Originally, when Dayton Moore elected to hire Mike Matheny as the Royals’ new manager, I was pessimistic to say the least. I felt that Pedro Grifol was a better option, and I thought Matheny’s history in St. Louis wouldn’t mesh with a club that was going through a clear rebuild. In order for the club to progress and grow, it was necessary to find an open-minded manager who fostered the young talent on the roster, and there was little history that proved that Matheny could do that in Kansas City.
While it’s still Spring Training (we will see once the games start), Matheny has done a lot to buck his once “less than sterling” reputation with the more “pessmistic” Royals fan. He has been open to analytics, he has been encouraging of the young talent on this roster (especially Ryan O’Hearn), and he has seemed to bring an energy to this clubhouse that seemed a bit stagnant the past couple of seasons.
It is obvious that there has been a boost in the Royals clubhouse. That is not to say Ned Yost was a bad manager or didn’t inspire or connect with the troops. However, after 10 years, and in the aftermath of back-to-back 100-plus loss seasons, it was obvious that it was time in Kansas City for a managerial change (which I mentioned before Yost announced his retirement last year).
All this got me thinking: how many Royals managers saw an improvement in record in the 52 year history of the Royals organization? So, I took a look at the Royals franchise index on baseball reference, and did some research to understand how clubs fared when a new manager took over.
Here is the spreadsheet I created with the data, which I will also embed below. If you look at the percentage difference, it is color-coded based on the kind of difference: green represents a 10 percent or higher improvement in win percentage (which I categorized as significant improvement); orange represents a 0.01 to 9.99 percent improvement (which I categorized just as improvement); blue represents 0 (which I categorized as no improvement); and red represents any percentage under 0 (which I categorized as decline).
Here are a few trends I noticed when a new Royals manager took over the helm.
Most managers saw improvement from the previous year
I did not include two managers, as they were interim managers, who eventually were succeeded by other managers during the same year. Because they were not seen or considered long-term options, I did not include them in this data. Those managers include Bob Schaefer (who had two interim stints in 1991 and 2005) and John Mizerock (who managed 13 games in between the two “Tony’s”: Muser and Pena, in 2002).
Taking those two managers out, here was a common trend: a majority of new managers improved the Royals record-wise in the first season of their new tenure. Five managers saw significant improvement (Herzog in 1975; Howser in 1981; Wathan in 1987; McRae in 1991; and Bell in 2005), and seven saw improvement in general (Metro and Lemon in 1970; McKeon in 1973; Frey in 1980; Ferraro in 1986; Pena in 2002; Hillman in 2008; and Yost in 2010). The fact that 12 out of the 17 (well…19 if you count the interim managers) saw a boost in win-loss percentage is a good sign that the Royals could surpass expectations in 2020 in Matheny’s first year.
The managers who didn’t improve were not in great situations
Bob Boone took over for Hal McRae in 1995 following the strike-shortened season in 1994. McRae posted a 64-51 during the abbreviated season, which was actually the last winning season for the Royals until 2003. McRae was a notable player for the Royals during his playing days, and actually had a strong record as Royals manager. However, despite a .508 winning percentage overall as manager from 1991 through 1994, it never seemed he could win over the Kansas City media after this tantrum in the dugout that has become stuff of legend, as seen below:
Boone just seemed to struggle after taking over for McRae, especially as it seemed evident that the Royals were in the midst of a transition from a bit of a powerhouse in the 80’s, to a small-market club that would struggle in the new financial atmosphere of Major League baseball post-labor stoppage. Plus, I’m sure the loss of a former Royal and successful manager, probably didn’t bode well in the clubhouse for Boone in that first season, as I’m sure many Royals players probably still wanted McRae was their manager.
As for Muser, he was thrust into a situation mid-season where the Royals went through a bunch of swings momentum-wise. The club actually started off the season strong in 1997, leading the division on May 15th with a 20-17 record. However, they suffered an eight-game losing streak before the All-Star break, and Boone was fired with a 36-46 record. Considering the high expectations during the year after the hot start, things never clicked for Muser that year, which explains his 31-48 mark as manager that year. To his credit, the team did improve to 72-89 the following year, but Muser’s tenure wasn’t great overall, as he failed to have a winning season in his tenure as manager.
The Royals have not hesitated to pull the plug on managers mid-season
Of all the managerial changes that have happened in the Royals’ history as a club, 10 of those changes occurred during the season. This was more common pre-1990, as the Royals made five in-season managerial changes from 1969-1990. This probably makes sense when put into context, as the Royals were more competitive as an organization at this time, and most teams tend to be less patient with managers during periods when the expectations are high and winning is expected, not a surprise.
As for GM Dayton Moore though, he has only made on in-season managerial change, which was firing Hillman and hiring Ned Yost mid-season in 2010. While Yost won two pennants and a World Series title in his tenure, he had an overall winning percentage of only .471 as Royals skipper, which was actually lower than his mark in Milwaukee (.477). However, even though the Royals struggled in the Post-World Series years under Yost, it never seemed like his job was ever in jeopardy, a far cry from those pre-1990 days, where losing was not tolerated. Even Hillman, whose time in Kansas City was a bit of a tire fire, lasted two-and-a-half seasons as manager, even though his tenure had noted record and clubhouse problems.
Thus, it’s likely that Matheny will have a long leash as long as Moore is the general manager, as he seems to be patient with his managers, and won’t let one or two losing seasons affect his overall judgment and evaluation of a Royals field manager.
What kind of improvement will the Royals see under Matheny in 2020?
It won’t be hard for the Royals to improve in 2020, especially coming off a 59-103 season. Last year, the Royals had a winning percentage of .397, which should not be too much of a challenge for Matheny and the Royals to surpass. As of now Fangraphs is projecting a 71-91 record for the Royals, which would be a .438 winning percentage if the Royals meet that mark. That would be about a seven percent improvement from 2019 if they meet that projection, which is nice improvement, but not significant improvement as categorized in the table above.
While some Royals fans are pessimistic about the Royals chances (the starting pitching as of now is still questionable), it seems like Matheny will have a good chance of keeping that Royals manager trend of improving the club record-wise in his first season as manager. That being said, it’s likely it will only be a small improvement, as he would have to win at least 76 games to meet that “significant improvement” threshold. While I consider myself an optimistic Royals fan, 76 wins seems high and unlikely unless a lot of chips fall in the Royals favor this season.
Therefore, the Royals will improve in year one under new manager Matheny. However, what will make Matheny’s tenure a real success is if he is able to build on that modicum of success after year one, and transition it to something sustainable on a multiple-year basis.
But then again, a lot of that does hinge on the talent Moore supplies Matheny, which will be interesting to follow in the next two-to-three seasons in Kansas City.
Because if Moore doesn’t grow the on-field talent in Kansas City and find success during that time span, not only will the Royals be looking for a new field manager, but perhaps a new general manager as well.