Ned Yost is so dumb that he may be the best manager in Major League Baseball. New Yost is not even related to former major leaguer and longtime coach for several teams Eddie Yost. Even so, Ned Yost is a spiritual descendant of old-timers like Eddie Yost. If this is (fair & balanced) appreciation of the tried-and-true, so be it.
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How Ned Yost Made The Kansas City Royals Unstoppable
By Bruce Schoenfeld
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The game in Detroit was tied in the bottom of the ninth, and Ned Yost needed a relief pitcher. As the manager of the Kansas City Royals, he had a formidable bullpen at his disposal. Kelvin Herrera, who throws 99 m.p.h., had already pitched the seventh inning, his usual assignment. He struck out all three batters he faced. Wade Davis, the master of a near-unhittable cut fastball, had done his job by pitching a scoreless eighth. That left Greg Holland, who has saved 116 games for the Royals over the past three seasons. Holland’s responsibility, as Yost saw it, was to finish games — but only when protecting a lead. Yost said repeatedly that he wouldn’t use Holland when his team is behind or tied. ‘‘Don’t look for me to do it,’’ he told the beat writers after one game last year. ‘‘I’m not going to do it.’’
Now Yost brought in Ryan Madson, a hard-throwing journeyman who had been with four clubs in four years. The first batter he faced, José Iglesias, led off the inning with a single. The second, Ian Kinsler, smacked a fastball over the left-field wall. Quick as that, the Royals were losers.
The early-August game was hardly pivotal. Kansas City, which enters the playoffs this week, had a commanding lead in its division. But Yost’s use of Madson — really, his refusal to use Holland or to let Herrera or Davis pitch more than one inning — represents the intransigence that for years has exasperated those who watch him manage.
To many, Yost is a holdover from baseball’s Dark Ages, when managers followed their guts on tactical decisions, the way they might play a late-night game of Monopoly. Suspicion of anything even marginally unconventional or innovative, let alone intellectual, was woven into the fabric of the sport. Players were judged by looks almost as much as by performance.
The correction has been thorough. In recent years, the ability to track, accumulate and analyze data has affected the way teams scout prospects, position their fielders and make nearly every other decision on how they play the game. More than a few now operate strictly by the numbers, guided by staff mathematicians who barely watch the games, so as to not be overly influenced by appearances. Analytical commentators and other observers, armed with formulas and metrics, crunch the numbers involved in Yost’s decisions and conclude that many of them are simply wrong.
Mitchel Lichtman, an author and a former professional gambler who has consulted for the Cardinals and Astros (coincidentally, the F.B.I. is investigating the former for hacking the latter’s database and stealing information), says that the statistics are unambiguous: not bringing Holland into a situation like that of the Detroit game is bad managing. ‘‘It’s a mistake,’’ he insisted to me. Lichtman is vexed by the decisions managers make in almost every game he watches, but he feels particular disdain for Yost. He explained away Yost’s success with the Royals by saying: ‘‘There’s so much luck involved in short-term success. Even a .500 team, I could show you very easily, can win 90 games and then 12 or 15 in the playoffs on luck.’’
Lichtman’s is just one voice in a loud chorus. Because of Yost’s apparent obliviousness to data-based thinking, he has become the most criticized manager in baseball. The reach of social media and the herd mentality that pervades it may make him the most criticized manager ever. The criticism occurs not merely at the margins, in bars and man caves and on Twitter and fan websites (where the verb ‘‘Yosted’’ has emerged to describe what happens when his choices lead to a Royals loss), but squarely in the media mainstream. It fixates on Yost’s batting orders, his team’s tendency to bunt and steal, the way he handles his pitching — nearly everything that can be plugged into a formula and rendered as a number. The Chicago Tribune has suggested that Yost is ‘‘a bumbling idiot.’’ A Wall Street Journal headline referred to him as a ‘‘dunce.’’ Pedro Martinez, a Hall of Fame pitcher and TV commentator, disparaged one of his decisions in the playoffs last year as ‘‘another panic move.’’
