The World Series begins next week with a most unexpected American League representative, the Kansas City Royals.
The Royals’ manager is former Brewer player and manager Ned Yost, about whom the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writes:
The Royals, who hadn’t been to the postseason since 1985, are managed by Ned Yost, who was fired by the Brewers with 12 games remaining in the 2008 season after a two-week slide threatened their playoff status. One of Yost’s coaches is Dale Sveum, who replaced him as Brewers’ manager in ’08 and led the club to the NL wild-card berth.
After the long wait to return to the playoffs, the wild-card Royals are 8–0 in the postseason, making Yost the first manager in MLB history to win his first eight playoff games. So, we can safely say he has landed safely on his feet six years after being canned by the Brewers.
Yost has been criticized for ignoring analytics and supposed “proper” strategies by relying extensively on bunting, stealing bases and other unconventional methods of managing. But he certainly is getting the last laugh at this point with a team that is very strong defensively, has an impenetrable bullpen and is getting clutch hitting from several budding young stars.
The first three hitters in the Royals’ batting order started their big-league careers with the Brewers. Shortstop Alcides Escobar, the leadoff hitter, and No. 3 hitter Lorenzo Cain — the MVP of the ALCS sweep — were sent to Kansas City in December 2010 in the trade for Zack Greinke. The Royals also acquired starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi, now with Tampa Bay, and reliever Jeremy Jeffress, who resurfaced in Milwaukee this season and pitched very well down the stretch.
The Royals’ No. 2 hitter, rightfielder Nori Aoki, was traded to KC last winter for reliever Will Smith, a swap that worked out well for both clubs.
Many Brewers fans, still agitated by the team’s late-season collapse that knocked the team from the playoff picture, have sent me messages saying Milwaukee obviously was fleeced in those deals. Of course, few of them complained when Greinke helped the Brewers win a franchise-record 96 games in 2011 and come within two victories of the World Series.
This ignited an online and Facebook debate over the supposed proper managerial style — Yost’s apparent favor of bunting and stolen bases vs. the Brewers’ swing-for-the-fences style that worked until, well, it didn’t in the last six weeks of the season.
You’d think there would have been more of a debate over the merits of the aforementioned trades of Escobar, Aoki and Cain than over managerial styles, about which more momentarily. Without Greinke, the Brewers would not have won the National League Central in 2011. Smith did pitch well for the Brewers until he flamed out from overuse, but trading Aoki created a hole in the outfield that the Brewers plugged with Khris Davis, who predictably flamed out and is unlikely to have close to the career Aoki had with the Brewers. Instead of Escobar, the Brewers have Jean Segura, who has hit well for one-half of his two seasons as a starter. Given the horrible tragedy of his son’s death during the season, perhaps Segura’s future shouldn’t be judged by this season.
Aoki was a leadoff hitter, more in the style of getting on base than as a speed merchant on the bases, with the Brewers. Where did the Brewers’ lineup have problems all season? Leadoff, and whoever is the regular leadoff hitter gets the most plate appearances of any position in the batting order. (Which is why some teams put their best hitter for average — think Wade Boggs in his heyday — in the leadoff spot instead of their fastest offensive player — think Carlos Gomez — particularly if said speed demon lacks a good on-base percentage.)
Yost became the Brewers’ manager because he was a Braves coach, and the Braves were quite successful when Yost was a coach, though perhaps not because Yost was a coach. Yost was believed to be good with young players, but got fired because the Brewers believed Yost didn’t have what it took to stop the Brewers’ slide of the time. Sveum, his replacement, went 7–5, which is only one game better than .500, but the Brewers got into the playoffs.
If Yost’s Royals win the World Series, it won’t be the last time a supposed retread found success in Kansas City. The Yankees fired manager Dick Howser after one season and 103 wins because Howser committed the unpardonable sins of standing up to owner George Steinbrenner and getting swept by the Royals in the 1980 American League Championship Series. Howser’s Royals teams had two second-place finishes, two first-place finishes, and the 1985 World Series championship, thanks to …
(I had to throw that in to rib my late friend Frank the St. Louis-area native and huge Cardinal fan. A joke from beyond about playing tuba will probably follow.)
Howser’s Royals defeated the Cardinals, managed by Whitey Herzog, who previously managed, yes, the Royals. Herzog’s Cardinals teams were based on pitching, speed and defense, in large part because of the home-run-unfriendly Royals Stadium and previous Busch Stadium. That may be what Yost is doing with the Royals, and if so Yost deserves praise for tailoring his team to the place in which half their games are played.
Some argue that the Royals are in the World Series despite Yost, not because of him (largely because of a bad pitching move in the wild-card game that the Royals managed to overcome), but they are in the World Series and the other 14 AL teams, plus all NL teams except San Francisco, will be watching the World Series at home. It is possible that Yost learned not just what to do, but what not to do from his Brewers experience.
Miller Park is apparently considered pretty home run-friendly, and perhaps the Brewers are tailored for Miller Park too. Earl Weaver eschewed the bunt, the hit-and-run and stolen bases (his rationale was that “your most precious possessions are your 27 outs”) and won a bigger percentage of games than Herzog (.583, an average of 94 per season, to Herzog’s .532, an average of 86 per season). That’s not to say Weaver’s or Herzog’s methods are necessarily preferable. There is a difference between managing in the regular season, when you’ll face good and bad teams and not every game means as much (Weaver basically said only one-third of games really count, because every team wins at least one-third of its games and every team loses at least one-third of its games), and managing in the postseason, where runs probably will be at a premium because the pitching is better and every game does count.
The idea that the Brewers should have played more small ball is based on the fact that swinging for the fences stopped working, not out of evidence that small ball would have worked. One of the Brewers’ best fundamental hitters is Jonathan Lucroy, but he’s also one of the Brewers’ best hitters. What would be the value of Lucroy’s giving up his at-bat to move a batter along, particularly if the hitters who follow him fail to deliver? We also saw enough base-running misadventures to make fans question whether more running would have led to more stolen bases, or more outs. I’m not sure the Brewers necessarily need more team speed, but they certainly do need better base-runners.
Instead of blaming manager Ron Roenicke for his team’s failure to play small ball, the blame should be placed with general manager Doug Melvin for putting together a lineup too reliant on the home run and lacking offensive balance, ability in fundamentals, and ability in defense. The Brewers need to have more high-on-base-percentage hitters (which the Angels had when Roenicke was their bench coach) so that when the big sticks connect, more runs come in. (That’s particularly true when your lineup includes someone like Mark Reynolds.) Unless their offensive imbalance is rectified (which would allow them to play small ball when needed), 2015 won’t be any better than 2014, and could end up with significantly more losses.