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Two times Mike Matheny was good

It is probably not a great sign that Mike Matheny making good moves warrants an article on Viva El Birdos, but here we are.

A week ago yesterday, intrepid VEB overlord Craig Edwards wrote what is probably the most direct criticism this website has ever had to offer of St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. It was titled, succinctly enough, Mike Matheny should be fired.

Many agreed with the post, though many others criticized it as short-sighted and built upon too high of expectations of Cardinals teams. Which makes sense if one is to believe that win-loss record is the optimal way to evaluate the success or failure of a baseball manager. After all, in his first four seasons as Cardinals skipper, Mike Matheny won 88, 97, 90, and 100 games, making the World Series once and the National League Championship Series an additional two times.

The problem with this logic is that it assumes that a manager is the primary cause of a team’s success, when often he is, for better or worse, along for the ride. To assume that Matheny caused the success of the Cardinals would be like assuming Trent Dilfer, 26th in Adjusted Yards Per Attempt among NFL quarterbacks in 2000, caused the Baltimore Ravens to win Super Bowl XXXV: sure, he wasn’t such a destructive negative that he caused the team to collapse, but he seems to have been a beneficiary of circumstance rather than a catalyst for success.

Mike Matheny is not a very good tactical manager. But just as it would be foolish to give a manager credit for his mere presence when players are able to overcome his deficiencies, it is equally foolish to look at the negative outcomes and use them, without context, to indict a manager. And over a recent two-game stretch in which the Chicago Cubs outscored the St. Louis Cardinals by seven runs on aggregate, Mike Matheny was genuinely impressive.

Friday, August 11, 2016

On this Friday afternoon (someone should seriously inform the fine folks of northern Chicago that Friday night baseball games are fun to attend, they are fun to watch with friends at bars or social gatherings, and they are fun to be able to watch on TV at the conclusion of a long work week), the Cubs had Jake Arrieta on the mound. And while Arrieta has not been the indestructible pitching titan that he was in 2015 or early in 2016, he has still been a very good pitcher. Of course, the Cardinals had Adam Wainwright, so it’s not as though the team was drawing dead from the opening pitch, as they too had an ace in the hole.

Things instantly went sour, however, for the Cardinals. Following an insipid, 1-2-3 top of the first, Adam Wainwright surrendered three doubles and two walks in the bottom frame, allowing two runs. Things got worse in the bottom of the second, in which Kris Bryant doubled home Matt Szczur, Jorge Soler singled home Bryant, and Willson Contreras hit a three-run home run to give the Cubs a 7-0 lead.

Wainwright was already at 56 pitches. And immediately following the Contreras homer, the Cubs had a 97% win expectancy, per Baseball Reference. And this is a relatively context-neutral estimate: it does not consider the 11-inning loss that the Cardinals suffered the night before at Wrigley, in which top relievers Kevin Siegrist, Matt Bowman, Seung Hwan Oh, and Zach Duke saw time on the mound. And the Cardinals were now playing without Matt Holliday, who had not quite been his old self in 2016 but who would seemingly be a catalyst in a large-scale comeback.

It wasn’t going to happen. Any fan not wearing the rosiest of Cardinal-red glasses knew it. And Mike Matheny knew it. And Mike Matheny, for all intents and purposes, gave up. And this was good.

While sabermetricians rightfully give great consideration to run differential, a loss is a loss in the standings regardless of margin of victory. And knowing that a loss was going to happen, the Cardinals pitched Seth Maness, and then Jonathan Broxton, and then Jerome Williams. It’s a decent approximation of what should be the lowest-leverage relievers in the bullpen. And with the possible exception of Maness, who as it turns out arguably should not have been on the active roster, this was the right move.

The Cardinals lost the game. It happens. The best manager in baseball history would’ve lost that game. But the bullpen was rested and refreshed for Saturday.

Saturday, August 12, 2016

Cardinals super-prospect Alex Reyes was allegedly kept from pitching on Friday because the team wanted him available to piggy-back the MLB debut of Luke Weaver on Saturday. Mike Matheny himself has indicated this. This is unprovable, but I’m guessing that had his presence been absolutely necessary on Friday, Matheny would have let Reyes pitch (I don’t think Reyes would be passed over for a position player). But as it was, Reyes was unnecessary, and thus rather than using him, Matheny let his lesser relievers perform mop-up duty.

Regardless, Luke Weaver had mediocre results. Although he recovered nicely from a second inning in which he allowed two runs, Weaver was still at 85 pitches through four innings, and thus Alex Reyes was able to fulfill his destiny. He pitched three innings and was able to hold down the fort as the Cardinals overcame a 2-0 deficit, and by the time Reyes was replaced on the mound, the Cardinals led 8-2.

In the 9th inning, with victory all but assured, the Cardinals pitched Seth Maness and Zach Duke. Retrospectively, the Maness appearance seems borderline inhumane given that he is now slated for Tommy John surgery, though this is likely more the end result of accumulated wear. Matheny had a six run lead to protect and rather than using a Seung Hwan Oh, he used a low-leverage reliever. And when things started to go sour, rather than overreacting with his best reliever, he went with Zach Duke.

This is not a defense of Mike Matheny, at least not in the macro sense. If anything, it shows that overall results are a questionable barometer of managerial acumen.

The Cardinals are currently on pace for their worst record in the Matheny era, but just as heaping inordinate praise on him for the success of the 100-win 2015 campaign ignores his surroundings, so does placing all blame for a somewhat disappointing 2016 on his shoulders.

And just as Matheny is capable of poor job performance amidst victory, such as leaving Jaime Garcia in far too long last night, he is capable of making the right moves during team struggles, such as last Friday, as the cumulative effect of moves means they may have a ripple effect beyond that day.