The KC Royals have a new manager. All but one of his coaches come from within the Royals’ organization. Will the new coach prove to be the new skipper’s main man in the dugout?
Few were shocked, or even surprised, when the KC Royals chose Mike Matheny to succeed retired manager Ned Yost. After all, General Manager Dayton Moore hired Matheny as an adviser after St. Louis fired him as its manager, mirroring the same path Moore put Yost on when the Brewers fired him.
Instead, it is the composition of Matheny’s coaching staff that is somewhat surprising. New managers typically have much, if not total, discretion when it comes to hiring coaches and like to surround themselves with proven coaches they trust to provide good teaching, fine leadership, and sound dugout counsel.
Although Matheny spent almost a year acquainting himself with the franchise and its personnel before succeeding Yost, the fact all but one of his coaches were already Royals’ family members seemed unorthodox for a manager relatively new to the organization. Pedro Grifol moves from catching/quality control coach to bench coach; Vance Wilson moves out of the bullpen to third base; Cal Eldred and Terry Bradshaw remain as pitching and hitting coach, respectively.
Minor league pitching coordinator Larry Carter, a veteran of almost a quarter-century with the club, replaces Wilson as bullpen coach and, much to the delight of many Royals’ faithful, Rusty Kuntz rejoins the club for a third go-round as first base and outfield coach. (Dale Sveum, Mitch Maier, and Mike Jirschele won’t return but will have other jobs with the club).
The newcomer? John Mabry, Matheny’s former St. Louis teammate and hitting coach. The two played together on the 2001 and 2004 Cardinal clubs, Mabry as an outfielder, first baseman and third baseman, Matheny as a Gold Glove catcher and one of the franchise’s steadiest and most reliable backstops.
Mabry, whose career has included four separate stops in St. Louis–three as a player and one as a coach–started working for Matheny when Matheny succeeded the retired Tony La Russa. He joined Matheny’s first staff as assistant to Mark McGwire, then succeeded McGwire as hitting coach when McGwire left after the season. His fate thus cast with Matheny, Mabry found himself out of a job when St. Louis fired him, Matheny, and assistant hitting coach Bill Mueller on the same July 2018 day.
Mabry’s dismissal was probably as anticipated as Matheny’s–both had been under the gun for some time, Matheny for his reported difficulties managing his clubhouse and pitchers and tactical shortcomings, Mabry for what was perceived as his deficiencies working with underachieving Cardinal hitters.
Whether Mabry was the root cause of Cardinal hitting woes is debatable. A hitting coach’s contribution to the success or failure of professional hitters, and the degree to which a coach can be held directly responsible for outcomes, are supremely difficult to measure with precision. While statistics and metrics are useful, they reflect only readily-definable results, not the underlying cause. And determining which numbers might be most probative of a coach’s success is fertile ground for endless argument.
In the end, Mabry is, like all hitting coaches, the inevitable lightning rod when things go awry. That he bore the brunt of the blame for his charges’ poor performance is, deservedly or not, part of the risk of the position.
So, while Mabry’s discharge from Cardinal employment wasn’t shocking, neither is it what makes his hiring in Kansas City notable. Grifol may be the bench coach, a manager’s closest aide entrusted with helping to make critical pregame and in-game strategic decisions and a position often reserved for a coach with a strong preexisting relationship with the manager, but Mabry is the only coach with whom Matheny has shared a dugout.
He is a Matheny man, the only staffer other than the manager who lacks a KC Royals’ pedigree.
How much say Matheny had in the selection of his staff may never be publicly known but circumstances suggest that while hires other than Mabry may not have been thrust upon him, he may have been strongly encouraged to go with the present staff.
Royals’ coaches are becoming viable candidates for big-league managerial spots, their abilities and baseball acumen reflective of skill sets others want but the Royals need. Grifol, for one, was an object of San Francisco’s interest before the Giants hired Gabe Kapler, and may well have drawn other clubs’ eyes (and will in the future). The Royals have long been high on Wilson and interviewed him (and Grifol) before settling on Matheny.
Too, Kuntz considered an almost indispensable component of past staff, longed to return to an instructional role before leaving the field after the 2017 season, but the front office so valued his skills as an outfield instructor that convincing him to return is indeed a coup. Carter’s long tenure with the organization suggests he wasn’t previously close to Matheny but his present value to the club is high.
Eldred and Bradshaw, on the other hand, have received mixed reviews. Pitchers haven’t thrived under Eldred; Ian Kennedy‘s successful transition to closer is the most positive Eldred Era feature. In 2018, their first year under Bradshaw, the Royals scored fewer runs, had fewer hits, and struck out more than in 2017 and their team average dropped 14 points. Although losing Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain undoubtedly caused some of the decline, the digression was still troubling. The club improved in several offensive categories last season, but Bradshaw’s jury is still out.
Retaining Eldred and Bradshaw could have more to do with the facts that they have the front office’s confidence and were victims of their boss’ retirement than with Matheny viewing them as best candidates.
It is reasonable to presume, then, that the club didn’t leave the selection of his inaugural staff completely up to Matheny. The KC Royals place a high premium on continuity (a valuable commodity during a rebuild); as a one-year employee, Matheny possessed some of that commodity, but the internal coaching candidates offered a treasure trove of it.
Had the hitting coach position been merely a matter of Matheny wanting and getting his own man, Mabry was a clear choice. He served in that role for all but one of Matheny’s Cardinal seasons and as the assistant in the other. Matheny didn’t hide his affection and respect for Mabry in St. Louis; that he brought Mabry to the KC Royals proves his feelings haven’t changed.
Mabry’s hiring may foretell two significant things: Bradshaw’s job may be in jeopardy and Mabry, not Grifol, may turn out to be Matheny’s main man in the dugout. Bradshaw’s results are mixed–a function, at least in part, to having less than optimal talent to work with at this point in the club’s rebuild–but Mabry, his own mixed results in St. Louis notwithstanding, is a quantity known and clearly valued by Matheny. And although he may not be the bench coach now, Mabry fits parts of the classic bench coach mold–he has a long history and close experience with the manager.
Although Mabry’s coaching duties have not been well-defined publicly–indeed, the Kansas City Star’s Lynn Worthy suggests he “may wear a lot of different hats on the staff”–Matheny trusts him, likes him, and listens to him. He is truly a Matheny guy, while the other coaches may become Matheny guys. For now, Mabry is a Royals’ coach without a clear public role, but his place with the boss is secure and important.
John Mabry is the only major league coach on new manager Mike Matheny‘s staff without prior experience with the KC Royals. Because he worked for Matheny in St. Louis and Matheny clearly likes and trusts him, the new coach’s role may evolve significantly.