Ned Yost Might Win Manager of the Year

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Aug 30, 2013; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost (3) argues a call in the eighth inning with first base umpire Will Little against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. The Blue Jays beat the Royals 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

On the rare occasions that managers go off-script, we can see their benefit or detriment to a team. Innovation is punished when it fails, so managers mostly refuse to deviate from the prescribed tactics and make the same obligatory cookie-cut decisions in the same situations. Yost is somewhat unique in that he is all over the board with decisions–by the book, against the book, good, bad, inconsequential, detrimental, game-saving.

Yes, he has saved a game this season.

As shown in the list above, Ned Yost’s decision to pinch run Jarrod Dyson for Billy Butler on April 25th gave the Royals the opportunity to win the game in extra innings. Dyson stole second. A squib groundball from Hosmer drove Dyson to third. Lorenzo Cain lined out to center-field, but the speedy Dyson rushed home to complete the sacrifice fly. Without the pinch runner, Hosmer’s soft grounder may have been a double play with the impossibly slow Butler on the basepaths. The run tied the ballgame and the Royals won in the tenth. So yes, Yost has saved a game.

If we look at his overall tactical record, he loses his shine. On September 9th, he unraveled the Royals’ best chance of scoring a tying run by burning his best pinch hitter and bunted runners over in front of Carlos Pena. It was a cacophony of managerial blunders rarely paralleled in Major League baseball that was deservedly skewered here and here. With runners on first and second and nobody out, teams score an average of about 1.5 runs in the inning. Yost managed his way into a zero-run inning.

Within one week, Ned made a bumbling encore by letting Jeremy Guthrie continue to the mound in the eighth inning after he’d already allowed twelve hits and escaped several jams. The Royals had the best, deepest and most well-rested bullpen in the league. There was no excuse to let Guthrie face Infante with six strong right-handed arms in the pen. Sure, that was a bad tactical decision, but Guthrie got the strikeout (individual player performance and natural variance save the day! Until the next at-bat…). Yost let Guthrie stay in to face the left-handed Alex Avila, who has always hit righties well (.266/.326/.449), who had been crushing the ball of late (.400/.486/.500 in Sept coming into the game), and who had already hit a home run off Guthrie. Yost could have brought in Will Smith, Donnie Joseph or Tim Collins. He went against conventional wisdom and common sense by letting Guthrie stay. It was a gut call. Avila smacked a go-ahead home run and the Royals lost. It’s possible that Avila would have hit the home run against a lefty, but at least we would have known that Yost used every tool at his disposal to get the out. It also would have been much more of a surprise if Avila hit a homer off a lefty because of his career .215/.309/.327 line against them.

Even though Yost failed to use the bullpen to relieve Guthrie, throughout the season, he’s used them about as well as could be expected. Any manager can take advantage of the best and hardest-throwing bullpen in the American League. It’s hard to mess up, so Yost shouldn’t get too much credit for their success. Some, yes. He handled Hochevar with as much care and thoughtfulness as possible. The team was rewarded with an elite set-up man.

Royals pinch hitters are average (.197/.329/.295) when compared to pinch hitters for other teams. His timing for pinch hitters, and his choice of pinch hitters, has been less than ideal, but the success rate for pinch hitters is rare enough that sometimes it is just better to let Alcides Escobar bat.

Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of Escobar…

Yost inexplicably let Escobar bat second in the lineup 312 times this year in sixty-nine games!  According to a few lineup optimization formulas, it cost the Royals an average of about 0.175 runs per game. It might have actually cost a little more or a little less (probably more, based on how often Escobar got his fifth at-bat in tight, late-inning games). If batting Escobar in the two-hole cost the Royals 12 runs, as the above formula shows, as well as Baseball Reference’s WPA shows, it cost the Royals at least one win.

A manager’s job is to limit the amount of foreseeable negative consequences and maximize the positive ones. To win manager of the year, he should maximize the possibility for a favorable outcome every single time. If narrative didn’t matter and voters only considered measurable contributions such as those above, Yost would undoubtedly fail to win the Manager of the Year.

Tactical in-game management only takes up a about a one-fourth of the manager’s time. If seventy-five percent of a manager’s job is to lead his team, to motivate his guys, to listen to their problems and keep them on track, their noses clean, eyes on the prize, in the zone, then how do we evaluate managers as leaders?

There are news stories, of course. We hear about how motivational Ron Washington is, about how he supports his guys and bats grounders to his players, about how well he works with people. We hear about Buck Showalter working with Manny Machado’s internal clock, so he won’t rush plays on defense. We hear that Don Mattingly is making the rounds on motivational speaking circuits. When it comes to Yost, we hear that there is no such thing as a third baseman tree and he can’t spank his players to motivate them. Even if  the “intangible” aspects of baseball management were universally accepted as a desired attribute, Ned Yost falls flat.

Then there’s that whole thing when he got Kevin Seitzer fired and the offense fell to pieces.

Without a playoff victory, Ned Yost probably won’t win Manager of the Year, but mentioning him as a possible candidate because of his contributions to the team’s winning season is a slight to better managers as well as the people who had a much larger impact on the Royals’ success. The moves that most benefitted the Royals during the final month of the season came from Dayton Moore’s shrewd player acquisitions, most notably Emilio Bonifacio and Justin Maxwell. Yost was just there to put them in the lineup. It’s like nominating a Queen of England for best ruler. Sure, she doesn’t actually govern, soaks up tax money to live an absurdly posh lifestyle while the Prime Minister and Parliament do all the real work, but hey, she’s got herself a nice country and deserves some accolades for contributions she never made.