Kansas City Royals executive vice president and general manager J.J. Picollo didn’t know what he was walking into when the club’s CEO and chairman John Sherman called him into his office earlier in the week, but it turned out to be the start of one of the most unique experiences of his professional life.
Picollo learned that Sherman had decided to dismiss longtime top baseball operations official Dayton Moore, and Picollo was Sherman’s choice to replace his longtime friend as the Royals’ decision maker, the face of the front office and the person tasked with leading the club back to prominence.
On Saturday afternoon, Picollo spoke with reporters at Kauffman Stadium for the first time since Moore’s firing. He addressed Moore’s departure, the big-league team’s performance, the future of the major-league coaching staff and potential changes in the organization.
“It’s a tough time, but it’s an exciting time,” Picollo said. “We’ve got a group of talented people in our front office who are excited to get the opportunity to continue to work, grow this organization the way we were taught to grow it. There’s things that we want to get better with, a lot of initiative that we’ve started over the last several years we’ve just got to take to another level.”
Picollo joined the Royals’ front office alongside Moore in 2006. Picollo initially served as director of player development but has also held the positions of assistant general manager/scouting and player development and vice president/assistant general manager for player personnel. He became the Royals’ senior vice president baseball operations/general manager last September.
Picollo followed Moore from the Atlanta Braves organization, where both worked until the Royals hired Moore.
“We’ve been in constant contact throughout the last couple of days. He’s always been a great mentor. He’s a friend. He’s taught us everything we know. He’s given us opportunity in this game. I think all of us are prepared to move forward. As he told me, ‘Just go to work.’”
The need to get better
The Royals entered Saturday’s game 62-89 — fourth place in the American League Central. They’re eliminated from playoff contention, 22 games behind the division-leading Cleveland Guardians.
Picollo touted the club’s young core, noting that more players than expected experienced their first taste of the majors this year. This season has included 13 major-league debuts for the Royals, including potential future mainstays in infielder Bobby Witt Jr., catcher/outfielder MJ Melendez and first baseman/DH Vinnie Pasquantino.
“We’re excited about the core that we have up here in the major leagues,” Picollo said. “Now, it’s a matter of developing them, taking them to the next level. I think some of it’s just getting comfortable with what the major leagues is about. There’s reason to like what you’re seeing on this field.”
Picollo said the club has seen “small wins” this season, incremental improvements that he believes will translate into success. But he also made clear that he believes the club needs more production out of the current group.
“We feel like this team has not performed to its abilities,” Picollo said. “We feel like it could have been a better year. We’ve gone through stretches where I feel like we’re turning the corner.
“For whatever reason, we don’t quite turn the corner. The ability is on the field. We do need some help in different areas, but a large core of what you’re seeing in our lineups is very likely to be in our lineup next year.”
Picollo stopped short of laying blame at the feet of any one group for the under-performance this season.
“We have to acknowledge that there’s improvement that needs to be made on all parts, from the front office to the coaching staff, on to the players,” Picollo said.
Sherman said during the week that Picollo will make the evaluation of manager Mike Matheny and his staff, as well as the final decision about whether they will return next season.
“I haven’t arrived at a decision on any of our coaches,” Picollo said. “What I’m processing right now is different than the way I was thinking about it, say, Monday. But we do have meetings again in Detroit where the people I feel like need to have a say in that decision will be around me. I just want to hear what they have to say.”
During spring training, the Royals exercised an option on Matheny’s contract, extending it through the 2023 season.
Matheny has compiled a 162-211 record with the Royals (entering Saturday’s game). That includes a pandemic-shortened 60-game season in 2020, Matheny’s first season at the helm.
“It’s not a matter of their ability,” Picollo said of the team’s failure to turn the corner. “It’s a matter of consistency, which somewhat comes with experience. That also comes with being able to pivot when something’s not working, whether it’s a particular game, an inning, a pitch.
“Being able to pivot and recognize what needs to happen is what’s going to allow them to be more consistent. I would say that’s the most important thing with us, just the consistency.”
Asked if that was a reflection of coaching, Picollo again refused to place blame on a single person or group.
“I think we’re all responsible for this,” Picollo said. “Whether it’s relationships that were built that would help connect with a player. Whether it’s an actual coaching point. It’s helping them manage their personal lives when they need it. There’s so many things that go into that.”
Sherman said the Royals need to make more data-driven decisions, referencing the club’s research and development department headed by Dr. Daniel Mack.
“We are more data-driven than I think the impression is in the industry,” Picollo said. “Something we have to start understanding is our data includes scouting reports. Every scouting report has multiple grades, and every one of those grades is a data point.”
Information gathered and assessments made by Royals scouts “goes into the model,” Picollo said. Every report is a “blend of scouting and data.”
Picollo pointed to the trade that sent Andrew Benintendi to the New York Yankees as an example. The pitchers the Royals received in exchange for Benintendi were “highly regarded” by the Royals’ model — their blend of scouting and data deemed them desirable.
Picollo considered those pitchers — right-hander Chandler Champlain, left-hander T.J. Sikkema and right-hander Beck Way — a “very data-driven” package of prospects.
Before spring training, Picollo spoke with The Star about the club’s hopes of building its own performance lab in Arizona.
On Saturday, Picollo said the club will look to use data even more, particularly in terms of its own pitching. He said players want that resource. His message to the baseball operations staff was, “We need to be able to connect with players, whether they’re data-driven or they’re not data-driven.”
The Royals plan to add personnel to their pitching development department. They also want to lean on their own performance science department, headed by Austin Driggers.
They’re currently in the process of filling an open position in performance science. The vacancy was created when John Wagle left to become an associate athletic director at Notre Dame.