Yet Yost keeps winning. Last fall, after sweeping their first eight playoff games, the Royals pushed the San Francisco Giants to the final inning of the seventh game of the World Series. During the off-season, his best starting pitcher, James Shields, and his starting right fielder and designated hitter departed for other teams — and still Yost led the Royals to their first division title since 1985. Despite inconsistent starting pitching and a ligament injury that recently ended Holland’s season, they begin the playoffs in position to reach the World Series for a second consecutive year, something the team has never accomplished in its 47-season history.
Yost, who is 61, has managed the Royals since 2010. Before that, he managed Milwaukee from 2003 to 2008. Since joining the Brewers, he has presided over just five winning seasons, including 2015, and was fired during one of them before it ended. But he also transformed perennial losers, from baseball’s smallest two markets, into contenders. ‘‘He took a franchise that had not been to the playoffs in 25 years, built it up and got it to the playoffs,’’ Doug Melvin, the executive who hired and fired Yost in Milwaukee, told me this summer. ‘‘Then he took a franchise in Kansas City that hadn’t been to the playoffs in 30 years and did the same thing. I don’t care what anyone says about him. How many managers have done that?’’
Ruddy-faced and taciturn, Yost looks like a baseball manager from a less image-conscious era, someone who might spend the game with tobacco juice dribbling down his chin. ‘‘He’s not reading psychology books,’’ says Jonah Keri, a writer for Grantland. One manager who actually does read them, the Cubs’ Joe Maddon, is widely considered baseball’s best. Maddon wears hip black-rimmed glasses and collects wine. The Yankees’ Joe Girardi, engaging and articulate, has an engineering degree from Northwestern, which presumably helps him interpret the mathematics used to capture what’s happening on the field. Brad Ausmus, who has managed the Tigers the last two seasons, studied government at Dartmouth.
Yost grew up in California’s Livermore Valley as an undersize striver seeking a sport in which he could excel. Cut from the high-school soccer team, he struggled for a semester as a 5-foot- 2 hurdler. Then he turned to baseball, which he hadn’t played since Little League. In 36 J.V. at-bats as a sophomore, he couldn’t muster a hit. Nevertheless, Yost decided he was going to play — not merely in high school, but for a living. ‘‘I just knew it,’’ he says. ‘‘When I sat down with my counselors and they said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I’m going to be a professional baseball player.’ And they looked at me like I was nuts.’’
Such certitude, based on no discernible foundation, has informed Yost’s decision-making processes all his life. ‘‘I often wonder, Do other people have that same feeling and then it doesn’t happen?’’ Yost told me. ‘‘Because I knew it was going to happen.’’ He made varsity, had a growth spurt, then landed at Chabot College. After he starred on a summer team, the Mets drafted him as a catcher. In 1980, he reached the majors, just as he had predicted. He seldom played, though. Over six seasons, Yost accumulated just 605 at-bats, a number that starters can exceed in a single year. He was wondering what to do next when the Braves asked if he would work with young players at their minor-league outpost in Sumter, SC. He ended up as the manager there for three years before being hired onto Bobby Cox’s staff in Atlanta, where he remained for more than a decade as a bullpen coach and later a third-base coach.
Along the way, he cultivated an unconventional relationship with players, one that made them eager to get to the ballpark. ‘‘He’d throw a belt into the whirlpool when I was in there and pretend it was a snake,’’ recalls Eddie Perez, who was in Sumter and Atlanta with Yost. ‘‘Not many managers would do that.’’
Yost can be prickly in news conferences. But in an intimate setting, he’s engaging, even warm. One afternoon this summer, he shared memories with me about a friend he considered a mentor, the car racer Dale Earnhardt, whom he met through a common friend in the early 1990s. Yost wears his No. 3 to honor Earnhardt, who died in a crash in 2001. ‘‘We hit it off,’’ he said. ‘‘Hunted together every year.’’ In 1994, when a labor dispute truncated the baseball season, Earnhardt invited Yost to travel with him on the Nascar circuit and serve as ‘‘rehydration engineer’’ (in other words, water-fetcher). At one race, Earnhardt roared back from a huge deficit and nearly won. When Yost congratulated him, Earnhardt grabbed him by the shirt and pulled his friend nose to nose. ‘‘Never, ever, let anybody who you’re around, anybody you’re associated with, allow you to settle for mediocrity,’’ Yost says Earnhardt told him.
