It’s been a few days since it happened. Still, JJ Picollo and the Kansas City Royals decided to part ways with manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Cal Eldred immediately after the season ended. Kansas City controlled the narrative on this one, as it was the organization, not “sources” or “reports”, who broke the news on Matheny and Eldred’s firing.
The news isn’t surprising, but it was a relief to Royals fans worried that Picollo would be a “Dayton Moore 2.0” and continue an organizational trend of being loyal to certain coaches and players without the merit to back it up.
In a press conference with the media on Thursday, Picollo addressed the manager situation and mentioned that the Royals would take their time in the process and look to cast a wide net for the next manager of the Kansas City Royals.
In addition to outlining who would be returning to the staff next year (Alec Zumwalt, Mike Tosar, and Keonni De Renne will return in their roles), he did mention two internal candidates for the position: third base coach Vance Wilson and bench coach Pedro Grifol.
Grifol has not just been a candidate for the Royals’ manager position before (in fact, I advocated for him over Matheny back in the fall of 2019), but his name has also been floated for other manager positions in the past. In fact, Grifol is deemed a serious candidate for vacant White Sox and Marlins manager jobs, and according to sources, has already begun the interview process.
So, why did things not work out for Matheny in Kansas City? And will Grifol get his opportunity to call the shots in Kansas City? Or will the Royals go in another direction?
Let’s take a deep dive into the Royals’ managerial dilemma, and what kind of impact the change could have in 2023 and beyond.
Matheny Didn’t Change Enough From St. Louis Days
After the 2021 season, I personally was pretty hopeful that despite my hesitancy at first, Moore and the Royals made the right call with Matheny as manager.
During the pandemic-affected season in 2020, the Royals went 26-34, a 69-point improvement in winning percentage from their 59-103 record in 2019, Ned Yost’s last year at the helm. And that was mostly due to Matheny following through on his promised changes from his days as Cardinals manager.
Craig Brown of “Into the Fountains” put it nicely in his post about Matheny’s ouster that he seemed to be a changed manager, for the good of the Kansas City organization. Unfortunately, 2022 proved to be a step back in the approach of his managerial style, which not only hurt the Royals on the field but ultimately cost him his job.
Upon arrival in Kansas City, there were early indications that Matheny had changed some of his core managerial philosophies. He seemed a little looser than his reputation in St. Louis, a little more relaxed in his dealings with the media. With a reputation as a bullpen-by-numbers guy, his early management of the relief corps eschewed defined roles and showed a willingness to adapt to particular situations. His lineup construction, with Whit Merrifield entrenched in the leadoff spot, was generally solid. There was a hope that Matheny had undergone a Yostian transformation as skipper. Ned Yost changed after his experience in Milwaukee and understood that he needed to put his faith in the kids. Couldn’t Matheny do the same? It kind of felt like it.
Then everything changed in 2022.
Maybe it was the heightened expectations and the pressures that go along with that, but almost from the start of the year, Matheny was showing signs of reverting to St. Louis Mike…“A change in the dugout; Royals fire Mike Matheny” by Craig Brown; Into the Fountains
It wasn’t just one thing that did Matheny in, but rather a perfect storm that ultimately cost Matheny his position.
Higher expectations and a rough start in April and May seemed to foster a tense clubhouse. That was not helped by veterans who didn’t seem to embrace the youth movement either (it’s not a surprise that Whit Merrifield asked for a trade as soon as Bobby Witt, Jr. and MJ Melendez started taking more of a leadership role). Reports also surfaced about Matheny’s intense leadership style, which seemed to rub players, both young and existing veterans, the wrong way. And beyond a couple of mainstays (MJ and Bobby at the top of the batting order in the second half), Matheny’s frequent lineup and position changes seemed to frustrate not just fans, but probably players, who seemed to struggle to get into a groove both in the plate and in the field.
On the defensive end, the Royals as a team saw a major regression in Outs Above Average as a collective. In 2021, the Royals ranked 6th in OAA with a +25 mark. This season? The Royals ranked 17th with only a +2 mark.
Royals fans can see by scrolling right for 2021 data and left for 2022 data to see the significant regression defensively from last year.
While some growing pains were to be expected with more rookies in the field, it ultimately falls on Matheny to find the right combos in the lineup and on the field. Unfortunately, Matheny failed to do so, and as a result, the Royals won nine fewer games in 2022.
Another thing to note about Matheny’s tenure is that 2021 probably was a bit of a “fool’s gold” season, especially when one looks at the Pythagorean W-L percentage of the Royals over the past three years.
For those unfamiliar, the Pythagorean W-L percentage can be defined as follows:
Pythagorean winning percentage is a formula developed by renowned statistician Bill James. The concept strives to determine the number of games that a team *should* have won — based its total number of runs scored versus its number of runs allowed — in an effort to better forecast that team’s future outlook.“Pythagorean Winning Percentage”; MLB.com
Here’s a look at Matheny’s past three years and look at the difference between his actual and pythag percentage each year, and notice the trend in his pythag percentage from year to year.
