Ned Yost made official on September 23rd what many already knew was likely to be the case. The last season Yost would manage the Kansas City Royals would be 2019. The 65-year old manager will go down as the winningest manager in Kansas City history, and he has the all-time best winning percentage in postseason history of .710 (minimum of 20 games).
Most folks that read BCB remember that Yost managed the Milwaukee Brewers prior to his tenure with Kansas City. Late in September of 2002, Brewers’ ownership under Bud Selig hired Doug Melvin to take the helm as General Manager. A little over a month later, he hired Ned Yost from the coaching staff of the Atlanta Braves (he coached there from 1991-2002) to help him rebuild a franchise that had not smelled the postseason since 1982 and had finished 56-106 in the 2002 season.
While the Brewers lost 94 games in the first two seasons under Yost, things were looking up. The Brewers had already made some draft choices that would work out over the next couple of years, including Prince Fielder, Ben Sheets, Rickie Weeks Jr., J.J. Hardy, Corey Hart, Yovani Gallardo, and what would become the 5th pick in the 2005 MLB draft, Ryan Braun. Young talent was coming into the Brewers’ system, and Ned Yost was there to guide the way.
Yost developed that young core that many of us fondly remember. He obviously believed in player development and the psychological aspect of building and managing their confidence while they learned. In the day-to-day game, that likely caused consternation among the Milwaukee fanbase as well as the Brewers’ front office, but he looked to the long-term success as opposed to “right now” performance.
Former Brewers GM Doug Melvin, who hired Ned Yost in Milwaukee, recalls asking Yost in 2005 if he wanted the team to demote Rickie Weeks and J.J. Hardy, neither of whom appeared ready. Yost’s unselfish answer: “I’ll take the losses on my back now for wins in those kids’ futures.”— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) September 23, 2019
In 2005, the Brewers were able to end the season with a .500 record, and while they took a step back in 2006, Milwaukee competed well in 2007. Player inconsistency and the loss of Ben Sheets in August to a hamstring injury led to a collapse down the stretch of that season. Yost took the brunt of the criticism (maybe not well) even though that team was young and inexperienced. In 2008, however, it looked like the long drought was going to end for Milwaukee.
On August 31st, 2008, C.C. Sabathia pitched Milwaukee to a 7-0 victory over the Pirates. Things looked well in hand for a playoff birth. Milwaukee would lose 11 of the next 14. Ben Sheets was pitching through an injury that affected his performance negatively in his last few starts and likely cost him his future. With the postseason berth slipping through the fingers of the Brewers, owner, Mark Attanasio, decided to fire the man that managed the Milwaukee rebuild and got the Brewers into contention. Attanasio replaced him with interim manager Dale Sveum. Milwaukee was able to right the ship make it to the playoffs only to be eliminated in the NLDS by the Philadelphia Phillies sans Sheets and with a tired Sabathia.
Going into 2009, the Brewers seemed set with an amazing core of position players coming into their prime. They seemed set for perennial playoff contention. Alas, they would not make the playoffs again until 2011. Prince Fielder would take flight in free agency after that season, as would any other playoff appearances until 2018. Might things have been different long-term with Yost at the helm?
The firing of Ned Yost likely came as a result of what looked to be a repeat of the 2007 season. During that season, the Brewers held an 8.5 game lead over the Cubs in the NL Central in late June. Yost was under criticism for poor bullpen management, lineup configurations, and bench management. Eventually those criticisms about his in-game moves resulted in a new verb coming into the Milwaukee vernacular, “Yosted.” Those criticisms generally came from the baseball press, social media, and fan base, and Yost often reacted poorly to them. Might his firing been as much about the pressure created by his perception among Milwaukee media and fans as much as his effect on the clubhouse, where Mark Attanasio would later place blame?
That team would eventually collapse, and Chicago would take the NL Central crown. During the collapse, Yost became surly with the media and looked out of his depth to the general public. With 12 games remaining in the 2008 season and another collapse looking likely, Attanasio let Yost go, and the former Brewers’ manager left the organization perceived as a manager that finds a way to screw things up and the nickname of “Nervous Ned.” Attanasio was worried that Yost was making the players too tense and unable to perform to their talent level. The move worked in the short term. With the exception of 2011, however, the Brewers remained mostly mediocre with a very talented core that Yost built.
Yost left Milwaukee likely feeling raw and underappreciated, but he would land on his feet. It was reported that Yost did an exhaustive postmortem on what went wrong in Milwaukee. To his credit, he refocused and started to think about doing things in a different way. That included an eventual evolution towards the utilization of analytics. Yet he utilized analysis to inform and supplement as opposed to determine his teams’ style of play and make his decisions for him. The Kansas City Royals would benefit from the “new and improved” version of Ned Yost.
In May of 2010, Yost replaced Trey Hillman as Royals’ manager. By 2013 he transformed Kansas City into a winning ball club, finishing 86-76 that season, eerily similar to the Milwaukee experience. In this case, the Royals did not take a step back in 2014. With PECOTA and other projection systems indicating mediocre Royals’ teams in 2014 and 2015, Yost created a brand of baseball that was not being played across the rest of the league.
He let his players play without intervention from the bench. Many called this a “hands off approach.” Others went even further to suggest he did not manage his players. That was an interesting criticism since he was crushed for micro-managing in Milwaukee.
His Royals’ teams ran and bunted. They made contact and did not strike out. They did not hit for power, but seemingly got the timely hit (what we in the analytics world call “lucky”). They excelled on the defensive side of the ball and built bullpens that were untouchable, thus shortening the game. His teams became tough, gritty, and made things happen always putting the pressure on the opposing side. As a result, Kansas City reached back-to-back World Series and won the title in 2015. Somehow Yost never won Manager of the Year (not receiving a first place vote in 2013, 2014, or 2015) during that run with a small market team that was not supposed to be as good as it was. Yet he might be the best post-season manager in the history of baseball.
Highest winning percentage in postseason games (NFL/NBA/MLB/NHL) by a coach/manager (minimum 30 games)— Beyond the Box Score (@BtBScore) September 23, 2019
1. Bill Belichick: .738
2. Steve Kerr: .733
3. Ned Yost: .710
4. Glen Sather: .705
5. David Blatt: .700
Yost would go on to be the winningest manager in Kansas City history. He oversaw the rebuild of two small market franchises. Both those teams, with a long history of losing, became good under his watch. One of those teams became great. Would the Brewers have had a similar fate if he had remained in Milwaukee? Maybe, but maybe not. It is possible the reflection that takes place after being fired while getting a second chance some place else makes for a better leader and manager. Nonetheless, the Brewers were a better team than they had been in 25 years under the watch of Ned Yost. That is fact, and that is how he should be remembered from a Brewers’ standpoint, and as an all-time great by the Royals and the rest of baseball.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference