NASHVILLE — Ned Yost is beaming. Heck, he even looks a little smug. Not in some arrogant or unearned way. Just pleased with himself and his accomplishment and, over a month after hoisting the 2015 World Series trophy, he seems to enjoy reminding people that they didn’t think he had what it took to lead the Royals to glory.
You can tell that “I told you so” part is at the forefront of his mind because when he’s asked about something unrelated to the big picture of the Royals success or his role in authoring it he subtly steers things back to his naysayers and how silly they all look now for questioning him and his leadership.
Yost is asked about his newly-acquired relief pitcher, Joakim Soria, and what role he’ll play in the loaded Royals bullpen.
“They are all closer types in my mind,” Yost says. “Soria is a closer. [Hochevar] can close. We obviously know Davis can close. We know that Herrera can close. That’s the strength of our team is our defense and our bullpen, and now our ability to put the ball in play.”
Then Yost pivots. A hint of sarcasm enters his voice, but only a hint.
“Which is funny to me because everybody admires and ogles at the way we can put the ball in play where just a year ago, everybody was wondering what was wrong with our approach; when are we going to change our approach; why are you swinging at so many pitches?”
Yost flashes a satisfied smile as he says this, no doubt remembering how many times he was asked about his seemingly excessive bunting and his odd bullpen choices. Criticisms which rained down even as recently as 2014 when the term “Yosted” was coined by critics and angry Royals fans and turned into a social media hashtag used to channel their frustration at his often baffling strategic decisions. All managers face criticism, of course, but Yost’s detractors were a bit more persistent than others, continuing to lay it on him even as the Royals were in the process of winning the American League pennant that October. The Royals were a flawed team, they assumed, overachieving to some degree. As such the players could not be completely blamed if they failed. But Yost could. Blamed for his seeming stubbornness and for not putting his players in a position to succeed.
A year later that all seems ridiculous. As Kansas City cruised to the 2015 World Series title that “approach” Yost mentioned — batters swinging freely, baserunners running wild, bunts, steals and contact with runners in scoring position crowding out the longball as the plays everyone digs — became the new vanguard in baseball strategy. The “Yosted” hashtag was transformed from one used to mock Yost into one used only ironically, to describe how dumb Yost’s detractors look for doubting him. Or, in the case of press conferences such as this one, to give Yost a virtual high-five for firing off a clever bon mot or offering up unapologetic but totally justified comment about his and his team’s success and, yes, greatness.
None of this seems lost on Yost, who appears to be quite amused at everyone suddenly realizing that he is, shockingly, not some idiot the Royals brought in off the street but, rather, a lifetime baseball man who has spent a lot of time around greatness and contributed to it in significant ways.
Yost is asked about Zack Greinke, who just signed the biggest free agent contract ever given to a pitcher. His answer reminds us all that he knows from greatness: “You listen to radio talk show guys and they say they see a lot of similarities between Zack and Greg Maddux,” Yost says. “I was with Greg Maddux for a long, long time in Atlanta.”
Oh yeah, Yost coached there. He was Bobby Cox’s right-hand man for the Braves’ entire run in the 1990s, more or less. Cox, for all of his success, made more than his fair share of in-game strategic blunders doing those years, but he never got near the grief that Yost got for his own. Even if there was social media back then it’s hard to imagine him getting his own dubious hashtag for it. Cox is a Hall of Famer now and you have to be pretty long in the tooth to remember a time when criticism was leveled at him, let alone stuck to him.
Yost may not yet be a legend, but he’s got the confidence of someone who becomes one eventually. Yost is asked about how he knew, when he said it back in 2011, that the Royals would win a championship in the next couple of years. His answer, tied up in the development of then-disappointing youngsters like Mike Moustakas, hints at a legacy for which one can imagine Yost would one day like to be remembered:
. . . Mike was really struggling at that time and came back and struggled the next year. They were confounded why I would continue to play him. I just always believed that he was going to be an All-Star-type player and a winning-type player . . . when there’s somebody I believe in, I’ve never been wrong yet on that player. I’ve never been wrong on a guy I thought would be a really, really good player or part of a championship team that I was wrong on.
And I don’t know how that is. It’s just something that I see, something that I sense. I don’t have any scientifical formulas that I figure this guy is going to be a great player. I can see heart and desire and competitiveness and I can see skill. It doesn’t always translate into production right away, but I can always project production down the way with these young players.
You didn’t believe in Mike Moustakas and you didn’t believe in Ned Yost for believing in him. But Ned Yost did. As was the case with his strategic approach so is the case with his roster decisions. He didn’t evolve or change, as so many people like to claim he did. He was constant and events have transpired in such a way that he is now vindicated. Yost is amused that it took us this long to realize what he always knew.
It’s possible, of course, to overstate all of this. Yost is human and it’s human nature for one to take a somewhat undue amount of credit for one’s success and to ascribe said success to one’s skill and cunning when there were, admittedly, other factors in play.
For example, while Yost talks up that running, gunning, contact-hitting strategy, it’s likely overstated as a reason for the Royals’ success. Yes, the Royals were a fantastically opportunistic bunch, especially in the postseason, but situational hitting stats tend to fluctuate wildly from year to year and, on the whole, their offense was merely average. The same goes for their highly-touted running game. While we can all point to instances in the postseason where the Royals’ speed made things happen, even winning games, over the course of the 2015 season their performance on the base paths actually cost them more runs than it gained them, at least according to some metrics.
None of which is to take away from the club’s success, of course. The Royals won the gosh darn World Series, after all. It’s merely to say that Yost’s certainty that this success would occur was likely due more to the fact that he was an athlete and is now a leader and athletes and leaders all carry with them the confidence that they will succeed. When they do succeed, they can truly say that it was never in doubt. When the don’t? Well, when they don’t there aren’t a dozen or two reporters surrounding them months later asking them to dwell on it. At least not outside of New York and Boston, I suppose.
For now, though, Yost is more than entitled to his victory lap. He’s entitled to bask in the glory of a world championship and he’s entitled to tell his naysayers that they were wrong. Partially because rings are all that ultimately matter in sports and, next April, he’ll get his ring.
But also because he no doubt remembers how, back in 2012, he famously revealed that, when he went to Starbucks for a coffee in Kansas City, he’d give a fake name to the barista so his critics would not be alerted to his presence when his name was called. Now, though?
“When I go to Kansas City, it’s hard to go out anywhere without getting standing ovations and stuff like that,” Yost says. “I mean, it’s absolutely crazy, going to a restaurant, you just kind of want to sneak in.” Yost then does a one-man impression of a clapping and cheering crowd, the likes of which he frequently encounters these days.
Did the crowds change, or did Yost? Who really evolved here?