Kansas City Royals’ firing of hitting coach proves a change in front office operations

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About eight months ago, the Kansas City Royals unveiled a revision to their front office structure that was essentially greeted with a shrug of the shoulders. After all, what really changes with a new general manager if the former one is still on staff, receiving a promotion of his own?

Well, something does change, as it turns out.

And we just saw the first significant piece of evidence of it.

The Royals fired hitting coach Terry Bradshaw on Monday morning, replacing him in the dugout with Alec Zumwalt, who has been in charge of the team’s player development and hitting performance for three seasons. It’s a necessary move and frankly an overdue move but, most importantly, it’s a bit of a telling one.

Dayton Moore may still technically have the final say after the alteration to the front office last September, but general manager J.J. Picollo’s voice is now amplified on the day-to-day operations.

Because that’s how we arrived here. This decision came after extensive conversations that were started and led by Picollo, who has been traveling with the team to nearly every game this season.

In fact, this move likely does not happen — or rather does not happen yet, I should say — without the organizational shift last September that promoted Moore to the president of baseball operations.

How so? Moore has shown a tendency to stick with players and coaches — to stand by people. He’s loyal to a fault. In his new role, he has taken on the global outlook the organization, as he’s referred to it. He’s stepped away, however slightly, from the day-to-day operations of the Major League team.

That job belongs now to Picollo, who felt it necessary to begin these difficult conversations weeks ago. I don’t point that out to recognize Picollo as cold-hearted — that’s not it — but rather to say he has just fulfilled one of the hardest requirements of his new role.

Taking the emotion out of it. Looking at the production.

Simply put: Picollo believed the team not only could produce better, but should produce better.

The Royals are bottom-five in baseball in runs, average, on-base percentage, OPS, doubles, homers and total bases, even after winning two out of three in Colorado. What case is to be made about sticking with the status quo? Something needed to bust, and if it wasn’t the season-long slump, something else finally did.

The possibility of a change pre-dates this season, but the talks accelerated two weeks ago. The Royals scored only six runs in a three-game home series against the Yankees, traveled to St. Louis for a rainout makeup game in which they were shut out 1-0; they were shut out two days later; and then they dropped two out of three in Baltimore.

That stretch all but sealed Bradshaw’s fate.

Internally, the Royals discussed multiple possibilities to improve the performance at the plate — even one that retained Bradshaw but put Zumwalt in charge — but ultimately landed on a more sweeping change. In order for Zumwalt’s effect to reach its fullest impact, the Royals needed to clear the runway for him. That mean parting ways with Bradshaw, at least for now. (Moore said later Monday there will always be a place for Bradshaw in the organization, just no longer as the team’s hitting coach.)

Zumwalt is considered a rising star in the industry. Other teams have tried to pluck him, as recently as this offseason, with jobs that would have offered him a promotion. Even internally, the Royals have struggled with where he best fits because if you put him in one role, he naturally cannot fully invest his time in another. And true to that, they hope his new job is temporary rather than permanent. But if he’s your best voice, he belongs with your best players.

That’s in the bigs.

The Royals created their player development and hitting performance department, at Picollo’s urging, just before the pandemic hit. The initial intention was to have Zumwalt work more hands-on with the Major League players, but the COVID limitations didn’t allow for it — every team was allotted only so many coaches in its first and second tiers, and that left Zumwalt at the alternate site working with the minor-leaguers. The COVID restrictions remained in place at the onset of the 2021 season, too.

The team’s younger players have raved about Zumwalt’s advanced scouting reports, a standout trait for a team that has collectively looked lost in its approach at the plate. This is not about generating more power or modifying individual player swings. The Royals chase too often, step outside the targeted zones in detailed scouting reports too consistently and fail to make in-game adjustments. They appear allergic to situational hitting, a frustration to the front office. There are times when a strikeout is a bit harder to swallow than others.

The Royals have needed a change to their process as much as changing the results, though of course the results derive from the process.

The process will indeed be changing.

Same as the structure of the front office has.