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Trey Hillman: 2010’s First Sacrificial Lamb

[Author’s added note, May 14, ~10:20 A.M. EST: You really should check out Posnanski’s post that really lays out Hillman’s clubhouse issues that I hinted at below. Do so if for no other reason that to find out that by the end of his first season, “the players were rather openly comparing Trey Hillman to Michael from “The Office.” Hmm… I wonder where they got that idea?]

The first manager of the 2010 season has been “let go”: Thursday afternoon, immediately after Zack Greinke‘s first super-duper meaningful pitcher win of the season, the Kansas City Royals announced the firing of manager Trey Hillman. I’m not an “insider,” so I won’t get into analyzing the specific politics of the organization. That sort of stuff will hopefully come from the almost-always outstanding work of Joe Posnanski, Rany Jazayerli, Sam Mellinger, and others.

It is tempting to run through a sampling of Hillman’s “greatest hits.” (Who can forget Kyle Farnsworth pitching to Jim Thome on Opening Day 2009?) We’ll always remember Hillman’s response to the person who asked why left-handed reliever Ron Mahay wasn’t brought in to face Thome : “Mahay isn’t a lefty specialist.” Hillman handled the bullpen poorly, made bizarre playing time decisions, had an amazingly poor grasp of the platoon, and allegedly lost the clubhouse in his very first Spring Training with the club. I personally soured on Hillman fairly quickly. I didn’t appreciate the condescending tone Hillman tended to take when he felt cornered, and it was clear that part of the problem was his personality and attitude (he didn’t have time to “educate” us).

Nevertheless, even when someone has lost their job deservedly, it is difficult to take much joy in it. Hillman clearly loves the sport, and went to great lengths to be “in baseball” any way he could — working his way through the Yankees’ minor league system as as manager, leading the Nippon Ham Fighters to Pacific League championships in 2006 and 2007, and finally getting a shot at the American major leagues with the Royals in 2008. This is what happens to managers who preside over terrible teams. I would be shocked if Trey Hillman ever managed in the American major leagues again, and while that’s an accurate reflection of his abilities, it is sad to see that part of his dream end. Like just about every defeated political candidate I’ve ever heard, he never sounded better than during his ‘concession speech.’ All the best to Trey Hillman in his future endeavors. I’m just glad he got to stay long enough to see Jason Kendall‘s emotional 250th hit-by-pitch.

The least surprising post-firing announcement is that Hillman’s replacement, at least on an interim basis, is former Brewers skipper Ned Yost. You aren’t going to believe this, but Yost was a coach for the Atlanta Braves at the same time Dayton Moore was working there. Some blame Yost for the Brewers’ pennant race problems during the last part of his Milwaukee tenure, but it is safe to say Yost probably won’t have to deal with that situation anytime soon with Kansas City. The truth is that it just doesn’t matter all that much, from a pure baseball perspective. You’ve read the sabermetric “managers don’t matter all that much” thing before: yes, managers often make bad strategic decisions, and sometimes they blow up in their faces, as in the Farnsworth/Thome example above. But over time… sometimes you pinch-run Tony Pena, Jr. for your designated hitter Billy Butler in a close game, Pena gets stranded, then, in extra innings, one of the worst hitters in the history of the major leagues, playing DH, gets the game-winning hit. Within a few games, random variation limits the amount of damage (or good) a manager can do. Yes, Hillman played Jose Guillen too much, but he’s not the person who gave an obviously declining outfielder in his early thirties a guaranteed $36 million dollar contract, either.

Back to the matter at hand. If you’re reading this, you probably know how this usually plays out. A new GM (Dayton Moore) comes in, quickly gets rid of the current manager (Cf. Buddy Bell) and brings in “his guy” (Trey Hillman). If after two or three seasons, if the team is still losing, the manager gets canned, and the GM’s leash gets shorter. Dayton Moore was quite emotional during Thursday’s presser, but it would be cynical to suggest that it was for any reason other than his personal relationship with Trey Hillman. Still, this is a clear sign (especially if one thinks the order to make a change came from ownership) that patience with the Royals’ lack of progress at the major league level is running thin. Pre-Moore acquisition Alex Gordon has been successfully neutered, but the most valuable on the team are still pre-Moore draftees Zack Greinke and Billy Butler. Hillman was Moore’s last line of defense. Some may say that Moore needs time to “see the end of what he started” in the minor leagues. Did anyone say that Allard Baird should be allowed to see what became of Greinke, Butler, and Gordon?

Trey Hillman (about whom Moore once said had a chance to be “one of the best baseball men of his generation”) needed to go, if for no other reason than showing that there is some level of “accountability” within the organization. The signals indicate that ownership isn’t going to wait around indefinitely on Dayton Moore, either. Again, we’ve seen this movie: new general manager comes in, honeymoon period (he isn’t the old guy!), seems to have a plan (I bet no one has ever thought of building a “farm system” before!), hires new manager (new ideas from Japan!), spends lots of money of free agents… then, when/if things go south, one of the last lines of defense is that the GM’s managerial hire gets fired. The typical next step isn’t to fire the new manager: after the first hire-and-fire, it’s usually the GM’s turn.

Now that is a process worth trusting.