Friday, May 14, 2010

Hillman's Post-Mortem.


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 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.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Hillman's Last Stand.

I know I owe you some vaguely optimistic words about the callups of Mike Aviles and Kila Ka’aihue. But that will have to wait. There are times for childish fantasies like gingerbread houses and sugar plums and young Royals with upside, but this is not one of them. This is a time to have a very frank, sober, adult conversation.

Trey Hillman has crossed the point of no return in Kansas City.

Yesterday’s game was an exhibition of managerial malpractice almost unparalleled in the history of the franchise. Hillman could hardly have damaged the Royals’ chances to win the game more if he had tried. It is exceedingly important that every Royals fan understand the extent to which Hillman hurt both his team’s chances of winning last night, and his most well-paid pitcher’s chances of earning his generous contract for well into the future.

Some background is necessary to understand why Hillman was the talk of the baseball twittersphere last night.

Let’s start with the trivial stuff. Yuniesky Betancourt, as you probably know, cost the Royals (and Zack Greinke) a run on Friday night when he nonchalantly dropped a routine pop-up with a man on second and two outs. The photograph of his muff – I believe it was on the front cover of the Star’s sports page – should be the emblem of the Royals season. (It’s picture #11 in this montage.)

It has it all – terrible form (Yuni, as you may have heard, likes to catch pop-ups at chest level, with one hand), terrible vision (as the ball is bouncing off his glove, Yuni is staring up at the sky, possibly distracted by a passing robin, or maybe looking for the North Star), and a kind of nonchalant insouciance that suggests that catching pop-ups is beneath a man of Yuni’s talents.

It was a bad, unforgivably bad, play, and it cost Greinke yet another unearned run.

Afterwards, Hillman said that he would take “action” against Betancourt. The appropriate action should be quite obvious – bench him for the next game. Instead, Betancourt started, while Mike Aviles had his first day off in five games. But don’t worry – Betancourt was fined a few bucks, so Hillman’s point was made. Never mind that Betancourt is making $3 million this season, so a fine of, say, $1000 would be the equivalent of a $20 fine for someone who makes $60,000 a year. That’s not even a slap on the wrist; it’s more like punishing him with a tickle fight.

Naturally, Betancourt rewarded his manager’s confidence by going 0-4 last night, batting with a man on base all four times, and with a man in scoring position three times. And once again, he failed to drive home a runner on third with less than two out. In a game the Royals lost by one run.

While Hillman benched Aviles in favor of Betancourt, he did see fit to give Ka’aihue his first start of the season, moving Billy Butler to DH and giving Jose Guillen the day off. Ka’aihue didn’t have a good day, going 0-for-3, before Hillman pinch-hit for him with Guillen against a left-hander in the 7th. That, by itself, was a perfectly defensible move. But after Guillen made an out to keep the game tied, Hillman decided he had to keep Guillen in the game, setting off a ridiculous sequence of musical chairs.

Guillen stayed in at right field, forcing David DeJesus to left field, forcing Scott Podsednik to center field, forcing Mitch Maier to first base.

Maier had never played first base before in the majors. He had never played first base before in the minors. But Hillman decided that the late innings of a tie game was the perfect time for him to get his first opportunity, not to mention downgrading the defense significantly at two other positions. It didn’t cost the Royals in the end, but it was a curious decision. If Willie Bloomquist isn’t on the roster to keep the Royals from playing three players out of position, then why is he here?

These two moves were just the appetizers to the main course, a sequence of events so baffling that even now I keep hoping that the official scorer in Arlington was strung out on meth and that none of what I’m about to recount ever happened.

Starting for the Royals last night was the artist formerly known as Gil Meche, the artist who, after the Royals criminally allowed him to throw 121 pitches despite a self-acknowledged “dead arm” on July 1st of last year, had allowed 53 earned runs in 54 innings. The same Gil Meche who missed time in spring training with tightness in his shoulder. The same Meche who, coming into the game, had a 9.89 ERA this season and had allowed more walks (18) than strikeouts (14).

