Thursday, April 3, 2008

Reason #2: The Manager.

(I meant to get to this sooner, but the Royals have been distracting me with their winning ways. So go blame them.)

I have no animosity toward Buddy Bell, and wish him well. He is, by all accounts, a decent and good man, devoted to his family, and there are a lot of star ballplayers you can’t say that about. I am happy he appears to have made a full recovery from throat cancer, and I hope he lives a long and healthy life.

That said, I remain as bewildered by the Royals’ decision to hire him as the day he was introduced as manager. I said at the time that picking Bell sealed Allard Baird’s fate as general manager, and I’m certainly not retracting that position. Bell brought some stability and integrity to the role after the wild Tony Pena years, which at their best brought us 92 days in first place in 2003, but at their worst gave us the spectacle of having the manager jump into the shower fully clothed to motivate his troops in 2004, then going so far as to guarantee the Royals would win the division when the team fell to 7-14 going into their game on May 1st at Yankee Stadium, where Pena and Baird decided was the perfect place for the immortal Eduardo Villacis to make his major league debut. (And, as it turns out, his swan song.)

Buddy Bell handled his departure with as much class as was possible, announcing two months ahead of time that he would not be returning for another season. Pena handled his departure with as little class as possible, abruptly resigning in the middle of the night rather than get on a plane back to Kansas City, where coincidentally a subpoena had been issued to question Pena’s role in the divorce of his neighbors. You can see where I’m going with this.

You have to wonder if Bell’s “retirement” was less his own decision and more a way for him to save face after it was clear to him that the Royals would not be bringing him back for 2008. He ostensibly resigned to spend more time with his family, and was to stay in the organization as a senior adviser to Moore. Then, barely a week after the season ended, he left to join the White Sox as their director of minor league instruction, a job title which sounds like it will involve a lot more travel than being a senior adviser.

If Moore really had planned to axe Bell after the season all along, then kudos to him. Bell brought gravitas to the manager’s chair, but not much of anything else. He also hamstrung the Royals in numerous ways, many of which we’re just learning about. (In a recent Flanagan column, John Buck all but fingered Bell as the person who made him give up his new leg kick last season – you know, the leg kick that helped Buck slug .600 in his first 40 games.)

In his place, Moore hired Trey Hillman, a candidate so off the radar that he wasn’t even rumored to be under consideration until after he had already been offered the job. I was at Disneyworld with my wife and kids when I read the news on my iPhone, which is appropriate, because it’s supposed to be the Happiest Place on Earth.

Hillman has one of the more eclectic backgrounds you’ll find in a big-league manager, which I won’t rehash here. I’ll simply point out that when hiring a manager, the GM has to decided between a fresh new hire – and you can never be certain about someone who has no track record of success – or a recycled manager, who’s only available because a previous employer found him wanting. Moore somehow found a guy free from either concern. Hillman may not have “major-league manager” on his resume, but two Japan Series appearances and one championship constitute a better track record than a lot of guys who’ve managed in the majors for years. (Like, say, Buddy Bell.)

But because Hillman’s experience to this point came in Japan or in the minors, we really don’t know what kind of manager he will be. Will he be as aggressive as Tony LaRussa in using his bullpen, or ride his starters like Dusty Baker? Is he willing to platoon or does he prefer a set lineup? Does he like to put runners in motion or does he prefer to play station-to-station ball? We can’t answer those questions as definitively as we would like. Well, we could, if we had access to comprehensive statistics from Japanese baseball, were intimately familiar with the personnel over there, and were able to translate from Japanese to English fluently. If Robert Whiting is reading this, by all means, contact me.

So the jury is still out on Hillman. But a preliminary answer to all those questions I’ve raised appears to be, “yes.” Yes, he’s willing to be aggressive with his relievers, and he’s willing to ride his starters. He’s willing to platoon, and he’s willing to write the same guy’s name in the lineup every day. He’s willing to bunt and steal and hit & run if he needs to, and he’s willing to put up a red light if he needs to. That’s the one trait I’m most comfortable pinning on Hillman, and one of the reasons I’m so optimistic about his hiring: he’s adaptable.

