’ll count the games from the Royals debut in April of 1969 through the end of the 1993 season. Kauffman passed away in August of 1993. During the 25 seasons under Ewing Kauffman, the Royals posted a 2,059-1,921 record. That comes out to a .517 win-percentage. Under Mr. K, it took the Royals eight seasons to make the postseason, and that was with having to start at ground zero as a new franchise and when there were only two American League teams that made the playoffs each year. Had something like today's wildcard been in effect, the Royals would have made the playoffs in 1971, their third season in existence.

Upon Kauffman’s death, the team was given to the Greater Kansas City Foundation and ran by a board of directors. That stretch included the 1994 to 1999 seasons. During that time, the Royals went 412-491 for a .456 win-percentage. Somewhat unbelievably, the team performed better under a board of directors than under David Glass. It’s one thing to look at the hard numbers. It’s also important to remember that the Royals were Ewing Kauffman’s baby and he did almost everything in his power to help them win. He spent money when he had it. He was an early adapter of analytics before anyone in baseball paid attention to such stuff. He recognized that Latin America was an untapped baseball hotbed and poured resources into it long before other teams followed. He, with help from Syd Thrift and Cedric Tallis, formed the Royals Baseball Academy to develop raw athletes into baseball players. And he spent liberally on the Royals farm system.

Where has David Glass gone wrong? Has he hired the wrong people? Has baseball changed so much from the Kauffman era, that it’s difficult for small market teams to compete? Depending on how you measure a “small market”, a quick glance at past World Series winners reveals that other than the Royals, the only other small market team to win the Series in the 2000’s would be the other Missouri team, which won in 2006 and 2011.

I haven’t seen the numbers, but my guess is that Glass is running an operating deficit on the current season and probably for 2018 as well. The fans vote with their feet and with the cost of attending a game (tickets, concessions, parking) plus competition from other entertainment choices, fans are telling Mr. Glass that they prefer not to watch a wretched product.

If David Glass wants to make money, he needs to draw fans to the ballpark. If he wants to draw fans to the ballpark, he best commit to putting a better product on the field. I once read a suggestion that if an owner can’t put a winning team on the field or the court within a certain timeline (5 years? 10 years?) the league should force him to sell. The idea makes some sense until you factor in how many people in the United States are rich enough to play this game? Not all billionaires want to own a sports franchise. Some prefer to spend their time and money buying yachts, spaceships, trophy wives or trying to overthrow presidents.

Front office

It’s difficult to gauge the success of a General Manager. Do you measure wins and losses? A foundation laid for the farm system through successful drafting? One GM may reap the benefit or the blame after inheriting the work of a prior administration. The early GM’s – Cedric Tallis, Joe Burke and John Schuerholz – all had the benefit of working under Ewing Kauffman. Herk Robinson mostly toiled under the Board, while Allard Baird and Dayton Moore have worked under David Glass. Tallis had the disadvantage of starting from scratch, and he did a bang up job, building a farm system, a scouting department and as I mentioned earlier, fleeced several teams by basically trading spare parts (York, Clemons, Johnson, Campanis, Foy) for some of the greatest Royals to play the game (Otis, Patek & Mayberry, just to name a few). He also drafted George Brett. Under Tallis, the Royals won at a .480 clip and enjoyed two winning seasons in his five- and one-half seasons on the job.

Burke was fortunate to inherit a good situation from Tallis and to his credit, he continued the run of success. Burke’s teams won at a .556 clip, by far and away the best win percentage of any Royal General Manager. Royal teams enjoyed six winning seasons under Burke, including four trips to the playoffs and the teams first World Series appearance.

John Schuerholz took over from Burke in April of 1982 and his teams won at a .518 clip. The Royals enjoyed six winning seasons with Schuerholz and made the playoffs twice and won the franchise’s first World Series in 1985.

Then things started to slide. Herk Robinson took the GM reigns when Schuerholz bolted for Atlanta. Under Robinson, the team only had three winning seasons and those were the first and third and fourth years of his tenure.

Allard Baird succeeded Robinson in June of 2000 and things got ugly. Baird’s teams won at a .398 clip with the magical 2003 season being the only winning season in his years as GM. The team lost 100 games for the first time ever in 2002 and to prove that wasn’t a fluke, they lost at least 100 games in 2004, 2005 and 2006. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that was some ugly baseball. Outfielders had catchable fly balls drop in front of them. First basemen got hit in the back with relay throws. Jermaine Dye, Johnny Damon and Carlos Beltran were shipped out of town in disappointing trades that crippled the franchise. The farm system fell into disrepair. It felt like the Dark Ages of baseball in Kansas City.

Glass eventually fired Baird in May of 2006 and replaced him with Dayton Moore, who had been in the Atlanta organization. When Moore was hired, I thought that this would be the guy to turn the franchise around and bring back the winning ways that the older generation of fans had grown accustomed to. It happened, eventually, for a short period of time. Moore, who looks and talks the part, made appeals to be patient while the “process” took hold. The Royals, and their fans, labored under six-and-a-half more losing seasons before the team broke through and recorded a winning record in 2013. They followed that up with two more winning seasons, including consecutive playoff berths and another World Series championship.

