A Look at Mike Matheny's Track Record

Yes, the weird nerd guy is back. While my support for Trevor Rosenthal was in a sense a minority view, I’m taking a much more popular stance today: I’m calling for Mike Matheny to be fired this offseason.

Let me make this clear, I’m not a stereotypical Matheny hater who blindly calls out each and everything Mike does. I look at what the stats, matchups, and trends say when making (hypothetical) managerial decisions. It bothers me when a Matheny supporter says, "Well, it’s not Mike who just gave up a homer." This is true, but at the same time Matheny neglected a pitcher who was better fit for that specific situation. I acknowledge when I’m wrong, but goes both ways. Just because a particular move worked out, it doesn’t mean the decision was justified. @VanHicklestein, who I highly suggest you follow on Twitter, describes this phenomenon very effectively.

I was skeptical of Matheny when he was hired, and he’s done very little since to earn my trust. I feel the rosters he’s been given by John Mozeliak are the primary cause for the Cardinals’ success during Mike’s tenure as manager, more so than his managerial abilities. Through vignettes of past Cardinals games, primarily key playoff games, I’ll explain how Matheny is a poor decision maker not suit to be a major league manager. So strap in, because this is a trip down the darker alleys of memory lane.

Matheny’s Hiring and First Postseason

November 13th, 2011 was the date John Mozeliak made an off-the-map hiring to replace Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa. The 2012 Cardinals would attempt to defend their World Series title with a manager who was coaching a Little League team. Not the esteemed Terry Francona. Not Cardinals coaches Jose Oquendo or Chris Maloney. Instead Mozeliak chose Mike Matheny as the manager of the future…

334 days later the Cardinals were preparing for Game 5 (in Washington) of the 2012 NLDS. The winner moves on to the NLCS while the loser goes home. As Adam Wainwright climbed the mound the Cardinals win expectancy sat at 45%. The first three at-bats for the Nationals went as following: Jayson Werth doubles, Bryce Harper triples, and Ryan Zimmerman homers. Wainwright still hadn’t thrown a first-pitch strike. The Nats led 3-0 and the Cardinals’ win expectancy was already down to 19%. The bottom of the 3rd began with a Bryce Harper bomb to right center. 4-0; 10%. Matheny was still in the dugout—Wainwright was staying in. The very next pitch was laced by Ryan Zimmerman for a double. Wainwright had allowed 6 hits, 5 extra base hits, and Matheny kept him in. Two batters later Michael Morse launched a first pitch homer and the Nationals had exploded off Wainwright to take a 6-0 lead. The once 45% win expectancy had shriveled down to 4%. Only now, in the winner-take-all game, does Matheny hook his starter and go to Joe Kelly. Matheny would escape criticism as the Cardinals miraculously came back and advanced to the NLCS. Compare Wainwright’s line to the other Cardinals pitchers in Game 5.

Wainwright: 2.1 IP, 7 H, 6 XBH, 6 ER

Bullpen combined: 6.2 IP, 4 H, 0 XBH, 1 ER

Matheny’s foolishly long hook on Wainwright should have cost the Cardinals their season. Similar managment of his pitching staff was exploited in the NLCS, as similarly catastrophic innings were not shadowed by offensive explosions. While the Giants went on to win the title and eventually 3 in 5 seasons, Matheny’s Cardinals were sent packing. But hey, this was a pretty good first run, wasn’t it?

2013 World Series: Pitch Around Ortiz!

715 days after his hiring, Matheny’s pennant-winning Cardinals entered Game 5 of the 2013 World Series tied 2-2. Both Matheny and rookie manager John Farrell rolled out their respective aces, Adam Wainwright and Jon Lester. In the top of the 1st, following a 1-out double by Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz (8 for 11 in the series thus far) came to the plate. Rather than pitch around Ortiz (who was a one-man wrecking crew; none of his teammates hit above .250 in the Series) and deal with ice-cold Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava, Matheny chose to attack Ortiz despite the open first base. Ortiz lined the first pitch, a hanging cutter, past Allen Craig and into right field. Pedroia easily scored and the Red Sox took a 1-0 lead—the next five Red Sox batters struck out. Jon Lester dazzled and the Cardinals never led a game at any point the rest of the 2013 season.

