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Winning without Stats

Ned-Yost-volleyball-statsThe pendulum has swung (pun intended? ;). The recent sports trend is all about stats and if you keep the right stats, it will transform your team into a champion. Moneyball seems to have given rise to this trend, followed by the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series, and even my beloved Cubbies with a manager that’s all about stats. Use of basketball analytics has gone through the roof with every eyelash movement of a player tracked and analyzed. Sports Analytics has quickly become a multi-million dollar industry and volleyball certainly has tagged along with the trend.

Honestly, I have been somewhat dismayed at the decision making of programs based solely on stats. From ‘having’ to hire a coach with a DataVolley skill set to ‘having’ to play certain players because the data shows we should. Don’t get me a wrong, I’m a huge proponent to the advantages of collecting and using the correct stats, but we mustn’t forget the human element, the art of coaching as well. Team chemistry is as difficult to quantify as advertising dollars spent on a million dollar Superbowl ad commercial.

The balance between stats and chemistry is what makes a coach great. I tip my hat to veteran coaches like Ned Yost of the now World Champion Royals for going against the trend, or more likely, continuing to coach his consistent way with his player over the years (even as he was bashed by the media). The recent NY Times article sums it up best, “The most criticized manager in the major leagues dismissed metrics and embraced failure – and broke the team’s three decade slump.”

How Ned Yost made the Kansas City Royals Unstoppable

By BRUCE SCHOENFELD OCT. 1, 2015

The game in Detroit was tied in the bottom of the ninth, and Ned Yost needed
a relief pitcher. As the manager of the Kansas City Royals, he had a formidable
bullpen at his disposal. Kelvin Herrera, who throws 99 m.p.h., had already
pitched the seventh inning, his usual assignment. He struck out all three
batters he faced. Wade Davis, the master of a nearunhittable cut fastball, had
done his job by pitching a scoreless eighth. That left Greg Holland, who has
saved 116 games for the Royals over the past three seasons. Holland’s
responsibility, as Yost saw it, was to finish games — but only when protecting a
lead. Yost said repeatedly that he wouldn’t use Holland when his team is
behind or tied. ‘‘Don’t look for me to do it,’’ he told the beat writers after one
game last year. ‘‘I’m not going to do it.’’
Now Yost brought in Ryan Madson, a hardthrowing journeyman who had
been with four clubs in four years. The first batter he faced, José Iglesias, led
off the inning with a single. The second, Ian Kinsler, smacked a fastball over
the leftfield wall. Quick as that, the Royals were losers.

The early August game was hardly pivotal. Kansas City, which enters the
playoffs this week, had a commanding lead in its division. But Yost’s use of
Madson — really, his refusal to use Holland or to let Herrera or Davis pitch
more than one inning — represents the intransigence that for years has
exasperated those who watch him manage.

To many, Yost is a holdover from baseball’s Dark Ages, when managers
followed their guts on tactical decisions, the way they might play a latenight
game of Monopoly. Suspicion of anything even marginally unconventional or
innovative, let alone intellectual, was woven into the fabric of the sport.

Players were judged by looks almost as much as by performance.
The correction has been thorough. In recent years, the ability to track,
accumulate and analyze data has affected the way teams scout prospects,
position their fielders and make nearly every other decision on how they play
the game. More than a few now operate strictly by the numbers, guided by
staff mathematicians who barely watch the games, so as to not be overly
influenced by appearances. Analytical commentators and other observers,
armed with formulas and metrics, crunch the numbers involved in Yost’s
decisions and conclude that many of them are simply wrong.

Mitchel Lichtman, an author and a former professional gambler who has
consulted for the Cardinals and Astros (coincidentally, the F.B.I. is
investigating the former for hacking the latter’s database and stealing
information), says that the statistics are unambiguous: not bringing Holland
into a situation like that of the Detroit game is bad managing. ‘‘It’s a mistake,’’
he insisted to me. Lichtman is vexed by the decisions managers make in
almost every game he watches, but he feels particular disdain for Yost. He
explained away Yost’s success with the Royals by saying: ‘‘There’s so much
luck involved in short term success. Even a .500 team, I could show you very
easily, can win 90 games and then 12 or 15 in the playoffs on luck.’’

