A statistic popped into my Twitter feed late Wednesday, though not as late as the Royals were sending out tweets, and it caught my attention.
The Cleveland Guardians, winners of the same AL Central Division in which the Royals had hoped to compete, not only finished better than 20 games above .500 this season on their way to a playoff appearance, but their Triple-A, Double-A and High-A teams did the same. All of them, 20 games above .500 or better.
The Guardians were good. The entire organization was really good.
Let’s rephrase that: The Guardians were good because their entire organization was really good, and it has been for some time. While minor-league success does not necessarily indicate future major-league success, the system is in place for the Guardians to repeat their 2022 success for years to come.
Which returns us to the Royals.
In his first significant move as the lead of baseball operations, J.J. Picollo fired manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Cal Eldred late Wednesday, hours after the Royals finished off a 65-97 season in the style that led to so many of those 97.
It ended at 9:42 p.m. on a Wednesday, officially anyway, but Matheny’s tenure as the Royals’ manager was sealed the moment Dayton Moore left the building. The Royals are Picollo’s team now, and that required the same fresh start owner John Sherman provided him two weeks ago. Picollo’s most important coaching positions should be his own hires.
But Matheny is not responsible for the roster he was handed these last three years, only what he had the ability to do with it. He did not sign Carlos Santana or Mike Minor ahead of the 2021 season. The Royals offered 400 more plate appearances to rookies in 2022 than any other team in MLB. The best manager in baseball — take your pick — wins more than 65, sure, but he would not have turned that into a playoff contender.
Which means this is a piece, not the full pie. While recognizing, even agreeing, that Matheny had enough time to prove himself more of a solution, his removal does not turn 65-97 into 97-65. The analytical studies suggest a manager’s in-game decisions have about a 1% effect on wins and losses, which equates to the difference in about two games. I believe the clubhouse presence could influence it more, particularly given the youth of the current roster. That will play a factor in the next manager.
That’s all to say that while Matheny’s departure is sensible, even unavoidable, the players make the difference. The drafting and development of players makes the bigger difference still, and that means Picollo’s most significant work is yet to come.
He will address the media at 2 p.m. Thursday inside Kauffman Stadium, as 14 other teams across baseball are preparing for playoff games, and we will likely gather a better sense of the future of the franchise. But that future, considering where the Royals’ rebuild currently resides, will be dependent more on what’s happening beneath the major-league level than who is deciding which pitcher jogs in from the bullpen.
The pitching development is in need of changes somewhere in the process, and even if pitch tunneling, sequencing or kinesiology is a foreign language to you, the results at the MLB level alone suggest the need for critical internal reviews. That’s almost certainly coming, likely with the addition of multiple staff members, though Picollo will retain Paul Gibson, the direct of pitching performance. In making the latter decision, Picollo points to minor leaguers graduating to the majors, but the product in the bigs has been historically inadequate. Eldred fell on that sword Wednesday.
The hitting side of the Royals’ operation has become a model to follow, and it’s proof that when the right pieces for development are in place, it can better build an organizational than one manager’s sharp-witted decision. With longer lasting effects, to boot.
We have learned already that Picollo will not be afraid to make change — he fired hitting coach Terry Bradshaw in the spring and has now relieved Matheny and Eldred of their jobs hours after the season — but we will learn more about him within the ensuing weeks.
A 97-loss season, in this sense, could represent opportunity for important change that the franchise has not encountered in years. Opportunity is the operative word. Small-market teams don’t often get re-dos on these kinds of decisions, and when they do, they’re stuck in the fifth year of rebuilds and are one year shy of the longest postseason drought in baseball.
Sherman wants a data-driven organization. That could offer a clue that the next manager of the Royals will look less like the previous managers of the Royals. With an intriguing crop of young talent and a low bar on which to improve, there should be no shortage of interest. (That applies to the pitching, as well. The next pitching coach is inheriting one of the worst-performing staffs in league history. It won’t be hard to find a way to make some improvement, at minimum.)
But as you consume lists of managerial candidates, keep in mind that the less glamorous hires may have larger impact on the club’s long-term future. The organization’s pitching process has been more evidently cracked than one manager, coach or pitcher can correct.
That, after all, is how the Royals arrived here, stuck in this rebuild, losing more games as of Wednesday’s season finale than all but six teams in franchise history.
But it’s also how they can best crawl their way out.