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Hok Talk: I was wrong about Mike Matheny

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So far he seems like a perfectly cromulent manager.

Mike Matheny walking toward the mound during a Royals game Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images

Like many Royals fans, I was incredibly displeased when the team chose to move Mike Matheny into the manager’s role following Ned Yost’s retirement. This Ringer article pretty well sums up all of the complaints about Matheny’s tenure with the St. Louis Cardinals. Of particular importance to me was the bullying of Jordan Hicks that, depending on who you asked, was permitted or encouraged by Matheny. The one thing that worried me more than those reports was how Matheny responded to them; he denied the accuracy of reports despite evidence to the contrary and complained that today’s ballplayers were soft. These were not the actions or words of the kind of man I felt comfortable rooting for, much less one who seemed likely to get the team to follow him.

When announcing the decision, Dayton Moore and other members of the Royals franchise insisted Matheny was changed. Matheny himself insisted he was changed. Several members of the media insisted he had probably changed. I didn’t believe any of them.

I believe them, now.

Matheny has only managed the team through 83 games, or about half of a regular season. Still, the difference between who he allegedly was and the man he now appears to be is so different that no other conclusion seems possible. This is evident in everything from how he greets players at the end of a game to how he manages the bullpen.

Unlike many, I grew to appreciate Ned Yost as a manager before the end of his tenure with the Royals. He was never very good with the tactics of baseball, but he was good at the people side of things. He always - always - stood up for his players, and speaking as a person who has had many bosses in my life, that sort of thing encourages people to keep trying when giving up seems easier. He didn’t always put the players in the best position to win, but he always put them in the best attitude to win, and that counts for something. Mike Matheny seems to be doing that and more.

Stat-heads and sabermetricians have been calling for bullpen usage reliant more on game situations than innings for years. The problem, we have always been told, is getting the members of the bullpen to buy into it. Running a bullpen that way isn’t just more challenging for the manager; it’s harder for the relievers. They have to be willing and able to come in at any time of the game instead of preparing for specific situations in specific innings. For the Royals to be using that strategy - and they seem to be even after Josh Staumont started regularly closing games out in the last week - requires Matheny’s people skills and tactical skills to be on point. He has to first convince the pitchers that this is the best way to do things and that the extra effort is worth the results. Then he has to know which guys to call in on a given night, and he has to determine which spots they’re best suited for.

The result is that the Royals have the sixth-best ratio of blown saves compared to holds and saves in major league baseball. They are tied for fourth in total Shutdown appearances by their bullpen (FanGraphs defines this stat as one in which a reliever appears and contributes 6% or more to the team’s win expectancy), and they are in seventh overall for the ratio of Shutdowns to Meltdowns. And of their 13 total Meltdowns (The same thing as a Shutdown but -6%), two belonged to the injured Jesse Hahn, two to probable-AAAA pitcher Jake Newberry, and one each to long relievers Carlos Hernandez and Ervin Santana. Scott Barlow, Kyle Zimmer, Greg Holland, and Josh Staumont all have at least four Shutdowns per Meltdown. That’s a ratio with which one can live.

If young guys were getting bullied down in the bullpen or veterans thought he wouldn’t defend them if the new strategy resulted in a blown game, it probably wouldn’t be happening. It definitely wouldn’t be working as well as it has been. Matheny seems to have shown a deft hand with his lineup management, as well. It seems to me that he’s moved guys in appropriate ways at appropriate times. I think Carlos Santana hitting in the two-hole is brilliant, but I suspect another manager would have seen Andrew Benintendi’s improving numbers and tried to revert things to how they were at the beginning of the year by now.

It’s also nice to see Mike giving guys hugs - at least the ones who want them - as they return to the dugout. Hugs are good. We all need more hugs in our lives from people we want hugs from.

Things are about to get bumpy

The Royals may have benefited to start the year with the teams they faced being short-handed or not very talented. As they enter May, that luck seems to be running out. By the time you read this, they will have already started a three-game set with the Twins. Next, they’ll host Cleveland for four games and then the White Sox for another three before they get their next day off. After that, they’ll face the Tigers again, but more games against the Twins, Rays, White Sox, and Brewers loom before this month is through.

This is, I think, the first opportunity to see whether these Royals are more like the 2015 or 2003 squads. If they hit a nasty losing streak or a stretch of multiple losses interspersed with individual wins, they’ll be relegated to fluke status. If they escape this month without losing more than they won in April, we will still have to wonder if they can rev things up. If they can post a winning May, pretty much everyone will have to admit that the team looks like a real contender even if they’re far from being locks.