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Maybe it Really IS the Manager

As baseball season approaches, let's examine a mystery that has stumped baseball pundits, predictors and "experts" for the past couple of years: "How have the Kansas City Royals reached the World Series two years in a row, winning it in 2015, led by the worst manager in Major League Baseball?" Our answer may surprise not only the pundits, but perhaps also Royals manager Ned Yost himself.

In 2014, when the Royals made the playoffs, the media uniformly rallied around the idea that the team’s biggest handicap was its manager. The Wall Street Journal ran a story with a headline calling Yost a “Dunce.” A Chicago Tribune story at the same time characterized Yost as a “bumbling idiot.” Television analysts regularly scoffed at his ineptitude. When Yost made a pitching change in the Royals first playoff game that year, social media exploded with consternation—one analyst claiming the manager was making “another panic move.”

While baseball managers will often draw the ire of hometown fans, the angst for Yost has been wide and deep across national media, especially those intelligentsia devoted to the science of analytics. One National Post writer summarized this sentiment, saying “Yost is the gold standard for managers who drive analytics people crazy.”1 Asserts New York Times writer Bruce Schoenfeld, Yost is likely “the most criticized manager ever.”2

Yet Yost’s teams continue to improve. Since Yost became manager, Kansas City has won 71, 72, 86, 89, and 95 games – a 5-year climb to the elite. There are many things that go into winning in baseball, such as talent, roster formation and on-field management. And luck can play a role in any short-term success (average teams can have hot streaks that last for several weeks). For many, the Royals success in reaching the 2014 World Series derived mostly from good fortune.

With the recent explosion of data analytics in baseball, there is no shortage of websites that dive deep into the results to determine the actual strengths of players and teams, leading to predictive analytics for both. Some of the most respected analytics sites predicted the Royals would win 70-75 games in 2015, finishing third or fourth in their division, instead of winning 95 games and the World Series title. The reasons for the conservative predictions were largely based on a regression ("they won’t be as lucky in getting clutch hits"), and a manager who would use odd line-ups, often not playing the percentages of the new analytics paradigm popular throughout baseball.

The Royals surprised the pundits in 2015, posting the best record in their division, in their league, and advancing to and winning the game's championship. And they did this without any "star" talent, playing their unconventional way (now often called “Royals baseball” by many). Could part of their success be because of their front-line manager? Here are some reasons why Ned Yost's management approach may actually have been instrumental in the team's continued success:

  • Yost sees his job as developing players so they can perform at high levels. He also sees failure as a part of that learning and growth. On leaving players in the game despite mistakes and poor performance, Yost says, “I wanted to put those young players in a positon to gain experience, so that when we could compete for a championship, they’d know how. You can’t do that when you’re pinch-hitting for young guys. You can’t do it when you quick-hook starting pitchers. They’ll never learn to work themselves out of trouble.” By contrast, many front-line managers--in any realm--think that getting results and developing people are in conflict with one another. Managers who acknowledge that mistakes are part of learning will tolerate them as long as they do not defeat the ultimate goals or results of the unit. People learn from experience and Yost apparently understands this well.

  • Yost lets players make their own decisions regarding their performance and assess their own progress. He doesn’t micromanage. In any business with specific rules, and where the slimmest margins between winning and losing are evident, managers often seek control to gain whatever slight advantage they can take. Recently, another analyst ranked baseball managers on a “meddling index,” based on the number of decisions managers make. Yost was predictably last by a wide margin in terms making in-game decisions such as pinch hitting, moving position players, changing pitchers, etc.3 Yost, “perhaps alone among big-league managers” according to Schoenfeld, lets his players make decisions during games, such as when to attempt stolen bases and bunts. Again, he figures that costly mistakes are overcome by what is learned by the players owning the decisions.

  • Yost doesn’t make it "about him." After leading a team that had not been in the playoffs for 29 years to two consecutive World Series, Yost notes about his players that “now everyone knows them. And I’m still a dope. But it doesn’t matter.” It was the players that made it happen, and Yost seems to understand that. When your group or unit succeeds, outsiders will not understand the role that management played, because it is the team that executed. Furthermore, Yost appears to be effective in removing barriers, enabling his team to play loose and well – paradoxically they tend not to make many mistakes even though they seem to have the freedom to do so. Reports Schoenfeld, “It’s telling that castoffs and prospects on downward trajectories have, one after another, righted themselves under Yost.”
Interestingly, if you ask Ned Yost, he sees his greatest purpose and skill as motivating his players. “You have to understand them in order to manage them. If you understand their backgrounds, why they are the way they are, you can understand what motivates them.” Yost no doubt believes this, but it is likely that this has very little to do with the high performance of his team. Giving players the chance to take ownership for their performance AND to make real-time decisions AND allow mistakes to foster learning rather than imposing repercussions are the keys. Through these methods, Yost creates a high-morale environment where players are able to use their talent and experience to perform at very high levels.

Management makes a difference even if it is not always recognized. Ned Yost may not be the best manager in baseball, and the analytics crowd is correct that Yost makes some sub-optimal decisions based on his "gut." But the Kansas City Royals manager applies some sound management principles also. Too often, in baseball and elsewhere, managers believe they have to be the chief decision-makers. They could learn a few things from Yost’s approach.

1“Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons is no Ned Yost but he does follow hunches that defy the numbers,” National Post, October 18, 2015 by Scott Stinson.

2“How Ned Yost made the Kansas City Royals unstoppable,” New York Times, October 4, 2015 by Bruce Schoenfeld

3“The Managerial Meddling Index, 2015 Edition, Grantland, http://grantland.com/the-triangle/2015-mlb-managerial-meddling-index-matt-williams/, by Ben Lindberg.

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