Ned Yost led the Brewers to their first winning record in nearly two decades last season, but that hasn’t kept him off the hot seat. Yost has seen his talented but young team get off to a lackluster 22-25 start this year, eliciting cries for his head from an impatient fan base anxious to relive the glory days of the 1980s when Yost was the team’s backup catcher. Now 53 years old, Yost has been at the helm in Milwaukee since October 2002.
David Laurila: As a manager, you strongly emphasize a one-day-at-a-time approach. Why?
Ned Yost: I just think that when you play 162 games, it’s literally like a marathon. And when you get to the point of being able to compete–when your talent level reaches that point–it gets so difficult when your mind starts to expand to the point of worrying about what you did yesterday or worrying about what’s coming tomorrow. Because this game is so tough, it’s important that you take it in terms of focus and concentration, one day at a time and one pitch at a time. Anything outside of that and you’re just wasting your energy. So I try to tell my players to totally forget what happened yesterday and to not worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow. We just focus on our task at hand, which is: what do we have to do today to be successful? Nothing else matters.
DL: People do learn from the past.
NY: Exactly. I’m not saying that you forget what you learned; I’m saying that you forget the results. You may be 0-for-4, or you may be 4-for-4, but that’s not going to help you today, so forget about it. You take your experiences with you every single day and that’s how you become better. It’s by going through adversity, by learning the game, understanding what happened in this situation, and you need to do to get better. Was I overanxious? Was I looking for something? Did I play into his hand? Was I non-aggressive? What was the situation? That’s how you style and focus your game, and mold your game every day. You don’t forget your experiences, you just forget the results. We could be 0-16, and it doesn’t have any focus on what we are today. We could be 16-16, and it doesn’t have any focus on what we need to accomplish today.
DL: That said, the big picture–what the structure of the team will be going forward–is important, is it not?
NY: That’s a big focus of mine. I look big picture every day, as well as the day-to-day focus. My big picture is concerned around the players and what do I have to do to get them to perform, and to continue to perform. And a lot of that has to do with sticking with them during their tough times. And people don’t like that. People don’t like when guys are struggling and you stick with them, but I think it’s valuable to a player’s mental state and to his confidence. When he walks into that clubhouse every day, he knows exactly where he’ll be hitting in that lineup and that it’s not going to change from at-bat to at-bat, and that his manager has confidence in him. These kids–I’ve seen them all play. I know what their strengths are and what their weaknesses are. I think that in order to be successful they have to trust that their manager is steady in his approach, just as he wants them to be steady in their approach.
DL: What is your approach to lineup construction?
NY: I think that a lot of it we do, nowadays–it’s not based on feel. We do studies like everybody else does. Baseball Prospectus does it. We do studies on each individual player to determine which lineup–which players in which positions–will maximize our offense. During the winter we sit and look at different lineups and we talk about them and study them; we have our numbers guys look at them and study them. That’s how we came to the conclusion of Jason Kendall hitting ninth. We thought that we’d have anywhere from 30 to 40 more run-scoring opportunities with him hitting ninth than if he was hitting eighth or seventh. But we kind of do it on the abilities of our players, too. Right now Prince Fielder is hitting fourth and Ryan Braun is hitting third. Ideally, I think I’d like to do it the other way around, with Prince hitting third and Brauny hitting fourth. But Prince is more disciplined right now than Ryan Braun is, so they’d just pitch around Prince to get to Brauny. At least this way it’s harder for them to pitch around Brauny to get to Prince, which makes it more difficult on the opposition. You take the personnel that you have and try to set your lineup in order to maximize your production. For us, Rickie Weeks is an on-base guy, a run scorer; he takes pitches. He’s evolving as a hitter. His walks-to-strikeouts ratio is as good as it’s ever been in his career, and you can tell he’s developing. Mike Cameron is hitting second for us, and I like the fact that he’s a really good fastball hitter and I think he’s going to get more fastballs hitting in front of Braun and Prince and Corey Hart. J.J. has been hitting seventh for us, and he’s a guy who is smart enough to understand what it takes to hit in front of the pitcher. He’s smart enough to recognize what the opposing pitcher is trying to do to him. Is he trying to walk him? Is he going after him? It’s really important to get that pitcher out of the way and that lineup turned over.
DL: In every given situation there are statistical probabilities. To what extent do they influence your decisions?
