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Mike Matheny needs to deploy a lineup that plays to Cardinals' strengths

Mike Matheny has continued to make curious lineup decisions in the playoffs. He needs to do a better job of playing to his players' strengths so they are in the best position possible to succeed.

Stephen Dunn

This is not about Oscar Taveras. At least, it is not just about Oscar Taveras. It would have been my preference that Oscar Taveras start in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Dodgers, but I understand that decision. Starting Randal Grichuk in Game 2 against the right-handed Zach Greinke was a mistake, given the option of Taveras or Peter Bourjos to start in his place. It is a manager's job to put players in a position to succeed, and unlike in past years, Mike Matheny has actually been provided with a bench that provides him with options that can maximize production. The Cardinals came home from Los Angeles with an incredible victory and a satisfying split, but Matheny's small sample size decision-making process and playing favorites has led to less than optimal lineups.

Ben already did a pretty good takedown of Matheny's decision to start Pete Kozma over Kolten Wong. The gist of the post was this:

Matheny should not start Kozma against Kershaw because results over nine PAs should never outweigh thousands of PAs worth of performance. Kozma is as bad a batsman as Kershaw is an excellent pitcher. Kozma is a career .236/.297/.320 big-league hitter with a .617 OPS that works out to a 71 OPS+.

There's not much to add regarding Kozma against Kershaw, but Kozma is now 0 for his last six against Kershaw. Against lefty pitchers over the past three years, including the minors, here are the stat lines for Kolten Wong and Pete Kozma against righties (splits from Baseball Reference minor league player pages).

2012-2014 v LH Total PAs % of PAs in MLB BA OBP SLG
Pete Kozma 449 41 0.212 0.304 0.337
Kolten Wong 416 20 0.291 0.333 0.423

Kozma does have more plate appearances in the majors which would depress his numbers, but there is nothing in any of the numbers indicating he excels against lefty pitchers. If he was not good enough to unseat Daniel Descalso as utility infielder all season long, he should not be good enough to start Game 1 of the playoffs. There is nothing wrong with going 0 for 6 against Kershaw. It is expecting a different result that is the problem. Mike Matheny relied on a guy he counted on in the past, not unlike when he immediately went to a physically compromised Mark Ellis after Wong had a tough opening ten days this season because Ellis has "been accomplished".

Derrick Goold recently wrote about Matheny's managerial philosophy, titled "Matheny manages on the sunny side of the street".

A self-proclaimed and unapologetic optimist, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny remained a relentless source of positivism. He made decisions based on it, like sticking again and again with a struggling player or pitcher. He professed it to the media, insisting even the lowest times would forge the greatness ahead.

This may come as a surprise, but in a lot of ways, I am like Mike Matheny. When Kolten Wong had a terrible introduction to the majors, I stressed patience, and did so again when he struggled to begin the season. I thought Peter Bourjos would turn things around with more playing time. I've written on three separate occasions hopeful that Shelby Miller had turned a corner. I thought Mark Ellis would be a good addition. When he looked destined for a small role, I insisted the Cardinals needed Jon Jay and that his defense may not be as bad it looked in the 2013 playoffs. I continued to express optimism on Allen Craig. I was incredibly happy when Jaime Garcia returned. I was sure that injuries would not hurt the Cardinals' rotation. I always believed in the Cardinals' offense. I'm hopeful about Carlos Martinez's future with the Cardinals. I've been called an Oscar Taveras fanboy for my belief in his hitting ability. I get optimism. I am an optimist, but Matheny takes it to another level.

The basis for Matheny's "blind optimism" (his words) was an undeterred belief that better was ahead. Better offense. Better play. Better results. He knew his players had it in them, and he proclaimed almost daily that eventually better would burst out.

Being a cheerleader is not Matheny's problem. It is likely an asset. Maintaining a positive attitude is not a problem. Over the course of a long season, a relentless positivism can be very reassuring to a team in troubling times. It is this "blind optimism" where Matheny gets himself in trouble. He looks at Mark Ellis or Pete Kozma and sees guys who have come through before, puts on blinders and ignores that Kolten Wong is an option. He sees Jon Jay, who had another very good year, but does not see that Peter Bourjos has the ability to help the team. He successfully uses, and then watches, Randal Grichuk have success against lefthanders and hopes that the same success can be repeated against right-handers, ignoring his deficiencies and the success that Oscar Taveras has had when he gets steady playing time.

Randal Grichuk is now 0 for his last 12 when he makes a start against a right-handed starter and is just 3 for his last 22 in starts against righties. That's a small sample and not indicative of his true talent level. Unfortunately, the larger body of work is consistent with this recent snide. From Baseball Reference minor league player pages, here are Grichuk's numbers against righties the past three seasons:

Randal Grichuk v RH Level PA BA OBP SLG
2012 A+ 433 0.279 0.318 0.455
2013 AA 403 0.246 0.292 0.457
2014 AAA-MLB 391 0.235 0.289 0.396

At this point in his career, it is unrealistic to expect Grichuk to succeed against righties, especially at the major league level. Even Matheny seems to recognize this somewhat, putting him eighth in the lineup on Saturday. For reference, here are Taveras' numbers over the same period.

Oscar Taveras v RH Level PA BA OBP SLG
2012 AA 374 0.327 0.382 0.61
2013 AAA 113 0.373 0.425 0.588
2014 AAA-MLB 390 0.274 0.323 0.410

Recent performance is not heavily weighted in Grichuk's favor either. Over his last 49 plate appearances, Oscar Taveras is hitting .304/.347/.391. Over Grichuk's last 47 plate appearances, he is hitting .222/.255/.489. Twice this season, Oscar Taveras has hit well over a short period only to find the bench. From August 15th through the 24th, Taveras hit .387/.424/.452 with a wRC+ of 152. He went 1 for 8 over his next two starts and then found himself on the bench for seven of the next ten games. From September 5th through the 14th, he hit .435/.435/.609 with a wRC+ of 199 and then was benched for seven of ten games. If Matheny rewards good play with more starts, he has a double-standard when it comes to Taveras.

Defense is of course a consideration, but then Peter Bourjos needs to enter the picture. Bourjos, who lost his starting job after a slow two weeks to begin the season due to Matheny's blind optimism in Jon Jay (partially justified given Jay's season), has posted incredible defense and is not as bad of a hitter as season statistics would suggest. Whether he is better than Jon Jay is probably a debate for another day, but Peter Bourjos was roughly a league average hitter in the second half with a wRC+ of 96. With John Lackey and Shelby Miller, two pitchers with fly ball tendencies, on the mound in the next two games, a start for Peter Bourjos could help the team.

Matheny's optimism is not his problem. It's when he uses blind optimism and ignores other opportunities available to him that is his deficiency as manager. His optimism is not completely blind. When Oscar Taveras hits well for a stretch or gets a key pinch hit, perhaps Matheny thinks of Taveras' struggles to overcome an ankle injury in spring or his slow start in the majors. When Peter Bourjos makes a key play, perhaps he is reminded of the first two weeks of the season and the struggling offense that surrounded him. When Kolten Wong solidifies his starting job at second base, perhaps he recalls his struggles from 2013 and his difficulty at the beginning of the season. Perhaps he is not thinking about the struggles of those players, instead focusing his hopes and attention on the players he chooses. This is not blind optimism. This is blinder optimism. It is selective, and he needs to do a better job of putting his players in a position to win.