Royals GM J.J. Picollo on firing Matheny and Eldred: Something went wrong this season

KC Star file photo

Vision has been a buzzword of late for Kansas City Royals executive vice president and general manager J.J. Picollo. He’s in the process of overseeing an organizational shift in baseball operations, and vision will play a big part in the changes implemented.

However, the vision for the future didn’t play a major factor in Picollo’s decision to fire manager Mike Matheny. Nor did ruffled feathers in the clubhouse as a result of Matheny’s intensity.

Picollo’s final decision primarily came down to wins and losses, and the belief that the team under-performed this season.

That was enough for Picollo to shake up the coaching staff, turn the page on both Matheny and pitching coach Cal Eldred and begin the search for a new manager.

“When you look at our record at the end of the season, something went wrong,” Picollo said. “We should’ve won more games than we did. There are a lot of factors that go into that. It’s not just Mike himself.

“There’s myself, our front office, we’re all accountable for that. But we expected to be a little bit further along than we were, and we can’t avoid that that’s the case.”

The Royals (65-97) finished in last place in the AL Central and recorded the fifth-worst record of any club in the majors. They went an MLB-worst 26-55 on the road.

Picollo acknowledged the unique and unexpected challenges of Matheny’s tenure. Those included the COVID-19 pandemic in Matheny’s first season, the logistics nightmare of the health and safety protocols last year and the MLB lockout that kept players off-limits to their organizations this offseason and caused a delayed start to the season.

Over his three years, Matheny’s teams went 165-219.

The search for the Royals’ next manager will include two in-house candidates in bench coach Pedro Grifol and third-base coach Vance Wilson, both of whom have been candidates for other managerial positions in the past.

“From a front-office perspective, this is an exciting time,” Picollo said. “When you make a decision like this, we’re looking forward to the future. We’re looking forward to what’s next.

“We’re looking forward to who can we put around our players to make our players better, to lead our organization in a way that’s innovative, that’s exciting, that meets the needs of players, that meets the needs of our front office. There’s a lot of good people out there, and we’re just looking forward to diving into it.”

The Royals’ priority will be to hire the manager first. That person will have some say in the hiring of the new pitching coach.

Picollo said the front office is still developing a list of criteria for the next manager, but it will include someone who is collaborative and who’ll recognize and utilize the expertise of all the departments, such as research and development (analytics), performance science and behavioral science.

“We’re going to go through a thorough process,” Picollo said. “We’re not going to jump into this and say, this is our target. We don’t have a main target, and I shared that with Pedro and Vance.”

Picollo did not give a specific timetable for hiring a manager, but suggested it will be deliberate process and asserted, “You don’t make good decision by just jumping in.”

Clubhouse chemistry and Matheny

Picollo went to Detroit for the team’s penultimate series of the regular season. While there, the Royals’ front office held its annual baseball operations end-of-year meetings. They also had exit meetings with players.

Published reports in both the New York Post and via MLB.com alluded to players having issues with Matheny, though no specific examples were given nor any comments attributed to players or club personnel.

Picollo downplayed any influence player feedback had on his final decisions about Matheny and Eldred. He said those decisions were essentially made before the exit interviews.

“You listen and you want to pick up on thoughts and ideas and get some perspective on where they are,” Picollo said of the exit interviews. “They’re 25 years old, most of them, so you want to get that perspective. But it was separate from making the decision that we made.”

Picollo definitively shot down the idea that there were any significant problems between the players and Matheny.

“I think everybody appreciated that Mike is a competitor and he wants to win,” Picollo said. “I’ve had some players say, ‘I’m glad Mike gets on me.’ There’s a respect that’s there. So I don’t think it was problematic. I don’t think it’s why we didn’t win more. I think it’s just observational.”

Asked about the notion that his intensity potentially rubbed players the wrong way, Matheny told The Star, “There are times where truth has got to be told. There are going to be times when none of us like to hear truth. Whenever those conversations happen, there’s usually at least a couple other people involved whether it’s front-office people or other coaches.

“There’s no doubt. I always have had people tell me that there’s an intensity to me. I don’t know really how to change that. That’s kind of who I am. But I also believe that there’s the other side, which is care. I care about these guys, and I spend a lot of time showing them that as well. There’s not a perfect delivery that will be a blanket for everybody.”

While Matheny’s intensity may have felt overbearing for some at times, he and Picollo said they’d received feedback that players welcomed Matheny’s fiery demeanor.

Matheny has maintained good relationships with former players.

“I’ve had probably more players tell me that I need to do more of that than players say that my intensity is too high,” Matheny said. “So it’s all across the spectrum of what each player needs as far as how the communication process goes.

“But, yeah, I am intense. I’m intense in the fact that this is a hard game and if you don’t show up with some intensity it’s going to be hard to survive in this game. I could also say that that probably isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, and I get that.”