Mike Matheny has not had and will not have a large effect on the win-loss record of the Cardinals. In almost every single game, the principal actors are the players and in every game, it will be the players who decide who wins and who loses. If the Cardinals fail to make the playoffs, it will be because a star pitcher gets injured (fingers crossed), a star hitter performs under expectations, or a bullpen that was once a strength falters as bullpen success often randomly varies from year to year. Ultimately, the Cardinals' success or failure this season will come down to how the players perform. Managers do have some impact, and a manager's decision can impact a tight pennant race like the Cardinals could find themselves in this season, but most of a manager's effect is negligible. The manager's lack of impact raises perfectly valid questions posed by Bernie Miklasz last week in the Post-Dispatch.
Shouldn't the players be held more accountable?
Why are we so quick to dump blame on the manager and coaches?
The players absolutely should be held accountable for a game's outcome. The problem comes when we try to assign blame. When Yadier Molina goes 0 for 4, Matt Carpenter makes an error, or Michael Wacha gives up five runs, they are responsible if the team loses, but I would not criticize them for that outcome because I know that Molina was trying for hits, Wacha was trying to get players out, and that Matt Carpenter made an attempt at the ball. Unless they are giving less than their best effort, which would be incredibly rare, there is nothing in any of the decisions those players made that contributed to the loss.
Going a bit further, I cannot do a single thing on a baseball field better than Allen Craig, Oscar Taveras, or even Daniel Descalso. Once those players take the field, I am completely out of my depth. They can do things I only dream of, and that is a huge part of the reason I watch baseball. Seeing the best players in the world perform up to their complete capabilities is thrilling and captivating. Spending a great deal of time criticizing those players for how they perform would be a mostly fruitless activity. Analyzing data to determine what has happened as well as likely outcomes may lead to minor suggestions like throwing more first-pitch strikes or looking for more inside pitches to pull, but generally those suggestions are simply tweaks to an already complete package.
Managers are in a completely different sphere. Managers, too, have parts of their job that I am inadequately possessed with the abilities necessary to assess. I cannot manage the personalities in the dugout, and I could never command the respect in the clubhouse that Mike Matheny garners from the Cardinals. When Peter Bourjos got thrown out of a baseball game, and Mike Matheny was right there after him getting himself thrown out, I commended Mike Matheny for doing so. I do not know how much that matters, but I believe that it does.
There is then the other part of a manager's job, the part everyone sees. Even these decisions are subject to influences beyond our sight. The manager answers to John Mozeliak, and he plays a role in the decision-making process. The manager does make decisions, and unlike throwing a fastball, hitting a breaking ball or making a diving catch in the outfield, all fans, to varying degrees, are also capable of making decisions. That is where the manager gets the blame, gets the criticism. The public part of his job is the one thing that happens on a baseball field that fans have the ability to do as well. Baseball is not alone among sports. The decision to go for it or punt on fourth down is often more talked about than interceptions and touchdowns. As fans, we are hyper-critical of the manager because he is taking actions that we believe we could take, and it is frustrating to watch someone make decisions that we disagree with.
I cannot hit, field, throw, or command the respect that Matheny has earned, but I would make sure I do not abandon off-season plans to better an outfield defense after two weeks of lackluster offense. I would make sure not to bury a rookie simply because he goes four games with only a couple of hits. I would make sure a reliever who has struggled with control does not pitch in four consecutive games. I would make sure that the organization's tenth best prospect is not getting more plate appearances in a game than the number one hitting prospect in all of baseball. I would make sure one of the team's best hitters is second in the lineup instead of one of the worst. It is incredibly frustrating to watch a pitcher coming off major shoulder surgery make 38 pitches in a single inning. It is frustrating to see a parade of sacrifice bunts and intentional walks in situations where they are not called for. Those correctable actions are visible and frustrating, and that is why Mike Matheny receives so much criticism despite the players shouldering the bulk of the responsibility for the wins and losses.
Managing a baseball team comes with a tremendous amount of visibility and pressure and is by no means an easy task. Nothing I am writing here is meant to imply otherwise. I have a great deal of respect for the job Mike Matheny does despite my disapproval of his decision-making. He has been presented with many challenges this season, and when Matt Adams comes back and the dynamic of the rotation and bullpen change he will be faced with more tough choices. While the success and failure of the Cardinals this season will ride on the play of those wearing the gloves and swinging the bats, the decisions Matheny makes could prove the difference in a tight race. Those decisions will receive more scrutiny than perhaps they deserve, but those decisions are the crux of a manager's job and the scrutiny will not lessen. If the Cardinals lose, it is not because of him. If they win, it is not in spite of him. It is fair to criticize, to be frustrated, to be a fan, but it is the players we cheer for, and it is with them that the Cardinals' fate rests.