As Ben has made very clear through his terrific "Mathenaging" series, Mike Matheny has made some "questionable" decisions in his time as field manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, especially this season. From leaving starting pitchers in games too long to mishandling top prospects to allowing right-handed throwing Seth Maness face a left-handed hitter (Ike Davis) who has a career wRC+ of 61 (.197/.261/.318 slash line) versus left-handed pitchers in the eighth inning of a tie game during an intense pennant race (this thought is revisited at the end of the post), Matheny sure has made a mess of things at times. However, despite these blatant managerial miscues, Matheny has done at least one thing right in 2014, and that's his handling of the center field position.
Through 131 games, the position has been worth 3.8 fWAR for the Cardinals—fourth highest in the National League, predictably trailing reigning NL-MVP Andrew McCutchen and the Pirates, two-time All-Star Carlos Gomez and the Brewers, and a quality platoon of Drew Stubbs and Charlie Blackmon with the Rockies. 3.8 fWAR is also good enough for eighth best in all of baseball. That's pretty good game management if you ask me, especially considering the drastic differences in the skill sets of the players Matheny has to work with.
Jon Jay has been solid with the bat for the majority of his career, but there is a pretty significant drop-off in value when looking at his defense, particularly his arm. Peter Bourjos utilizes top-class speed and efficient routes to be one of the league's best defensive center fielders, but he leaves much to be desired with a bat in his hands. With only one player allowed to play center at any given moment and the fact that the fusing of two players' skill sets into one has not yet been perfected by science, tactical decisions must be made when it comes to playing time.
Well, so far in 2014, Jay has received 71 starts in center, Bourjos has received 54, and Randal Grichuk has received three. Jay, currently carrying a hot bat/butt/body, has received the bulk of the starts of late, but Bourjos hasn't been forgotten about because he has entered in the seventh inning or later (mainly as a defensive substitute) in nine games this month. According to Baseball-Reference, Bourjos has finished 35 games this season (after entering as a defensive replacement, pinch runner, or pinch hitter), and in 13 of these, he did not receive a single plate appearance.
At the plate, Bourjos is slashing .228/.292/.358 with a .289 wOBA and an 83 wRC+ (4.6 batting runs below average), and yet, he he has managed to be worth a more-than-respectable 1.4 fWAR. Why? The value attached to both his defense and his baserunning. According to Fangraphs, Bourjos has produced 2.2 baserunning runs above average and 8.3 defensive runs above average in 2014. Instead of burying Bourjos at the end of the bench for nine innings at a time, Matheny has utilized him in pinch running and defensive substitution situations—putting him in the best situations to maximize his value, especially given his inconsistent at bats.
Obviously, the value at the position comes from the players actually performing when given playing time, but at the same time, it cannot be ignored that Matheny has done a solid job at playing to his center fielders' respective strengths and has subsequently put them in positions to provide value to the club. Would center field's fWAR be higher if one or the other received 90-100% of the playing time? Maybe, but this is something we will never know for sure. In a season where the Cardinals have received less-than-stellar production from multiple positions—specifically right field (-1.8, 30th in MLB) and second base (0.6 fWAR, 20th in MLB)—we really shouldn't be complaining about a top ten position in terms of fWAR.
Finally, there are two things I'm fairly certain about...
Jay will consistently provide this:
While Bourjos will consistently do this:
Completing a thought from the opening paragraph: If Matheny had turned to Randy Choate with Davis at the dish last night, would Clint Hurdle have countered with a right-handed bat (Jordy Mercer or Chris Stewart) off the bench? According to the latest from Jenifer Langosch, this appears to be Matheny's thinking:
"I trust Seth to get an out right there moreso than have Randy out there with a right-hander come in to face him. Any time we bring Randy in, we have to be, in my opinion, in a game-changing situation and extremely confident that that lefty is going to stay in there. And I've watched Clint too many times. I know exactly what he's going to do in those situations."
Davis has a career .204 ISO against right-handed pitchers and absolutely mauls right-handed sinkers (.243 ISO).—Maness’ signature pitch. Sure enough, Davis cranked the game-winning three-run homer on a hanging changeup of all pitches Maness decides to throw in that situation. Thus, Matheny can say what he wants about not wanting the Choate vs. RHB matchup (and that's actually understandable), but the matchup he stuck with was doomed from the start.