Honestly, among most Royals fans, year one of the Mike Matheny era was a relative success. Even though former Royals manager Ned Yost helped bring two pennants and a World Series title back to Kansas City, it was obvious that the club was in need of a change. His old-school approach, especially in regard to bullpen usage and analytics, didn’t seem to mesh in today’s modern day baseball world, and it was obvious that team needed a fresh voice. Thus, when Yost announced his retirement at the end of the 2019 season, while Royals fans were certainly appreciative of everything that Yost had done as manager, they were also excited for a new jolt in the clubhouse.
At first, it didn’t seem like Matheny was that jolt.
While Matheny was familiar with the Royals organization (he was hired as a special advisor shortly after he was fired in St. Louis), the hire didn’t feel like much of an improvement from Yost, if an improvement at all. Matheny had a reputation during his Cardinals days to be anti-analytics, a poor manager of bullpens, and not necessarily the best when it came to developing young talent (as evidenced by his handling of Jordan Hicks). The Royals had a good internal option in Pedro Grifol, who not only connected well with players (especially players from Latin America), but advocated for applying analytical principles on the field. After Matheny was hired, it felt like the typical Dayton Moore move: Matheny was being hired more for his “name” and not necessarily because he was the best fit in the Royals clubhouse.
Thankfully, Matheny proved the naysayers (including myself) wrong. In his first year as Royals manager, Matheny fully embraced analytics (especially in the use of defensive shifts) and managed the bullpen in a fashion that sharply contrasted from Yost’s more “old-school” approach. And his approach worked. The Royals ranked 12th in team UZR and and 11th in Def, according to Fangraphs. Additionally, their bullpen was one of the most underrated in the league, ranking 12th in reliever WAR and 8th in bullpen ERA, according to Fangraphs. Hence, it is not a surprise that the Royals improved their winning percentage from .364 in 2019 to .433 in 2020.
What’s even more remarkable though is that it felt like the Royals were better than their record, and it would have been interesting to see how this team would’ve further developed under Matheny, had there been another month of play. Matheny seemed to hint at that in a recent interview with the Athletic’s Alec Lewis:
“You look back at how many teams had similar records to ours — teams in some really big markets and teams who were anticipating to be really good. And we were three wins away from us being right there.”“Mike Matheny talks Royals’ roster, offseason moves and facing Tony La Russa” by Alec Lewis; The Athletic
There’s a lot to celebrate for sure when it came to Matheny’s first season in Kansas City. That being said, the honeymoon is pretty much over for Matheny, or should be over once Spring Training begins. Year two as Royals manager will not only bring heightened expectations, especially after an aggressive free agency that has brought Mike Minor, Carlos Santana, and Michael A. Taylor, to Kansas City, but new challenges as well with how the Central has developed this Winter.
The Royals rebuild began at the conclusion of the 2017, and Royals fans suffered through two straight 100-plus loss seasons in 2018 and 2019, before seeing some light at the end of the tunnel in 2020 after the Royals’ 26-34 performance. Prior to this off-season, Moore and the Royals front office took a conservative approach when it came to free agency and building the club with talent from outside the system. Instead of long-term deals to established veterans, Moore instead inked one-year acquisitions, usually players looking to bounce back after rough campaigns with their previous club. In some cases, the strategy worked: Maikel Franco, Trevor Rosenthal, Greg Holland, and Homer Bailey are just a few examples of “bargain” free agents succeeding in Kansas City. That being said, the Royals saw a fair share of those same “candidates” bust, with Chris Owings, Billy Hamilton, and Wily Peralta being the most glaring examples.
This off-season, however, Moore has improved the roster significantly, with free agent signings that are higher in risk than the deals Moore has made over the previous three off-seasons. Sure, Minor, Santana, and even Taylor, are not coming off their finest seasons. That being said, they are proven veterans, with significantly better track records than any free agent that Moore has acquired from the Winter of 2017 to the Spring of 2020. And such acquisitions mean primarily one thing: that the Royals are looking to take the next step in AL Central standings.
Hence, the goal in year two for Matheny will be significantly different from 2020. Last year, the goal for Matheny and the Royals was to compete, but with what they had. And honestly, Matheny handled it as well as any manager could have. He gave shots to Ryan O’Hearn, Adalberto Mondesi, and Nicky Lopez, even though they showed mixed results at the plate. He utilized younger bullpen arms like Josh Staumont, Kyle Zimmer, and Tyler Zuber, even though they didn’t have the “experience” of being Major League relievers in key spots. And in that process, many younger Royals players grew and matured, and while some eventually played their way out of the lineup (O’Hearn being the prime example), Matheny established a culture where players would get a fair shot, and rash decisions wouldn’t be made just on a bad stretch of play.
However, that’s easy to do on a rebuilding club coming off back-to-back 100-plus loss seasons. The Royals just needed to be “slightly” better in 2020 to make fans feel better about the Royals future, and Matheny helped do just that. That being said, with a revamped roster that’s continuing to change almost weekly (there is a lot of hot stove talk on Jurickson Profar being a Royals target), being “slightly” better may not be satisfactory enough for Royals fans in 2021. And thus, it may be harder to be patient and trust the “process” in 2021, especially if things don’t start off swimmingly for this Royals team early in the year.
