I was wrong, and am happy about it.
Nearly a month ago I inked a ranking of a dozen Major League Baseball managers whose jobs I considered to be on thin ice. As of now, the axe has not fallen anywhere, though things remain bleak for Walt Weiss in Colorado and Kirk Gibson in Arizona (and I’m not going to cry too hard when Gibson gets his pink slip).
At the top of the list I had Kansas City Royals skipper Ned Yost being gone. The handwriting appeared to be on the wall. The Royals had slipped below .500 and a team meeting was called in the middle of a road trip. One radio announcer for a rival American League Central team suggested that something “may be in the offing” in Kansas City as owner Dayton Moore was with the team in Chicago, giving Yost the dreaded vote of confidence.
The Royals targeted 2014 as their year. There would no longer be satisfaction with being a .500 team on the edge of a playoff race. Yost had been there before, managing the Milwaukee Brewers into contention in both 2007 and 2008 before being let go with a mere 12 games remaining in the 2008 season.
On July 21 Baseball Prospectus had the Royals’ chances of making the playoffs down to a mere seven percent. I had Yost being let go before the team opened a home stand with a four-game series against the Cleveland Indians. Myself and others wound up being wrong. Right now it’s the best non-move a baseball front office has made all year.
Since the ink dried with my ranking of Yost as No. 1 in my managerial dead pool, his team has gone a cool 22-5 and its playoff chances are now computed at 75 percent as of Tuesday morning, with a 52 percent chance of winning the American League Central. The Royals and the Detroit Tigers have suddenly become two ships crossing in the night, tacking on vastly different courses. Royals fans have picked up on the excitement with many making the long trek west on I-70 for a two-game midweek set in Colorado. Tuesday night’s contest sounded more like a Royals home game, as the team went 15 games above .500 for the first time since 1994.
Suddenly, the Royals have earned attention from the national media. USA Today did a piece on Yost on his 60th birthday, the Royals were featured in Sports Illustrated this week, and ESPN has actually picked this week’s Indians-Royals matchup as its Sunday night game on Aug. 31.
There are differences between the 2014 Royals and 2008 Brewers. The 2008 Milwaukee team was built on offense and power. It started with Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, then continued with J.J. Hardy, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks and even Bill Hall. But the pitching became a disaster towards the end of the season. The rotation consisted of CC Sabathia, Ben Sheets and praying for three days of rain with the Miller Park roof stuck in the open position. The bullpen was even worse, eventually depending on veteran journeyman Solomon Torres to close games.
A desperate Yost panicked, which only seemed to accelerate his team’s tailspin. Owner Mark Attanasio made the unprecedented move of changing managers with two weeks left in the regular season. Dale Sveum (now one of Yost’s coaches in Kansas City) piloted the team to a 7-5 record with Sabathia seemingly pitching every other day. Thanks to a late New York Mets collapse, the Brewers secured the National League Wild Card spot on the regular season’s final day.
The Royals are built in an entirely different fashion. The team is last in all of baseball in home runs, but makes up for it on the basepaths, not unlike how the franchise succeeded back in the days of disco and 150-degree AstroTurf on a summer Sunday afternoon. One time elite prospects Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas have bombed thus far at the big-league level, but Salvador Perez became the American League’s starting catcher (after the fans somehow voted in the injured Matt Weiters) for this year’s All-Star Game and Alex Gordon deserves MVP consideration with his 5.2 WAR, which is tied for fourth in the American League.
Gordon is also a player no one can possibly root against, who has made significant donations for exceptional baseball facilities at the University of Nebraska.
And then there is the pitching. The rotation boasts four front-line starters in Danny Duffy, James Shields, Jason Vargas and Yordano Ventura, all with ERA’s south of 3.50. The relief corps is even better with eighth inning man Wade Davis and closer Greg Holland arguably the best in the game.
Hopefully writing this doesn’t jinx the Royals and send the pendulum back in the other direction, but the latest forecast is trending towards a Blue October, and Yost is suddenly in the running for American League Manager of the Year.
And just maybe, the Royals will get through the American League playoffs and advance to the World Series. Perhaps they will hook up against another team in blue like the Dodgers, or even Yost’s old Milwaukee Brewers.
One can probably still make a good parlay bet on that in Vegas. I would be among those definitely rooting for it, Yost deserves the opportunity to finish the job.