When Mike Matheny was hired to replace Ned Yost in the dugout, it was not without controversy. The former pennant-winning manager of the Cardinals won 55 percent of his games in St. Louis, but it ended poorly with claims of clubhouse dissension and an alleged hazing incident.
Matheny came to Kansas City looking to learn from some of his mistakes in St. Louis and talked about learning analytics, building relationships with players, and having a better rapport with the media. Let’s take a look at how he’s done.
Matheny has taken a more analytical approach to building a lineup, frequently batting slow-footed Carlos Santana in the #2 hole because of his high on-base percentage. The Royals lead all of baseball in on-base percentage from the #2 spot in the order, giving more RBI opportunities for the middle-of-the-order hitters.
He has been unafraid to tinker, dropping slumping hitters like Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier lower in the lineup, and dropping Andrew Benintendi down when he wasn’t hitting, and putting him back up in the lineup when he was. That can be a good or bad thing depending on your perspective. Some would say that dropping a slumping hitter in the lineup can take the pressure off, or if you’re concerned about a long-term slump, it can put more productive hitters at the top of the order. Others might argue it is a gambler’s fallacy - placing too much importance on recent events as predictive of future events.
Matheny has also used the positional versatility on his team to cover injuries and keep players fresh. Hunter Dozier has played 23 games at third and 9 in right field. Jorge Soler has spent 23 games in right field. Matheny has rested Salvador Perez often, giving him nine starts at DH so far this year. Overall, the lineup is averaging 4.1 runs-per-game, ninth-best in the American League, and just below the league average of 4.41 runs-per-game.
Handling the pitching staff
The Royals were hoping a crop of young pitchers combined with some solid veterans would give them a much-improved pitching staff. That hasn’t quite materialized, as Brad Keller has gotten off to a poor start, Daniel Lynch looked overmatched in three big league starts, and the bullpen has been exposed as being a bit thin after a couple of injuries. Overall, the pitching staff has given up 4.71 runs-per-game, fifth-worst in the American League.
Bumping Jakob Junis from the starting rotation after a hot start to add more depth to the bullpen was a bit head-scratching at the time, and it totally blew up in Matheny’s face. Lynch, who replaced Junis, was a bit of a disaster, and Junis did not transition well to the pen at all. Bumping Kris Bubic out of the rotation in spring training was a bit understandable after he struggled with his command in Arizona, but having him as a long reliever while Lynch was getting hit hard didn’t make as much sense.
Matheny has shown a lot of flexibility in handling the bullpen, not adhering to rigid roles as Ned Yost did. Greg Holland began the season getting save situations, but Matheny has trusted Josh Staumont more recently as Holland showed his age. Matheny did get some criticism for his handling of the pen over the weekend against the White Sox, but some of that results from having some iffy options in the back of the pen, and missing guys like Jesse Hahn and Kyle Zimmer, both out with injury.
Matheny has also had a quick hook - Royals starters have thrown fewer innings than all but four clubs. But that is not without reason - Royals starters also have the fifth-worst OPS against in the American League when they face a lineup the third time. The Royals also lead the league in relief appearances on zero days rest, something that may catch up with them over the course of a long season.
Handling the clubhouse
There were many stories of a cold clubhouse with tensions in St. Louis, although some would argue those stories were overblown. Royals players have been complimentary of their skipper since Matheny was hired with no major incidents reported so far.
It is always difficult to get a sense of how a manager is respected in the clubhouse, and perhaps even moreso during a pandemic where reporters do not have the same kind of access to players that they would typically have. But in public, the players are happy saying nice things about the skipper.
“He’s been amazing ever since he’s been here,” Dozier said. “He’s really good at communicating with players. You see him in batting practice: He’s walking the outfield talking to everyone. In the locker room, he’s talking to everyone.
“And I remember when he pulled me out of the game in Chicago. He was, like, ‘Let me do this to protect you.’ He truly cares. He’s just a manager who really cares but continues to push us.”
The skipper has kept a level head, even after a long 11-game losing streak, and he was quick to defend his players after a controversial call on Sunday’s game against Chicago, putting the blame on the review system. Aside from that losing streak, the team hasn’t faced any major adversities, so perhaps he will be tested more as his tenure goes on.
The bottom line
Overall, Mike Matheny has managed the Royals to a 46-56 record in his first 102 games over 2020 and 2021, a winning percentage of .451. Last year, they improved dramatically from their 2019 record in terms of winning percentage, and despite an 11-game losing streak, they are on pace to improve again this year, although it is still very early in the season.
Matheny does not have a particularly young team, so he does not have the excuse of saying he has players that are still learning and developing. There should be a higher standard to win now than in 2018-19 when Ned Yost had a roster full of not-ready-for-prime-time players and over-the-hill veterans. But generally, Matheny seems to have the organization on the right track.
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