All season long, people have asked about Royals manager Trey Hillman. What’s he like? How is he doing in his first year? Is he the right guy? The problem with answering, honestly, is that I’ve seen two Trey Hillmans.
Last October, I saw Trey Hillman in Japan. He was managing the Nippon Ham Fighters in the Japan Series then, and that guy looked like a young managing star. Everybody liked him. Everybody respected him. He was self-assured, he was beloved, his players played hard and smart baseball for him. You could not help but see exactly what Royals general manager Dayton Moore saw when he gave Hillman a big-league job — this guy would bring passion to Kansas City, bring baseball imagination, a little Texas attitude, and he would preach and promote Royals baseball to the whole Midwest. This was the right guy at the right time.
Then he took over as Royals manager. And ever since, to be blunt, Hillman has been drowning. It isn’t just that this team has underperformed — though, of course the Royals have underperformed (they have the largest payroll in team history and are on pace to win and lose the same number of games as last year’s team flop). Well, everyone has grown accustomed to the Royals disappointing.
It isn’t just that this team lost 12 games in a row earlier this year — the longest losing streak by any club in the league and a sure sign of a team that is not very good and is not playing alert or focused baseball. Everyone around here has been through long losing streaks.
It isn’t just that the Royals recently went through a stretch of allowing 22 unearned runs in 21 games, devastatingly bad baseball for a team that was supposed to be built on improved fundamentals and sturdy defense. Then, everyone has seen that act before, too.
Those things mostly reflect on the players — Hillman wasn’t dealt much of a hand in his first shot at the big leagues (One example: The Royals are dead last in the American League in homers and are near the bottom in stolen bases. So this is another no-power, no-speed Royals team. We’ve grown used to that around here, too).
No, the troubling part is that all of those things that Dayton Moore and so many others saw in Hillman — his bustling energy, his likeable personality, his sense of perspective, his ability to inspire and motivate the players — those things have been missing in action. The Royals have played lackluster baseball. They have gone backward defensively. They are so unfocused that Hillman last week made a point to say they’re catching pop-ups better. They have by far the worst plate discipline in all of baseball. The Royals’ young players have not improved enough and in some case regressed. This is not a well-managed baseball team.
And everyone seems to know it, especially the players. It should be said up front that Major League Baseball players often grumble about their manager. But multiple sources who are around the club every day say that these Royals openly mock him. A new Trey Hillman joke is almost a daily occurrence, and it’s hard for a manager to recover from being a clubhouse punchline.
It would be easy to run a long list of quotes from unnamed sources about Hillman — they line up around the block to say that the Royals don’t look ready to play, that there’s definitely a lack of respect in the clubhouse, that Hillman often seems out of his depth — but let’s not do that. Instead, though, let’s look at some of the more public stuff.
For instance, catcher Miguel Olivo came out last month and said that he absolutely would not come back to Kansas City and that Hillman obviously did not like him. The two had a conversation after that and said the air was cleared. Apparently so. Olivo has caught each day since then, missing only the second game of a doubleheader.
Royals outfielder José Guillen has been an even thornier problem. For one, Guillen has never hid his up-and-down feelings about Hillman — whatever you may think about Guillen, he does not hide his feelings. But what has shaken things up is that Guillen has had a whole series of incidents this year — just off the top of my head, he showed up for camp out of shape, there was the altercation with a coach, the lashing out at the fans who booed him, the ESPN Deportes story that said he wanted out of Kansas City, the quote when he said he had no fun playing at home, and so on — and there has not been a single, public rebuke of the Royals’ highest-paid player by Hillman. It has left some in the clubhouse to wonder if there are two sets of rules, one for Guillen, one for everyone else.
“Put it this way,” says one of those unnamed sources. “It doesn’t mean a whole lot if you call a team meeting to talk about playing better fundamental baseball, and José Guillen isn’t even a part of it.”
Others have complained too — about bullpen use, about Hillman’s hands-on approach, about quirky game decisions, about his defensiveness. A couple of weeks ago, Hillman pulled starter Gil Meche, even though he had retired 17 batters in a row and had only thrown 104 pitches. The bullpen blew the game, and the move baffled people in and out of uniform. Hillman, though, refused to even acknowledge that it was a questionable decision.
“I don’t understand why there would be second-guessing,” he said after the game. “It’s a no-brainer for me.”
More than anything, many feel he does not communicate well, and that was supposed to be Hillman’s greatest strength. Olivo’s biggest issue with Hillman seems to be that he was never told, man-to-man, that his role was being reduced.