Lichtman’s is just one voice in a loud chorus. Because of Yost’s apparent
obliviousness to databased thinking, he has become the most criticized
manager in baseball. The reach of social media and the herd mentality that
pervades it may make him the most criticized manager ever. The criticism
occurs not merely at the margins, in bars and man caves and on Twitter and
fan websites (where the verb ‘‘Yosted’’ has emerged to describe what happens
when his choices lead to a Royals loss), but squarely in the media mainstream.
It fixates on Yost’s batting orders, his team’s tendency to bunt and steal, the
way he handles his pitching — nearly everything that can be plugged into a
formula and rendered as a number. The Chicago Tribune has suggested that
Yost is ‘‘a bumbling idiot.’’ A Wall Street Journal headline referred to him as a
‘‘dunce.’’ Pedro Martinez, a Hall of Fame pitcher and TV commentator,
disparaged one of his decisions in the playoffs last year as ‘‘another panic
move.’’

Yet Yost keeps winning. Last fall, after sweeping their first eight playoff
games, the Royals pushed the San Francisco Giants to the final inning of the
seventh game of the World Series. During the offseason,
his best starting pitcher, James Shields, and his starting right fielder and designated hitter
departed for other teams — and still Yost led the Royals to their first division
title since 1985. Despite inconsistent starting pitching and a ligament injury
that recently ended Holland’s season, they begin the playoffs in position to
reach the World Series for a second consecutive year, something the team has
never accomplished in its 47 season history.

Yost, who is 61, has managed the Royals since 2010. Before that, he
managed Milwaukee from 2003 to 2008. Since joining the Brewers, he has
presided over just five winning seasons, including 2015, and was fired during
one of them before it ended. But he also transformed perennial losers, from
baseball’s smallest two markets, into contenders. ‘‘He took a franchise that had
not been to the playoffs in 25 years, built it up and got it to the playoffs,’’ Doug
Melvin, the executive who hired and fired Yost in Milwaukee, told me this
summer. ‘‘Then he took a franchise in Kansas City that hadn’t been to the
playoffs in 30 years and did the same thing. I don’t care what anyone says
about him. How many managers have done that?’’

Ruddyface and taciturn, Yost looks like a baseball manager from a
era, someone who might spend the game with tobacco
juice dribbling down his chin. ‘‘He’s not reading psychology books,’’ says
Jonah Keri, a writer for Grantland. One manager who actually does read them,
the Cubs’ Joe Maddon, is widely considered baseball’s best. Maddon wears hip
blackrimmed glasses and collects wine. The Yankees’ Joe Girardi, engaging
and articulate, has an engineering degree from Northwestern, which
presumably helps him interpret the mathematics used to capture what’s
happening on the field. Brad Ausmus, who has managed the Tigers the last
two seasons, studied government at Dartmouth.

Yost grew up in California’s Livermore Valley as an undersize striver
seeking a sport in which he could excel. Cut from the highschool
soccer team, he struggled for a semester as a 5foot2
hurdler. Then he turned to baseball,
which he hadn’t played since Little League. In 36 J.V. atbats
as a sophomore, he couldn’t muster a hit. Nevertheless, Yost decided he was going to play — not
merely in high school, but for a living. ‘‘I just knew it,’’ he says. ‘‘When I sat
down with my counselors and they said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I’m
going to be a professional baseball player.’ And they looked at me like I was
nuts.’’
Such certitude, based on no discernible foundation, has informed Yost’s
decisionmaking processes all his life. ‘‘I often wonder, Do other people have
that same feeling and then it doesn’t happen?’’ Yost told me. ‘‘Because I knew
it was going to happen.’’ He made varsity, had a growth spurt, then landed at
Chabot College. After he starred on a summer team, the Mets drafted him as a
catcher. In 1980, he reached the majors, just as he had predicted. He seldom
played, though. Over six seasons, Yost accumulated just 605 atbats,
a number that starters can exceed in a single year. He was wondering what to do next
when the Braves asked if he would work with young players at their minorleague
outpost in Sumter, S.C. He ended up as the manager there for three
years before being hired onto Bobby Cox’s staff in Atlanta, where he remained
for more than a decade as a bullpen coach and later a thirdbase
coach.

Along the way, he cultivated an unconventional relationship with players,
one that made them eager to get to the ballpark. ‘‘He’d throw a belt into the
whirlpool when I was in there and pretend it was a snake,’’ recalls Eddie Perez,
who was in Sumter and Atlanta with Yost. ‘‘Not many managers would do
that.’’

