When I wrote my last article, I had no expectation that Trey Hillman would actually be fired before my next post. Feel free to insert your own joke about the frequency of my postings if you want, but this move happened faster than even the most optimistic Royals fan could have expected.
In retrospect, it’s pretty clear that the straw that broke Hillman’s back came on Sunday, just hours after my last article posted, when Josh Hamilton failed to tag up from first base on a routine fly ball…and the entire team missed it. No one on the team was even aware that they missed a chance to call Hamilton out on appeal until after the game was over. Instead, the Rangers scored two more runs in the inning. They won the game by two runs. You do the math – I have no doubt that David Glass did.
It’s easy to say that the decision to fire Hillman came from ownership. It’s easy because it’s probably accurate. Sam Mellinger writes that much to his own surprise, this decision came entirely from Dayton Moore. I have no doubt that Mellinger’s intel is solid, but I think that the mechanics of a move this big are too complicated to be a simple either-or proposition. The ultimate decision rested in Moore’s hands, but the idea that Moore made the decision to fire Hillman entirely on his own – barely 48 hours after he said “He’s exactly what our organization needs at this point in time” – is frankly far more worrisome than the idea that ownership imposed this decision on him.
It’s no secret that Moore was close with Hillman on a personal as well as a professional level, and if there was any doubt, Moore removed them when he broke down briefly at the start of his press conference. As he said, this was the most difficult decision he has made in his career. Credit to him for making it, then, but credit also to ownership for forcing some accountability here.
As a rule, meddling from ownership is never a good thing. But if there’s an exception, this would be it. It’s not clear if Moore was going to let his personal relationship with Hillman cloud his judgment, but if David Glass stepped in and helped make the decision for him, he not only saved Moore from himself, he might have saved Hillman from having his reputation further damaged.
I speak from experience: eight years ago this month, the general manager of the Royals finally fired his long-time manager, a manager that he had grown so fond of that he could not bring himself to let him go until well after it was clear that a change needed to be made. The general manager was Allard Baird, and his manager was Tony Muser. In 2001, Muser’s fourth full season as manager, the Royals lost 97 games, tying a team record for losses set…under Muser’s watch two years earlier. Rob and I were calling for Muser’s head all season, and we weren’t the only ones. Instead, Baird’s big move that season was to trade Jermaine Dye for Neifi Perez.
Muser came back in 2002 as a dead man walking, even if he and his GM didn’t realize it. The Royals started 8-15, and late in the night on May 1st in Detroit, Muser learned he was fired – from a member of the media, as the news leaked before Baird could tell him himself. Baird let his friend down that night, but really, he let his friend down much more by not cutting the cord with him a year earlier, when Muser’s reputation might have been salvageable. Afterwards, I wrote this piece for Baseball Prospectus. Eight years later, Muser has yet to get a second chance as a manager in the major leagues.
Muser’s successor, Tony Pena, resigned in the middle of the night in Toronto, choosing to abandon his ballclub rather than come back to Kansas City and possibly testify in a divorce case in which he had been implicated. Pena’s successor, Buddy Bell, announced he would be “retiring” at the end of the 2007 season, ostensibly to take a position with the Royals that would require less travel. Approximately 18 minutes after the season, Bell announced that he was 1) hired by the White Sox 2) as their Director of Minor League Instruction, a position which requires a tremendous amount of travel. It wasn’t hard to read between the lines.
By the standards of recent Royals history, then, the timeline for the firing of Hillman was nice and clean. In his third full season, the Royals were not only not getting better, they were getting worse. That’s a pretty good rule-of-thumb to fire a manager with no previous record of success. Maybe it’s a brutal standard to uphold, but it’s a fair one.
In the aftermath of his firing, there’s a rather spirited debate going on about what Hillman did wrong. Joe Posnanski makes the case here that Hillman lost the respect of the players early, and never gained it back. I think he has a very valid point; this isn’t the first time someone has compared Hillman to Vern Rapp, and after the Hillman experience, I think it should be a hard-and-fast rule in baseball: NEVER hire a manager who hasn’t spent time IN SOME CAPACITY with a major league baseball team. I don’t care if he’s managed, played, coached, served as a trainer, batboy, whatever. The culture of a major league clubhouse is unique, and no amount of managing in the minors or in Japan can substitute for it.
But ultimately I don’t think that Hillman’s time in Kansas City would have been much longer or more successful even if he had spent a year coaching in the majors first. To Hillman’s credit, he seemed to correct a lot of the mistakes he made in his first season, when he almost lost the clubhouse in September. The price of fixing those mistakes may have been substantial; I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jose Guillen has played almost every day this season, even as his production has cratered, or that Gil Meche seemed to have final say over when he came out of the ballgame. But I think that Hillman’s biggest mistake with the Royals is far more fundamental. I think his mistake was in accepting the job in the first place.
