After three losing seasons and a .430 winning percentage, the Royals dismissed manager Mike Matheny last season. There were whispers of a tense clubhouse vibe, and it was clear that owner John Sherman was frustrated with a failure of data analytics being absorbed by on-field staff. In his search for a new skipper, J.J. Picollo made it clear the next Royals manager would be a good communicator.
“It’s communication,” Picollo said. “It’s really knowing the heartbeat of the player, knowing what’s going on, not only on the field, but anything that might be going on off the field. Communication and an openness to where players feel comfortable. … [In-game management] has a place, and there are results that are affected by that. But having guys enjoying playing a game, knowing coaches have their back and there’s a trust there is a big factor in a player becoming who he can become.”
Quatraro was hired for his ability to collaborate, to bring in different views and integrate them into one approach. He embraces probabilistic decision-making - an approach that may not work on a game-by-game basis, but will succeed over the long-run. Quatraro was also known for a laid-back approach in his stint as bench coach with the Rays, once jokingly dubbed “the Fun Police.”
Now that he is in Kansas City, what do we make of the skipper two months into the job? On a pure wins and losses evaluation, he has been a disaster, with the second-worst record in baseball at 15-36. It’s early, but his .294 winning percentage is the 14th-worst record by any MLB manager since 1900 with at least 50 games managed - only Al Pedrique with the 2004 Diamondbacks has been worse since World War II.
But this is a team that was projected to be the worst team in the American League by ZIPS, a team that lost 97 games last year and made few significant moves to improve. Could any manager get better results from a team with the third-worst wRC+ from its hitters and the second-highest walk rate from its pitchers?
Quatraro likely won’t be judged by his wins and losses this year, but by improvement from his young players. This is a process year, not a results year. Let’s take a look at his process.
Quatraro has employed a lot of different lineups - 50 in 51 games if you’re keeping track. They have used seven different hitters in the #2 hole and nine different hitters in the cleanup spot at #4. Using lots of different lineups isn’t inherently a bad thing, and in fact, for a young, unproven team, it makes a lot of sense to try different combinations to see what clicks.
What has been a bit curious is the use of Bobby Witt Jr. in the leadoff spot 41 times this year. He certainly has the speed of a prototypical leadoff hitter, but his .265 on-base percentage and 5 percent walk rate are atypical for what teams look for in a leadoff hitter in the analytical age. The Royals are dead last in baseball in on-base percentage from their leadoff hitters at .247, which may be partly why they are fifth-worst in baseball in runs scored per game.
Perhaps there is a longer view here however, in getting Witt as many plate appearances as they can to evaluate him and get him experience. Quatraro has also recently dropped Witt in the order in the last few games, putting him in the middle of the lineup where he can drive home runs.
There is also the matter of playing time. Royals fans have been calling on the team to “play the kids”, and for the most part they have. I have written that there is some squandered playing time on guys like Matt Duffy and Jackie Bradley Jr., but that is more roster construction than lineup construction. Quatraro has sat Bobby Witt Jr. more than I would have guessed - he has only started 44 of 51 games at shortstop, a bit curious for a team trying to get improvement from the young player at the position. But he has improved his defense significantly - some credit belongs to coach José Aguacil for that - and perhaps resting Witt on occasion has helped.
Pitching staff management
The Royals’ pitching staff has been bad, but that might be because they are bad pitchers. Injuries have hurt a bit with Kris Bubic, Ryan Yarbrough, and Brad Keller all out, but all teams deal with injuries. Quatraro has had to deal with precious little depth, using bullpen games and journeymen relievers to get through nine innings at times.
Some of that is the quality of arms Quatraro inherited, but Picollo also insisted that the minor league development of the organization was good, and that the team just needed to integrate data into their coaching. It was expected that new pitching coaches Brian Sweeney and Zach Bove would be able to get pretty swift results from talented pitchers. The Royals have seen improvement in strikeout-to-walk ratio from their pitchers, a positive step for a franchise that once preached “pitch-to-contact.” But the walk rate has still been horrendous overall. For a club that preached “raid the zone” in spring training, they have the second-highest walk rate in the game.
Quatraro has been open-minded about strategies, using openers and bullpen games to manage a thin pitching staff. He has implemented the strategy Picollo talked about this off-season, extending the pitching staff by shuttling relievers up and down to play matchups in different series.
This may be the most important quality of a manager, and perhaps the most difficult to evaluate from the outside. Matheny was known for running a tense clubhouse with a “win every game” mentality that proved to be a grind over a 162-game schedule. Players have praised Quatraro’s approach, although it is still early on.
Quatraro has been criticized by some fans for being too laid back, particularly on bad calls by umpires. He has been ejected from one game, and players have said they appreciate him having their back. Still, it is clear he is not a confrontational guy that will be kicking dirt on umpires, for better or for worse.
“Look, these umpires are overwhelmingly correct,” he said. “There’s very little arguing with plays out on the field because of instant replay...“If it’s in the moment and something happens, I’m not going to back down from that, but that’s certainly not how I feel I like I need to manage a game.”
Although we aren’t privy to the clubhouse after games, Quatraro is also likely keeping that even-keel temperament with his team after losses. He is not likely to be a table-flipping manager, but he will need to keep a young team from getting discouraged as the losses continue to pile up. Although this is not a results-year for the team, Quatraro still needs to impress that it is a results-year for players, as they are being evaluated. We have seen past losing clubs in Kansas City spiral into apathy, as players know they are not being held accountable. That can’t happen on Quatraro’s watch.
What do you think of Matt Quatraro so far? Was it a good hire? Too early to tell? What would you like to see more from him?
How would you grade Matt Quatraro so far?