With firing of Mike Matheny, KC Royals have gone full circle from patience to urgency

When I interviewed Royals chairman and CEO John Sherman in May about a variety of topics, we spoke in part about his view of the state of the union.

To reset: The Royals were well on their way to a 16-32 April and May that had almost instantly irreparably damaged a season brimming with optimism. And they had just ousted hitting coach Terry Bradshaw.

Sherman didn’t directly refer to the interim replacement of Bradshaw with Alec Zumwalt, the director of hitting performance and player development who has been at the epicenter of key organization-wide shifts the last two years.

But it was clear he endorsed the move driven by first-year general manager J.J. Picollo, whose decision almost certainly wouldn’t have been proposed by former GM and then-president Dayton Moore that early into a season, and thus represented a departure from how the Royals typically do business.

Pondering that change, Sherman spoke of his trust that team leadership was “focused on improving that performance and willing to make tough decisions to make sure that it’s clear that our expectations are higher than this.”

Given his background of entrepreneurship and risk, I also asked Sherman about what all this said about his patience.

“Well, patience is a relative term …” he said, laughing. “You have to balance patience with having a sense of urgency to get better.”

He added, “You want to be decisive but thoughtful. And the main thing is not to panic.”

For months, that cryptic statement loomed in my mind.

But the meaning became much more clear in the last few weeks when Sherman fired Moore after 16 years of being the soul of a franchise that he “resurrected,” as Sherman put it, but needed fresh vision and energy after regressing in 2022.

And the sense of urgency and movement toward substantial change was reinforced late Wednesday night when the Royals announced that manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Cal Eldred were done.

To some degree, the moves seemed inevitable when Moore was fired. This is very much Picollo’s franchise to run now, after all, and he must operate as he sees fit. Nevermind that he loves Matheny, as he said recently. Making this change doesn’t contradict that.

It just says Picollo understood that despite any such feeling he believes it better serves the direction he wants to take the organization to have his own appointee on the job.

And surely not his own guy just to say it’s his own guy. Someone with whom he has a certain harmony and in whom he sees an embrace of cutting-edge trends in the game. And who will most likely younger than the 52-year-old Matheny — a smart and thoughtful man who certainly would have won more with better players.

Then there’s the matter of earning back the trust of a disillusioned fan base as the afterglow of the incredible 2014 and 2015 seasons has been obscured by the exasperating last few years.

With a 9-2 loss in Cleveland on Wednesday, the Royals finished a season that figured to present a step forward with 97 losses. That was nine more than last year and mighty close to their third 100-plus-loss year in the last four full seasons.

To say nothing of drawing the club’s worst attendance average for a regular season (excluding the last two seasons that had varying degrees of attendance limitations because of the pandemic) since 1975.

You could see how something had to give when a manager goes 165-219 … even if you were like me and figured the losing was a lot less about management than not having the right players.

Matheny’s era was bookended by the time warp of COVID (the 60-game major-league season with no minor-league seasons at all) and the all-in youth movement of the second half of this season that regularly meant six rookies in the lineup — and at times seven or eight.

In Matheny’s time with the Royals, 29 players made their major-league debut.

Once that switch was flipped this season, the Royals surely were going to take their lumps the rest of the way even with the notion in mind it would prime the pump for next season.

And maybe it has: Heck, it’s hard not to feel intrigued by what’s ahead for the young core of Bobby Witt Jr., MJ Melendez and Vinnie Pasquantino, among plenty of others.

Trouble is, starting pitching was much like the start of the season for the Royals: With the exception of Brady Singer and Zack Greinke, they too often were out of games early.

Eldred got the blame for a lot of that, and you could say it was deserved for any number of reasons.

But you can’t say there doesn’t seem to also be a broader, deeper institutional issue with the development of starting pitching somewhere in the pipeline to the major leagues.

If the reasons for that don’t become better understood and fixed, these changes at the top won’t have much chance to make a significant difference.

But Picollo, who ascended to GM after several years of helping integrate everything from a renewed emphasis on analytics to biomechanics to behavioral sciences with traditional fundamentals, knows that.

And he knows that he’s been embraced in this job by Sherman not to represent continuity from Moore, his mentor and close friend.

But to put his own imprint on a franchise for which patience, relative or not, has been entirely supplanted by urgency.

Kansas City Royals manager Mike Matheny was fired Wednesday night, after the team’s season concluded earlier in the evening with a 9-2 defeat at Cleveland. (AP photo)
Kansas City Royals manager Mike Matheny was fired Wednesday night, after the team’s season concluded earlier in the evening with a 9-2 defeat at Cleveland. (AP photo)