Later, Yost would be criticized for not replacing erratic infielders when he had late-inning leads and allowing untested pitchers to compete — and often fail — in crucial situations. The critics didn’t understand, he told me, that he wasn’t necessarily trying to win those games. ‘‘The difference between 72 and 76 wins doesn’t mean a damn thing to me,’’ he says. It was the same as the difference between second place and last place, which, Earnhardt had stressed, was no difference at all.
‘‘I wanted to put those young players in a position to gain experience, so that when we could compete for a championship, they’d know how,’’ Yost says. ‘‘You can’t do that when you’re pinch-hitting for young guys. You can’t do it when you quick-hook starting pitchers. They’ll never learn to work themselves out of trouble. People would say, ‘What’s he doing?’ They didn’t understand. I’d rather lose a game on my watch so they could win later.’’
In Milwaukee, Yost was hired by Doug Melvin to nurture a group of young players learning to be major leaguers. He inherited a 56-win team, the worst in franchise history, and a legacy that was equally dismal: The Brewers hadn’t fielded a winning team in more than a decade. In their first two seasons under Yost, they won just 68 and 67 games. But in 2007, they remained in contention until the season’s final week before finishing 83-79, narrowly missing the playoffs. That week, an increasingly agitated Yost was ejected from games three times for arguing with umpires. The consensus was that he’d cracked under the pressure.
The next year, the Brewers were 16 games above .500 with two weeks remaining in the season, but they were in a terrible slump, having lost 11 of 16 games and prompting talk of another collapse. Yost was fired. The Brewers wound up winning 90 games but would be remembered as the playoff team that dumped its manager down the stretch.
The knock on Yost as an unsteady hand returned last fall, after the Royals qualified as one of the two American League wild-card teams. In the elimination game against Oakland, Shields held a 3-2 lead after five innings. Then he allowed a single and a walk to start the sixth. Yost had Herrera, Davis and Holland, but as usual they were earmarked for the seventh, eighth and ninth. Instead, he turned to Yordano Ventura, a 23-year-old starter who worked as a reliever once all season and threw 73 pitches two days before.
‘‘The conventional way is to bring in Herrera early,’’ says outfielder Jonny Gomes, who was playing for Oakland at the time. ‘‘He did it a different way. He had a young guy come in with tons of emotion, which young guys typically can’t control. Knowing that, our approach was patience.’’
The criticism of Yost, on television and online, began when he lifted Shields. Then Brandon Moss hit a three-run homer, giving Oakland the lead. When Yost left the dugout to replace Ventura, the reaction from the home fans was hostile, bordering on homicidal. For 29 years, they had longed for the playoffs. Now, it appeared, the obduracy of an already unpopular manager was ending the Royals’ postseason before it had barely begun. Their frustration manifested itself in a deafening outpouring of disapproval. ‘‘I’d never in my life heard anything like it,’’ says the broadcaster Ryan Lefebvre, whose father, Jim, played and managed in the major leagues.
‘‘It didn’t bother me,’’ Yost told me. ‘‘I still felt like we were going to win the game. I had no doubt that we would.’’ They did, in 12 innings. Then they swept their series against the Angels and the Orioles.
Yost arrived in Kansas City in 2010 with the mandate to develop young talent as he did in Milwaukee. Dayton Moore, the Royals’ general manager, worked with Yost in Atlanta. He dismisses the end of Yost’s tenure with the Brewers as irrelevant. ‘‘There’s so much more to managing a baseball team than what’s happening on the field,’’ Moore says. When the Royals’ losses mounted, Moore didn’t flinch. ‘‘A lot of people were saying we needed to make a change,’’ he says. ‘‘It never crossed my mind.’’
Moore had spent enough time in the clubhouse to notice how Yost and his charges interacted. Yost, it turned out, had hardly changed since Sumter. Instead of data points to be plugged into an equation, he treated players with sportive affection, like favored nephews. ‘‘I love these guys,’’ Yost told me. ‘‘I really love them. You have to, in order to understand them. And you have to understand them in order to manage them. If you understand their backgrounds, why they are the way they are, you can understand what motivates them.’’
