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Mathenaging: Fair & loathing on the St. Louis Cardinals bench

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Matheny's notions of fairness to veterans trump the will to win.

Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny addressed the subject of Mark Ellis and Daniel Descalso’s playing time. The two infielders are the primary reasons that the St. Louis bench is so bad—Descalso due to his lack of any skill other than baserunning and Ellis because his lack of any skill other than fielding. Despite their many warts as players in 2014, Matheny not only defended his one-dimensional bench infielders, he praised them.

"We need Descalso in the field. We need Ellis in the field," Matheny said. "This past stretch, since the All-Star break, has been awful for those guys. It’s not fair to them once we get them in there to expect them to do much because they’re not getting the chances."

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"They want to play," said Matheny. "If they didn’t, we wouldn’t want them here.

"These are two guys who have been accomplished. It’s not like they’re rookies."

Matheny’s quotes were striking. Like VEB’s own Craig Edwards, I was struck by the contrast in how Matheny discussed playing time for rookie Oscar Taveras versus Descalso and Ellis, each of whom have multiple MLB seasons under their belts. In regards to Taveras, a rookie with enticing upside, Matheny talked about the pressing need to win now, inferring that regular playing time for the broken Allen Craig was somehow in line with the team’s ultimate competitive goal. When addressing Ellis and Descalso, two veterans with no upside to speak of, Matheny spoke out of his mouth’s other side about the warm-and-fuzzy notion of fairness.

As Matheny lays bare, the difference in his view on playing Taveras (or another rookie) versus Descalso or Ellis appears is founded on the manager's biases. Matheny has a soft spot for "accomplished" players like Descalso and Ellis. His affinity for players with such veteran proveyness appears to mean that fairness trumps the team goal of winning. After all, what has Descalso accomplished? He’s a career .239/.305/.338 (.282 wOBA, 77 wRC+) with lackluster fielding who has batted .204/.259/.259 (.237 wOBA, 48 wRC+) this season. To be sure, Ellis is a closer call because of his solid MLB career, but the 37-year-old’s .196/.273/.233 (.230 wOBA, 43 wRC+) in 2014 reflects that dreaded accomplishment of so many middle infielders: falling off a cliff with the bat at a certain age. Because of their service time, Matheny feels compelled to treat Descalso and Ellis with an idea of fairness the likes of which is mandated by Little League rules—every player plays, even the worst—even though neither appears deserving of a major-league roster spot at this point in their respective careers.

This is Matheny’s Cardinals-as-family philosophy at its worst. The manager’s view of what is just, shaped by baseball’s warped meritocracy: rookies must prove themselves; veterans require deference. Such a mindset is not unique to Matheny, and it often results in rookies getting little in the way of opportunity to prove themselves while vets get ample opportunity to prove they can no longer play the game with the skill necessary to fill a big-league roster spot. This warped worldview presents a thorny question for managers who prefer veteran proveyness: How much playing time should an "accomplished" player get when he isn’t hitting and appears to be incapable of ever doing so again?

Matheny answered this question in regards to Craig by playing the one-time slugger nearly every game, however lost at the plate he looked. With Ellis and Descalso, the manager took a different course as the season progressed. He relegated them to the bench, occasionally using them to pinch-hit. At least until the last week, when notions of fairness compelled Matheny to play them at positions they should never man. Descalso started at shortstop in Baltimore and defended the position with the subpar skill we’ve come to expect while Ellis started in Miami at first base, a position that usually produces at least a bit of offensive pop. No team that considers itself a legitimate postseason contender should ever play Descalso at short or Ellis at first. Yet Matheny did just that, making two lineup decisions that hurt the Cards’ chances of winning games during a nip-and-tuck pennant race.

To general manager John Mozeliak’s credit, he recognized the problem presented by Matheny’s sentimentality (i.e., to be "fair" to "accomplished" players) and shipped Craig to Boston at the trade deadline. The jury is still out on whether that decision will be proven a sound one. Meanwhile, the verdict on the 2014 Cardinals bench is in: it stinks. Making matters worse is the ways in which Matheny deploys the players on it. This offseason, Mozeliak will have to be just as decisive in constructing the St. Louis bench as he was in clarifying the outfield picture at the trade deadline. Mozeliak must deny Matheny the ability to play bad ballplayers like Descalso and Ellis at positions they should never play in a meaningful game that lasts less than 15 innings. To do so, Mozeliak will have to restructure the bench so that there are no futility infielders to be found. Only then will the manager’s notions of fairness be compatible with the team’s goal to win as many games as possible.

As for the remainder of this season, we'll just have to hope the Cardinals can qualify for the posteason in spite of the club's bench and the loathsome manner in which Matheny uses it.