Examining Mike Matheny’s Tenure as Royals Manager (And If He’ll Be Back in 2023)

The Royals are 51-77 going into Sunday’s series finale against the San Diego Padres. The Royals, as of Sunday, are 11-15 in the month of August with two games remaining after Sunday’s contest at Kauffman Stadium. Even though the second half has been slightly better than the first half of the year before the All-Star break, it’s been a disappointing season for the Royals after going 74-88 in 2021.

As expected with a disappointing season, there are already some major questions about whether or not Mike Matheny will be back as Royals manager next season.

Now, to be fair, Matheny came at a weird time in baseball and Royals history when he was tabbed to replace Ned Yost as Royals manager in the Winter of 2019.

At the time, the Royals were fresh off an ownership change, as John Sherman acquired the Royals from previous owner David Glass early that November after the conclusion of the 2019 season. And if that wasn’t enough, the world, in general, was thrust into the COVID pandemic that paused baseball from mid-March to the end of July.

So, it hasn’t been an easy situation for Matheny as Royals manager, especially considering that he was asked to lead a team going through a rebuild after back-to-back 100-plus loss seasons in 2018 and 2019.

Even though it’s been a challenging ordeal for Matheny as Royals skipper (and a much different situation from his tenure as Cardinals manager), the fact of the matter is that managers are paid to win games. And, under Matheny’s guidance, the Royals haven’t won many, as Matheny has a 151-199 record as Royals manager since taking over in 2020 (as of Sunday).

Thus, will Matheny be back as Royals manager in 2023? Or will Matheny be out of the Royals clubhouse this offseason, especially with Dayton Moore and the Royals front office feeling the heat as well after six-straight losing seasons?

Let’s take a look at the case to keep Matheny as manager, the case for keeping him, and what the Royals should do in preparation for Spring Training in 2023.

The Case to Keep Matheny for 2023

The fact of the matter is this: as much as we want to blame the manager for all of a team’s problems, the manager’s influence is a lot less compared to other executives in the organization.

After all, it’s not Matheny’s fault that he was saddled with a flawed roster comprised of unproven rookies, and past-their-prime veterans who were rightfully traded by the August Trade Deadline (such as Whit Merrifield and Carlos Santana). And while Matheny makes the lineup and pitching decisions, injuries to some key players lately (i.e. Vinnie Pasquantino) have forced his hand with the lineup card, and the pitching struggles could probably be credited toward Cal Eldred’s struggles as pitching coach rather than Matheny’s managing.

Eldred has been in Kansas City as the pitching coach (since 2018) longer than Matheny as manager, so if anyone needs to be accountable first, it would be Eldred. The Royals have seen how the offense turned around after a hitting coach change (i.e. replacing Terry Bradshaw with Alec Zumwalt). One has to wonder if the Royals pitching staff would improve under a new pitching coach first before making a major decision on Matheny.

While Matheny earned a bad reputation in St. Louis for not “handling” young players well in the clubhouse (and preferring veterans in nearly every case), he has been a bit better about cultivating a clubhouse where young guys can make mistakes and not fear immediate consequences.

Matheny gave Mondesi plenty of leash when he was healthy. He has supported Bobby Witt, Jr. despite his own defensive issues in the infield this year. And even despite the pitching staff’s struggles (both as a rotation and bullpen), Matheny has maintained a “positive” outlook with the media and refuses to throw his players, or even Eldred, under the bus in public, which hasn’t always been the case in the past with Royals managers.

When listening to his interviews, it is easy to see that Matheny’s attitude is a good one and much-needed for a young group that is trying to figure it out during a rough season.

Does Matheny always make the right lineup or pitching decisions? Definitely not, but one could say the same for any Major League manager. Buck Showalter isn’t perfect with the Mets. Aaron Boone has his own issues with bullpen management with the Yankees as well. Matheny can only manage from what he’s got from a talent end, and right now, he’s keeping things afloat and positive, even with the Royals 26 games under .500 as of Sunday.

The Case to Let Go of Matheny in 2023

Matheny isn’t in charge of who he brings to Kansas City’s lineup or rotation. That falls on Moore and Picollo. That being said, his roster management, especially with preserving health, has a much more questionable track record, as Royals fans have noted in the wake of Josh Staumont’s recent trip to the injured list.