Yost can be prickly in news conferences. But in an intimate setting, he’s
engaging, even warm. One afternoon this summer, he shared memories with
me about a friend he considered a mentor, the car racer Dale Earnhardt,
whom he met through a common friend in the early 1990s. Yost wears his No.
3 to honor Earnhardt, who died in a crash in 2001. ‘‘We hit it off,’’ he said.
‘‘Hunted together every year.’’ In 1994, when a labor dispute truncated the
baseball season, Earnhardt invited Yost to travel with him on the Nascar
circuit and serve as ‘‘rehydration engineer’’ (in other words, waterfetcher). At
one race, Earnhardt roared back from a huge deficit and nearly won. When
Yost congratulated him, Earnhardt grabbed him by the shirt and pulled his
friend nose to nose. ‘‘Never, ever, let anybody who you’re around, anybody
you’re associated with, allow you to settle for mediocrity,’’ Yost says Earnhardt
told him.
Later, Yost would be criticized for not replacing erratic infielders when he
had lateinning leads and allowing untested pitchers to compete — and often
fail — in crucial situations. The critics didn’t understand, he told me, that he
wasn’t necessarily trying to win those games. ‘‘The difference between 72 and
76 wins doesn’t mean a damn thing to me,’’ he says. It was the same as the
difference between second place and last place, which, Earnhardt had stressed,
was no difference at all. ‘‘I wanted to put those young players in a position to gain experience, so
that when we could compete for a championship, they’d know how,’’ Yost says.
‘‘You can’t do that when you’re pinchhitting
for young guys. You can’t do it
when you quickhook starting pitchers. They’ll never learn to work themselves
out of trouble. People would say, ‘What’s he doing?’ They didn’t understand.
I’d rather lose a game on my watch so they could win later.’’
In Milwaukee, Yost was hired by Doug Melvin to nurture a group of young
players learning to be major leaguers. He inherited a 56win
team, the worst in franchise history, and a legacy that was equally dismal: The Brewers hadn’t
fielded a winning team in more than a decade. In their first two seasons under
Yost, they won just 68 and 67 games. But in 2007, they remained in
contention until the season’s final week before finishing 8379,
narrowly missing the playoffs. That week, an increasingly agitated Yost was ejected from
games three times for arguing with umpires. The consensus was that he’d
cracked under the pressure.

The next year, the Brewers were 16 games above .500 with two weeks
remaining in the season, but they were in a terrible slump, having lost 11 of 16
games and prompting talk of another collapse. Yost was fired. The Brewers
wound up winning 90 games but would be remembered as the playoff team
that dumped its manager down the stretch.

The knock on Yost as an unsteady hand returned last fall, after the Royals
qualified as one of the two American League wildcard
teams. In the elimination game against Oakland, Shields held a 32
lead after five innings. Then he allowed a single and a walk to start the sixth. Yost had Herrera, Davis
and Holland, but as usual they were earmarked for the seventh, eighth and
ninth. Instead, he turned to Yordano Ventura, a 23yearold
starter who worked as a reliever once all season and threw 73 pitches two days before.
‘‘The conventional way is to bring in Herrera early,’’ says outfielder Jonny
Gomes, who was playing for Oakland at the time. ‘‘He did it a different way. He
had a young guy come in with tons of emotion, which young guys typically
can’t control. Knowing that, our approach was patience.’’
The criticism of Yost, on television and online, began when he lifted
Shields. Then Brandon Moss hit a threerun homer, giving Oakland the lead.
When Yost left the dugout to replace Ventura, the reaction from the home fans
was hostile, bordering on homicidal. For 29 years, they had longed for the
playoffs. Now, it appeared, the obduracy of an already unpopular manager was
ending the Royals’ postseason before it had barely begun. Their frustration
manifested itself in a deafening outpouring of disapproval. ‘‘I’d never in my life
heard anything like it,’’ says the broadcaster Ryan Lefebvre, whose father, Jim,
played and managed in the major leagues.

‘‘It didn’t bother me,’’ Yost told me. ‘‘I still felt like we were going to win
the game. I had no doubt that we would.’’ They did, in 12 innings. Then they
swept their series against the Angels and the Orioles.
Yost arrived in Kansas City in 2010 with the mandate to develop young
talent as he did in Milwaukee. Dayton Moore, the Royals’ general manager,
worked with Yost in Atlanta. He dismisses the end of Yost’s tenure with the
Brewers as irrelevant. ‘‘There’s so much more to managing a baseball team
than what’s happening on the field,’’ Moore says. When the Royals’ losses
mounted, Moore didn’t flinch. ‘‘A lot of people were saying we needed to make
a change,’’ he says. ‘‘It never crossed my mind.’’