2013 World Series: Another Elimination Game…

Rookie Michael Wacha started Game 6 (the Cardinals now trailing the series 3-2) and slowly but surely self-imploded. After a crooked 3-run 3rd, Matheny sent Wacha back out for the 4th inning. Stephen Drew lined the first pitch for a homer to give the Red Sox a 4-0 lead. Wacha remained in. Wacha’s final line: 3.2 IP, 5 H, 4 BB, 6 ER, and the loss that ended the Cardinals run. A team that led the World Series 2-1 with the next two games at home dropped three straight as the Red Sox took the trophy. (Ortiz, of course, took home the MVP honors.) 2 years in, and Cardinals fans entered the offseason with a bittersweet taste in their mouths. Back-to-back years now the team lost three straight games and a series lead to be eliminated in October.

The Allen Craig Fallout

On July 31, 2014 Matheny had been manager for 991 days. The reports were true. John Mozeliak shook up the Cardinals roster by sending Allen Craig and Joe Kelly to Boston for John Lackey. Although the trade worked out perfectly for the Cardinals, let's analyze the trade using only our knowledge as of 2014. Nobody knew just how badly Allen Craig’s career would fall apart and nobody knew the fate of Oscar Taveras. Backing up to the start of 2014, the Cardinals had a logjam in the outfield. The Cardinals had a starting outfield of Matt Holliday, Peter Bourjos, and Allen Craig, with Jon Jay and Shane Robinson off the bench. Taveras would make his MLB debut in 2014 as would Randal Grichuk. Needless to say, the Cardinals had options if their starting outfielders struggled.

Back to Craig. He was regarded as one of the best RBI-men in baseball, but wasn’t his regression inevitable? .344, .334, .368. These were the BABIPs of Craig from 2011-2013. His power surge in 2012 began to look more and more like a blip on the radar. Craig’s isolated power dropped to a pedestrian .142 in 2013.

Craig, still hampered by a foot injury from late 2013, stumbled out of the gates in 2014. His OPS in the season’s first month was .644 and his wRC+ was 81—he clearly wasn’t seeing the ball well. His contact was softer than usual and he wasn’t pulling the ball.

On the surface, Craig was turning things around in May when his batting average was .71 points higher. His BABIP had also shot up a fluky 121 points, proving that his swings were simply finding holes now. His isolated power had actually dropped from his dreadful April and Craig’s strikeout rate also rose in May. He wasn’t improving.

You may be wondering how this relates to Matheny. Even with Matt Holliday and Jon Jay heating up; even with Oscar Taveras and Randal Grichuk making their Major League debuts Matheny continuously penciled Craig into the cleanup spot. Of the 106 games the Cardinals played before Craig was traded, the struggling outfielder started 93.

Ellis Over Wong

Around the same time Kolten Wong, who after batting .255 in his first 13 games, was benched for veteran Mark Ellis. The next week, Wong only played in three of the team’s seven games. Listen to how writer Jenifer Langosch described the signing of Ellis. "Signing for a reported base salary of $5.25 million, Ellis joins an organization that was upfront with no promise of regular playing time...Ellis was brought on primarily to serve as insurance behind second baseman Kolten Wong." Ellis offered a veteran mentorship who could spot-check the young second basemen, not somebody who would steal his job after two mediocre weeks. What Matheny failed to realize is young players, in the minors or not, need everyday at-bats to develop.

