The Royals aren't winning, but is that really Trey Hillman's fault?
The Royals are off to a terrible start: 11-21 and 10 games out in the AL Central
One play in Sunday's game typified their lack of attention to detail
Hillman, in his walk year, probably will not be the manager in K.C. next season
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on Tuesday, May 11. On Thursday, the Royals fired Hillman as manager and replaced him with Ned Yost.
There was an interesting moment in Sunday's Kansas City-Texas baseball game that you may have missed while you watched comparatively unimportant events like the Celtics beating the Cavs in the NBA playoffs or Dallas Braden throwing a perfect game or Tim Clark winning the Players Championship or whatever.
The moment happened in the third inning. Texas had runners on first and third with one out. Vlad Guerrero hit a fairly short fly ball to left field, and Elvis Andrus tagged up. Kansas City's Scott Podsednik caught the ball and threw home late -- arm strength isn't exactly Pods' greatest tool. Andrus scored the run.
Royals television showed a replay from behind the plate looking out toward the field, and if you were looking you saw something unusual -- and Royals announcer Ryan Lefebvre was all over it. Josh Hamilton at first base completely forgot to tag up. Just forgot. He was halfway between first and second, and he watched the ball go to the plate, and he just ran for second base. It was like he did not know the rules or something*.
*My favorite example of not knowing the rule comes from Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry, who was coaching Limestone College, and remembered one guy who had worked the pitcher for a three-ball count when a teammate was caught stealing to end the inning. Next inning, guy steps back in the box, takes ball 1 and starts jogging to first. He thought the balls and strikes carried over.
The Royals did not see it. And they did not appeal the play at first base. If they had appealed, Hamilton would have been out (the umpire DID see it) and the inning would have been over. Instead, the inning continued, the Rangers scored two more runs, they knocked Luke Hochevar out of the game, and the Royals lost 6-4.
So the question: Why didn't the Royals see it? I understand that there was a lot going on, and the eyes follow the play, and nobody saw Tim Robbins' new shoes in Shawshank Redemption. But why didn't the Royals see it? Why didn't Billy Butler, who was standing at first base, see it? Why didn't David DeJesus in right field see it? Why didn't anyone in the dugout see it? Why didn't manager Trey Hillman see it?
And this leads to why the whole thing was interesting to me: There was something CONCRETE about that play. And there's so little CONCRETE in baseball.
Here's what I mean: Let's look for a minute at Hillman. Look, anyone who cares knows that Hillman probably will not be the manager of the Kansas City Royals next year. Hillman is in the last year of his contract, and his teams have lost 50 more games than they have won in 2.2 years, and they are off to a terrible start. In the Royals baseball community -- or, anyway, what's left of it -- there seems to be a new template of thinking emerging... that Hillman is about to be fired. I don't think so. What I know about Royals GM Dayton Moore tells me that he would not fire a manager in the middle of a season, especially a manager he hand-picked for the job. But I could be wrong.
Either way, it's hard to imagine a scenario where Hillman will be managing the Royals in 2011. That scenario would require a pretty dramatic turnaround from a team that from all visible angles does not have the talent necessary to turn around. The Royals are 11-21, and that's with Jose Guillen, Jason Kendall and Scott Podsednik all performing better than expected, not to mention Yuni Betancourt posting his best on-base percentage since 2007 (even if that on-base percentage is .307). It's hard to see where the improvement would come from. The Royals are 11-21 with Joakim Soria showing cracks for the first time, with the rest of the bullpen in shambles, with Hochevar, Kyle Davies and Brian Bannister all sporting ERAs in the 5.00s, with Alex Gordon in the minor leagues learning how to play a new position, and with Zack Greinke seemingly cursed. It's hard to see how good things will suddenly start happening for this team.
So, no, I don't think Hillman will survive. And, things being what they are, I'm certainly not saying Hillman should survive. The job is to win. The Royals aren't winning.
But I've been thinking a bit lately about what's fair and what's not fair when it comes to judging managers. It's really one of the hardest questions in sports analysis. No matter what happens, good or bad, you can blame or credit the manager. And no matter what happens, good or bad, you can say the manager had nothing to do with it. The "Gardy Can't Manage" people, for the most part, will not allow a 21-11 record or five playoff appearances to deter them. The Twins win in spite of Ron Gardenhire. And the Fire Trey Hillman people, for the most part, will not be dissuaded from the notion that another manager would win more games with this collection of talent. The Royals lose, in large part, because of him.
Now, Hillman has sparked a lot of heat --- some of it from me -- because of the way he handles pitchers, his quirky inconsistencies, his not-altogether-inspiring clubhouse manner, his hieroglyphical statements to reporters.
Hillman also has done numerous strange things this year:
The other day, for reasons unknown, he left the much-injured Gil Meche out there for 128 pitches (tied for the most in baseball this year) even though he walked seven batters and was more lucky than good and the bullpen was rested and pitchers were warmed up.
A few days earlier, with the Royals up a run, he pulled a surprisingly effective Robinson Tejeda, who had thrown 1 2/3 perfect innings, with two outs in the eight and nobody on base to bring in Joakim Soria, who promptly gave up back-to-back home runs.
Hillman has started soon-to-be-36-year-old Jason Kendall in 31 out of the 32 games -- including bringing him back in day games after night games.
