The Kansas City Royals introduced new manager Mike Matheny last week and the scene was about what you’d expect: Matheny was upbeat, letting everyone know his kids are incredible, his family is fantastic and great things are just around the corner for the ballclub.
Since that news conference, everybody’s had a chance to psychoanalyze Matheny, talk about second chances and learning from mistakes and speculate about the inner workings of his mind.
Now let’s put the touchy-feely stuff aside and concentrate on the real-world, nuts-and-bolts things Matheny ought to do if he wants to be a good manager in his second turn running a major-league team.
We’ll start at the beginning.
1. Run a well-organized spring training
Matheny spent time after meeting with the media last Thursday calling players, and it seems those players had positive reactions to those calls. Good PR move, but spring training is the first time those players will actually get to know Matheny as a manager.
And whether Matheny does the organizing himself or leaves it to someone else, it will help if spring training goes smoothly.
Figuring out who’s practicing what on which field, who’s going on road trips, who’s staying back in Surprise, who’s getting a day off, what fundamentals should be worked on (and how often), what minor-league players need to be borrowed to run a major-league drill … it’s a long list, and it can be an organizational nightmare.
If things are disorganized — players standing around listening to coaches argue about what drill is next, grounds crews confused about what field needs to be ready and what equipment should be provided — the players get a bad taste in their mouths.
A manager who runs a disorganized spring training camp can lose the players’ confidence before opening day. Why should players believe a manager knows what he’s doing during a game if he couldn’t get a pitching machine onto the right field at the right time? Even if it’s someone else’s responsibility, failing to do the little things would reflect poorly on Matheny.
Nobody storms the beaches of Normandy if someone forgets to put gas in the boats.
And since we’re on the subject …
Being well-organized is also a requirement during the regular season. How much and what kind of pregame work does Matheny expect his team to do? Is it done inside or outside? And if someone’s doing early work, does the grounds crew know and have the field ready?
If extra work is scheduled every time new owner John Sherman is at the ballpark, players are going to suspect Matheny is making them do that extra work to make himself look good.
Ballplayers refer to this as “eyewash” and don’t like it.
2. Resist pressure
Teams like to present themselves as one big happy family, but that’s rarely, if ever, the case. All families have arguments.
These days, most managers and coaches are mindful of analytics — it’s a job requirement — but that doesn’t mean there aren’t behind-the-scenes disagreements about metrics and how they’re applied.
It’s become a trend in baseball to hire pliable managers who will do what the analytics department tells them to do. If the players suspect Matheny is a front-office puppet, it will hurt his credibility in the clubhouse. A pitcher on a roll isn’t going to like it if Matheny pulls him after 80 pitches because a front-office analytics guy told him to.
And pressure doesn’t always come from within the organization. The media and fans can apply pressure, too. Ned Yost had his faults as a manager but got credit in the clubhouse for backing players who were going through a rough patch.
If Matheny doesn’t have his players’ backs, they won’t have his.
3. Give power away
After the Royals won the 2015 World Series, general manager Dayton Moore said all good leaders give power away. Moore gave power to Yost, Yost gave it to his coaches and those coaches gave it to the players.
If that’s still the Royals’ organizational philosophy, they’ll let Matheny do his job without too much front-office interference and Matheny will extend that privilege to his coaches.
Hiring good people and then getting out of their way has been a recipe for success in just about every endeavor since the discovery of fire. Yet some managers insist on being involved in every decision — oftentimes, they’re too insecure to give power to anybody else.
If a manager has to sign off on every little thing his players and coaches do, less will get done.
4. Run a happy clubhouse
One of the weaknesses of an analytics approach to the game is an inability to see beyond the numbers.
For instance, the analytics guys aren’t in the clubhouse and might not know that a player with awesome stats is actually a team cancer who’s making his teammates miserable, and needs to go.
If it becomes necessary, Matheny has to be willing to deliver that message to the people upstairs.
And it will help if the rules are the same for everyone; the star players don’t get to jog down to first while the young guys have to hustle.
It’s no coincidence that players on most winning teams seem to like each other and are willing to put aside their personal goals for the good of the team. Even if there’s no metric for it, team chemistry still matters.
5. Don’t get consumed with public relations
During his introductory news conference Matheny admitted to hiring a media consultant to help him with his image. Apparently Matheny has been told to smile more and it seems to be on his to-do list.
But when you lose you don’t get brownie points for having a smile on your face, and when you win nobody cares that you did it with a frown.
Getting overly concerned with how things look means you’re spending less time on how things are, and that’s bad management whether you’re running the Kansas City Royals or a roadside fruit stand.
6. Maximize player talent
Managers say the bottom line is winning, but in reality they’re limited by the talent they’re given.
It’s entirely possible that a manager who won 75 games did a better job than a manager who won 100 … maybe that 100-win team did it in spite of the manager.
That being the case, the more accurate measurement of a manager isn’t whether he won, it’s whether he got the most out of the players he was given. Good managers maximize a player’s talent by figuring out what he does well and asking him to do a lot of that. They also figure out what a player does poorly and ask him to do those things as little as possible.
If Matheny maximizes his players’ talents, runs a happy clubhouse and creates team chemistry, that keeps his players fighting no matter what.
He’ll be a good manager no matter what the standings say.
And he won’t need a media consultant to tell him to smile.