In 2020, the Royals were 25 points better on a pythag than the actual record, which hints that they were a bit unlucky and better than their 26-34 record indicated. However, the pythag W-L percentage regressed to .437 in 2021 and .394 in 2022, which were 20 and 7-point differences from their actual records in those seasons, respectively.
The fact of the matter was this: the Royals were not getting better in the last two years of his tenure, and Picollo and the Royals made the right choice to make a change sooner rather than later.
Granted, the struggles of the Royals couldn’t solely be attested to Matheny.
Eldred certainly couldn’t connect to this Royals pitching staff, especially this year as the Royals ranked 27th in the league in staff ERA and 29th in xFIP, according to Fangraphs. A hitting coach change didn’t happen soon enough (Terry Bradshaw probably should’ve been let go after 2021). And Moore didn’t necessarily give Matheny the most optimum roster to work with from 2020-2022.
But while Matheny wasn’t necessarily the sole “problem” of the Royals’ struggles over the past three years, it is unlikely that he has the personality or skill set to be part of the “solution” in 2023 and beyond.
This begs the question:
Can Grifol be that answer?
Is Grifol What the Royals Need At This Time?
When I went on the “Mega Royals Content Creator” podcast with the Royals Farm Report team on Wednesday night, Alex Duvall brought up this question to me, which he did re-post on Twitter before the podcast went public.
My decision was No. 2.
The Royals need a fresh approach and perspective in the clubhouse, especially as a small market team. If there’s one thing that has hindered this organization in “Process 2.0”, it’s that there’s been a reluctance to deviate from those 2013-2016 clubs and models. As Royals fans, we are constantly pointing to those years for guidance in terms of who the club should bring in, how they should play, or when the exact turnaround will happen.
But the fact of the matter is that lightning rarely strikes twice and we’ve seen that firsthand over the past five seasons.
Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and even Zack Greinke were far less impressive in their returns to Kansas City. The Royals being “bullpen whisperers” during the successful years of their run proved to be false recently, especially considering the Royals bullpen ranked 27 in ERA and 30th in WHIP this year. And the “speed and defense” approach that seemed to work in 2014 and 2015 failed to produce any results from 2018-2022.
For the Royals to be a winner in the long term, they need a different approach from the old Moore “Process.” And that requires looking at a manager who can not just manage a clubhouse, but an effective coaching staff and relationship with the front office.
Vance Wilson doesn’t strike me as that guy in any way, and I think he’ll be on his way out of the org soon, especially after his struggles as third base coach this year.
But Grifol could. If anything, he could be the happy medium between those styles of manager.
Grifol is bilingual and has a solid relationship with the Latin American players not just on the roster, but in the Royals system as well. Considering the Royals’ investment (though dubious success) over the past decade in this area, Grifol could be the right guy to help foster and develop those players at the Major League level (he seems to have helped Edward Olivares find a future in the Royals outfield).
His success and relationship with Salvy too, the Royals’ franchise player, should also be a sign that Grifol can rightfully “connect” with this roster as Royals skipper in 2023 and beyond.
In addition to those intangibles, Grifol also appears to be a guy who embraces and understands the analytical nature of the game and seems more than ready to develop a solid working relationship with other coaches and the front office.
His background as a coach is also extensive. He has held roles as not just a bench coach, but a catching coach and hitting coach at the Major League level, as well as a manager, assistant coach, and coordinator at the Minor League level. He also has experience coaching in college at Florida State (he reportedly turned down the opportunity to interview at FSU for their manager job this summer), and as an area scout in the Mariners organization.
Grifol brings a lot of different skill sets and tools to the table. Considering his familiarity with Picollo, he also should be the kind of manager that can not just implement the desires of the front office with regularity but could utilize the different skill sets of his coaching staff effectively as well (especially with so many returning for 2023).
Of course, who the Royals get as pitching coach could be the key for Grifol when it comes to success as Royals manager, should he be given the opportunity. If the Royals are able to pull in Brian Bannister from San Francisco, it is possible that Grifol and Bannister could create a sensational team, especially considering their familiarity with Picollo and the Royals’ front office.
That being said, is Grifol truly an analytics guy or is that just what he’s saying, knowing it’s the key to getting hired in any modern-day baseball organization? After all, Matheny said he had grown to embrace it as well when he was hired, but the evidence of the past two seasons showed he really wasn’t “truly” on board.
And hence, it may be better for Picollo to hire someone who comes from an organization that is more “analytically inclined.”
According to the candidates suggested by The Athletic, it seems like the Royals could have a solid pick of possibilities coming from organizations such as the Rays, Astros, and Guardians, who are all known for their success with utilizing data effectively at both the Major and Minor League level.
Picollo and the Royals need to make a splash, first with their manager and then with their pitching coach (especially since it seems like the Royals’ director of pitching Paul Gibson will remain in his role, based on Picollo’s comments at his presser).
Will Grifol be that splash that not only satisfies players but the ownership group and most importantly, the fans?
That is the tough choice Picollo will have to make…
And picking the wrong manager could end Picollo’s tenure as GM sooner rather than later.
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