The passage of time is mostly meaningless in COVID land, but at some point in the nebulous corner of the once-normal offseason I remember recording a podcast with Max and Shaun (on Royals Review Radio; subscribe wherever you get your podcasts) and having some particularly strong thoughts about Matheny. I thought he would be an awful pick for manager, namely because of a hazing incident that happened under his watch at his previous post in St. Louis.
And though I later warmed up to the selection once it became clear that Matheny was really trying to learn and improve, and when he hit all the right notes in his press conference and shortly thereafter, it is now September and my overriding thought about Matheny now is somewhere along the lines of do I even have an opinion about Matheny?
This week, Matheny was ejected for arguing with an umpire. It happens from time to time, especially with the umpires being so awful at calling balls and strikes lately. But it was the first time that Matheny got himself ejected all year, and when it happened I did a double take because I could have sworn that Ned Yost was the Royals manager. It’s going to take time to fully internalize that Yost’s nearly decade-long run as Royals manager is over, sure, but it also highlights that Matheny has been, uh, nondescript, to say the least.
Really, what has happened this season that is obviously due to Matheny?
Early on, Matheny was more aggressive with his bullpen than Yost was, though Yost was equally aggressive with it in the playoffs. Bullpen usage also hasn’t been very different. Remember when Matheny said that there wouldn’t be many defined roles? Well, Trevor Rosenthal and Greg Holland combine for 81% of the team’s saves, and wouldn’t you know it Holland got a majority of his saves after Rosenthal was traded.
Matheny has pinch hit far more often than Yost did. But Yost’s lineups, for the most part, weren’t good fits for pinch hitting anyway. And Matheny hasn’t been particularly aggressive pinch hitting. By and large, he’s allowed players like Adalberto Mondesi to work through slumps, opting to instead pinch hit to get platoon advantages for Ryans O’Hearn and McBroom and the like.
Players seem to like Matheny. He seems to have the respect of the clubhouse, just like Yost did. There hasn’t really been any interesting or controversial stories about Matheny, either. He’s just sort of...been there. But that we can go through an entire season (albeit a 60-game season, but a season nonetheless) with a new manager is evident of, I think, two things.
First, it is evidence that most managers make similar decisions. Yeah, different managers will make different individual decisions, but by and large managers do the same things: they put their best players at the top of a lineup, they pinch hit and pinch run when it’s advantageous, they use their most trusted bullpen arms in the tightest spots.
Second, it is evidence that managers are mostly immaterial when their team is so bad. Matheny was given a team fresh off back-to-back 100-loss seasons, and this year’s team has played at a 95-loss pace. Matheny can’t fix that the Royals have too many bad players, and choosing between Jake Newberry, Matt Harvey, Ian Kennedy, Randy Rosario, and Glenn Sparkman is a little like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. With no stakes, it is nonsensical to criticize Matheny for the things you would if the team was good.
In other words, Kansas City’s problems and the solutions to those problems have nothing whatsoever to do with Matheny: they need more talent, and he cannot conjure that himself. It’s nice to see that Matheny has presented himself well and has made no gaffes, major or minor. As a result, the Mike Matheny Era has been rather boring this year, but considering the state of the team when he got here that is not a bad thing at all.