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Mike Matheny is falling into the same habits that got him fired in St. Louis

Is it time for a fresh voice?

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Kansas City Royals v Los Angeles Angels Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

When the Royals initially hired Mike Matheny, fans had some reservations despite a glossy résumé that included six winning seasons, four playoff appearances, a .555 winning percentage, and a National League pennant with the Cardinals. The reasons for concern were how he had taken a very successful franchise and overseen its decline, with his winning percentage dropping in each of his final four seasons in St. Louis. Even more concerning were how things deteriorated in St. Louis. Matheny was resistant to analytics, combative with the media, distant with his players, and oversaw a tense clubhouse that included a story of player hazing that ultimately led to Matheny’s firing.

To his credit, Matheny acknowledged a lot of his errors in St. Louis and worked to improve himself as a manager. He took an online course on analytics and worked to improve his media relations. He appeared humble and contrite in his opening press conference with the Royals, expressing a willingness to learn.

In some respects, Matheny has been the manager we heard from in that press conference. While he won’t be mistaken for the most analytically-minded manager in the game, he has been willing to ditch rigid bullpen roles for more fluid management of his relievers and has pulled starting pitchers before they face a lineup the third time. While his hitters do sometimes bunt, the Royals have just six sacrifice hits all year, right at league average. He has not adhered to conventional lineup construction, sometimes putting sluggers like Jorge Soler in the #2 hole where they can get on base and create runs.

But in year three under Matheny, the team continues to lose, and in fact they are on pace to have by far their worst season under the skipper. The losing has taken a toll on everyone, but it has also begun to expose some of the problems Matheny had in St. Louis.

Loyalty to veterans over young players

A common complaint about Matheny’s time in St. Louis is that he did not trust his young players, yanking them from the starting lineup at the first sign of trouble, while sticking with a struggling veteran no matter how he was performing, creating a double standard. That has begun to carry over to Kansas City, with Matheny penciling in Whit Merrifield in his lineup literally every single game, despite the fact Merrifield has the fifth-worst wRC+ among all qualified hitters. He kept Carlos Santana in the lineup despite his struggles, and that was rewarded as Santana bounced back and the Royals were able to receive two pitchers in a trade for him.

But that has come at the expense of the development and evaluation of younger players. Kyle Isbel, a promising 25-year-old outfielder, has been in the starting lineup for just 26 of the 63 games he has been on the active roster. Edward Olivares, a 26-year-old outfielder, has started 12 of 30 games. Perhaps management is overruling his lineup decisions, or perhaps the roster construction makes it hard to play youngsters - veteran outfielders Andrew Benintendi, Michael A. Taylor, and Hunter Dozier have hit well this year. But the main priority this season should be developing the future, not winning games with veterans this year.

Bullpen usage

There is no pretending this is anything close to the HDH that dominated in Kansas City in 2014-2015, Casey Stengel himself would likely struggle to use this bullpen. The issue with Matheny is not so much mismanaging the bullpen to lose games - the relievers themselves aren’t executing. The problem is mismanaging them to cause their arms to fall off.

In St. Louis, Matheny was accused of overusing his bullpen in an attempt to chase each win. This made a bit more sense with the Cardinals, who were in a pennant race. As Matheny put it, “wins are so hard to come by that you can’t hold something back for tomorrow and what might be.”

But these Royals are 20 games under .500, and yet they lead the league in reliever usage on zero days’ rest. Some of that is by necessity with Royals starters failing to go deep in games. But there are nine teams that get fewer innings-per-start from their starters than the Royals. The Royals have three pitchers among the top 30 in most appearances with zero day’s rest - Josh Staumont, Collin Snider, and Dylan Coleman.

Again, some of this may be out of necessity, as Royals starting pitchers have struggled with consistency. But there is a “win every game” mentality that Matheny brings that could be damaging long-term to some of the arms.

Clubhouse tensions

The losses in St. Louis were one thing, but what really fueled his dismissal was an icy clubhouse filled with tension. Matheny reportedly did not talk to outfielder Dexter Fowler for months, and he held a series of “raw” conversations with players in spring training in 2016 to address a “palpable unease around the clubhouse.”

That clubhouse vibe has begun to infect the Royals, according to some recent reports. New York Post reporter Joel Sherman wrote that “opposing executives/scouts have reported a bad vibe around the team.” Royals insider Josh Vernier at 610 Sports recently commented that he has “never really been in a professional clubhouse as quiet, as tense from day one until here, game #71. I’ve never really been in a clubhouse like this.” He added that Matheny called his team a quiet bunch, and that “outside of Salvador Perez there is not much chatter in that dugout.”

Even Dayton Moore recently acknowledged the tensions.

Losing stinks, there is no getting around that. And it is difficult to have a loose clubhouse when a team is losing. But when the Royals were developing the core of what would be their championship club they lost a lot of games, yet still had a loose, fun bunch of guys with veteran Jeff Francoeur bringing along rookies like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, and Lorenzo Cain. In this clubhouse, the losing is getting to the players with Vernier reporting that Whit Merrifield told him that “this has been the toughest season of his career, not physically, but mentally,” and that “it’s not easy being on one of the worst baseball teams every...single....season.”

To his credit, Matheny has seemed to acknowledge the lack of enthusiasm on his team. In a recent series with the Blue Jays, he noted the difference between the two dugouts.

He glanced at the opposing dugout and referenced a patented vibe the Blue Jays show up with: fun. Matheny posed two questions: “Does that come from winning? Or does winning become a byproduct?”

But his remedy was to tell the players to keep their chin up and to not forget to smile every day. Perhaps the clubhouse vibe can only change organically, with leaders on the team taking it upon themselves to improve the mood. Perhaps the vibe can only improve with more wins in the standings. But Matheny’s leadership may be a contributing factor as well, and it may be time for a new voice in the dugout.