Matheny has either allowed guys to rush back before they were fully healthy, which has produced re-aggravation of injuries (i.e. Edward Olivares and Adalberto Mondesi), or some poor performance due to the lack of recovery (i.e. Hunter Dozier and Salvador Perez). Matheny has also over-exerted some of his pitchers this year, especially those out of the bullpen.

Josh Staumont for example landed on the IL after an outing in which he threw 42 pitches, which is a career-high. Staumont has struggled with health this year, as he was previously put on the IL back on June 26th. While Staumont has to do his part to get outs when he’s on the mound (which he hasn’t really done this year), over-using Staumont in such a situation, despite his injury history, feels like a case of mismanagement from Matheny.

And Staumont isn’t alone either.

Scott Barlow has been the Royals’ most-used reliever this season, as he has pitched 60.2 innings in 55 appearances this season (he made 71 appearances last year). However, while Barlow has been the Royals’ best reliever (2.37 ERA), he has seen a dip in K/9 (11.02 in 2021 to 8.30 in 2022) as well as average fastball velocity (95.3 MPH in 2021 to 93.8 in 2022). Hence, it is not a surprise that Barlow’s FIP (3.80) is nearly 1.50 points higher than his ERA this year, which isn’t a good sign for him both in the short and long term.

Matheny managing Barlow’s load a little better could make Barlow’s outlook a little more optimistic in preparation for 2023, especially since it seems like the Royals are confident that he’ll be a long-term piece in Kansas City after this year (which is why they didn’t trade him at the Deadline).

Lastly, in addition to injury management issues, it also feels like Matheny could be utilizing or embracing analytics more as a manager. That especially came to light after the KC Star’s Jesse Newell posted this Tweet about how Matheny and the Royals coaching staff were handling playing time going forward.

Honestly, this should be something the Royals “should’ve” been doing all along. And yet, Matheny is making it sound like they are “just” doing this in the wake of their current roster situation with Waters up. That is not a good sign that Matheny and his staff are handling or comprehending data well in comparison to his managerial peers.

And with how the game and sports are trending, being that behind is not a recipe for future success at the Major League level.

Should Matheny Be Back in Kansas City?

I have been going back and forth on this quite a lot.

On one end, I think firing Matheny may not solve a lot of the Royals’ problems if that’s the sole decision. The Royals have some issues in their development of pitchers from the Minor to the Major League level. They have a problem with handling data still, as they have one of the smallest analytics staffs in baseball. And there has been inconsistency with their scouting and player development, especially in regard to their talent from Latin America:

All those issues go beyond Matheny, and I imagine Sherman is doing some reflecting in terms of what he wants to do (and spend) this offseason in order to address all those issues plaguing this organization from being a consistent winner.

That being said, is Matheny the guy who’s going to be the face of the Royals’ next winning ball club?

That’s hard to imagine, unfortunately.

It’s one thing to be old school as a manager when one has a winning track record, but that isn’t quite the case for Matheny, especially after his first couple of years in St. Louis with a loaded Cardinals team that should’ve won at least a couple of more pennants under his watch.

And will Matheny incorporate analytics enough with his staff to align with what is expected from a modern manager?

That is also hard to imagine as well, especially in an organization where traditional scouting and player development seem to trump more modern analytics and research at both the Major and Minor League levels.

Matheny seems like an average-enough manager. He’s not quite Tony La Russa bad, and I think with a better, more competitive roster, he’d probably do well enough. He strikes me a lot like a Bob Melvin type: put him on a good team, and we would be talking a lot more about him as one of the better managers in the game (after all, Melvin has been smart to move off of teams going through rebuilds). But, he’s not the kind of manager who can turn around a club in a short period of time, like a Showalter, for example.

I hope Matheny gets another crack at managing with another club. He’s a lot more likable than I thought he would be as the Royals manager.

But if the Royals are serious about changing the culture and building a long-term winner, it would be better to find a manager who better fits that mold than Matheny.

It’ll be interesting to see though if they do part ways if they’ll stay internal (i.e. Zumwalt or Pedro Grifol, who have both been mentioned) or if they’ll go outside the organization to find their next manager.

I guess Royals fans will see how this final month of play pans out in Kansas City.

Photo Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

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