NY: Some. I used to be a proponent of the bunt a lot more, but I’ve kind of gotten away from that a little bit. I’ve studied a bunch of different things. I’ve read The Book, and The Book on the Book. Some of the stuff makes sense to me, and some of it doesn’t. I still play the game by feel, too. It’s a game, and you have to play the game–not just do statistical probabilities every pitch.
DL: Ted Simmons is your bench coach here. How similarly do the two of you think about the game of baseball?
NY: Well, if you’ve ever talked to Teddy, you understand that his baseball education is–probably the best thing for me to say is that he’s got a master’s degree while I might have a junior college degree. Man, I’m just being honest. He just understands the game. Everything I’ve learned, for the most part, I’ve learned from Teddy, and that came from our playing days. He’s been a huge influence. He took me under his wing when we played together in Milwaukee in the 1980s and he taught me a lot about this game. I understand a lot of his ideas and philosophies, and that makes for a real easy transition for us.
DL: Within the context of your working relationship with him, can disagreement be a good thing?
NY: Well, we really don’t disagree too much, to be honest with you. We pretty much think along the same plan. There is some disagreement at times, and yeah, it’s good as long as we both handle it the right way, and we haven’t had a problem with that. I like having my ideas challenged every day, by all of the coaches. I ask my coaches their opinions for a reason, not just because. Otherwise, I’d just be wasting my breath. I want to know what they’re thinking, too. I have my ideas of what I want to do, but there are times that they can influence my thought process and even change my mind on a certain issue.
DL: When you look back to when you interviewed for this job, what was your vision of the Milwaukee Brewers under your leadership?
NY: I had watched the Milwaukee Brewers since they came into the National League, having been a coach for the Atlanta Braves. I knew what the Brewers were like in their heyday, as I had been with them in the World Series. I understood the mentality of the city, and the state, and the fans, and what they expected out of an organization. I knew a little bit about some of the personnel they had had in the low minors and the draft picks they had coming. I just felt that with a change of mindset we could bring this back to a championship-caliber organization. But I also knew that it would be a process, a step-by-step process, and that there would be bumps along the road. I knew that we would have to be extremely patient to get the most out of the young players that we were probably going to have to push to the big league level because they’re so talented. When you push young players, they’re generally ready offensively if they have pure offensive talent, but they’re generally lacking in defensive skills. That has been the case, and these kids have worked really, really hard to make themselves better defensively. So I knew with patience and timing that this would be a step-by-step process and that we would continue to improve.
DL: What impact have the defensive changes you’ve made this year had on the team?
NY: A lot. Last year we had a really big offensive outburst early–in April and the first part of May–and at one point we were 14 games over .500. But at that time we were still striking out a lot; we were either home run or bust for the most part. And we weren’t playing very good defense. This year, we are behind last year’s pace, but we haven’t even come close to hitting our stride offensively. We’ve been pitching pretty good, and our bullpen, for the most part, has been good, but the biggest change has been our defense. That’s kept us in a lot more ball games, and helped us to win more ball games; it has helped us to tread water, if you will, until we really take off offensively.
DL: Do you see the team being even stronger defensively next season, given that the players will have more experience at their respective positions?
NY: They always get better. Rickie Weeks has gotten better year after year. Prince Fielder has gotten better defensively year after year. Ryan Braun has been a very pleasant surprise in left field, and he’s going to continue to grow as a defensive player. Billy Hall; J.J. Hardy; Corey Hart has gotten better every year. With the experience and the more you play out there, the better you get. But again, it takes hard work and it takes focus, and these kids are willing to do what it takes to get better.
DL: In a nutshell, how would you describe Ned Yost’s managerial style?
NY: You know what? I don’t really focus too much on what managerial style is. What I try to do every day is to come in and create an atmosphere inside of my locker room that is conducive to the players’ success. I try to make sure that everybody is on the same page with what we’re trying to accomplish day to day in terms of short picture and in terms of big picture. I want to make sure that we have guys who play the game, respect the game, and understand the game, knowing that many of these guys came up young and there’s a lot of teaching involved in helping them to understand the game. So you better have patience. In terms of game style, I like to be aggressive depending on the situation. I trust my players and I like to let my players go out and play. As long as they play hard and leave everything that they have out on that field, I’ve got no problem with it.