You knew it was coming...The Wacha Decision

Everybody has their signature moment, and for Matheny that was the 2014 NLCS. Fast forward 1068 days from his hiring and Matheny looked on as the Giants danced around home plate. Travis Ishikawa had belted a walk-off homer off Michael Wacha. Michael Wacha. When asked about the unbelievable, undefendable decision of choosing Wacha to pitch the 9th inning of an elimination game, Matheny gave an answer that made me want to break things.

Let’s run through the facts. After 7 strong innings by Waino the Cardinals led the Giants 3-2. Pat Neshek surrendered the game-tying homer to Michael Morse in the 8th inning and Oscar Taveras (yes, this would sadly be his final at-bat) grounded out with the bases loaded in the top of the 9th. That would set the stage. The game was tied 3-3 going into the bottom of the 9th and the Cardinals needed a new pitcher.

Wacha, who spent over 11 weeks on the DL with a shoulder injury stumbled through September with a 5.40 ERA. His last regular season outing was September 26th in a shaky performance against Arizona: Game 5 of the 2014 NLCS was on October 16th. Last time I checked, shoving a young pitcher (who hasn’t pitched in 20 days and is nursing a shoulder injury) into a season-on-the-line situation isn’t quite recommended.

After hanging a changeup and subsequently lobbing up a fastball on the next pitch, Wacha didn’t appear to have the "stuff" Matheny described in his postgame presser. So when Wacha walked the next batter, Brandon Belt, on 4 pitches, why was Wacha still pitching? Randy Choate and Seth Maness were both warming up in the bullpen. We all know what happened next.

But let’s retrace our steps: why was Wacha pitching in the first place? Even if we go under the assumption Matheny had lost trust in his lefties Randy Choate (losing pitcher in Game 3; but why would he have been warming up?) and Marco Gonzales (losing pitcher in Game 4), Seth Maness (0.00 ERA in the playoffs) and Carlos Martinez (2.25 ERA) both remained available. And that’s assuming closer Trevor Rosenthal, who blew the save in Game 2 and hadn’t pitched since wasn’t trusted. So with 5 other relievers more qualified to pitch than Wacha, why was Wacha pitching? Even more frustrating, Cardinals fans helplessly watched as Bruce Bochy masterfully deployed one reliever after another, setting his players up for success. Bochy created the matchups he wanted while Matheny looked like a deer in the headlights. Matheny was outmanaged, plain and simple.

2015 NLDS: Sticking with Siegrist

1430 days had come and gone. The Cardinals trailed the 2015 NLDS 2-1 after dropping Games 2 and 3. (Game 2 saw Matheny leave Jaime Garcia in for the entire 2nd inning, a five run onslaught by the Cubs.) As the bottom of the 6th began, the elimination game was tied at four apiece. Enter Kevin Siegrist to pitch against 2-3-4 portion of the Cubs lineup. The cleanup hitter, Anthony Rizzo, teed off on a breaking ball and just like that, the Cubs were back on top 5-4. In 2015 lefties had an .811 OPS against Siegrist, while righties had a .511 OPS. Fittingly, the Cardinals refused to pitch around the one lefty batter, and he burned them.

Go ahead, call me out for just second guessing. But Siegrist had a higher opponents OBP against left-handed hitters and Rizzo had a higher OBP against left-handed pitchers. Doesn't it make sense to work around him?

What Matheny did next was even more atrocious. With three straight lefties due in the 7th, guess who Matheny brought back to pitch? Kyle Schwarber took Siegrist so deep the ball got stuck in the Wrigley Field scoreboard. Chicago won 6-4 and advanced to the NLCS for the first time since 2003. Another series lead had slipped away. Three straight losses to end the season. You know the drill.

A Pair of Ugly Losses to the Rangers

June 18th marked day 1679 for Matheny. The Cardinals, entering the homestand on a five game winning streak, were swept by the Astros and and lost the series opener to the Rangers the previous night. They trailed the division-leading Cubs by 10.5 games. In the 8th inning of the second game the Cardinals led 3-0 behind seven masterful innings by Carlos Martinez. Seung-Hwan Oh (seriously, check out his walk-up song) came on to pitch the 8th inning and struck out the first two batters before allowing Shin-Soo Choo and Ian Desmond to single and double. That put two runners in scoring position and brought the tying run to the plate.