Moore had spent enough time in the clubhouse to notice how Yost and his
charges interacted. Yost, it turned out, had hardly changed since Sumter.
Instead of data points to be plugged into an equation, he treated players with
sportive affection, like favored nephews. ‘‘I love these guys,’’ Yost told me. ‘‘I
really love them. You have to, in order to understand them. And you have to
understand them in order to manage them. If you understand their
backgrounds, why they are the way they are, you can understand what
motivates them.’’

Like most modern clubhouses, Kansas City’s is an eclectic mix. Chris
Young is a cerebral Princeton graduate. Lorenzo Cain was raised by his mother
in rural Florida and didn’t play baseball until high school. Drew Butera’s father
and Mike Moustakas’s uncle were major leaguers. There are Dominicans and
Venezuelans, a Puerto Rican, a Nicaraguan, a Cuban and sometimes even a
Brazilian. ‘‘This is a very culturally diverse team,’’ says Ben Zobrist, a utility
player who was traded to Kansas City from Oakland in July. ‘‘But these guys
for sure feel comfortable with each other. When a clubhouse is that
comfortable, it has started with the manager.’’

To Zobrist, an ideal clubhouse is one where you can’t tell whether a team
has lost or won four games in a row. That’s possible because of the steady,
accretive cadence of baseball, a sport in which alternating games of no hits and
three hits will win you a batting title. ‘‘Most managers don’t let you do it,’’ he
says. ‘‘You pick up clues from the manager. If he’s worried, you need to be
worried. Here, you have the freedom to think that whatever happened
yesterday doesn’t matter.’’

The Royals’ success isn’t all about intangibles. A decade of high draft picks
has paid off with a cadre of homegrown stars. And Moore has constructed a
roster of linedrive hitters and fleet fielders tailored to the capacious
dimensions of Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium. It’s also ideally suited for the
economics of playing in the sport’s secondsmallest
metropolitan area:
Building a team around outfield defense and middle relief is cheap compared
with the marquee expenses of power hitting and starting pitching.
Still, it’s telling that castoffs and prospects on downward trajectories have,
one after another, righted themselves under Yost. The Royals’ burly third
baseman, Mike Moustakas, the second pick in the amateur draft, who had
been successful at every minorleague level, was struggling last season, his
batting average lower than his weight. ‘‘I kept hearing: ‘Why are you playing
him? Why are you playing him?’ ’’ Yost says. Moustakas would arrive each day
wondering if he’d be dropped from the lineup. Finally, it dawned on him that
no matter how badly he performed, Yost wasn’t going to remove him. The
effect was liberating. His five postseason homers led the team.
‘‘He finds a way to get each of us to believe in what he’s doing,’’ Moustakas
says. ‘‘For me, it really helped to get out there, struggle and learn how to work
an American League AllStar.

When Yost made the announcement, he beamed
like a proud uncle. One night this season, Yost encountered a knot of players leaving the
team hotel in Milwaukee. It was nearly 10. Hearing that they were headed to a
late dinner and then a casino, he nodded. He wasn’t giving his blessing,
exactly, but he wasn’t disapproving either. ‘‘I know these guys inside and out,’’
he told me later. ‘‘I know they won’t stay out too long. Their goal is winning.
They won’t do anything to detract from that.’’

Such trust — or naïveté, as some would call it — informs Yost’s relations
with his team. He’s criticized because his players bunt and steal excessively,
risking outs in a misguided attempt to move runners up a base. Statistics
indicate that this strategy, depending on the situation, can decrease the
likelihood that the Royals will score multiple runs that inning. But most of
those decisions, it turns out, aren’t made by Yost. Perhaps alone among bigleague
managers, he allows his players to run and bunt on their own. The few
games that such illconsidered tactics might cost during a season, he has
decided, are more than mitigated by a lack of inhibition that will encourage
looser, more productive play. ‘‘He allows us to be ourselves, on and off the
field,’’ says Lorenzo Cain, the center fielder. ‘‘And we have a blast doing it. We
laugh together, have a great time. The chemistry on this team is amazing. That
reflects on a manager. And it matters.’’

