keyboard_arrow_uptop

The Muser Extension

The Kansas City Royals gave manager Tony Muser a two-year contract
extension last week. Judging from the reaction of the many passionate
Royals fans I’ve heard from, the team’s chances of reaching the postseason
any time this decade officially expired with the move.

That may be overstating the situation, but when a certain daily columnist
for ESPN.com said recently that "Muser is the wrong manager for the
Royals at this particular time," he was not speaking for the minority.

Muser’s performance as the Royals’ manager is a striking example of why
labeling managers as "good" or "bad" is hopelessly
simplistic. Muser was the right manager for the Royals when he was hired.
He was brought in for the purpose of throwing out the dead weight and
letting the Royals hit rock bottom as they rebuilt with youth. And unlike
his predecessor Bob Boone, Muser proved he had both an understanding of his
role and the patience to fill it, the tools necessary to see the youth
movement through. That the 2000 Royals can compete on the field and draw
fans to Kauffman Stadium is a reflection of how successful Muser has been
in the role he was hired to perform.

But the greatest challenge that any manager faces in keeping his job for
the long term is the recognizing and adapting to changing
circumstances–circumstances that the manager himself creates. The Royals
are now well past the stage of accumulating young talent and are putting a
higher priority on the development of that talent than on winning ballgames.

The Royals have entered that narrow window of opportunity for the
small-market team, when the salaries of their best players still lag behind
their performance, and enough of the team’s players are earning less than
market value that a below-average payroll may be spent efficiently enough
to pay for a playoff-caliber team. The Royals have to win while
Jermaine Dye, Mike Sweeney, Johnny Damon, Carlos
Febles
and Carlos Beltran are still restricted from being paid a
market salary. Beyond 2001, all the Wal-Mart stock in the world will only
slow the emigration of the greatest collection of young hitting talent the
Royals have ever had.

Tony Muser is not as suited to managing a contending team as he was to
piloting a rebuilder. He is too fixated on defense–and not just the
first-base variety–and his my-way-or-the-highway bluster has already cost
the Royals Jeremy Giambi and Sal Fasano for essentially
nothing in return. While the Royals have developed the aforementioned five
hitters during his tenure, and seen Joe Randa blossom into an
excellent all-around player, Muser has been unable to convert even one
young pitcher into an above-average starter, Jeff Suppan and his
5.25 ERA notwithstanding.

Is Muser the best man for the job now? Of course not. The Royals need a
manager who can turn five of their best young arms into a top rotation by
next April. Unfortunately, the best manager for that job is already
employed in Atlanta. The Royals need a manager who isn’t afraid to start
Jeff Reboulet at shortstop over Rey Sanchez and who has the
cojones to tell Johnny Damon to start hitting or we’re going to find
out if Dermal Brown can play. The only manager brave enough to do
that is wearing Dodger blue.

Are there prospective managers out there who can do a better job with the
current Royals than Tony Muser? Sure there are, but it’s not entirely clear
who those managers might be and it’s even less clear that the Royals would
hire one of them to succeed Muser. The previous three Royals
managers–Boone, Muser, John Wathan and Hal McRae–all had productive
playing careers with the Royals. Continuing that trend, the most likely man
to replace Muser if he were fired would be bench coach Jamie Quirk.

Quirk is a long-time fan favorite in Kansas City and would be an immensely
popular choice to succeed Muser, but popularity doesn’t translate into
great managing. When I was a freshman in college, I was blindsided one fall
morning by the site of my RA jumping up and down on the news that the
favorite player of his youth had just been hired to manage the Red Sox.

Funny, but no one seems to care much what Butch Hobson is doing these days.

Quirk actually managed the Royals on an interim basis when Tony Muser was
suspended eight games for the Felix Martinez incident (the fight with the
Angels, not the decision to call him up). While eight games is hardly a
defining sample, it was pretty clear that Quirk graduated from the Jack
McKeon School of Pitcher Handling–the McKeon who blew out Steve Busby’s
arm 25 years ago, not the McKeon of today.

The larger issue with hiring Quirk is that, like every Royal manager
stretching back to Wathan, he has no previous managerial experience in the
major leagues. On a certain level, the presence of a new, inexperienced
manager every couple of years has forced the Royals to take a step back
while the new guy goes through his learning curve.

