Hours after the final out of the 2019 Major League Baseball season had been recorded, the Royals made a somewhat inevitable announcement official, naming former Cardinals manager Mike Matheny as the replacement for the long-tenured and retiring Ned Yost.
In a non-surprising fashion, the announcement was made with much ridicule, coming mostly from Royals fans (including myself), Cardinals fans weighing in, and others around the baseball world. The tweet announcing his hiring was greeted with over 700 replies, a strong-majority of them taking on a negative tone.
The criticism of the move is completely fair. Matheny’s ending in St. Louis was about as messy as possible. He left the team with negative managerial traits attached to his name, such as being a bad clubhouse leader, often being anti-analytics, and being one of the worst tactical managers in the game, back up by the numbers. The Cardinals immediate improvements after his departure and the promotion of Mike Schildt didn’t help his case either.
For all the accolades that Matheny picked up in his first handful of seasons with the Cardinals, the negativity he built up around his name in baseball in his last season seemed to have overpowered all of that. He had dug his career into a hole and it seemed like it was going to take a lot to dig out of it. Well, at least initially it did...
Shortly after being relieved of his duties as Cardinals skipper, the Royals brought Matheny into the organization as a special assistant to player development. He spent the duration of the 2019 season in that role, having nothing to do with the major league club as he assisted in the minors and got acclimated to the organization.
Once Matheny was in this role, the future became very clear. Back in 2010, the Royals had hired Ned Yost as a special adviser (similar to Matheny’s role), fresh off of being let go from his duties as Brewers manger in the final-stretch of a playoff race. Then once the Royals fired the then incumbent manger Trey Hillman, they filled the managerial opening with Yost.
The writing was all over the wall for what the Royals were planning to do. Once Yost announced his retirement late in September of this season, there was a clear-cut favorite for who would be managing the Royals in 2020.
The Royals did a low level of due diligence when taking on the interviewing process, giving looks to two internal options: quality control coach Pedro Grifol (now a finalist for the Giants managerial opening) and former minor league manager and current bullpen coach Vance Wilson. But even with this, the sentiment never changed.
The criticism the Royals received for the hire was completely warranted. The hire appeared to lack creativity and innovation. Matheny was in no way a popular candidate.
I’ve criticized this move a fair bit, nailing most of my thoughts above. I still have plenty of gripes with the move, but I will say this. Matheny’s first day as manager of the Royals couldn’t have gone much better. Even though they say it’s hard to have a “bad” opening press conference, his truly couldn’t have gone much better. His acknowledged his past mistakes and his strive for learning since he was fired. Suddenly, his thoughts on analytics had changed.
Mike Matheny on how he views baseball analytics: "I'm fascinated (by analytics). ... What are we missing? How can we think out of the box a little bit to have an edge? Players want that these days." Says he doesn't want to be a "fossil in this game." #Royals— Jeff Rosen (@jeff_rosen88) October 31, 2019
This quote might not be much, but it at least shows a willingness to change. Whether that will happen or not remains to be seen. But for what it’s worth, he’s already hired an analytics consultant.
Matheny also was labeled an anti-analytics guy in St. Louis, an image he promises to change. He hired a consultant to better acquaint him with analytics in the past year and recently passed a baseball analytics course with Sports Management Worldwide.
“I always had a great appreciation for that,” Matheny said. “I wish I had that information when I was playing, with the blast-motion sensors, the Rapsodo -- I had a whole lot going wrong with my swing. I would have loved for someone to give me some data. It’s amazing. People who aren’t using that are cutting themselves short.”
Without having even seen Matheny manage a game in a Royals uniform yet, I can’t say that my thoughts on the hire have changed much. What they did do though was give me a more open mind to the move. If he applies what he’s learned and his added knowledge along with a support staff show relatively encouraging results, my thoughts can be flipped. It won’t take long to figure out.