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Hok Talk: What to make of Matheny’s “chase every win” philosophy?

Jeffrey Flanagan chimes on the skipper.

Manager Mike Matheny Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

In case you missed it, former and Kansas City Star beat writer Jeffrey Flanagan decided to go on cocktail-fueled rant last Wednesday evening. What I want to know is how come when he does it it’s considered newsworthy but when I do it the police warn me about “disturbing the peace” and “No, you can’t just ferment cigarette butts to create a smoky liqueur!” and “Seriously! Stop drinking that and absolutely stop calling it Butt Juice!”

Anyway, if you want to read what Flanny wrote, it’s here:

Now that you’ve read it, or re-read it we can get to the part where I figure out what the heck we can learn from it.

Matheny might be losing the clubhouse already

Manager Mike Matheny was widely derided around the internet when he was chosen as the successor to Ned Yost by General Manager Dayton Moore following the 2019 season. Flanagan went on record back in April that Matheny was the best choice, had always, obviously been the best choice, and that there was no reason for any of us who had a problem with the decision to complain because we had no idea what we were actually talking about. A mere three months later he’s backed off of that stance quite a bit.

Even while reiterating that he thinks Matheny is incredibly smart about baseball Flanny downgraded his optimism from “He is absolutely the right man for the job [...] He has the respect of the team.” to “Mike Matheny could still be the perfect hire.” Flanagan also noted that some of the veterans are unhappy with how Matheny is running the team, calling it a “boot camp” atmosphere and suggesting that Matheny is trying too hard to win every game. Flanny’s words even seemed prophetic when he told everyone to watch out for a rash of bullpen injuries and ineffectiveness as the season went on. The team immediately saw two games blown by previously reliable relievers Scott Barlow and Greg Holland. Kyle Zimmer and Jake Brentz had poor outings as well.

However, the take naturally leads me to the question, “Which games are you supposed to not care about?” Because that’s what it means when Flanny says that great managers know when to “let up.” I’ll be the first one to admit that no one can perform their job at 100% all of the time and among the first to defend a guy who doesn’t sprint down the line on a routine out. Still, it seems to me that there’s a difference between not riding a guy if he has a bad game and actively choosing to give up on a game by intentionally leaving a starter in too long or going to a less-used but less-talented reliever when there are other options.

Imagine Matheny using a healthy Wade Davis in the eighth inning of a one-run game instead of Kyle Zimmer or Josh Staumont who, in this scenario, are both able to go even if circumstances might not be 100% ideal. That would be managerial malpractice, wouldn’t it? It’s hard to imagine in what way Matheny is supposed to “let up” without costing the team wins it might need if it were capable of competing. There was one game earlier this year where Wade Davis was asked to come in and close it because all of the more reliable relievers were unavailable for various reasons (including having been used too much recently.) The Royals lost that game and Matheny took a ton of flak for it. Had Matheny been more hesitant to use his best relievers in the previous two games perhaps the Royals could have won that one, but that would have meant sacrificing opportunities in front of him for a potential future opportunity that may or may not have ever materialized.

Also, it’s not like the Royals have been 15 games over .500 and he’s over-reached in trying to win another game. It’s not even a team hovering around .500. The team has had four losing streaks of five games or more in the first half of the season. And they were saved from a fifth by yesterday’s rain. They’re among the worst teams in baseball. If this is what this team has looked like with Matheny trying to win so hard that he’s sacrificing future games then... woof.

I have argued and will continue to argue that Matheny’s bullpen management seems to largely represent the utilization we’d expect from someone trying to win every game. The problems that have led to Scott Barlow pitching in half of the team’s games aren’t mismanagement by Matheny, they’re lack of talent on the roster. The starters don’t get deep into games, not all of the relievers on the roster can be trusted with a close game, and the offense doesn’t hit well enough to justify using some of the weaker pitchers. If he’s overusing guys to the point of future injury then the coaching staff needs to reevaluate their process for determining who is available on a given night, but otherwise, he simply looks like a manager trying to fulfill the edict of his GM to try to compete despite his roster lacking the talent to do so.

Nobody has a clue what’s going on with Hunter Dozier or Jorge Soler

Flanagan’s rant started off, reasonably I think, by pointing out that the team’s struggles were closely tied to the inability of Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier to resume hitting well after having down years in 2020. He then asked the question, “So what’s wrong?” but he answered it by talking about Matheny’s aggressive bullpen strategy. That seems unlikely to be related to Dozier’s or Soler’s problems. An argument could be made that Dozier hasn’t been able to get comfortable in the lineup because Matheny’s attempts to chase every win have seen the versatile 29-year-old start at least four games at four different positions but he’s also gone stretches of two weeks only playing one position and his hitting didn’t improve.

We’ve heard some disturbing remarks from Royals players and coaches in the last weeks which seem to imply players are unprepared for various circumstances and/or don’t even have a starting point when trying to figure out how to improve. The fact that Flanny mentioned the struggles of those two hitters without seeming to offer anything in the way of explanation appears to reinforce what we’ve all been thinking; this team isn’t just bad, it has no idea how things might get better.

The team doesn’t leak failed negotiations

Speaking of Soler, Flanagan took a light shot at the designated hitter in mentioning that he and his agent screwed up Soler’s contract. He says, “The contract they had waiting for them...” which at first blush sounds like something from a now-defunct future but if the agent was involved in the screwup, as opposed to just Soler’s poor play, then that would seem to imply that an offer or offers were made and rejected by Soler and his negotiating team. This is actually a bit of news that makes me like Dayton Moore a little bit more. It is extremely common in sports for teams to leak a story about a greedy player when contract negotiations break down. If we can take Flanagan at his word here, that means the Royals consider themselves above such tactics. Moore is willing to take heat for appearing to have made no effort to retain a star player rather than to badmouth that player to save face in the media. It takes a certain amount of integrity to do something like that. I only wish Moore’s ability to find and develop talent for the club was anywhere near the same level.

Another thing we can take from Flanagan’s side note about Soler is further confirmation after Soler has been sitting out half the games in the last week that Soler is likely not long for this team. Flanagan has generally preferred to speak kindly of the people with the team even in his retirement so even light criticism of this kind makes me think he has reason to think the player won’t be involved in the organization for much longer.

It seems that Flanagan wanted to convey the message that Matheny’s management style is to blame for the team’s poor performance but with hope that it can improve. Instead, I think the more reasonable takeaway is that Matheny never had full support in the clubhouse, the team simply isn’t as good as the optimists wanted to think, and few if any in the organization want to take any responsibility for that fact or have any idea how to fix any of it.