The Royals have been in denial that something’s still wrong with Meche all season. After his last start, we get this: “He was almost over the hump,” Hillman said. “If the breaking ball (to Rios) with two strikes doesn’t get through the left side … it’s a lot better line for him.” Meche allowed 9 hits and 5 runs in 5 innings in that start; he walked 3 batters and he struck out 2. That performance can’t be explained away by a couple of groundballs with eyes.

Was Meche still hurting? “The only thing I can go on is what comes out of his mouth and the mannerisms you see when he’s pitching,” Hillman said. “Most of the time you see something different in the mannerisms. I haven't seen anything different.”

It is with this background in mind that Meche took the mound last night, and gutted his way through 7 strong innings. I say “gutted” because he wasn’t dominant, or even in control, by any stretch of the imagination. He walked 5 batters and struck out only 3. In the sixth inning, Vladimir Guerrero led off with a single, but was then thrown out by Maier when he tried to advance to third on Ian Kinsler’s single, allowing Meche to get out of the inning unscathed.

But still, through 7 innings and 104 pitches, Meche allowed just 2 runs in 7 innings. The bullpen was fairly rested, thanks to Greinke – only Kyle Farnsworth had thrown the day before, and just one inning. Furthermore, the team has a day off on Monday. With the top of the Rangers’ lineup due up, there was no reason to push Meche any further – get a fresh arm in there.

Hillman sent Meche to the mound to start the bottom of the eighth. Meche promptly walked Elvis Andrus on five pitches. The heart of the Rangers’ order – Michael Young, Josh Hamilton, Guerrero and Kinsler – was due up. Alarm bells were going off on the mound.

The Rangers regifted the baserunner back to the Royals, as Andrus was thrown out trying to steal with Young at the plate. Meche returns the favor again, walking Young on six pitches. He’s now thrown 115 pitches, and walked the last two batters he’s faced. The alarm bells were now accompanied by red and blue flashing strobe lights. There’s a meeting on the mound. "He just came out and asked how I felt," Meche said. "Basically I said, 'I've been in here this long, let me battle my way out of this.' He just said basically, 'Let's go. The ball four is killing us.'" Hillman leaves Meche in.

Hamilton beats out an infield single on Meche’s second pitch. Meche has now thrown 117 pitches. The last three batters he’s faced have reached base safely. The go-ahead run is on second base with one out. A speaker pops out of the pitching rubber and a muffled voice states, “Please pull over into the visitor’s dugout.”

Meche stays in to pitch to future Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero. On the third pitch, Guerrero nails a ball to deep center field, which Podsednik runs down as Young cruises into third base. 120 pitches.

Meche pitches to Kinsler. Kinsler works the count to 2-2, fouls off a pair of two-strike pitches, and Meche hangs a curveball. Kinsler bangs it to right field to plate the go-ahead run. 127 pitches.

At this point, sure, why the hell not leave Meche in? We’ve already reached the point of absurdity – what’s one more batter going to do? David Murphy mercifully flies out on the first pitch. Neftali Feliz and his 100 mph fastball come in to pitch the 9th, and despite a pinch single from Aviles, Feliz puts the game away.

So to recap: Gil Meche, who started complaining of a tired arm after throwing 132 pitches in a complete game last June, and who has been consistently awful since throwing 121 pitches with a dead arm last July, and who wasn’t pitching well so much as pitching lucky on this night, was allowed to throw 128 pitches – the longest outing by any major league pitcher this season – on Saturday night. He was left in to complete the 8th inning, despite a fresh bullpen, and despite the fact that he allowed the first three batters to reach base safely.

Oh, yeah - and as a result, Meche surrenders the game-winning run.

Does anyone remember what happened in that game on July 1st? Because Hillman clearly doesn’t. Meche started the 6th inning that day, in a game tied 2-2, having thrown 99 pitches. He allowed the leadoff hitter to reach base. With two outs, he then allowed a walk, putting men on first and second with two outs. Hillman left him in to pitch – TO JOE MAUER – and Mauer hit the go-ahead single. Meche has never been the same since.

Last night, facing a virtually identical situation, Hillman made the exact same decisions. It’s as if the game of July 1st never happened. It’s as if I and Joe Posnanski and a hundred other bloggers – Royals fans and non-Royals fans – hadn’t immediately declared Hillman’s decision to be one of the dumbest moves of the season. It’s as if we weren’t immediately proven correct when Meche’s season went into the tank. It’s as if Meche didn’t miss the entire month of September. It’s as if those who do not learn from history are not actually doomed to repeat it.