Pitching to Nomar Mazara, Oh’s 2-0 pitch appeared to skip past Yadier Molina, allowing a run to score on the wild pitch. Mazara swung through the pitch, which was correctly called strike one, but the pitch bounced off Mazara before heading to the backstop. What should have been called a dead ball scored the Rangers’ first run. Meanwhile Matheny had no intention to question the call. When asked after the game about the incident Matheny gave this response.

Matheny essentially points out that a hit batsman would put the tying run on base. Ok, fair enough. But what he failed to see was that the batter actually swung at the ball. I repeat: he didn’t see the batter swing. A batter isn’t awarded first base if he swings and is hit, the play is dead. I confirmed this by reviewing rule 6.08(b). Instead the inning ended with two Texas runs.

As the game headed to the 9th Matheny turned to closer Trevor Rosenthal (at that point a 10.80 ERA in June). Rosenthal’s last three games went as following.

  • Entering the 9th inning against San Francisco, Rosenthal walked the first three batters and loaded the bases with 0 outs. The Giants lead blew up from 2-1 to 5-1 in that inning.

  • Another game against Pittsburgh, the Cards led by one entering the 9th. Rosenthal allowed 2 walks, a triple, and a game tying single to blow the save.

  • Another game against Houston: Rosenthal surrendered 3 hits, a walk, and 2 runs as the Astros pulled away.

Naturally a struggling pitcher like Rosenthal (who shouldn’t be closer) gave up two hits to begin the inning. Matheny stuck with his closer instead of setup man Kevin Siegrist. Rosenthal was once again struggling to find the strike zone—he’d fallen behind both batters before caving in. Only after hitting Robinson Chirinos did Matheny hook his struggling closer for Siegrist. Siegrist only allowed one man to reach, but two runs scored including a go-ahead sac-fly. It’s not Siegrist’s fault the bases were loaded with no outs, he pitched well. Instead it was his manager who moved too slow to stop the inevitable bleeding. A 3-0 lead with 4 outs to go collapsed into a 4-3 loss.

The next day the Cardinals led 4-3 as the 7th began. After six solid innings from Mike Leake, Matheny turned the ball over to rookie Matt Bowman, who worked a 1-2-3 inning. Keep in mind, Bowman hadn’t managed a scoreless two inning appearance in 30 days and opponents were hitting .364 against him in high leverage situations.

So with all the numbers pointed against it, why did Matheny leave Bowman in for the 8th? He claimed Rosenthal and Siegrist were unavailable that day due their heavy workloads that week. That still leaves you with Jonathan Broxton (who hadn’t allowed a run in 3 weeks), Tyler Lyons (3 of the 4 upcoming Rangers were lefties), and Oh (presumably your closer that day) to get the final six outs. With Bowman back for his second inning, he gave up two runs and the lead. Texas never looked back, winning 5-4.

Note: On August 27th, Matheny left Bowman in for a second inning. Again in the 8th inning he coughed up the Cardinals’ one run lead. Bowman surrendered two earned runs and the Cards lost 3-2.

Rosenthal's Implosion Continues

On June 24th, the Cardinals traveled to Seattle for what was expected to be an easy three games with a crucial homestand looming. Backed by seven magnificent innings from Carlos Martinez and an 8th inning rally, the Cards took a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the 9th. Let’s not even get into the fact that Rosenthal is still somehow closer, but he’s coming in for the 9th. After allowing the first two batters to reach (deja vu, anyone?) on a double and walk to Kyle Seager and Dae-Ho Lee, Matheny stuck with his dismantled closer.