Like most modern clubhouses, Kansas City’s is an eclectic mix. Chris Young is a cerebral Princeton graduate. Lorenzo Cain was raised by his mother in rural Florida and didn’t play baseball until high school. Drew Butera’s father and Mike Moustakas’s uncle were major leaguers. There are Dominicans and Venezuelans, a Puerto Rican, a Nicaraguan, a Cuban and sometimes even a Brazilian. ‘‘This is a very culturally diverse team,’’ says Ben Zobrist, a utility player who was traded to Kansas City from Oakland in July. ‘‘But these guys for sure feel comfortable with each other. When a clubhouse is that comfortable, it has started with the manager.’’
To Zobrist, an ideal clubhouse is one where you can’t tell whether a team has lost or won four games in a row. That’s possible because of the steady, accretive cadence of baseball, a sport in which alternating games of no hits and three hits will win you a batting title. ‘‘Most managers don’t let you do it,’’ he says. ‘‘You pick up clues from the manager. If he’s worried, you need to be worried. Here, you have the freedom to think that whatever happened yesterday doesn’t matter.’’
The Royals’ success isn’t all about intangibles. A decade of high draft picks has paid off with a cadre of homegrown stars. And Moore has constructed a roster of line-drive hitters and fleet fielders tailored to the capacious dimensions of Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium. It’s also ideally suited for the economics of playing in the sport’s second-smallest metropolitan area: Building a team around outfield defense and middle relief is cheap compared with the marquee expenses of power hitting and starting pitching.
Still, it’s telling that castoffs and prospects on downward trajectories have, one after another, righted themselves under Yost. The Royals’ burly third baseman, Mike Moustakas, the second pick in the amateur draft, who had been successful at every minor-league level, was struggling last season, his batting average lower than his weight. ‘‘I kept hearing: ‘Why are you playing him? Why are you playing him?’ ’’ Yost says. Moustakas would arrive each day wondering if he’d be dropped from the lineup. Finally, it dawned on him that no matter how badly he performed, Yost wasn’t going to remove him. The effect was liberating. His five postseason homers led the team.
‘‘He finds a way to get each of us to believe in what he’s doing,’’ Moustakas says. ‘‘For me, it really helped to get out there, struggle and learn how to work through failure. It made all the difference.’’ This year, Moustakas was named an American League All-Star. When Yost made the announcement, he beamed like a proud uncle.
One night this season, Yost encountered a knot of players leaving the team hotel in Milwaukee. It was nearly 10. Hearing that they were headed to a late dinner and then a casino, he nodded. He wasn’t giving his blessing, exactly, but he wasn’t disapproving either. ‘‘I know these guys inside and out,’’ he told me later. ‘‘I know they won’t stay out too long. Their goal is winning. They won’t do anything to detract from that.’’
Such trust — or naïveté, as some would call it — informs Yost’s relations with his team. He’s criticized because his players bunt and steal excessively, risking outs in a misguided attempt to move runners up a base. Statistics indicate that this strategy, depending on the situation, can decrease the likelihood that the Royals will score multiple runs that inning. But most of those decisions, it turns out, aren’t made by Yost. Perhaps alone among big-league managers, he allows his players to run and bunt on their own. The few games that such ill-considered tactics might cost during a season, he has decided, are more than mitigated by a lack of inhibition that will encourage looser, more productive play. ‘‘He allows us to be ourselves, on and off the field,’’ says Lorenzo Cain, the center fielder. ‘‘And we have a blast doing it. We laugh together, have a great time. The chemistry on this team is amazing. That reflects on a manager. And it matters.’’
That chemistry appears to have offset the construction of curious batting orders. Alcides Escobar, who has hit leadoff for much of the season, historically reaches base less often than the league average. The potent Alex Gordon was hitting sixth before he strained a groin muscle in early July. This in particular rankles the analysts. ‘‘Batting order is something a manager very clearly has control of,’’ says Dave Cameron, the managing editor of the widely read website FanGraphs. ‘‘It’s something Yost has done particularly poorly.’’
