Reconsidering Ned Yost (Part 1)

If the Royals win the World Series this year, whole books will be written about Ned Yost, and how misunderstood he was.

Until then, we’ll just have to settle for Bruce Schoenfeld’s feature-length apologia in this week-end’s New York Times Magazine.

Of course it’s overwrought, with backhanded stabs at sabermetrics and the practitioners of that dark art. But it’s mostly about people and the things they say and do, and so it’s a valuable addition to the literature. The basic message, of course, is that Ned Yost’s teams eventually win not because he’s the most brilliant tactician since Leo Durocher, but because he’s good with people; he has faith in them, and eventually they tend to justify that faith…

Later, Yost would be criticized for not replacing erratic infielders when he had late-inning leads and allowing untested pitchers to compete — and often fail — in crucial situations. The critics didn’t understand, he told me, that he wasn’t necessarily trying to win those games. ‘‘The difference between 72 and 76 wins doesn’t mean a damn thing to me,’’ he says. It was the same as the difference between second place and last place, which, Earnhardt had stressed, was no difference at all.

‘‘I wanted to put those young players in a position to gain experience, so that when we could compete for a championship, they’d know how,’’ Yost says. ‘‘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. People would say, ‘What’s he doing?’ They didn’t understand. I’d rather lose a game on my watch so they could win later.’’

–snip–

Still, it’s telling that castoffs and prospects on downward trajectories have, one after another, righted themselves under Yost. The Royals’ burly third baseman, Mike Moustakas, the second pick in the amateur draft, who had been successful at every minor-league level, was struggling last season, his batting average lower than his weight. ‘‘I kept hearing: ‘Why are you playing him? Why are you playing him?’ ’’ Yost says. Moustakas would arrive each day wondering if he’d be dropped from the lineup. Finally, it dawned on him that no matter how badly he performed, Yost wasn’t going to remove him. The effect was liberating. His five postseason homers led the team.

‘‘He finds a way to get each of us to believe in what he’s doing,’’ Moustakas says. ‘‘For me, it really helped to get out there, struggle and learn how to work through failure. It made all the difference.’’ This year, Moustakas was named an American League All-Star. When Yost made the announcement, he beamed like a proud uncle.

Just to mention one little bit of the story that Schoenfeld leaves out, last season Moustakas wasn’t just "dropped from the lineup"; when he was batting .152 in late May, he was sent back to the minor leagues for a couple of weeks. In eight games with Omaha, he batted .355. 

The Royals brought him back, and then he played almost every game the rest of the way. Even though he never really got it together, batted .235/.289/.377 the rest of the way. Not counting October. The Royals would have won more games during those four months if they’d platooned Moustakas with, say, Danny Valencia. They might have won the World Series if Yost had used an occasional pinch-hitter when a lefty was pitching for the Giants.

But yes, Yost’s faith in Moustakas now looks pretty brilliant. In fact, Moustakas’s 2015 might be the No. 1 testament to Yost’s acumen. Schoenfeld writes of all the "castoffs and prospects on downward trajectories" that Yost has somehow turned around, but how many examples have their been, besides Moustakas?

That depends on your definition of "downward trajectory," I guess. But Alex Gordon counts, I think. Maybe Eric Hosmer, if you push the definition. That’s about it, though, at least on the hitting side.

Which is plenty, at least this season. Yost is obviously benefitting from a halo effect at the moment. But shouldn’t we all be so lucky at some point in our lives?