This guy doesn’t swear, talks a lot about his faith and is universally admired throughout the game for his Texas toughness and unwillingness to settle for second place.
This guy was one of the first names to come up in New York City when Yankees manager Joe Torre said goodbye.
Yes, everyone you talk to around the game — everyone — raves about this guy. The Royals organization, top to bottom, scouts to player development people to marketing folks, were flying high Friday. “Great hire!” one said. “I’m actually giddy,” said another. I can assure you that the hiring of Buddy Bell did not inspire anyone to say “giddy.”
Why do they love Hillman? Easy. They love his baseball intelligence; it’s apparent any time he talks about the game. They love his dedication to baseball. They love the way he relates to people of different backgrounds and brings players together.
Perhaps more than anything, they love his ability to adjust to any situation. Five years ago, he went to Japan, to a second-division organization — the Nippon Ham Fighters. Hillman did not know the language. He did not understand the culture. He was a certain kind of manager then; a big-inning, get-on-base, Moneyball kind of manager (the king of Moneyball himself, Billy Beane, has gushed over Hillman). Only that style didn’t work for him there. Japanese baseball is different. The team mostly lost for three seasons.
So what did Hillman do? He changed. He asked his players for input (they asked him to please make practices longer and harder; yeah, it’s different over there). He helped make the Fighters into an aggressive, attacking, bunting, scrapping team. And last year, the Fighters won the Japan Series. No team in the world, perhaps, played better fundamental baseball than Hillman’s Fighters. This year, the Fighters are in the Japan Series again, even though they are by most statistical accounts the country’s worst offensive team.
The Fighters had the best record in Japan (79-60-5, .568) despite scoring the fewest runs, 526. However, they also gave up the fewest runs, 489, although not the lowest team ERA. (Softbank had a team ERA of 3.18 and gave up 508 runs, Nippon Ham was at 3.22) The Fighters hit just 73 home runs.
By my calculations, the Fighters outperformed the expected wins by 2 wins, although that would assume the team had played no ties and finished 77-67. The Fighters were helped out by a great record in interleague play: 18-5-1.
Nevertheless, the Fighters will likely be heavy favorites in the Japan Series against either the Yomiuri Giants or Chunichi Dragons, two slugging teams.