Muser, while certainly not perfect, has learned from his experience to add
to his credentials beyond his willingness to play the kids. This year’s
1977-style adaptation of the bullpen, in which three-inning relief outings
are the norm and three guys (Jerry Spradlin, Dan Reichert and
Jose Santiago) are on pace to throw more than 100 innings, reflects
Muser’s increased comfort in his job and willingness to defy conventional
wisdom when circumstances force his hand. If the Royals were to replace
Muser with Quirk, they will have taken an unacceptable and unnecessary risk
that their current progress will once again be stalled while a new manager
figures out how to do his job.

Most of this is irrelevant anyway, because the Royals are not going to fire
Tony Muser when the team is playing above .500 for the first time in six
years. Barring another surreal second-half collapse, Muser would be at the
helm when the Royals begin the 2001 season with their best chance to make
the playoffs in a dozen years, contract extension or not. That the Royals
have guaranteed Muser two more years at a meager $400,000 per hardly
represents a whopping financial investment.

For all his weaknesses, Muser has the most important attribute for any
manager–the respect of his players–in spades. If giving Muser a vote of
confidence at a cost of less than a million dollars makes it easier for the
Royals to sign Mike Sweeney to a long-term deal, it’s a wise investment
even Muser were fired the day after signing. And as Bob Boone can testify,
Herk Robinson is perfectly willing to fire a manager whose contract he
extended just six months before.

Just as not every great team has a great second baseman, not every great
team has a great manager. The Royals don’t need Tony Muser to be the second
coming of Earl Weaver. All they need from him is to be the second coming of
Cito Gaston, a manager who has the good sense to get out of the way and let
his team’s talent advantage manifest itself on the field.

That is not to say the Royals lead the league in talent; overall, they are
still quite mediocre. But it’s the distribution of the talent that gives
the Royals hope for the near future; the top half of their roster is
outstanding, but their holes are so glaring that even Herk Robinson is
bound to come up with some solutions to plug them up. The Royals are 26-25
with a rotation of Suppan, Mac Suzuki, Chris Fussell,
Miguel Batista and Jay Witasick. The team has the luxury of
focusing their entire effort on upgrading their pitching staff between now
and next April, because not a single member of the starting lineup will be
a free agent between now and 2002.

The AL Central is in a state of flux for the first time since it was
created, and the opportunity is there for the Royals to make off with the
division in 2001 if they can maintain the illusion of greatness long enough
to rack up 92 wins. Tony Muser may not be the best man to lead the Royals
to the top, but Royals fans better root for him anyway, because he
represents the team’s best option.

No Longer A Dream Weaver for Lefties

The longest player comment in Baseball Prospectus 2000 was reserved
for Jeff Weaver, who pitched like Jim Bunning from April to June,
and like Jim Bullinger from July onwards.

Weaver’s journey to greatness encountered two very large potholes in the
road: his temper and his inability to get left-handed hitters out. The
Tigers, to their credit, recognized that the latter problem wasn’t going to
go away on its own and armed Weaver with a new cut fastball this season.
While Weaver’s 4.66 ERA is not a sign that he has made much progress,
consider his platoon splits from this year and last:

Year      vs. LHP           vs. RHP

1999 .310/.378/.561 .236/.314/.370 2000 .282/.322/.455 .248/.315/.386

While Weaver is as effective against right-handed hitters as he was last
year, his OPS against left-handed hitters has dropped from 939 to 777, an
enormous difference.

But while Weaver appears to have conquered his problems against
left-handers, he still has a long way to go when it comes to maintaining
his composure when he gets into a jam:

Year      None on         Runners on

1999 .246/.314/.456 .327/.403/.512 2000 .213/.265/.340 .371/.420/.586

Maybe the problem stems from a lack of concentration, and maybe the problem
stems from his delivery in the stretch position. Whatever it is, if the
Tigers tackle it as successfully as they did his troubles against
left-handed hitters, Weaver could become the Tigers’ best starting pitcher
since Jack Morris was in his prime.

Which would leave them with only 24 roster spots to fill.

Rany Jazayerli, M.D., can be reached at ranyj@baseballprospectus.com.

You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe