Mike Matheny is a subject of near-constant criticism and defense. He’s a horrible tactician, but he’s a “Leader of Men”. He loves the smallest of sample sizes, but his players play hard for him. He botches crucial decisions in the playoffs, but the team he manages wins a lot. These discussions should end—not because they aren’t worthwhile or interesting—but because Mike Matheny should no longer be manager of the St. Louis Cardinals.
There are several trains of thought regarding this year’s Cardinals team. On the one hand, it is a very good collection of players that has put together an offense at or near the top of the National League and a pitching staff that, despite poor defense, has at least been average or better at preventing runs. That the Cardinals record isn’t better could be a testament to poor luck. That is a perfectly reasonable answer having absolutely nothing to do with the manager.
On the other hand, there is also a view that the Cardinals team is poorly constructed. The team needed a bigger investment in the offseason and did not get one. That failure did not prevent the Cardinals from competing for the playoffs, but caused a disappointing season due to a record just a handful of games over .500. This viewpoint is less reasonable.
The Cardinals have received above average production from nearly every position. Breakouts from Stephen Piscotty and Aledmys Diaz plus the continued rise of Matt Carpenter and big boost of power from Brandon Moss, have helped the Cardinals to one of the best offenses in baseball. The Cardinals have yet to have an injury to the starting rotation. Production hasn't produced at 2015 levels, but is, at worst, average. And that bullpen? The Rosenthal implosion was ugly, but the Cardinals have a 53-3 record when heading to the ninth with a lead (46-4 for the eighth, 45-4 for the seventh, and 43-7 for the sixth). They have had statement wins, but have yet to have a decent stretch of wins.
The 2016 team is talented, they have produced, and yet the record isn’t quite there for them. The knee-jerk response is to blame Mike Matheny, but that isn’t entirely fair. What is fair is to assess Matheny’s record as manager and try to determine whether he is the right person for the managerial job for the rest of this season and beyond.
Rarely anyone ever offers praise for Mike Matheny’s in-game skills. It’s taken as a a given that he is poor during games, and the evidence is almost too voluminous to try and provide a rebuttal. In short:
- His double-switching and relief decisions, most recently on display just a week ago, are atrocious.
- His rigidity to the closer role and saves has led to disastrous results.
- He uses pitcher wins and saves in strategic decisions, which inevitably focuses less on trying to win the game and leads to pitchers hitting too much.
- He uses incredibly small sample sizes, like one game, to inform lineup decisions.
- He wears down relievers and fails to use the entire bullpen.
- He wears down position players.
- He applies double-standards.
Matheny’s problems are not just on the field, however. His mismangement of the club has caused multiple suboptimal personnel moves to appease Matheny and work around his weaknesses. Needing a long reliever only for extra inning games caused Tyler Lyons to be underused this season and caused the Michael Wacha-Giants walkoff after a three-week layoff. Heavily relying on veteran pitchers for important situations caused last year’s bullpen moves for Jonathan Broxton and Steve Cishek, the inexplicable Broxton signing and his disastrous usage this season.
Matheny’s effect on the roster is also centrally seen in the depth moves Mozeliak has made.
John Mozeliak trades for Peter Bourjos in center field, adds Mark Ellis at second, and calls up Oscar Taveras with Allen Craig struggling. Mike Matheny responds by installing an aging Mark Ellis at second base, overexposing him, and necessitating prospect Kolten Wong get sent down to make sure his growth was not stunted. Jon Jay was made starting center fielder with Bourjos languishing on the bench. Oscar Taveras never received decent playing time as Allen Craig kept getting starts, forcing Mozeliak to trade Craig, and then Taveras still didn’t receive playing time. It was clear that Matheny and Mozeliak were not on the same page.
Seeing how Matheny did not do well with depth, Mozeliak left clear starters at every position for 2015 so there would be less wiggle-room to arbitrarily decide starters. Then he wore the team down by starting Peralta, Wong, and Molina nearly every day and they faded as the team headed toward the postseason.
So as not to wear the team down, Mozeliak added Jedd Gyorko and Brayan Pena. Brandon Moss was retained as an option in the outfield and at first base. Tommy Pham and Randal Grichuk were both options in center field. The emergence of Aledmys Diaz created more opportunities to ensure all players were fresh for the whole season. Matheny has still tried to wear down Molina and Diaz, and has constantly jerked around Wong and Grichuk, leading to multiple stints in the minors and this comment from John Mozeliak (listen/read the full interview here):
From Mozeliak on 2016 #STLCards: I'm wondering if we created too much roster flexibility as opposed to stability.— Tim McKernan (@tmckernan) August 4, 2016
- Provide depth in 2014, Matheny uses it poorly.
- Provide stability in 2015, Matheny uses it poorly.
- Provide depth in 2016, Matheny uses it poorly
- Provide stability in 2017...
Bernie Miklasz asked Mozeliak about the comment above (listen here), and Mozeliak did defend the manager’s individual decisions, but it is difficult not to read between the lines, especially given the tenor of the rest of the interview regarding running into outs, which seems to fly directly in the face of Matheny’s aggressive philosophy. Incidentally, the Cardinals have the worst Baserunning score of any team in the National League.
Contrast those comments with the ones Mozeliak made at the end of the 2014 season in this piece from Ben Humphrey wondering if the Cardinals should make a run at Joe Maddon:
"If you look at the success the organization has had under Mike Matheny, and if you understand the value of his leadership as the manager, obviously he’s done a lot of great things," Mozeliak said. "I understand that Mike gets second-guessed and scrutinized for his strategical decisions. That’s part of the job. But you have to understand the respect and appreciation he commands in the clubhouse for the way he runs the team.
"I don’t think there are many (current) managers who have done that as well as Mike — the combination of accomplishments and the appreciation the players have for him.
"And he’s been doing this for only three seasons. He’s continuing to grow as a strategist. I can assure you we’re very pleased to have Mike Matheny as the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals."
It’s hard to say he is still growing as a strategist, and that assurance that the Cardinals general manager is pleased with his manager is starting to ring hollow. Of course, there is that matter of the clubhouse and the wins.
Without first knowledge and insight into a clubhouse, it is easy to see how a manager could command respect of a talented, winning team by providing preferential treatment to veterans by providing constant playing time, leaving pitchers in games, and almost never benching those with the most influential voices. As those players decrease in importance on the field and losses mount, it is also easy to see how that respect might wane.
In 2016, we have seen tension in the spring, questions of low morale of late, and the worst record at this point in the season of Matheny’s tenure. Bernie Miklasz referred to Matheny’s “stubbornness” and called Matheny “insecure” in his first half assessment of the manager’s performance. Miklasz closes his piece with a call for Matheny to change:
In the past I’ve praised Matheny — many times — for the quality and value of his leadership.
I just don’t believe he’s been as strong this season.
Can that change? Yes. But only if he does.
Why do we believe that Matheny has any real capacity to change his strategic level, let alone, part of his personality? We are in his fifth season, and he has had fits and starts of better strategy, but it never seems to last, and it is his personality—that stubbornness and insecurity—that gets in the way. Going with his gut, when it comes to playing time and in-game decisions, is managing scared. Scared of making a new decision, scared of sticking with a sound decision, scared of benching veterans for fear of losing the clubhouse.
Five seasons ago, Mike Matheny was gifted with an incredibly talented organization and a great pipeline of players despite never having any meaningful managerial or coaching experience. To his credit, Matheny didn’t majorly screw things up to the point where the organization was in danger of failure, but his success is tied to an organization and players he didn’t have a hand in creating.
Matheny should not be the manager of the future for the Cardinals, and given that premise, he should not be the manager right now. If the playoffs started today, the Cardinals would have to win two win or go home games to get to the Division Series. Two years ago, the Cardinals made a trade that shook the foundation of the team and the concept of family. That team was 56-50 and had lost six of its last eight games. After the shakeup, the Cardinals went 34-22 down the stretch.
It’s time for another shakeup. There is no trade to be made, but moving on from a manager who should not have a future with the team is the right decision for the organization. David Bell, Chris Maloney, and Jose Oquendo all have considerably more experience managing a ballclub than Mike Matheny did when he was hired. Any one of them is capable of guiding the Cardinals the rest of the way, potentially to a playoff berth that is still a real possibility.
John Mozeliak has made a few mistakes in his tenure as general manager, most of them of the Ty Wigginton variety. Hiring Mike Matheny might be his biggest mistake in a nearly decade-long run of success. Mozeliak has been pretty good about correcting and fixing mistakes in the past. It is finally time to correct this one. Mike Matheny should be fired.