Yost dismisses such criticism, but others in the organization feel compelled to respond. ‘‘We have information that the fans and analysts don’t,’’ says Yost’s bench coach, Don Wakamatsu, who previously managed the Seattle Mariners. There, Wakamatsu says, he occasionally put the slugger Russell Branyan at No. 4, the cleanup spot. ‘‘When I did, he’d break out in hives. But I’d put him at 2 or 5 or 6, and he was a worldbeater. Can the numbers account for that?’’
If anyone can make them do so, it is Grantland’s Keri, perhaps the most thoughtful of the analytical commentators. When we met for lunch near his home in Denver this summer, the Royals — whom he ranked 23rd out of 30 teams before the season — were in the midst of another streak. They had won seven of eight and were distancing themselves from the rest of the division, dominance that neither he nor any of the other experts had predicted. ‘‘They have a defense-oriented, run-prevention team,’’ he explained. ‘‘And when you have close games, weird things can happen.’’
Keri wrote a book about the Tampa Bay Rays when Maddon was the team’s manager. Against all odds, Maddon took that frugal, data-centric team to the World Series. Its success, Keri wrote, was predicated on Maddon’s willingness to be guided by the advanced analytics compiled by the Rays’ braintrust. As we talked, Keri offhandedly explained that Maddon has an advantage over other number-crunchers. ‘‘He’s a charmer,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s pretty clear that the best thing he does is, he’s a likable guy. He gets players to like him and play for him.’’
The way he described the sport’s most respected manager sounded a lot like its least respected manager, I pointed out. Yost gave the Royals confidence in their abilities and the freedom to play with enthusiasm. His optimism might be goofy, I admitted, but it was infectious. ‘‘Then it turns out they’re pretty similar,’’ Keri considered. ‘‘Because it’s all really about empowering your players and creating a comfortable environment for them to thrive.’’
‘‘It’s strange,’’ he said, still musing as we were leaving. ‘‘They actually do a lot of the same things.’’
If Yost never wavered in support of Moustakas, Cain, Escobar and others, it was because he saw their future, just as he’d seen his own. ‘‘I knew it when I saw them playing as Class A ballplayers, that they’d be All-Stars,’’ he says. ‘‘I’ve never really had a guy that I strongly believed in not make it. I just knew it, don’t ask me how.’’
Last year’s Royals were foundering at the All-Star break. ‘‘Then we were swept by Boston,’’ Wakamatsu says. ‘‘Ned told us: ‘Don’t worry. We’ll be 10 games over .500 soon.’ And we said, ‘What?’ And we were. And then he said, ‘We’ll be 20 games over.’ And we were. There’s a calmness and a confidence about it that eventually makes you not question it.’’
Was Yost such an incisive judge of talent that he correctly identified a lineup’s worth of future stars, or did his belief in them help make them that way? Did he see something in his team last year that others didn’t, or did his confidence provide inspiration? These are questions, I’m sure, that analytics aren’t meant to answer.
Yet the same unpredictability that confounds those who try to explain the game through statistical formulations is what makes it so enjoyable to follow. Accumulated data might suggest shifting the shortstop to the other side of second base against a particular hitter, and that hitter might oblige by hitting a ground ball to exactly that spot. The strategy has worked — except when the grounder hits a pebble and bounds past. And there’s the batter, safe at first base.
And there’s Yost, standing by the rail in the Royals’ dugout, leading his team into the playoffs, again, for reasons that seem impossible to quantify. It isn’t important to him why the grounders keep getting past the shortstop, only that they do. ‘‘I’ve been known as a dope my whole life,’’ he told me. ‘‘And I took a team to the World Series that hadn’t been to the playoffs in 29 years. And now everyone knows them. And I’m still a big dope. But it doesn’t matter. What does it matter?’’ Ω
[Bruce Schoenfeld, an acclaimed magazine and television journalist, is a frequent contributor to many national and international publications, including Sports Illustrated, Travel & Leisure, and the New York Times Magazine. He won Emmy Awards for his writing on the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul and the 1996 Olympic Games in Barcelona. He is the author of The Last Serious Thing: A Season at the Bullfights (1992). While an undergraduate at Harvard University, Schoenfeld covered the Harvard baseball team.]
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