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August 27, 2015

Field Generals

It's Ned Yost in a Box

by Ian Frazer

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Sometimes we put general managers in a box here at Baseball Prospectus.

There’s an obscure provision in the current MLB collective bargaining agreement that means whenever a GM loses his job in the middle of the season, he’s willed to BP, like a foster cat. We then put him in a box with a towel and some water until we can find a loving forever home. God, the way they cry at night will just break your heart…

Just kidding. By putting GMs in a figurative box, as Matthew Trueblood has done recently with Dave Dombrowski and Jerry Dipoto, we can learn not just about each general manager’s trademarks and tendencies but about the demands of the position as well. The scope of a GM’s job is staggering. Between scouting, player development, managing the major league roster, and dealing with ownership, a GM is forced to prioritize and delegate. How they do that defines who they are.

Let’s see, though, if we can apply the same evaluation process to another member of the organization: the manager. Overall, the (field) manager probably isn’t as important as the GM, just because he doesn’t have a hand in as many aspects of the organization. He is, however, responsible for taking the pieces the GM gives him and making a coherent whole. A manager’s true importance is the subject of much debate—whether he can prevent “the grind” from getting to guys, for example—but if nothing else, he’s the guy who runs the clubhouse, and that’s a massively important role.

I’ve decided to look at Ned Yost, because he’s pivoted from being the goat for every misfortune to strike the Royals (look up #Yosted on Twitter) to being, well, the manager of the best team in the American League. There’s also this possibly apocryphal story about how scrubbing pots at a Kentucky Fried Chicken gave Yost his baseball-playin’ strength, and this definitely true story about how Yost used to be a taxidermist and hunted with Jeff Foxworthy.

He’s an interesting guy, basically. Let’s get started!

Background

Yost was drafted seventh overall by the Mets out of Chabot (Ca.) College in 1974. He struggled early on in the minors, however, and was unspectacular at the upper levels, never hitting for power consistently. He played for the Brewers, Rangers, and Expos for parts of six seasons from 1980 to 1985 before being sent back down and never returning to the majors. Yost’s career ended with the Richmond Braves of the International League in 1987.

Yost’s first major-league coaching job was with the Atlanta Braves, using his experience as a catcher to serve as their bullpen coach from 1991 to 1998. He became the third-base coach in 1999 and held that position until being named the Brewers’ new manager on Oct. 29, 2002.

Game-management philosophy

It’s not exactly numbers-based. I won’t say “old school,” because that’s a cliché and overgeneralization, but yeah, if you used that to describe Yost, most wouldn’t complain.

This year’s All-Star Game, for example: With the game tied at one in the fifth and Clayton Kershaw on the mound, Nelson Cruz was coming up. Cruz hits left-handers well and is generally one of the best right-handed hitters in baseball. There’s no such thing as a good matchup against Kershaw, but Cruz is one of the least bad.

Instead, Yost opted to go with Prince Fielder off the bench. Fielder isn’t useless against lefties, but his platoon split is very much apparent. Why did Yost do this?

“When I saw Kershaw out there, I had Prince Fielder, and know how tough an out he is. It doesn’t matter if it’s left- or right-handed. I felt good about Prince doing what he did,” Yost said after the game.

So it wasn’t due to any logical, rational reason reasoning in which the front-office nerds traffic. Fielder is indeed a tough out, but Cruz is tougher. And it does, in fact, matter if it’s left- or right-handed; it matters quite a lot.

But Yost had a feeling, an urge from the instincts he built during so many years in the game. It paid off, because Fielder singled home the go-ahead run.

Another snapshot: Saturday, October 11, 2014, game two of the American League Championship Series, top of the ninth, game tied, Darren O’Day pitching. Omar Infante singles off O’Day to start the inning. Buck Showalter replaces O’Day with Zach Britton and Yost pinch-runs for Infante with Terrance Gore.

Yost’s teams have never been bunt-mongers: The Brewers were usually around the bottom of the National League when Yost managed them, and there’s been too much fluctuation with the Royals to pin bunting habits on anything but team makeup.

But when Mike Moustakas comes up, Yost has him bunt. To be fair, Moustakas was exceptionally bad against lefties in 2014. He got pretty hot in the postseason, however, and the bunt bumped the Royals’ win probability down from 58 percent to 56 percent. Had Yost prioritized that sort of stuff, he probably would have had Gore steal to get him over.

Yost Devil Magic wins again! Alcides Escobar followed Moustakas’ bunt with an RBI double, which drove Gore home for the go-ahead run. #Yosted had been born as a criticism of Yost’s boneheaded-in-some-eyes management decisions, but it was here that the #movement turned deeply ironic.

These sorts of managerial decisions have earned Yost the ire of many Royals fans, and they’ve also contributed to plenty of negative outcomes. I’m just cherry-picking here. With successes like these and the current run the team is on, however, Yost probably doesn’t see much of a reason to change.

Temperament

Fiery! In the final week of the 2007 season, when Yost was managing the Brewers, he got himself thrown out of a whopping three games, and this was while Milwaukee was fighting desperately for a playoff spot. (It didn’t get one.) And here’s Yost coming out to talk with Jeremy Guthrie on May 27, 2014, then getting run when he couldn’t hold his tongue when Kerwin Danley came out to move the mound visit along.

By reviewing Scott Lindholm’s analysis of Retrosheet umpire ejection info from 2013, we see that from 2003 to 2013 Yost was ejected 33 times in 1,572 games, a rate of .021 ejections per game. Some other prominent names from the sample include Joe Maddon (.024 ejections/game), Terry Francona (.016), and Bruce Bochy (.020). Is Yost a Chill Dude? No, but he also isn’t Ron Gardenhire, who got thrown out 68 times in 1953 games from 2002 to 2013 for a sky-high percentage of .035 ejections/game.

Yost came up as a major-league coach under the tutelage of Bobby Cox, the all-time record holder for ejections. This might have influenced Yost’s attitude regarding confrontations with umpires, but he’s generally a pretty frank and honest guy, and that might just extend to his talks with the men in blue. (Or black. Or red, if we’re going way back.) We’ll explore more of Yost’s personality in a second.

Dealings with the media

Man, the stuff that we didn’t know before Twitter…

Readers got a glimpse of Yost’s personality when dealing with the media in Pat Borzi’s New York Times piece from 2007, excerpted below:

“I told you it wasn’t on purpose,” Yost said, sticking out his tongue and giving a raspberry to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter who had written otherwise. “Then why did I have to serve mine?”

Yost’s interactions with journalists reflect the sort of bizarre relationships that can develop when people are around each other for 162 games in a row, plus spring training, plus the postseason, if applicable. Each manager deals with that dynamic differently.

Yost has formed a relationship with Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star that would appear verbally abusive to the uninformed outsider. Again, thank the lord for Twitter, because there’s no way this would make the game story otherwise.

However, it seems like Yost would be a pleasure to interview, provided you’re not too sensitive about your appearance. He’s detailed in his responses and seems to stick to the question asked, and he also appears to make eye contact with the reporters. He’s originally from northern California and grew up in the Bay Area, but he seems to identify as a country guy—he lives in Georgia in the offseason, where he hunts and fishes and the like—and carries a slight southern twang.

8.6 out of 10. Would definitely like to interview.

Related Content:  Royals,  Brewers,  Ned Yost

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