Then the wheels fell off. The 2018 team lost 104 games and the 2019 team may challenge the 2005 team for the most losses in club history. The crazy thing is, the 2019 team is much better than the 2005 team. The ’05 team had David DeJesus, an aging Mike Sweeney and a roster that looked like it was pulled from a recreational softball league. The pitching staff had a young Zack Greinke who went 5-17 which was enough to almost make him quit the game. That kind of failure can break a player and Greinke had yet to develop the maturity or mental toughness to handle it. This year’s team has some nice foundational pieces, guys like Whit, Mondesi, Dozier, Nicky Lopez and O’Hearn. The pitching staff has some promising arms. I’d take the 2019 team over the 2005 team any day of the week. The fact that this team may challenge the all-time loss record is ludicrous. These guys are not THAT bad!

Moore’s teams have won at a .461 clip, which puts him in the same strata as Herk Robinson. The Royals have had three winning seasons and nine losing seasons during Moore’s complete year tenure. A string of bad drafts and some questionable trades depleted the farm system. Moore is now asking for more patience while the “Process II” takes hold.

Scouting and player development

I’m not qualified to address this area. But I’ll just leave this out there: The Royals have drafted two Hall of Fame players in their 51-year history. Two. George Brett and Carlos Beltran. Yeah, I know that Beltran hasn’t officially gone into the Hall, but he will. I doubt he’ll go in wearing a Royal cap, though he did enjoy his second longest tenure with Kansas City, having appeared in only 44 more games with the New York Mets. I

’ll also say this: I believe that evaluating baseball talent is the hardest of any of the major sports. Hockey is the only major sport that comes close to the difficulty of player evaluation. Football and basketball look like slam dunks next to baseball. How else do you explain a generational talent like Albert Pujols lasting into the 13th round? How do you explain 24 teams passing on Mike Trout? Basketball evaluation is probably the easiest. Everyone and their mother could tell that Darko Milicic was not a player, but that didn’t stop the Pistons from drafting him with the second overall pick, ahead of Dwayne Wade, who was a ballplayer. Bobby Witt Jr.? He looks good on film. Will Bobby Witt Jr. be the next Mike Trout or the next Bubba Starling? Time will tell.

And that statement may be unfair to Bubba, as he should be in Kansas City already. He’s having a terrific season at Omaha and I hope the kid duplicates that success with the Royals. Given his journey, he deserves it and the fans would love to see him have success at the big-league level. Why Moore insists on running out Billy Hamilton every day over Bubba is exasperating.

Managers

There’s an old saying about managers that goes like this: Managers don’t win many games, but they lose a hell of a lot of them. It helps to have talent. When you’ve got a batting order of Patek, White, Brett, Mayberry, Porter, Otis and Cowens with guys like Busby, Splittorff, Gura and Leonard on the mound, you can cover up a lot of managerial mistakes.

The same can be said for the lineup of Hosmer, Cain, Gordon, Moustakas, Morales and Perez. If you can get six innings from your starter then roll out some combination of Hochever, Herrera, Davis and Holland, you can sit back, let them play the game and look like a genius. If your order looks like Buck, Stairs, Gotay, Berroa, Teahen and Long with Jose Lima on the mound….well, even Joe Madden couldn’t get that dog to hunt.

In the history of the Kansas City Royals, there are only six managers who have had winning records (not counting interim managers). Those six all managed in a span between 1973 and 1994, which can now conclusively be termed the Golden Years of the Kansas City Royals. Jack McKeon started it off in 1973 and went 215-205 (.512) before giving way to Whitey Herzog who went 410-304 (.574). Jim Frey followed Herzog with a 127-105 (.547) effort before being replaced by Dick Howser who managed the club to a 404-365 (.525) mark. John Wathan came next and guided the club to a respectable 287-270 (.515) mark before being replaced by former teammate Hal McRae who willed his teams to a 286-277 record (.508).

That’s all folks. That’s the entire list of Kansas City baseball managers who have compiled winning records. The next highest win percentage belongs to Bob Lemon who took a ragtag bunch of expansion draft choices, washed up castoffs and street free agents to a 207-218 (.487) mark between 1970 and 1972, thus laying the framework for the Golden Years run between 1973 and 1994.

Ned Yost? As of this writing, Ned has won a club record 707 games in Kansas City. He’s also lost 781. That’s a .475-win percentage, slightly lower than what he had in Milwaukee. He has guided the team to three winning seasons and one World Championship, though as I said earlier, the 2014-2015 Royals were arguably the finest collection of talent to ever grace the K. Ned’s bullpen management (or lack thereof) and his propensity to bunt with a man on second and nobody out has driven me slightly batty over the years. He sometimes gives the impression of being slightly detached and clueless and has a habit of pulling his pitchers one or two batters too late, but I digress. If you’ve watched the Royals during his tenure, you know what I am talking about.

Conclusion

Is it time for Glass to make some changes? Do you fire Yost and replace him with Matheny? How about Moore? I do believe that managers and General Managers come with a shelf life. I believe it’s good to change the sheets every now and then to keep things fresh. I think the Royals are at that point. Glass needs to step up and change the direction of the franchise. Moore and Yost have had their time and that time has passed.

This team looks like they have quit on Yost and that is unfortunate. Ned has dedicated ten years to the Royals and deserves better, but as Bill Parcells so famously said, you are what your record says you are, and Ned’s record shows he’s a .476 manager.

If Moore is replaced, you also must take a serious look at the entire scouting department. I do believe the recent shift to drafting college talent makes some sense, but do you have any confidence that this regime can find the next George Brett or the next Bret Saberhagen? I don’t. It’s time.