Muscle memory is an essential learned skill for any professional baseball player. These youthful Kansas City Royals have been compared to toddlers stumbling, falling and righting themselves again. One need only look at the good-bad-good again winning and losing streaks that defined the 2013 season for proof of their adolescent awkwardness. Perhaps, however, the most critical muscle memory this collection of kids needs is the work not being done on muscles in the batting cages and bullpen sessions, but the work done on the gray matter between the ears. Which is why the hiring of Dale Svuem is such a head-scratcher compared to the approach taken in the second half this year.
For Royals fans, the news of plucking Svuem just days after the Cubs let him go as manager after a 2 year stint must have triggered muscle memory of when Royals General Manager Dayton Moore hired Ned Yost as an advisor in early 2010. Everyone in the Royal kingdom knew that then-Manager Trey Hillman had cause to look over his shoulder, and rightfully so. Hillman was running on his last leg, and was fired 2 months into the season and replaced by Yost. And while Svuem’s hiring may have triggered thoughts of a manager-in-waiting situation again, surely there is something less conspiratorial with Yost hiring his friend and former successor.
First, let’s examine where the Royals have progressed by season’s end. When George Brett put on number 5 again for a few months in the middle of this season, joining the team in the dugout as hitting coach/shrink, it was clear these Royals needed something they were lacking. Brett pleaded with anyone who would listen that those that can’t do, teach. He swore he was the opposite of that axiom, insisting that he was not a teacher. He never wanted to be confused with someone who could fix a player’s swing. But, he was sure he could fix a player’s head. And even though Brett retired from the dugout at the end of July, the team wound up finishing 42-27 after the All Star break. No one argues that Brett’s presence and winning attitude weren’t the catalysts for turning around a flailing season. Brett injected what Manager Ned Yost seemingly couldn’t: a winning resumé. So, at the conclusion of the season, it was just natural to keep that positive, winning momentum rolling.
And how did Ned Yost accomplish that? By hiring none other than recently fired Cubs manager Dale Svuem as infield coach and duties-to-be-named later coach. Given Svuem’s track record, it’s more than perplexing what he brings to the table for this group of players who are hungry to hear from winners. As an infielder, he led the American League in errors committed his first year in 1986, and ranked in the top 5 his next 2 years. His production at the plate fell off throughout his injury-plagued career as he bounced from team to team, with the exception of one blip year in 1997. His .236 career batting average and .956 career fielding percentage for 7 teams in 12 years tells you all you need to know about Svuem between the lines.
As a manager, Svuem tried to embody the adage that those who can’t do, teach. When Yost was let go as manager of the Brewers with only 12 games remaining in 2008, it was Svuem who took over on an interim basis, guiding the Brewers to a 7-5 record and a wild card berth. When the Brewers lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in the Division Series in 4 games, Svuem was out as manager. Since then, Svuem guided the Cubs to unremarkable 61-101 and 66-96 finishes as manager the past 2 years before being let go. Yost must believe that his friend and former successor possesses a blend of experience these young Royals need. But aside from a mediocre playing career and abysmal managerial record, the knock against Svuem is that his young players in Chicago didn’t develop under his tutelage.
That’s not a good recipe for a Royals team that just had its head screwed on straight by its favorite son, George Brett. No, this is not the same situation that Moore put Hillman in. Yost won’t be looking over his shoulder. This is Yost making a move of muscle memory when he should have been looking for someone who has done it before, and can teach.