When Yuni Betancourt loafed and dropped a pop-up, Hillman said action would be taken. But instead of benching Betancourt the next game -- an easily defensible decision considering that Mike Aviles is probably better than Betancourt anyway -- he instead "fined" him. I put "fined" in quotation marks because the fine must have been extremely small. If it was more than a certain amount, the players association could have filed a grievance, and I suspect the Royals would have lost, adding yet more embarrassment to an already ridiculous situation.
Hillman has managed once again to put a team on the field -- a somewhat different team from last year -- that according to the Bill James numbers is the worst base-running team in the league, and according to the John Dewan runs-saved statistic is the worst defensive team in all of baseball.
Dewan Team Defensive Runs Saved (available at the awesome Bill James site)
(And Matt Klaassen writes in to say that you can now also find Dewan Runs Saved and Plus/Minus, as well as UZR, on the remarkable Fangraphs site. With Baseball Reference, Fangraphs, the Bill James site, Cot's Baseball Contracts and Retrosheet, we are absolutely in a Golden Age).
1. Seattle, +27
*The Angels thing is fascinating -- last year they were one of the two or three best defensive teams in baseball according to Runs Saved.
And so on. There really isn't much on the positive side to point out about Trey Hillman's managing -- but to be fair there rarely is when a team is playing about .350 baseball.
All that said, though, I suspect that some of the criticism of Hillman is either unfair or, certainly, unkind. I mean, take Soria -- Hillman has taken a beating for not using Soria more and in higher-leverage situations. But, realistically, Hillman is trying more than most managers. There have only been 18 saves all year of more than one inning, and Soria has a league-leading two of them (he could have had three but gave up those back-to-back homers). And asking for Hillman to pitch Soria in the seventh inning and be some sort of relief pitcher pioneer -- breaking away from what every other manager in baseball has been doing for two decades -- is probably a bit unfair. If there's a manager out there who will try to break the closer role dynasty, I suspect it will be an established manager with a winning history, a fat and guaranteed contract, and extreme confidence in his own ability and his boss' patience. Tony La Russa could do it. Joe Torre could do it. Even Lou Piniella could do it. Hillman is not that manager and he has not been given that role.
The truth is probably closer to this: Hillman has looked bad managing the bullpen because every pitcher he has in there stinks on his command. When GM Dayton Moore says that the bullpen woes should be blamed on him... well, I think he's probably right.
Then there's Hillman's handling of Meche and Kendall: Look, these guys are veterans who want to pitch forever and play every day. Sure, it's a manager's job to cut them down, to pull Meche after seven good innings whether he likes it or not and rest Kendall against his will before his already sub-100 OPS+ tumbles back into the 70s and 80s where it has been the last few years.
But, as bad as it is, Hillman NEEDS these guys on his side. They are, for lack of alternatives, his leaders in the clubhouse. Royals fans may be looking ahead to 2011 or 2013, but Trey Hillman cannot. He has to win now or find himself coaching first base for whatever team would have him. He may not have the horses, but he has to ride them as hard as he can because if they turn on him, this thing will REALLY run off the rails.
So what to do? Meche, I've come to believe, has a self-destructive streak -- he does NOT know his body like Hillman contends. He wants to keep pitching even though he has a bad back and is getting up there in age (he's 31) and he has no feel for when he's overdone it. Maybe it's toughness. Maybe it's stubbornness. Maybe it's a weird lack of self-control... the whole "I'm fine" thing. Whatever the case, yes, Hillman should be a strong presence, pull the guy, protect him against himself, but I suspect Hillman thinks he can't afford it. Gil is his pitching leader. He needs him the way LBJ needed Cronkite.
And Kendall. He said something on Sunday to the Star's Bob Dutton that still has my mind reeling.
"We know we're going to turn it around. We just haven't clicked. We haven't pitched well and hit well [at the same time]. Every club that I've been on goes through these stretches."
OK, the obvious has to be said: Jason Kendall has spent most of his life playing on lousy baseball teams. He played nine years in Pittsburgh, and they had a losing record every one of those years. He played for a couple of pretty good Oakland teams, one which made the playoffs, 57 games for a mediocre Cubs team that also made the playoffs, and one 90-win Milwaukee team. That's it. Teams he has played on have not just gone through "these stretches" -- they have spent half-decades in these stretches.
That has not been Kendall's fault, understand. He was a valuable player in the Pittsburgh years and a tolerable one the year Oakland reached the ALCS. But Kendall has also become this team's spokesman and resident leader, and it can be said that he has not been around a lot of great teams himself. But, he wants to play every day. And Hillman needs him. And Hillman plays him every day.
The point is: What's Hillman going to do to make this team better? He pulls Meche and rests Kendall and sits Yuni and configures the modern closer built around Joakim Soria and... so what? That would make the Royals significantly better? Doubtful.
Managers guess right and they guess wrong. They work magic and they blow a game. They play winning hunches and losing hunches, too. I think Trey Hillman knows baseball. I think he has worked relentlessly to improve his team's fundamentals. I think he has experimented. I think he has worked as hard as anyone could expect.
But it has flopped. And the issue is still unresolved: How much can you really blame a manager? How much can he really do? How much could somebody else do in his place? I don't know. That's the problem with judging managers: Nobody really knows for sure.
Here's what I do know -- the one concrete thing I can say: Hillman could have noticed that Josh Hamilton did not tag up. That's real. He could have saved his team an out and two runs. He could have done that. Maybe that's not fair, to ask a manager to see everything. Maybe not. All I know is that there was a real way for a manager of a bad baseball team to help his team win a game. And Trey Hillman missed it.
MLB Truth & Rumors