That chemistry appears to have offset the construction of curious batting
orders. Alcides Escobar, who has hit leadoff for much of the season,
historically reaches base less often than the league average. The potent Alex
Gordon was hitting sixth before he strained a groin muscle in early July. This
in particular rankles the analysts. ‘‘Batting order is something a manager very
clearly has control of,’’ says Dave Cameron, the managing editor of the widely
read website FanGraphs. ‘‘It’s something Yost has done particularly poorly.’’

Yost dismisses such criticism, but others in the organization feel
compelled to respond. ‘‘We have information that the fans and analysts don’t,’’
says Yost’s bench coach, Don Wakamatsu, who previously managed the Seattle
Mariners. There, Wakamatsu says, he occasionally put the slugger Russell
Branyan at No. 4, the cleanup spot. ‘‘When I did, he’d break out in hives. But
I’d put him at 2 or 5 or 6, and he was a worldbeater. Can the numbers account
for that?’’

If anyone can make them do so, it is Grantland’s Keri, perhaps the most
thoughtful of the analytical commentators. When we met for lunch near his
home in Denver this summer, the Royals — whom he ranked 23rd out of 30
teams before the season — were in the midst of another streak. They had won
seven of eight and were distancing themselves from the rest of the division,
dominance that neither he nor any of the other experts had predicted. ‘‘They
have a defense oriented, run prevention team,’’ he explained. ‘‘And when you have close games, weird things can happen.’’ Keri wrote a book about the Tampa Bay Rays when Maddon was the
team’s manager. Against all odds, Maddon took that frugal, datacentric
team to the World Series. Its success, Keri wrote, was predicated on Maddon’s
willingness to be guided by the advanced analytics compiled by the Rays’
braintrust. As we talked, Keri offhandedly explained that Maddon has an
advantage over other numbercrunchers.

‘‘He’s a charmer,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s pretty
clear that the best thing he does is, he’s a likable guy. He gets players to like
him and play for him.’’ The way he described the sport’s most respected manager sounded a lot
like its least respected manager, I pointed out. Yost gave the Royals confidence
in their abilities and the freedom to play with enthusiasm. His optimism might
be goofy, I admitted, but it was infectious. ‘‘Then it turns out they’re pretty
similar,’’ Keri considered. ‘‘Because it’s all really about empowering your
players and creating a comfortable environment for them to thrive.’’
‘‘It’s strange,’’ he said, still musing as we were leaving. ‘‘They actually do a
lot of the same things.’’

If Yost never wavered in support of Moustakas, Cain, Escobar and
others, it was because he saw their future, just as he’d seen his own. ‘‘I knew it
when I saw them playing as Class A ballplayers, that they’d be AllStars,’’
he says. ‘‘I’ve never really had a guy that I strongly believed in not make it. I just
knew it, don’t ask me how.’’
Last year’s Royals were foundering at the AllStar break. ‘‘Then we were
swept by Boston,’’ Wakamatsu says. ‘‘Ned told us: ‘Don’t worry. We’ll be 10
games over .500 soon.’ And we said, ‘What?’ And we were. And then he said,
‘We’ll be 20 games over.’ And we were. There’s a calmness and a confidence
about it that eventually makes you not question it.’ Was Yost such an incisive judge of talent that he correctly identified a lineup’s worth of future stars, or did his belief in them help make them that
way? Did he see something in his team last year that others didn’t, or did his
confidence provide inspiration? These are questions, I’m sure, that analytics
aren’t meant to answer.

Yet the same unpredictability that confounds those who try to explain the
game through statistical formulations is what makes it so enjoyable to follow.
Accumulated data might suggest shifting the shortstop to the other side of
second base against a particular hitter, and that hitter might oblige by hitting a
ground ball to exactly that spot. The strategy has worked — except when the
grounder hits a pebble and bounds past. And there’s the batter, safe at first
base.

And there’s Yost, standing by the rail in the Royals’ dugout, leading his
team into the playoffs, again, for reasons that seem impossible to quantify. It
isn’t important to him why the grounders keep getting past the shortstop, only
that they do. ‘‘I’ve been known as a dope my whole life,’’ he told me. ‘‘And I
took a team to the World Series that hadn’t been to the playoffs in 29 years.
And now everyone knows them. And I’m still a big dope. But it doesn’t matter.
What does it matter?’’

Bruce Schoenfeld, whose last article for the magazine was about conflicting
approaches to winemaking, writes frequently about baseball.
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A version of this article appears in print on October 4, 2015, on page MM49 of the Sunday
Magazine with the headline: ‘They Looked At Me Like I Was Nuts’.
© 2015 The New York Times Company

 

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