He’s received a lot of attention for putting a lot of emphasis on small-ball fundamentals this spring, and a lot of attention for somehow winning Japan’s Pacific League for a second straight year with a team that finished last in the league in runs scored and most other offensive categories. But Hillman’s first Pacific League champion, the team that won the Japan Series, had a much more explosive offense – one of his two best hitters retired after the season, and the other left as a free agent. The Fighters offensive style in 2007 was in itself an adaptation to life without the heart of their order.

When the Royals hired Tony Pena as their manager six years ago, one of the other candidates under consideration – certainly the guy most Royals fans wanted hired – was Buck Showalter. What I find interesting is that Hillman reminds me of no one more than Showalter. A happy Buck Showalter.

Both guys started their managing careers in the Yankees’ farm system, and both had tremendous success right off the bat. Showalter skippered the Oneonta Yankees in the New York-Penn League in 1985 and 1986, with records of 55-23 and 59-18. In 1990, Hillman got his managing start, also with Oneonta, and went 52-26. Showalter’s minor league winning percentage is much higher – he managed only five years in the minors, and finished in first place four times. Hillman managed in the minors for 12 seasons, and finished first three times.

Both are hyper-prepared and detail-oriented to the point of being anal-retentive. When Showalter was hired as the Diamondbacks’ first manager, he took on such an overriding role in the organization that he involved himself in the design of the team’s uniforms. The KC Star had a quote from Hillman early in spring training, about the different lineups he was pondering for the team:

“We’ve actually have 20 already done but I haven’t typed the other five up and I have to redo the ones that have misspelled names. I hate misspelling people’s names.”

Um, yeah. He’s quite the perfectionist. As Joe Posnanski wrote in the Star in the newspaper’s massive baseball preview last Sunday – the day before Opening Day is always one of my favorite baseball days on the calendar for that reason – Hillman is obsessed about the little things. The Royals haven’t had someone who understood, let alone obsessed, about the little things in quite a while.

Here’s a snippet from Bob Dutton regarding David DeJesus that illustrates this perfectly:

“The coaches are teaching us that there are so many little key things that pitchers give away that you can take advantage of,” he said. “Like when you’re stealing, look at the back shoulder instead of just looking at the leg lifting.”

Ask DeJesus why he is only learning such skills now, and he shrugs. There is recognition of his own culpability, but he also points to a sea change in organizational approach.

But it’s where Hillman differs from Showalter that is particularly important. Showalter was a great X’s and O’s manager and always the most prepared guy in the room, but he has this tiny problem of not getting along all that well with his players. There’s a reason both the Diamondbacks and Yankees won the World Series the year after he was fired. He prepared his players to win, but his presence was also quite stifling, and major league hitters chafed under his constant presence – only after he was let go did the oxygen circulate back in the room.

Hillman shows signs of being Showalter v2.0, a guy who makes sure players do things his way, but also a guy who knows when to let up a little bit. As DeJesus continued:

“The difference around here,” he said, “is in the attention to detail. Everything (Hillman) wants, he wants to be perfect. If it’s not perfect, he’ll tell you, but also he keeps it light and fun. That definitely makes it a lot easier to go out there and play.”

The signature moment of the spring for Hillman came when, immediately after Ryan Shealy ended a game with a walk-off homer, he called the entire team onto the field and lectured them about running the bases for ten minutes. It had the potential to be a divisive moment for the team, having their manager lecture them like little leaguers in front of a large crowd immediately after they had won a game.

That’s a Showalter move. The aftermath, though, was equally important. Hillman spoke to Mark Grudzielanek for several minutes immediately afterwards; we don’t know what they talked about, but given that Grudz might be the most respected veteran on the team, you have to think that Hillman wanted to make sure that he and Grudz were on the same page and that such an incident would have the proper effect on the squad. Hillman declined to speak about the incident with reporters. And he never did it again. Presumably – hopefully – he didn’t need to.

A trait that most great managers share is that, when a player is giving less than full effort, they will upbraid that player up one side and down the other – but in private, and afterwards the matter is forgotten. Great managers know how to light a fire under their players without embarrassing them, and they don’t hold grudges. Great managers don’t have doghouses.

Hillman embarrassed the entire squad, as it were, but by doing so as a group, he made certain that no player would be singled out for his mistakes. It was a classic passive-aggressive move, making a statement in front of the fans and press corps and then refusing to divulge the specifics of what happened. It was sort of extreme, but it was a one-time event, and doing so made it abundantly clear that Hillman, in his first camp with the team, was the boss.

