Unless you’ve been living under a rock you have probably heard that Ned Yost is retiring as the Royals’ manager following tomorrow’s game. Heck, even if you have been living under a rock I feel like there’s a good chance you’ve heard. So many beautiful stories have been written about him, this week. Joe Posnanski and Andy McCullough both paid tribute to the man for The Athletic. There have been more articles on Royals Review than I can count. There will probably be many more written by many other authors as the season winds to a close and baseball writers look for ways to pass the long, cold winter months.
Ned Yost has always been a polarizing figure in Kansas City. Even from the moment, he was hired. Many fans wondered at the wisdom of bringing in someone who had failed so miserably as to be fired from an otherwise playoff-bound team when he had last managed. As he finishes his final season there remain some fans convinced that if the Royals had a good manager this team would somehow be in the thick of a playoff race. But I’m not sure many in Kansas City ever actually understood the man.
People have talked about how Yost really wasn’t a good tactical manager. They’ve written about how cantankerous he could be. They’ve opined of his confounding decisions, how he was loved in Kansas City by the men who played for him, and the adversity he’s overcome. They told stories both touching and amusing. Much of the inner and outer workings of he who led the Royals as they earned their first championship in 30 years have been laid bare. Still, I think they haven’t yet covered everything.
Baseball teams hire managers to be fired. Ned Yost is the nineteenth Royals manager in club history. He will be only the sixth to cede the role voluntarily. Of the other five, two were interim managers Bob Schaeffer (twice) and John Mizerock; one was Tony Peña who almost certainly would have been fired had he remained much longer; the Royals’ first manager Joe Gordon who chose to retire at the end of his one-year contract following the 1969 season, and Dick Howser who was forced to retire by terminal brain cancer that left him too weak to continue. Despite this, it seems to me that Ned Yost understood that he was likely to be fired sooner or later better than any other manager I’ve ever seen (except perhaps Buddy “I never say it can’t get worse” Bell, but in a different way.)
I think most of us see a manager as the team’s leader. The general who commands his troops into mock battle. But Ned, at least by the time he came to Kansas City, seemed to view his job differently. He positioned himself as a shield, instead. When you watch a movie like Major League you see manager Lou Brown acting to inspire his team to success. Ned seems to have mostly left that to his players. When the team spoke of the amazing eighth inning comeback against Houston in the 2015 ALDS they didn’t talk about Ned Yost. They talked about Mike Moustakas’ fiery speech. It’s often been remarked that Jarrod Dyson, Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, and Lorenzo Cain were vocal leaders in the clubhouse. That isn’t to say that Ned didn’t lead, of course. He did make the lineup decisions and the calls to the bullpen. I’m sure he did other leaderish things, too. But even more obvious, once you look for it, is just how far he was willing to go to defend his players.
One of the more popular stories being told about Ned right now is how, early in the 2014 season, he didn’t pinch-hit for Alcides Escobar in a situation that seemed to call for it and how Yost had defended the decision by claiming to not want to get into Escobar’s dome. Most of the time that story is followed by noting that Alcides Escobar ended up winning ALCS MVP in 2015 with the implication that maybe Yost knew more than we did. But I’m more struck by Yost’s defense for what else it accomplished: it took all of the heat off of Escobar for failing to get a hit and put it onto Yost for making a terrible tactical decision.
The more I look back at Yost’s time as manager the more I see him doing that. When Ned Yost went to Aaron Crow against the Red Sox later in the season very few people talked about how Aaron Crow was a major league reliever and, as such, should be expected to get a batter out. Instead, they talked about Ned’s bizarre decision and even more bizarre defense. Many people also love to talk about Yost’s nearly-equally bizarre decision to go to Yordano Ventura in the sixth inning of the 2014 Wild Card game. One of the most telling things to me is that so many people refer to it as Yordano Ventura’s only major league relief appearance, but that’s not true. Ventura had appeared in relief earlier in the season, right before the All-Star Break. But people were so caught up in how stupid Ned was that they completely forget that. Also often lost in the mention of that decision is the fact that Kelvin Herrera, the guy everyone thought Ned should have called upon instead of Ventura, didn’t have it either. He gave up four hits, allowed his inherited runner to score, and allowed a run of his own before buckling down and pitching a scoreless seventh inning. Maybe Yost knew something about Herrera’s availability in those games that we didn’t? Or maybe it was as dumb as it looked. But either way, Yost wears all of the ignominy for those games rather than his players.
People often talk about Yost as a player’s manager. The assumption that seems paired with that is that he lets guys be relaxed and playful. For many managers, that might be all it means. But for Yost, I think it goes significantly further than that. Yost allowed the leaders to lead, too. And he did his damned best to ensure that fan and media criticism centered on him rather than his players to make things easier for them. As much credit as he gets for the first thing in that list (which probably isn’t enough) I suspect he deserves as much or more for the others. As we learned on that brisk October night in 2014, players playing their hearts out can overcome even the most unreasonable choice by the manager. Yost did everything he could to free his players’ minds so they could do just that.
Part of the reason Yost gave for his imminent retirement is that he feels the team is through the worst of the
rebuild refractory period interval of less talent. Just like he spent his entire Royals managerial career wearing it for his players he chose to return for the past two seasons to wear it for the next guy to manage the club. He’s probably right, too, in the way he means it. The prospect promotions next year should be less along the lines of Bubba Starling and Nicky Lopez and more along the lines of Brady Singer and Khalil Lee. Fans probably should expect to see losses total somewhere in the 80s or 90s rather than the 100s of the past two seasons. But in another way he’s wrong; right now the worst part of the interval of less talent seems to be the moving on of all the titanic figures from those two glorious figures, including Ned Yost.