SAN FRANCISCO -- The popular opinion in some circles, perhaps even in Kansas City, is that the Royals are winning despite manager Ned Yost. Nothing he does makes sense, but some of it works anyway. When Yost wants a hot dog, he orders pizza and the guy brings a hot dog.
Yost is also two wins away from a World Series championship, with a team that wasn’t supposed to be here.
You might want to mention that.
You can say what you want about the man, but does anybody really think the Royals would be in a better position with another manager? Would they be leading the World Series, 3-0? The Royals won 89 games even though they only hit 95 home runs. Would another manager have won 100?
Yost was his usual Yost-ian self in Game 3 against the Giants, making moves that baffled observers, but still winning the game, 3-2. The highlight, you could say, came in the top of the seventh inning, when Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera stepped into a major-league batter’s box for the first time in his life.
Herrera was wearing Billy Butler’s helmet and Alex Gordon’s batting glove and holding Alcides Escobar’s bat. Unfortunately, none of those guys loaned him a swing. At one point Herrera almost fell backward out of the batter’s box while swinging at an outside pitch, which he somehow fouled off.
Afterward, Herrera made World Series history by uttering this sentence: “I feel proud of myself because I touch the ball.”
What was Herrera doing with anybody’s bat in his hand? It was like Yost had no idea he could double-switch, or that Butler, one of his best hitters, was available to pinch-hit. And didn’t he notice that Herrera clearly was not his usual dominant self when he entered the game?
Yost looked even sillier when Herrera walked Hunter Pence in the bottom of the seventh. Then the right-handed Herrera was staring at the part of the Giants’ lineup that features three straight lefties. Oops. Yost let Herrera pitch to Brandon Belt (Herrera struck him out), then pulled him for Brandon Finnegan. So essentially, Yost let Herrera bat just so he could get one more out. Twitter was not impressed.
But was Yost really wrong? Herrera, for one, was not surprised he batted:
“It’s what I’ve been doing all year,” he said through a translator. “If I throw the sixth, I go to the seventh.” In most Royals games, they use a designated hitter, so there is no chance of Herrera hitting. But on this night he knew he might hit “as soon as I get in the game, because the pitcher was in the fourth spot.”
Look closer, and there was some logic to what Yost did. You might not agree with it. I’m not entirely sure I agree with it. But at least let’s understand it.
The Royals got here for a lot of reasons, but the two biggest are relief pitching and defense. Yost seemed determined to ride those two strengths, no matter what he had to do. He pulled starter Jeremy Guthrie at the right moment, when he started struggling in the sixth, and brought in Herrera to put out the fire. He knew with his fantastic relievers Wade Davis and Greg Holland looming, the Giants’ best chance was probably a big sixth inning. So he brought in Herrera, his seventh-inning guy.
But this put Yost in a bind. Guthrie was due up fourth the next inning. If Herrera simply relieved him, Herrera might have to hit. The alternative was a double-switch -- sub for a position player and switch spots in the lineup.
Yost declined to double-switch for a reason. He decided that with a lead, he would not compromise his defense at any position. And when Herrera did indeed come to bat, Yost let him do it, because with a lead, he did not want to compromise his bullpen in any way.
He didn’t want to pull Herrera just to use a pinch-hitter in the game with two outs and a man on first. Then he let the righty Herrera pitch to dangerous lefty Brandon Belt, perhaps because he knew Belt’s career splits against righties and lefties are basically the same.
Then he pulled Herrera. But he wouldn’t bring in his best reliever, Wade Davis, sending fans into an apoplectic tizzy yet again.
There are a lot of moving parts in a baseball game, and just as important: there are a lot of parts we don’t see. We don’t always know when a guy has a nagging injury or flagging confidence, or when the manager gives him an at-bat to show he believes in him.
We don’t know, until Yost tells us, that he is willing to use Herrera for more than one inning, but is reluctant to use Davis (his best reliever) the same way, because “Herrera’s arm bounces back a little bit better than Davis’s does. When you go out and throw an inning and then have to come down, sit down and then get it cranked up again, it’s easier on Kelvin to do it than it is Wade.” We don’t know that Herrera told him he made an adjustment after he entered the game and felt confident he could pitch the 7th.
That gets to an essential but often ignored part of a manager’s job: First and foremost, he must know his players. He must know them better than we ever will. That is how he gains their respect. Maybe this is why, when I asked starter James Shields about people questioning his manager, he said, “We don’t question our manager. That’s all we care about. Our manager believes in us, and we believe in him, and that’s why we’re winning games.”
Look back at Game 3. You can question all of Yost’s decisions, but in the big picture, Yost’s primary task was protecting a 3-1 (and then 3-2) lead from the sixth to the ninth. He did it.
People keep ripping him for mismanaging the best bullpen in baseball, but can he really be screwing it up that bad if they are the best bullpen in baseball?
Fans are smarter and better informed than ever before, and this is mostly wonderful, but sometimes it means we think we know everything. Read enough analysis, or talk to enough fans, and you get the sense that in 2014, what you do is not as important as how you do it.
Yost is not alone. The best managers in the game get ripped all the time. Yankees fans get mad at Joe Girardi and his binder. Jim Leyland took the Tigers to two World Series and the brink of two more, but he was constantly questioned about his lineup and fondness for certain players in Detroit (and then Brad Ausmus replaced him, and he gets questioned even more). Mention Ron Gardenhire and Nick Punto to any Twins fan, and that Twins fan may throw up on you.
Joe Maddon is revered for the work he did with the Rays, but he just opted out of his contract, and wherever he lands, you can expect people to question him, too. Expectations and media attention will be greater than they were in Tampa. He will make decisions that don’t work out, and fans will turn on him.
Maybe Yost isn’t the best manager in baseball. Maybe this will all blow up on him, and the Royals will fall apart next year and he will get fired. But maybe, just maybe, he isn’t quite as dumb as his critics make him out to be.
If you have watched this World Series, you have probably asked: What on Earth is Ned Yost doing?
He is winning World Series games. Isn’t that good enough?