Other than that, he’s handled the diverse personalities on the team as well as could be expected. Managing Jose Guillen alone will earn Hillman his salary, and Guillen seems happy. He defused a potential crisis with Miguel Olivo when Olivo came to camp under the illusion that he was the starting catcher.

A few years ago, I came up with what I like to call Jazayerli’s Law of Fundamentals, which states:

A team's ability to execute the “fundamentals” is inversely correlated to the time spent discussing the importance of executing them.

You never hear the Yankees and Braves talking about how important it is for their players to execute the fundamentals – only teams like the Royals and Pirates. That’s not to say that good teams aren’t good at the fundamentals, because they are: good teams are good at everything. That’s why they’re good. The point is that when teams can’t stop talking about “fundamentals”, it’s because they’ve reached the point of desperation – they don’t know what else to do.

Hillman talked about the fundamentals a lot during the spring, and it remains to be seen whether that’s just the standard rigmarole that every new manager needs to say – a new manager saying he wants to focus on the fundamentals is like a newly-elected politician saying he wants to get tough on crime. If he keeps harping about it, then we’ll need to worry. My hope is that, like Bobby Cox or Mike Scioscia or Jim Leyland, he won’t talk about fundamentals as much in the future because he won’t need to: his team will have already proven they can execute them on the field.

Plus, the frequent references to bunting and offensive risk-taking notwithstanding, he seems to have a pretty good grounding in what makes an offense tick. From Bob Dutton:

“I’ve spoken to all of them about eliminating batting average and going to OBP,” he said. “Because OBP really is the statistic that tells you what your chances are of scoring runs.”

Uh, Trey? You work for the Royals now. We don’t believe in that sort of thing around here. From Dick Kaegel:

“I always set high, lofty OBPs for leadoff hitters and No. 2s. I’d like to go between .370 and .380 -- that's high. It’s really high,” Hillman said. “But if you have the ability to take as many walks as you can get, it sure does help. I think he can get there, if not to .370 or .380, then hopefully .365 to .370.”

Who is this guy? What’s this “OBP” he’s talking about?

And more importantly: where has he been all my life?

I imagine I’ll talk about this in more depth in the future, but the signature weakness of the Kansas City Royals going back to their world championship has not been their pitching – they had some great pitching staffs in the early 90s. It has not been their lack of power, which is at least partly due to their ballpark. It has been their inability to get on base, specifically their inability to draw walks. Even when they won the World Series in 1985, the team ranked third from the bottom in walks drawn. Since 1980, only once (1989) has the team finished in the top half of the AL in walks. Other than John Wathan, no manager since Dick Howser has put any kind of emphasis on plate discipline.

Until now.

Talking with Dutton, here’s Hillman on his offensive philosophy:

“OBP is a no-brainer,” Hillman said. “Get on base and have guys drive you in. Be aggressively disciplined in the strike zone, but take your walks. After that, it depends on what you’re talking about.

“If you’re talking about the middle of the lineup, which I consider three through seven, then I look for run production. So I go to slug (slugging percentage).”

OBP is a no-brainer.

Not, “I think OBP is underrated”, or “there’s this new-fangled statistic called OBP that I like.” OBP is a no-brainer. It’s obvious. Duh.

You have to understand, Trey: our last few managers were sort of no-brainers themselves. Buddy Bell played Angel Berroa every day. Tony Pena Sr. was the king of swinging at the slider in the dirt himself. Tony Muser used to bat Rey Sanchez second, at least until the Royals replaced him with Neifi Perez. (The Royals acquired Perez on July 25th, 2001, and sent Sanchez to Atlanta four days later. In all four games in between, honest to God, Perez led off and Sanchez batted second. The Royals scored nine runs in those four games and were shut out twice.)

It’s too early to know for sure. Hillman just made his first tactical decision in the heat of battle on Monday, although he's certainly off to a damn fine start. For all we know, he might fall under the spell of Ross Gload’s grit and toughness. (A hit-and-run, a bunt, and a steal attempt already? We may need to call for an intervention, people.) He might work his starters like the galley slaves in “Ben Hur.” He might enforce a ban of cell phones, iPods, and all other electronic devices from the clubhouse and endure a mutiny that would terrify William Bligh.

But from where I sit, he appears smart, resourceful, and willing to adjust. That alone distinguishes him from every manager the Royals have employed since at least John Wathan. It was under Wathan that the Royals last won 90 games in a season. I’m confident that at some point the Royals will do the same under Hillman.