Up next was pinch-hitter Adam Lind, bona fide righty murderer and before this game a career .500 hitter against Rosenthal. Some of you may remember this game, but for those who don’t I’ll remind you what happens. Hanging changeup. 3-run homer. Mariners win. This time Matheny doesn’t even get a chance to go to Siegrist way too late. He’ll eventually replace his closer…way too late.

The Last Story

The date was August 28th and the Cardinals were playing the A’s in the series finale. The Cardinals, in spite of Jaime Garcia’s rocky five-run outing, had cut the deficit to 5-4 off an Alberto Rosario double. As the game moved to the 8th inning, Matheny summoned Jonathan Broxton to face Oakland’s 2-3-4 hitters. Broxton had fallen off, ranking dead last among all Cardinals relievers in Win Probability Added. Why is Broxton, who has decreased your odds of winning more than anybody else, pitching in your highest leverage spot? By the time Broxton yielded two runs Oakland’s win expectancy had ballooned from 76.1% to 94.8%. The Cardinals would go on to lose the rubber game against the lowly A’s.

Matheny's History of Wearing Down Players

Matheny has run his players into the ground. In 2013 he wore down Adam Wainwright with an average of 110.6 pitches over a seven start period (July 14th to August 18th). Why does Matheny push Wainwright with a 128 pitch complete game in his next start? Is it any coincidence that Wainwright, whose fatigued mechanics led to him tipping his pitches, had an ERA of 16.88 over his next two starts? Why did Matheny follow those two starts by taxing Waino with 111.75 pitches per start in his next four?

When Matheny took over as manager in 2012, Yadier Molina was entering his age 29 season. That year he ranked 3rd among catchers with nearly 1,200 innings caught. At 30 years old, even with a DL stint, Molina had moved up to 2nd. Certainly this wear and tear factored into Molina missing forty games with a torn thumb ligament at 31. In 2015, Molina was on pace to lead all MLB catchers in innings caught when another thumb injury ended his age 32 regular season. This season, despite solid production by Eric Fryer and Alberto Rosario, Yadi has a 58.1 inning lead on Wilson Ramos to top the majors.

Some Notes and Links

  • Wong, only 25, has seen his playing time essentially evaporate in August. He has only started in 7 of the last 26 games. Rob Rains of the StL Sports Page recently wrote about Wong and his current situation. "What perhaps bothers Wong the most about his current situation is that he really has not been told anything about his role on the team. He said he has been left to kind of figure it out on his own, a role which is completely new to him." For a manager who some consider a great leader, you would expect Matheny to at least have decent communication with his players.
  • In a glorious article by Ben Lindbergh, he assesses every manager using a rating called Bullpen Management Above Random (BMAR). BMAR uses the logic that your best pitchers should pitch in the highest leverage situations to grade each manager’s tactical ability. Here’s what Lindbergh had to say about Mike. "...Mike Matheny, whom BMAR says was actually worse at running his bullpen than a random number generator wearing a warm-up jacket." According to BMAR, the average MLB manager made the optimal decision 18.2% of the time. I wish I was joking, but Matheny’s optimal decision rate was -18.3%.
  • I didn’t feel like making a separate section to discuss Matheny’s awful double switches but if you want to read about them this article by ESPN’s David Schoenfield will do.
  • VEB’s Craig Edwards wrote about Matheny’s suspect lineup construction, but if you don’t want to read it I’ll give you the synopsis: Mike has let one or two games decide who plays and who doesn’t.
  • This GIF.

Thank you for reading. If you actually read all the way through I’m not even sure if that’s a good thing. I don’t expect any of Mike’s strongest supporters to suddenly flip sides just because I rambled on; I got mad one day and began writing. As of September 5th, Matheny has been manager for 1758 days. That’s 1758 days to improve, which he has. That being said, Matheny is in his fifth season and still making mistakes unacceptable for the manager of a perennial contender.

If you want more of my shenanigans you can follow me on Twitter @Tyler_Opinion

Go Cards!