And the Olivo situation is not isolated. Before the season began, Hillman said he intended to move Guillen to left field, something he apparently had not discussed with Guillen first. That didn’t go over well, and Guillen began the year in right field. When Hillman decided to have starter Zack Greinke open the second half — effectively naming him the No. 1 pitcher on the team — he did not have a short meeting with opening day starter Gil Meche to let him know. Meche, being a team guy, said that this didn’t bother him — he felt it was the right move — but others in the clubhouse muttered that it was needlessly disrespectful to the staff leader.
Then there was the Jimmy Gobble game. After a game in which Gobble got ripped for six consecutive hits (the last a long home run) and was then left out there to die against six more batters, Hillman was asked if he could talk about what Gobble was obviously feeling. He callously said, “Nope.” Many wondered why he had left Gobble out there to roast in the first place, but nobody understood why he couldn’t show just a little empathy for his fallen pitcher.
It’s just so strange because this isn’t at all like Hillman in Japan. True, Major League Baseball is a different game with different pressures, players can be much touchier than in Japan, where a manager is treated like the CEO of a company. Hillman has struggled with that adjustment. For instance, players still talk about that day in spring training when, immediately after a game in which the Royals ran the bases sloppily, Hillman called an impromptu team meeting at home plate and undressed the players in public while fans filed out. Royals general manager Dayton Moore loved the teaching moment, and so did many fans — send those spoiled players a message! — but several Royals thought it was a Mickey Mouse move, pointlessly disrespectful, and the same meeting would have carried a stronger message behind closed doors, without the public embarrassment.
Are the players right? Maybe not. But in the end, Trey Hillman is not going to win with moves that impress Dayton Moore or fans. The job of a big-league manager is to get through to players, to get the best out of them, to demand their best and win their respect, and the fact that it is still a touchy move six months later (and the fact that the Royals have run the bases disastrously much of the year) suggests it backfired.
What makes all of this so baffling is that Hillman seemed like a man in complete control in Japan. Players were unrestrained in their praise … they obviously loved the guy. And you could understand why. He worked hard, yes (Hillman still works ridiculously hard for a baseball manager, 18-hour days usually — nobody questions his work ethic. In fact, some think he works too hard). But even more, he also had a light touch, everyone marveled at the way he worked with different personalities, they way he overcame the language barrier, the way he could make players feel at ease and also the way they sacrificed for the team. His Fighters won the Japan Series in 2006 and then, despite losing their biggest stars, went back to the Japan Series the next year.
That’s the guy the Royals hired. Sure, you can certainly understand if, early in his big-league career, he is trying too hard. Hillman had a tough path to a big-league manager’s job. His father sold tickets for the Texas Rangers, Trey worked as a clubhouse attendant in Texas, he was a minor-league player briefly, a manager in the New York Yankees’ system for years, a front-office guy for a year, then he went to Japan. It was bumpy getting here, and from the start you could sense that Hillman was anxious, even as he kept talking about how he was not anxious.
Still, he has not let his personality and passion come through. And this is the point. Trey Hillman is a talented baseball man. He’s an engaging guy. He’s a great baseball story, the little guy made good.
But he needs to be that guy. Despite any rumors you might hear, Hillman will be back as Royals manager next year. Moore and the Royals would not — and absolutely should not — abandon a guy one year after sticking him with a limited team and a moody star.
Instead, the Royals have officially told Hillman what I would tell him as well: Relax. You have the job. I would hope Hillman would go back to his baseball core, go back to all those philosophies that got him here: Baseball is a game played over a long season, and you can’t live and die every day, you can’t worry about what everyone thinks, you can’t get every decision right, and you can’t demand people’s respect. You earn that.
People all around the Kansas City Royals have noticed a change in Hillman the last week or two. They see him smiling just a bit. They notice a touch less tenseness in his voice. They sense his defenses have lowered a notch and some of the best parts of his personality are sneaking through. Saturday, he talked a little bit about his situation with Olivo, but more he seemed to be talking about what he learned this tough season.
“I could make several lists of things I’ll do differently next year,” he said. “Things that at the time when you do them you don’t think are mistakes. A lot of it is learning in a new atmosphere that you’re in and learning personnel and learning situations.
“If you take it personally, I think it has the chance of having major adverse effects on what you’re supposed to do. There are times when you do take things personally, but I think the quicker you get a hold of your own ego and think about this right here,” — here Hillman touched the KC on his jersey — “and what this is supposed to stand for and what we want the Kansas City Royals to be … you’ve got to let those things go.”
You do. Here’s hoping Hillman does let go. It’s too late to salvage this year, but it’s never too late to be yourself again.