10 comments:

jonfmorse said...

I've already noticed some "fundamentals" things that have left me impressed; little things I've rarely seen any team do, much less the Royals. A lot of them are baserunning issues, of course. DDJ's comments about reading the pitcher, Gathright's pretty much overt taunting of Rogers yesterday in order to mess with his delivery to the plate, Bucky hauling ass to make sure he got to second in the 11th on Monday... and maybe, maybe even Billy's "blunder" yesterday. I'm very curious about that sequence of events, because Grudz stuttered coming around third, and because of that I was dead-certain Inge was going to gun him down at the plate -- but then Billy rounded second and induced the cutoff from Guillen. I'd love to know whether Billy did that on purpose in order to ensure the run, I really would.

There's some other "fundamentals" I'm concerned about, however. It appears as though the Royals are being exceptionally hack-tastic on the first pass through the lineup (27 pitches, 9 of which were to Gordo and TPJ, in the first turn through the order yesterday? YIKES.), and then becoming extremely selective in later at-bats. If that pattern continues, I'm going to have to assume it's a deliberate tactical decision on Trey's part, and it makes no sense. Gordon's completely spitting the bit with 2-strike counts; Trey (or Barny) need to get him to not stand there with the bat on his shoulder taking strike three. And while it worked brilliantly the first time he did it Monday, Trey himself is going to have to be more judicious with the hit-and-run. Running Gload with Bucky at the plate and two strikes, with TPJ on deck? Not the most brilliant tactical decision in the history of the game.

Anonymous said...

I was at the game and agree with your sentiment about Butler getting picked off second on that throw from the outfield. I think that Grudz was dead at the plate if Butler didn't get plugged there. I'm not saying that it was intentional at all, just that it worked out well for the team (although coincidentally I did tell my fiancee at the time that I thought it was a really smart move by Butler because there was no way the run would have scored otherwise).

JYarnell said...

Rany, I believe it was during the FSN Kansas City broadcast of the season opener that Lefebvre addressed Trey and Grudz's talk at the mound in spring training. Unfortunately I don't remember exactly what Ryan said it was about, but I know (he claimed) it had nothing to do with the end of the game gathering. I think he said Grudz was talking to Trey about how the veterans would be handling travel arrangements or something like that. (At least that's how I remember it)

Brett said...

...and 3-0

Ryan said...

I just brought a broom.

I'm not sure what to do with it. It's been so long.

Gordon goes yard again, and he gets his first non-HR hit with a single in the 8th.

The new guy from Colorado comes in in the 8th and strikes out a couple.

Soria locks it down again.

Again. Again. Again.

I have to go trash talk to all my American League Central Friends.

Ryan said...

Serious question. I posted a little question a week or so ago before the season. What if our top three starters are actually this good. (Well not "this" good.) What if they all can churn out "quality" starts with an ERA under 4.00?

A. Is that doable?
B. If Bale is a solid 4, and Davies or Hochevar or Tomko can emerge as a solid 5, do we go above .500?

Positive things today:
-We won without Butler's offense.
Gordon hit another jack, which helps his confidence.
-Teahen shows a little power, which is all we ask of him...a little power.
-Our bullpen holds up a lead without any real threat.
-Winning three on the road against the Tigers allows the players to relax and have fun, and just play, instead of thinking and pressing (especially the younger guys.)

Brett said...

Onto MN with Meche pitching a game. 2-1 against the Twins is a very reasonable expectation. If we do that, the Yankees can sweep us and we'll still be 5-4 with the twins coming to town. Realisticly we should probably take 4 of 6 from the twins and 1 of 3 from the Yankees over our next nine. Anyone complaining about being 8-5? Life is good...

Corban said...

Rany,

My friend and I (two fine looking University of Kansas students) are among those who DIDN'T QUIT on their Royals blog and we've had it goin' a nice three years now. If you'd like to check it out, go here: http://corbyandtheroyals.blogspot.com/.

Anyways, I love the length, I love the love, and I like the direction we're moving.

Rock Chalk,
-Corban

Anonymous said...

Lets give Buddy credit for doing one thing that has helped turn this franchise around, and that is hire Bob McClure.

Kealee's Daddy said...

Let's give Buddy credit for another thing that helped turn this franchise around - he left.