No matter how impressive a manager might be when it comes to things that don’t show up in the standings, he’s going to lose his job if the things that do show up in the standings – wins and losses – don’t show progress after 2 or 3 seasons. And given the overall state of the Royals’ organization after the 2007 season, when Hillman was hired, he was facing an uphill battle to keep his job from day one.
He inherited a team that had lost 93 games, that had started Ross Gload at first base, and for whom Odalis Perez was the #3 starter. More than that, he inherited a team that after the season was ranked by Baseball America as having the #24 farm system in baseball. A small-market team with no talent on the field or in the minor leagues: this was close to mission impossible. The job wasn’t made any easier by his general manager’s decision to focus on high school talent in his first two drafts. I’m not faulting Moore for that decision at all; it may in fact prove to be the right move in the long run. But Hillman didn’t have a long run. He had to know that his GM wasn’t doing him any favors by drafting guys who wouldn’t be ready to help the team until well into the future – a future that Hillman might not have.
Or to put it another way, as recently as this spring training many Royals fans – myself included – lamented the Royals’ decision to draft Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer over Matt Wieters and Gordon Beckham. It’s now a lot less clear whether the Royals made the wrong decision. But having Wieters and Beckham might have made Hillman a more successful manager in 2010, even if they didn’t make him a better manager. Ultimately a manager is only as good as his players, and the Royals still don’t have the horses.
I think I made this case to a friend back when Hillman was hired: I’d hate to be Hillman, but I’d love to be the guy who replaces Hillman. By 2010 or 2011, my thinking went, the organization ought to have a lot more talent in place, making it possible for the Royals to be a contender by 2012 or 2013. Hillman just chose the wrong window of time to be the manager for the Kansas City Royals. He’s now paying the price for it.
That’s not to absolve him of his failings or to argue that his firing was unjustified. He earned this decision. But it’s only fair to point out that he was dealt a losing hand from day one.
The most important consequence of this move is that it places the progress of the team squarely on the shoulders of Moore, as they should be. Losing franchises have a natural sort of progression. After a team underachieves for long enough, the general manager fires the manager; if the underachievement continues for a few more years, then the owner fires the general manager. The new general manager then gets to fire the manager he inherits at a time of his choosing, and then the cycle repeats itself.
The Royals just finished the first stage. Moore inherited Buddy Bell, and was not beholden to him at all, so letting Bell go after the 2007 season was a free move. But Hillman was his guy, and by nudging Moore to fire him, Glass also sends a very strong message that the next time the pressure builds to axe someone in the front office, it probably won’t be the manager who gets scapegoated.
This is a good thing, and I say that even though I am not one of the chorus of Royals fans calling for Moore to get fired right now. While Moore has made some egregious errors in constructing this roster, it simply can not be stressed enough: the reason why the Royals suck year after year isn’t because they sign guys like Kyle Farnsworth and trade for guys like Yuniesky Betancourt. The reason the Royals are on schedule for their 15th losing record in the last 16 years is because they have done a terrible job of scouting and developing talent for a long, long time.
It’s too early to say whether Moore has fixed that fundamental weakness. But it’s not too early to say that the early results are promising. I hope to get to the minor leagues soon – I intended to spend today writing about them before Hillman was fired – but even casual Royals fans have heard about the exploits of Moustakas, Hosmer, Michael Montgomery et al. this season.
Hillman leaves behind a team that is not only not good, it’s not young. Incredibly, Billy Butler was the only player on the entire roster who was under the age of 26. That’s not a reflection on Hillman, but on the man who handed him this team. The good news is that while the success of the team may not change quickly, the complexion of the team just might. Mike Aviles isn’t young, but he represented an immediate upgrade to the lineup; pretty soon we may say the same about Kila Ka’aihue. Blake Wood, called up the other day, is 24. By this time next year, no less than three lineup spots and two spots in the rotation – and, if we’re lucky, the better part of the entire bullpen – might be turned over to young talent.
At that point or soon thereafter, it will be fair to judge Dayton Moore. If those players live up to their hype, then whoever succeeds Hillman as manager next year – whether it’s Ned Yost or (hopefully) someone else – will get the credit. And if they don’t, Moore will take the blame, and Royals fans will get their scalp.
I hope to be back soon with a full analysis of Ned Yost. In the meantime, from the self-promotion department:
- For those of you who would like to listen to the radio show after the fact (and the timing of Hillman’s firing couldn’t have been better, as we went on the air less than 2 hours later), click here to download the podcast. Scroll down to “Additional Programming”.
- My original hometown paper, the Wichita Eagle, ran a profile of me in Sunday’s edition here.
- Going further back, prior to the season I did my patriotic duty as an American by agreeing to be interviewed by America.gov here. Pay no mind to my prediction that the Atlanta Braves would win the World Series - that quote clearly must have come from Dayton Moore.