(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
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
In his place,
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.
But because Hillman’s experience to this point came in
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
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
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
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.