But they are. Ten months ago, Trey Hillman made perhaps the worst decision of his managerial career, and ruined – perhaps irrevocably – his second-best starting pitcher. Yesterday, faced with the same choice, he made the exact same decision. There can be no stronger evidence that Hillman hasn’t learned a thing on the job.

The old me would now proceed with a few thousand words filled with choice insults and all but demanding that when the Royals return home today, that Hillman be left behind in Arlington along with his retired number. The new me is trying to be a little less emotional and a little more analytical. So I’m not going to insist that the Royals fire Hillman on the spot.

I’m not going to argue that Hillman should be fired. I’m just going to predict that he will be. Probably soon.

It doesn’t take an archaeologist to read the writing on the wall of this cave. Hillman’s contract expires at the end of the season; he was conspicuously not given a contract extension over the winter, cementing his lame-duck status. The Royals are 11-20 and fading fast. As Royals fans we’ve become inured to losing, but it’s worth pointing out that the Indians, who inspired this classic media meltdown the other day, actually have a better record than the Royals.

And trust me: David Glass is getting pissed. Most fans still have this image of Glass as this soulless, bean-counting owner who cares about the accounting ledgers more than the standings. But I stand by what I’ve written since Dayton Moore was hired: David Glass has been a model owner for the last four years. He hired the man who was considered the #1 GM prospect in the game by Baseball America, he’s let Moore run the team without interference, and he has opened his wallet when Moore asked him to.

The team’s payroll may still be low, but it’s no longer among the lowest in the game, and the Royals have spent more money in the draft over the last two years than any team but the Pirates. And part of the reason the payroll is so low is that the Royals simply didn’t have any players worth spending millions of dollars on. Since Moore took over, the Royals haven’t lost a single player to free agency that they wanted to keep. Instead, they’ve signed a pair high-profile free agents from other teams (Meche and Guillen), and several more mid-range free agents like Kyle Farnsworth, Juan Cruz, Willie Bloomquist, and Horacio Ramirez.

The money spent on those players has almost uniformly been wasted – but that’s just it. It’s Moore’s fault for spending the money – not Glass’s fault for not spending the money.

And I have it on good authority that Glass is getting pissed off. It wouldn’t surprise me if the decision to release Juan Cruz outright was a reflection of that (although it might also have something to do with the fact that Cruz, in addition to pitching terribly, was a gigantic pain in the ass.) But Glass is starting to realize that his front office isn’t wearing any clothes, and I expect that pretty soon Moore will have to make a more substantial sacrificial offering.

Since the Royals’ magical, mystical 18-11 start last season, they have now played 164 games – a full season plus two more games. They’re 58-106 in that span. That’s astonishing. In 2005, the year before Moore was hired, the Royals reached the absolute nadir of their existence by going 56-106. Five years later, despite a payroll more than 50% higher, despite millions being invested in the farm system, the Royals are exactly as bad now as they were then.

And they show no signs of getting better. On the contrary, as Posnanski wrote on Friday, they show all the signs of a team about to fall into the abyss. He wrote that the day before Hillman launched his second sneak attack on Gil Meche’s shoulder.

I didn’t expect much from the Royals this season, and I suspect most of you didn’t either, but so far the Royals are failing to meet even my meager expectations. It’s been clear for a long time that Hillman wasn’t part of the solution, but now we have overwhelming evidence that he’s a part of the problem.

The Royals have 21 games left in May as I write this. If they play under .500 in that span – say, 9-12 or worse – they’ll be 20-32 or worse after Memorial Day, and the Hillman Watch will begin in earnest. I put the odds that he gets cashiered before Flag Day at about 30%; the odds that he’s gone by the trading deadline have to be around 70%. And the odds that he returns next year? Jose Guillen has a better chance of coming back.

Sayonara, Trey. I had high hopes for you when you were hired, so believe me when I say I’m sorry it didn’t work out. But they didn’t. It’s in the best interests of everyone for you to move on.

Especially Gil Meche.