And that could be a true test of how Matheny’s managerial chops have developed. Will he continue to be the patient manager who has control of the clubhouse? Or will panic set in if the chips are down, and he manages like he did in St. Louis, especially in the twilight years of his tenure there as Cardinals skipper?
As of now, Matheny seems to be confident in the Royals’ track, especially with the Central landscape changing this off-season. The White Sox have upgraded their clubhouse, not just with a couple of new players (Lance Lynn and Adam Eaton), but a new manager as well (Tony La Russa…more on this later). However, the rest of the AL Central has either stayed pat (Detroit), or started to shed their roster. Surprisingly, the Twins non-tendered Eddie Rosario, even though he has been one of the Twins’ most productive hitters the past few seasons. And the Indians not only let Carlos Santana walk, but they also seem to be serious about jettisoning franchise player Francisco Lindor this off-season as well.
Matheny seems to recognize that, and sees that as an opportunity for the Royals to make a run in the division, even though most outsiders think the Royals are probably a middle-tier team in the AL Central as of now. Here is what Matheny said to MLB.com Royals writer Jeffrey Flanagan in regard to whether or not he thinks the Royals could compete for a division title in 2021:
Royals manager Mike Matheny, now in his second year as the skipper, isn’t conceding the American League Central race. The Royals won 12 of their final 18 games in 2020 and believe they have momentum heading into ’21.
“I just think it’s realistic,” Matheny said in a Zoom call Thursday. “You look at how well we competed and how well we did even against the better teams in our division, and how well our guys could stay in the game. … Maybe we were just missing a little piece here and there.”“Matheny: Division crown ‘realistic’ goal for KC” by Jeffrey Flanagan; MLB.com/Royals
Matheny’s comments aren’t off: the Royals looked like a different team down the stretch, and they also performed well against most of the division in 2020 as well. With nearly every team in the division stagnating or perhaps regressing in 2021, it isn’t out of the question to think that the Royals could be even better against the division, especially with an upgraded roster.
That being said, the Royals will have to solve their problems against the White Sox, as they went 1-9 against them in 2020. In his discussion with Lewis, Matheny regarded that lackluster record as his biggest disappointment from the 2020 season:
[Chicago’s] the one team I don’t think ever saw us. We never showed the kind of team we were. I think most of the other teams in our division walked away, saying, “Wow.” Regardless of how the series turned out, they knew they had their hands full. But not against the White Sox. I can’t wait to show them something else.“Mike Matheny talks Royals’ roster, offseason moves and facing Tony La Russa” by Alec Lewis; The Athletic
Unfortunately, unlike the other three teams in the division (Minnesota, Cleveland, and Detroit), Chicago got better this Winter and probably has another significant move or two to make as well. Furthermore, the match up between Matheny and former mentor La Russa will be one of the Central’s more underrated story lines.
While both managers talk well of each other in the press, one has to believe that Matheny wants to prove something to not just La Russa, but the baseball world in 2021. Even though Matheny finished with a winning record as Cardinals manager, and took the Cardinals to a World Series in his second year as manager, many critics pointed that as residue from La Russa’s previous tenure. The further the Cardinals got from La Russa’s retirement, the worse the club performed under Matheny until he was eventually replaced by Mike Shildt in 2018. Even though Matheny might not say it, I imagine that he will be looking forward to each and every match up with the White Sox this year and beyond, as long as La Russa’s manager. If Matheny can get the season series against the Sox, not only will it give a chance for the Royals to be a dark horse candidate to win the AL Central, but it will also help Matheny get under from La Russa’s shadow as well.
Year two has typically “made” or “broken” managers in Royals history. Tony Pena had a sensational first full season in Kansas City in 2003, giving the club their first winning season since 1994. However, the Royals went 58-104 the next year, and he was gone after 33 games into the 2005 season. Trey Hillman, Moore’s first managerial hire as Royals GM, went 75-87 in his first year as Royal skipper in 2008, a six-game improvement from Buddy Bell’s final year in 2007. However, the club went 65-97 in Hillman’s second year, and he was eventually replaced 35 games into his third season with Yost, who ended up managing the Royals for roughly the next decade.
And thus, how Matheny develops as a manager with heightened expectations, and in a different Central landscape, could be the key to forecasting Matheny’s tenure as Royals manager. Yost in year two showed improvement, and eventually, that growth as a club led to a stretch from 2013-2017 that was arguably the Royals’ most successful stretch in decades. Matheny needs to show that kind of improvement in the standings if he wants to have as long a tenure as Yost in Kansas City. Any kind of regression from last year in the win column or standings will not bode well for Matheny’s future as Royals manager.
Does a down year next season mean Matheny will be automatically out in 2022? Probably not, unless something extreme happens (like a club record for losses). But if the Royals don’t show the progress in the Central next year, Matheny won’t have much time left as skipper in the Royals dugout…
And honestly, if that regression happens, the same would probably be true for Moore in the front office as well.