The postseason was an exercise in frustration for a lot of fans, who saw the coaching staff abuse or ignore several fairly important and well-demonstrated notions. Basic platoon splits were often disregarded,; key left-handed hitters came up to bat in late innings against right-handed relievers, while the left-handers on the roster for the specific purpose of getting them out watched from the bullpen. Matheny showed little concern for the well-proven notion that a pitcher gets less and less effective on his third and fourth times through a lineup, often needlessly stretching starters while well-rested arms stood by.
As I side note, I don't think that Mike Matheny is unaware of these notions. He certainly understands the general concept of a platoon split. He may not be able to or interested in citing chapter and verse in studies on these issues, but it's hard to believe he's never heard of these ideas. Matheny values treating his players a particular way more than adhering to what the statistics may say. Starters appreciate being allowed to go deep into games and resent being pulled. Relievers also relish fixed roles, and being pulled in favor of a pitcher who might be more effective situtationally may bother some. While keeping players happy is an important role for a manager, playing to win is the most important rule. Sometimes, the right decision is going to annoy your players.
A number of commenters reacted negatively to the complaints about Matheny and his management of the bullpen, in that we were focusing on the negative side of things. Which seems to miss the point somewhat. First off, baseball commentary, statistical or not, has always been predominantly negative. Second, it's hard to focus on the various things the club is doing right when the bad things are glaring and potentially costing the club wins in the postseason.
But there is a reasonable core to that complaint, which is that we don't often take stock of all the things that are going right.
We do often discuss the tremendously improved drafting and development system. It has yielded an embarrassment of riches both in terms of top talent and institutional depth. I don't have a lot to add to that often-trod point of discussion.
We have forgotten some of the more notable and frustrating structural, tactical, and strategic problems we faced in the not-at-all-distant past.
Favoring the Veteran Over the Rookie Ad Nauseam
The club started the 2013 season with Mitchell Boggs as the closer. I had to check and make sure that was actually this season, it seemed so long ago. The choice to make Boggs the closer was somewhat questionable, but was plausible. The candidate with probably the best potential to make it as closer, albeit a short track record, was Trevor Rosenthal. I don't think it's crazy, though, in Rick Ankiel's old ballclub to fear the mental effects of having a rookie start in the highest stress role on the team. But I digress.
We've had a lot of closers in the past many seasons who either weren't much good to start with, got injured, or lost effectiveness and had to be replaced. Somehow, Ryan Franklin retained a job as a closer for 3+ seasons, despite being one of the worse relievers in the bullpen. When he finally threw a rod in the 2011 season, he was allowed to linger on through 21 appearances and 27 innings before finally being removed. Franklin saved one game in five chances. Non-closer Miguel Batista similarly got a very long leash back in 2011, getting 29 innings despite having a K/BB rate under 1.
This year, Mitch Boggs made only 18 appearances over 14 innings, saving two games in five chances. Two weeks into the season, the club had him on reduced work and out of high leverage games. He got a few chances to make a come back, but couldn't put his control back together. The club was similarly ready to move Rzepczynski and Salas to Memphis after poor starts to the season. Maybe most impressively, the club was willing to give chances to a host of young, inexperienced pitchers, including guys who were not prime prospects. Through trial (Siegrist) and error (Blazek, Butler), the club found it had one of the better second-half bullpens (6th in MLB with a 3.07 FIP in the second half). With the exception of the fairly minor add of Axford at the end of August, the club's improvement was all internal.
Some of that process relates to the improved farm, but much of it also relates to a willingness to test new and unheralded arms in the major leagues, rather than sticking with veteran pitchers merely because they were veterans.
The glaring counterexample here is Jake Westbrook, but an examination of his season makes some sense. Westbrook had horrific peripherals from the outset of the season, but he got some weirdly good results early on, especially with a 0.98 ERA in April. His results didn't really begin to catch up with his actual performance until August, when the club moved quickly to take him out of the rotation. And, to their credit, made almost zero effort to return him to the rotation once he was out. It would be nice to say that the club should can a $10M/yr starter once his K/BB ratio gets too far off the ideal, but I don't think any other clubs are to that point yet.
(Almost) No Senseless Moves for Veterans
Also to the club's credit, it did not respond to Westbrook and Garcia's injuries and ineffectiveness by rushing out to trade prospects for some middling starter at the deadline. The club trusted Michael Wacha, Joe Kelly, and Tyler Lyons to dig the club out of the hole. And numerous public media figures were critical of that inaction at the deadline: Bernie Miklasz was particularly critical in an article filed in the midst of a simultaneous slump from Wainwright, Lynn, and Miller. It took an awful lot of guts to stick with a bunch of guys who couldn't rent a car to start games for a playoff-contending team. Had the Cardinals tanked in September, the front office would be hearing a lot of second-guessing.
Neither was the 2012-13 offseason full of demands for aging vets. Despite serious injury to our sitting closer, there were no demands for whoever the Brian Fuentes of the 2012-13 offseason was. We did sign a Ty Wigginton (for reasons still completely unclear), but the club at least made up for that inexplicable contract by cutting him a few months into an obviously failed season. The club resisted the urge to sign Kyle Lohse, for which it was later wrongly criticized midseason. I don't think the club makes those same decisions back in 2009. And yes, they were in part emboldened by a farm system brimming with talent, but part of the decision-making process appears to be an increased willingness to trust younger players and a diminished reliance on veteranness for veteranness's sake.
A Kinder, Gentler Attitude Towards Player Conduct
Maybe my least favorite Tony La Russa trait was his inability to cope with personalities that didn't fit his particular mold. While we didn't see any Colby Rasmus-level conflicts this season, the club responded positively to concerns about Lance Lynn's emotional responses on the mound. No one on staff took advantage of the moment to pile on the player or to humiliate him. Instead, the club quietly and dispassionately acknowledged that they were working with Lynn to help him address the problem, which is pretty much an ideal response.
Leave aside whether you think Lynn should have been responding that way; the coaching staff is there to win games, not hand out best camper awards. Blasting your player because it feels good and you think he deserves it doesn't win games. The club instead worked to accommodate a player who was struggling with his emotions and his makeup, and he played a vital role in winning the division. In the club's crucial September push, Lance Lynn had a 2.12 ERA and a 3.15 FIP (also, a helpful reminder for everybody who thinks Lance Lynn gets tired at the end of the season and is no good, etc.). I have a hard time believing that Tony La Russa responds with that kind of patience to Lance Lynn.