Determining what panic looks like for St. Louis Cardinals fans after an 0-3 start and sweep from division rival Pittsburgh Pirates is not difficult. It is everywhere. Fans are freaking out as everybody's worst fears coming into the season have manifested themselves in the first three games. Lots of strikeouts from the lineup, no scoring, struggles from Michael Wacha, and poor in-game strategy from Mike Matheny have contributed to the tough start, and it is reasonable to wonder if those struggles will continue throughout the season. Fans are panicking. That is what fans do. Whether the Cardinals are panicking is more difficult to tell.
Determining what panic looks like for the St. Louis Cardinals as a team is difficult. Like most analysis of the play at this point, we do not have enough information to draw concrete conclusions. There is no bigger poster boy for this than Randal Grichuk.
Grichuk has struck out more than 30% of the time in his MLB career. He has an out-sized BABIP that is unsustainable. He has limited time in center field to know if he is adequate defensively. He also posted fantastic power numbers and great exit velocity in limited time. All this adds up to a potentially exciting player, an All-Star if he can stay in center field if he can cut down on his strikeouts a little, or a player who is not worth a roster spot if his strikeout woes are exacerbated by continued exposure and he proves to be less than adequate in center.
After two games, Grichuk was 1 for 9 with five strikeouts. This does not really tell us anything about how Grichuk will perform in the future. His projections still say average offense, average defense, average player. Nothing in those two games changed that, but Matheny benched him after two games. John Fleming addressed this earlier this morning:
But independent of whatever opinions you have about Randal Grichuk's future, and opinions among Cardinals fans on Grichuk tend to vary widely, Wednesday's decision regarding center field may reflect a continuation of a tendency for Mike Matheny to focus on microscopic sample sizes when filling out lineup cards.
It is possible that Matheny benching Grichuk after one day is panic move. It is also possible that Matheny wanted to get Hazelbaker a start in his first callup to the big leagues to get him adjusted to the game. That is a completely defensible move, but given the sample size, we are left to speculate which is which, and Matheny's track record is not favorable in that regard.
There have been any number of questionable decisions in the first few games by both players and the manager, but not all of them lead to questions of panic. One of them was leaving Michael Wacha in for the fifth inning when the bullpen was fully rested and Wacha was clearly struggling. That was not a panic move. That was Mike Matheny placing his trust in Wacha to pull through and try to get him a pitcher win. Even if Aledmys Diaz comes through and gets the double-pay ball to bail out Wacha, Matheny's decision was a poor one as Wacha still pitched poorly that inning. Just because it was a poor choice that does not mean it was a panic move. It was simply Mathenaging.
Having Kolten Wong bunt in the ninth in a tie game? That one is a bit tougher. Matheny went away from bunting last season in what was a sign of some improvement. Last season, Wong attempted three sacrifice bunts and was not successful on any of them. Wong had the platoon advantage, is a pull hitter, and he does not strike out very much. There is an argument to be made that this was a bit of a panic move. Putting the hitter out of his comfort zone and asking for an unlikely positive outcome based on the evidence because it seems like the safe play instead of the right one.
Not letting any pitcher go more than one inning in the second game until Seth Maness in extras, double-switching Matt Holliday out of the game? That's not panic. That is Mathenaging. Matt Carpenter going for a bunt hit? Unusual, but it is something that I can remember Jim Edmonds doing and having no problem with it. That the outcome was unfavorable is not enough to judge. Benching Kolten Wong in game two? That seems more like trying to play the platoon advantage. If Gerrit Cole had been starting Opening Day and Liriano the second, I have a feeling Wong would have been out against LIriano and in against Niese, giving him a bit more favorable match-ups.
The danger of judging small sample sizes goes not just for statistics. It goes for analyzing decisions as well. As always, it is best to let the longer track record inform your analysis but allowing for potential changes. Be wary of narratives, but do not ignore them completely. Will Aledmys Diaz get buried because he made one error in his very first game? Is Jeremy Hazelbaker is the next Ryan Ludwick. If so, let's hope that Matt Holliday to first base is a success so we can see him get regular playing time in the outfield without infringing on the continued experiment that is Randal Grichuk.
So how can we tell if the Cardinals are panicking? Like with most things at this stage of the season, we can't. There are 159 games to go, and just like the play of the players, you can expect the analysis of said players to improve with more knowledge, information, and experience.