The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What Matt Williams could learn from Ned Yost

On Baseball

Ned Yost of the Royals survived and thrived by adjusting his ways. Could Matt Williams do the same? (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

BALTIMORE — Ned Yost likes country music and NASCAR. He likes solid fundamentals and sacrifice bunts. He likes his closer to pitch with a lead in the ninth, not before, his deer hunting in the off-season, when it’s cool. There’s not a lot of mystery here.

Yet Yost still has the distinction of being the only manager fired in September with his team in playoff position. Back then, with Milwaukee in 2008, he was described as too tense, too inflexible.

“The biggest mistake I made there …” Yost said earlier this week, sitting on the bench in the visitors’ dugout at Camden Yards. The manager of the Kansas City Royals, coming off a pennant-winning season and owning the American League’s best record, went on to tell a story about how he had always considered himself a superior developer of talent. But at the end in Milwaukee, he was still treating the kids he helped develop as kids – and they were ready to win.

“I didn’t realize I was,” Yost said, “but I stayed in development-mode too long.”

What in the world does this have to do with Matt Williams?

As the Royals dutifully move toward October, Yost is secure in his seat, secure in who he is. But who he is, in September 2015, isn’t who he was in September 2008, when he was canned with a dozen games to go. Nor is he who he was in September 2014, when the Royals were on the edge of the postseason chase, and he preferred a paint-by-numbers usage of his bullpen.

These changes, they’re all meaningful, all progressive, all positive. But that doesn’t mean they were self-evident or easy to make.

We don’t know yet whether Williams will be back for a third season as Washington Nationals manager in 2016. That decision, sources say, has not yet been made.

What we do know: There will be changes with the Nationals, and everything is under consideration, from the manager to the medical staff. Whatever your assessment of Williams’s strengths and weaknesses, it’s impossible to imagine the same manager with the same coaching staff returning following what will be characterized as a disappointing 2015.

Which brings us to a couple of points: Fans who want to cut ties with Williams now – and there are many – must remember that, when the Nationals were interviewing for Dave Johnson’s replacement, the decision didn’t just fall to General Manager Mike Rizzo. Yes, Rizzo liked Williams. But the highest levels of ownership – from Ted Lerner to his son and daughters and their husbands – were involved in the interview process. Everyone signed off on Williams.

The other point, whether people want to hear it or not: Williams could grow.

Back to Yost.

“There’s definitely been growth,” said Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland, in his fourth year with Yost. “Definitely, because it wasn’t exactly that way when I first got here. I think it just kind of became a level of trust.”

The most commonly told story about Yost would be from last September, when he chose Aaron Crow, a mediocre reliever, to get crucial outs in a key game against Boston over flame-throwing Kelvin Herrera. Their stats at the time: Crow a 3.86 ERA with a .736 OPS against; Herrera with a 1.30 ERA and a .539 OPS against. Plain and simple: Crow was easier to hit than Herrera, who was dominant.

This pivot point is the stuff of recent Royals legend. Yost stuck with Crow because, as he said at the time, the sixth inning was Crow’s inning. Crow allowed a game-changing grand slam to Boston’s Daniel Nava. And the next day, Eiland went to Yost and said, essentially, “These games must be managed differently. We can’t go into October with innings assigned.”

Williams has been roasted for his stick-to-convention bullpen usage, particularly his refusal to bring in closer Jonathan Papelbon during a pair of exasperating road losses in St. Louis as August turned to September and the Mets pulled further away. To his credit, he recognized the urgency, and by the time the Mets appeared at Nationals Park for a critical three-game series last week, he was willing to bring in set-up man Drew Storen in the seventh, Papelbon in the eighth. (That it blew up isn’t Williams’s fault; it merely fits the arc of this season for the Nats.)

Again, back to Yost.

“Probably last year is when it started changing,” Yost said. “I’m a lot more flexible, not only in that regard [with the bullpen], but in all aspects of the game. There’s things that the coaches recommended before, and I was like, ‘Nah, I’m not doing that.’ Now they recommend things, and I get opinions. ‘Do you like it? Do you like it? Do you like it?’ That happens every night, five or six times a night.”

What has developed is a constant, quiet conversation in the coaches’ end of the dugout. On Yost’s staff are two former big-league managers in hitting coach Dale Sveum and bench coach Don Wakamatsu. Yost appears threatened by neither, even though Sveum took over the Brewers after Yost was jettisoned mid-pennant race. Rusty Kuntz runs the running game and the outfield defense. Mike Jirschele, the third base coach, managed the Royals’ Class AAA affiliate in Omaha for 11 seasons and sees things as a manager does. Eiland was the Yankees’ pitching coach during the 2009 World Series season.

“Before he does anything, he asks us what he thinks,” Eiland said. “‘What would you do here? What would you do here? What are you thinking?’ And he wants us to come to him if we’re thinking something. The line of communications is off the charts.”

Is it that way in the Washington dugout? When the Nationals hired Williams, a first-time major-league manager, they largely handed him Johnson’s staff. Rick Schu remained the hitting coach. Steve McCatty remained the pitching coach. Randy Knorr remained the bench coach. The lone coach Williams brought from his days coaching with Arizona was Mark Weidemaier, who is in charge of defensive positioning.

We don’t yet know the fate of Williams or his coaches, and we won’t for certain until after the season. But for Williams to return and restore the faith of Nationals fans, not to mention the front office, he will have to be able to sit back in a dugout and honestly say, “The biggest mistake I made there …”

To do that, he could learn from the evolution of Edgar Frederick Yost, whose counsel won’t be available until deep into October.