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Mike Matheny might be the analytics-minded manager we’ve been waiting for

The Royals may be going new school.

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MLB: Kansas City Royals-Workouts Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

When the Royals hired Mike Matheny to be their new manager last winter, some fans were more than a bit skeptical. Despite winning a pennant in St. Louis and enjoying winning records in each of his six full seasons with the Cardinals, Matheny had a fair number of criticisms of his strategies and was fired midway through the 2018 season amid allegations he had condoned hazing of a rookie player and had a tense clubhouse with icy relationships with key players. He was far from a progressive manager in St. Louis, using rigid conventional bullpen roles, relying on small sample sizes to inform his lineups, and ranking last among active managers in Baseball Prospectus’ Reliever Management metric.

When he was introduced to Kansas City media and fans in the fall of 2019, Matheny showed humility and said all the right things. He acknowledged his missteps in St. Louis and spoke of the changes he had made since his dismissal, including lessons on working with the media, and learning from an online analytics course. He said he was “fascinated” by analytics and had spent time learning from the analytical team working for the Royals.

It has only been a few games, but it appears that Mike Matheny wasn’t just giving lip service to analytics. We saw it on Opening Day on Friday. Danny Duffy had pitched well, tossing four shutout innings before running into some trouble in the fifth. He hit a batter, then after inducing a pop out, allowed a single to Roberto Perez. Duffy had only thrown 65 pitches and it was a 0-0 game, but Matheny took no chances, pulling Duffy for reliever Scott Barlow to face the top of the lineup.

Barlow would get the ground balls Matheny wanted, but two of them found holes for hits, allowing two runs to score and ultimately deciding the game. While the outcome may not have been what Royals fans wanted, the reasoning behind the move made sense. Here is Matheny’s explanation;

“We’re looking at most likely not having Danny once you get to the top of the order,” Matheny said. “There’s a good chance he’s not going to see them for the third time through.

“We got one of our better right-handed relievers hot, and it’s a tough guy to roll up in a double play, but we’ll take our chances there. We got the ground ball from Barlow, but unfortunately, it didn’t work out.”

He goes into more detail here:

Matheny didn’t want Danny Duffy to face the top of the Indians lineup a third time through. He knew he had a deep bullpen on Opening Day, and with a shortened season, he felt a sense of urgency to win every game early that they could.

The analytics back up his reasoning. It has been known for years that starting pitchers fare worse the more times a lineup sees them. Here’s how all MLB starting pitchers fared last year going through the lineup.

Pitchers facing lineups

Time through the lineup BA OBA SLG
Time through the lineup BA OBA SLG
1st time .245 .311 .419
2nd time .261 .324 .452
3rd time .269 .330 .474

Meanwhile, opposing batters hit just .247/.327/.423 against the average MLB reliever in 2019. Bringing in a fresh arm makes it harder for the lineup. This is why in the post-season, teams pull any non-elite starting pitcher after just a few innings. When a game becomes a must-win game, you pull out all the stops and bring in a fresh arm.

It didn’t quite work out on Friday - although had the ball been hit a foot to the left it would have been a double play - but the logic was sound. Analytics does not ensure that every outcome will work out. For example, the chopper hit by Oscar Mercado would have been an out had Adalberto Mondesi been stationed where a shortstop is normally stationed. The shift will cost you at times. But over time, it will get you more extra outs than it costs you.

The Royals tried shifts in 2018, when Ned Yost knew it was a rebuilding season and was more open to trying new things. But the next season he was through with the experiment. Matheny seems to bringing the shift back, and in more creative ways. Take a look at the defensive alignment they used against Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera.

The Royals also talked about being creative with their pitching staff, and have certainly followed through on that in the first week. Their hand may have been forced a bit when Brad Keller and Jakob Junis both had to begin the season on the Injured List following positive tests for COVID-19, but Matheny deserves credit for his flexibility and creativity to fill the void. The “bullpen day” on Sunday didn’t quite work out, although a lot of that was due to sloppy defensive work and the mounting evidence that Jorge López is not a Major League-quality pitcher. But his willingness to try out many different arms instead of giving someone a traditional start is innovating thinking that could serve the Royals well in the long-term.

What has worked already is Matheny’s flexibility in using relievers in whatever role is needed. While “HDH” might have worked for Ned Yost, that rigidity to adhering to bullpen roles may not work if the lead is lost in the fifth or sixth inning. Matheny is not afraid to use Ian Kennedy, last year’s closer, in the sixth inning. Or Scott Barlow, last year’s setup man, in the fifth. Trevor Rosenthal and Greg Holland, both experienced closers, may be asked to pitch out of jams early in the ballgame, or in tie situations.

Then there’s the lineup. Conventional wisdom has typically had the #2 spot in the lineup occupied by a light-hitting infielder who can run a bit and bunt guys over. But those in analytics, like Tom Tango, who wrote The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, argues that your best hitter should hit in the #2 spot, to get them more plate appearances.

Matheny seems to agree, moving Soler up in the lineup to the #2 spot, behind Whit Merrifield.

We’ll see if the Royals score 14 runs every night with that configuration, but it makes sense to get the reigning home run champ as many plate appearances as you can.

Not every move has been based in analytics. Matheny had Erick Mejia bunt in the tenth inning of Saturday’s game to advance automatic pinch-runner Brett Phillips. It was a move that worked - the Royals scored on a sacrifice fly by Maikel Franco and won the game - although analytics would suggest bunting in that situation, particularly on the road, is not worth it.

But overall, while you may not always agree with Matheny’s decisions, you can understand his logic. Ultimately, the new skipper will have to be judged on results, and not processes, but the early indications are that he is an open-minded manager who is willing to try anything if it works. The 2020 season is the perfect time for the Royals to be creative and be willing to try different strategies. Baseball has a long history of players and managers who have reinvented themselves. Perhaps Mike Matheny has become a totally different manager than he was in St. Louis, and the Royals finally have the analytics-minded skipper some fans have wanted for years.