When it comes to the inner-workings of the St. Louis Cardinals, we are - all of us who don’t collect a paycheck directly from the club - outsiders looking in. We push our noses to the glass, eager for whatever we can see inside. We’re perverts, basically.
This recent Rick Hummel piece offered just such a peep, by way of Mike Matheny’s comments at the Winter Warm-Up. You may have become aware of it - as I first did - through the consternation of Cardinals Twitter.
Matheny’s quotes throughout strike a dissonant chord, enough so that I wondered if these were really the things he believed or if there was something odd about the context of the comments. I decided to investigate.
Hummel’s piece begins with Matheny spouting the usual vagaries, talking about things like “efficiency” and “going against the grain of what has traditionally been done.” At times, you really get the sense that Mike has been studying Mospeak.
From there, there’s a brief departure into improving the defense by spending more time working on it in spring, which... I mean, I guess? That’s one of those weird things where on-field personnel see it one way, knowing those reps and that practice are essential to get sharp, but for those of us watching on a macro level, you’re not going to turn a Matt Carpenter into a Kolten Wong with a few more grounders on the back fields. The primary way to improve this team’s defense is to start your best defensive players in their best positions, as opposed to in left field against the Cubs late in the season.
But you know, whatever - that still seems like mostly idle chatter. Gotta work on defense this spring, we gotta play ‘em one day at a time, give it our best shot and, the Good Lord willing, things will work out.
It’s around Barstow or maybe paragraph eight where the drugs kick-in and the quotes get really bizarre.
Hummel introduces the idea of both how poor the Cardinals were at base running and how few bases they stole. Matheny’s quote is:
“I think everybody in this room would be completely shocked and surprised to know how many times we had the green light in the last several years. More often than not ... I’ll tell you that.”
No, Mike - I would not be shocked by that. It’s been apparent to me that nearly everyone has the green light in nearly every situation, regardless of their speed or base stealing skill, and regardless of whether or not a successful steal will improve the team’s chances of scoring a run. And the reason it’s been clear to me is because I see this team continually run into outs on the base paths.
In fact, I wrote last season about how the Cardinals need to improve their terrible base running in an article titled: The Cardinals need to improve their terrible base running. Last year was the worst base running season in Cardinals history by a long shot. Three of Matheny’s seasons are in the Top 10 worst Cardinal seasons of all-time.
Often times, when we see quotes like this, there’s no way for we simple readers to know the context they came in. In this case, however, the audio of Matheny’s press conference is available to listen to. And here, I think they provide Matheny a bit of cover.
A reporter - who sounds to me like Hummel - frames the question to Matheny as “I know there’s been a lot of talk about increasing the base running and less station-to-station... I know it’s not as simple as you just saying green light to everybody...”
A big part of the flaw in Matheny’s response is built into that question. It’s true, a major criticism of recent teams - at least among savvy fans such as those at Viva El Birdos Dot Com - is that the team needs to improve its base running. But as I noted in my piece, that has more to do with not being thrown out trying to be aggressive.
But when you frame the issue as “station to station” running or not “giving guys the green light”, the implication is that the team needs to be more aggressive. So for Matheny to begin his response by addressing that... he was kind of teed-up for that.
Of course, what you’d like for your manager to do in that scenario is to pivot, saying something like “actually, the problem for us hasn’t necessarily been a lack of aggression on the bases, it’s knowing when is the right time to be aggressive.” That didn’t happen. He does say something about “mindset,” but then goes on to say:
But also, the players have to buy in. We can tell them until we’re blue in the face that, ‘Hey, you guys have speed, athleticism. We should be taking first to third. We should be taking that extra base. We should be tagging up from first base on a deep fly ball.’
Later in the presser, in a section not quoted by Hummel, Matheny likened Stephen Piscotty’s instincts on the base paths to late-career Carlos Beltran, suggesting they make him a skilled base runner despite a lack of superlative speed.
Stephen Piscotty stole seven bases last season and was caught five times. At -3.4 BsR, he cost the team the 2nd-most value on the bases to Yadi.
Looking at these comments in context, I can cut Matheny a bit of slack in that the questions seem to have led him down a certain path. In fact, often when he’s asked about the team, it’s from the standpoint of “respond to this thing that fans and the media say is wrong,” so he’s often playing defense rather than framing the issue as he sees it.
But even with those caveats, there’s not a lot here to suggest Matheny or his coaching staff understand why the team’s base running has been so poor.
Backing up to his comments on spring training and defense, he was again prompted with a leading “what are you going to do differently this spring” type question. But the content of his response still doesn’t rise much beyond “we’re going to try harder.”
Even when you give Matheny the benefit of the doubt and try to take into account the context, his responses don’t seem to jibe with what many fans feel the team needs to do or with what the GM has said would be the team’s priorities.