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Mike Matheny: One-plan man

The rigidity of Matheny's NLCS Game 5 approach hurt the Cardinals' chances of beating the Giants.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

That was certainly not how I envisioned the Cardinals' 2014 season coming to a close.

But that's baseball, right?  You never know what to expect. Matt Adams homering twice off two of the best left handed starting pitchers in baseball? Didn't see that coming. Matt Carpenter finishing with 13 K's, second most in the playoffs through the NLCS round?  Didn't see that either, and especially so given how well he played in the division series.

That's the great thing about this game and about sport in general: You can plan and scheme and tinker, make all the proper decisions, and things still don't go your way in the end. It's how a 116 win team doesn't even make it out of the division series and how an 83 win team sneaks in to the postseason and goes on to win the World Series with quite possibly the worst collection of starting pitchers the postseason has ever seen.

Baseball, folks, can look like chaos at times.

Anyone who has been around the game for any length of time knows this. They know that thinking rigidly and trying to control the outcomes of certain situations to fit the plan you made for yourself isn't likely to work and also is likely to end up in disaster when something doesn't work out like you thought it would.

Mike Matheny's problem appears to be that he can't think creatively when something doesn't work exactly according to plan, and worse, he can't think ahead by looking at the tendrils of what might happen be prepared. Matheny would be a terrible Boy Scout, because he rarely seems prepared at all.

In Will Leitch's column over at Sports on Earth yesterday, he dissected Matheny's postseason managing prowess ad nauseum but this chunk really hit home:

Matheny formulated a plan --Gonzales throws two innings -- and maneuvered everything to rigidly follow that plan. When the plan fell into trouble, he had no backup plan, and he was doomed. The regular season requires only one plan; the postseason requires many. Matheny is a one-plan man.

Quite right. As soon as something doesn't fit into the plan he formulated in his head or scratched out on the cocktail napkin at breakfast that morning, he's helpless to the whims of the game, as he hasn't thought through the possible iterations of what could happen so he could be prepared for most of them. You can never prepare for them all. By having a few different options, knowing what those are, and practicing patience in deploying them you can make the best out of most bad situations.

Ah, yes, patience...

Fast forward to Thursday night, middle of the 8th inning.Cardinals lead 3-2, Matt Holliday has just made the last out of the inning, and Adam Wainwright is coming out of the game in favor of Pat Neshek. Yes, this seems like a good time for a double switch in which you trade offense for defense, Holliday for Bourjos. The lead, however, is just one, the pitchers spot is due up 6th in the ninth inning, at which point you are likely to make another pitching change, and the Giants have the 9-1-2 spots in the order coming up with a pinch hitter most certainly due for Madison Bumgarner.

In short, there's a lot that can happen and the only plan Matheny seems to have is: Prevent one run from scoring.

Which is a great plan! But what happens when Mike Morse swings the bat one time and ruins it without a defender even having a chance to make a play?  What then?

The top of the ninth brought a similar situation. Santiago Casilla nearly beans Tony Cruz twice en route to walking him with the bases loaded. With both Strickland and Affeldt warming up in the pen, Matheny yanks defensive replacement Peter Bourjos out of the on-deck circle in favor of the left handed Oscar Taveras, immediately simplifying Bruce Bochy's decision in the process.


By leaving Bourjos in the game you put Bochy in a bad situation: He can leave Casilla in to pitch to Bourjos with the bases loaded when he clearly doesn't have command of anything. He can bring in Strickland, who didn't pitch the night before, to face Bourjos, at which point Matheny can immediately go to Oscar Taveras for a more than favorable matchup. Bochy could also bring in Jeremy Affeldt, who had pitched on two straight days into the game even though the platoon advantage isn't in his favor, basically as a way of flipping this all back on Matheny to make a decision as to whether he favored Bourjos or Taveras in that situation.

Matheny could simplify his decision process by waiting to see what the other manager does rather than making up the opposition's mind for them. Put the other manager under duress enough times with multiple decisions and they might make a mistake that you can take advantage of.

Having watched the man manage for three years, I just get the feeling that Matheny doesn't get this nuance. He wants to be the aggressor in those situations, to dictate to the other manager what the matchup will be and damn the consequences.

Turns out: That's just a terrible way to manage, and the good skippers, like Bochy, will always be taking advantage of it.