I don’t have to run through all the reasons why you might dislike Mike Matheny’s managerial decisions. Craig did a great job of gathering all of the more prominent offenses. One of my “favorites” is how much he relies on ridiculously short sample sizes. You don’t have to be an expert in statistics to understand that otherwise strong baseball players can sometimes have long stretches of weak production. All you really need is to be an observant baseball player. For Matheny, just a couple of days of struggles can indicate a real problem for a player, something that just doesn’t jibe with Baseball’s high variance nature.
Another one that gets me is how the Front Office constantly has to make moves with the understanding that such a weak tactician is responsible for moving the chess pieces they bring in. Maybe I notice it more because much of my job here the last four months has been to write about what moves the team should or shouldn’t make. As Craig notes in the article linked above, John Mozeliak seemed to not care for how Matheny used the extraordinary depth he accumulated the previous off-season.
On at least one occasion, I have wondered whether the team should just non-tender Matt Adams. Not because he’s not worth the money, but to take a tool out of Mike Matheny’s hand that he will probably only misuse. It may only take a week or two of struggling from two of Kolten Wong, Jedd Gyorko, and Jhonny Peralta before Matt Adams becomes the de facto starting first baseman of the 2017 Cardinals, with Matt Carpenter shifting back to a position he’s ill-suited for at this point in his career. I also often wonder if this same logic is the reason the team hasn’t yet acquired a competent fourth outfielder outside of the All-World injury prone Tommy Pham. Give Matheny a good back-up, and you end up with Randal Grichuk sitting on the bench each day after he goes 0-4.
Of course, I’m three paragraphs in and still talking about Mike Matheny. This post isn’t about Mike Matheny though. It’s about who I think his successor should be. The team just gave Matheny a new extension, but let’s pretend they didn’t for a minute. I don’t want them to hire someone in the same ilk as him. I want them to hire someone that could start a revolution. I want someone who can be the Billy Beane of field managing.
Most of you are probably familiar with Billy Beane at this point. He was promoted from Assistant General Manager to General Manager of the A’s following the 1997 season, taking over for current Mets GM Sandy Alderson. He was also a celebrated prospect at one point. He was drafted in the first round in 1990, and the only reason he didn’t go first overall was because of signability concerns, as many believed he would attend Stanford instead. Scouts salivated over what they saw in him, but he never put those tools together in big leagues.
The point is, Billy boldly went where General Managers had never went before, relying strongly on advanced statistics. He didn’t so much come up with them himself as much as believe in the numbers that Bill James and other early Sabermetricians produced outside of baseball. As a member of the Baseball insiders club, Beane had the ability and courage to implement them, and that’s his legacy.
As a direct result of Beane’s actions, the game is way more competitive today, and it’s because nearly every team now relies strongly on analytics to make decisions. In fact, Beane is now kind of an afterthought as a chief decision maker, and has made plenty of questionable moves in recent years. Maybe he’s just so far ahead that it looks weird to the rest of us, but I believe it’s because the game is now flooded with great Front Offices. The competitive edge that smart teams have is shrinking, because everyone sees the value in it now.
There is one area analytics hasn’t invaded so profusely yet: the clubhouse. Most teams still rely on field managers that don’t have a strong understanding of advanced statistics. While Front Offices are as smart as ever, teams can still find a competitive advantage by getting smarter in clubhouse. And that’s where Gabe Kapler comes in. Kapler wasn’t a first round draft pick when he became a professional ball player in 1995. He was a 57th round pick. That’s a round of the draft that doesn’t even exist anymore. For making it to the majors despite that hurdle, Kapler has a reputation of a workhorse, and is very well respected by today’s players for that distinction.
Kapler currently is the Dodgers' director of player of development, but only because he narrowly missed becoming their next manager when they fired Don Mattingly. He is lauded for his leadership and communication skills, as well as his open-mindedness and preference for advanced stats. That’s why he’s a great pick for managing a team. His past credentials as a player, as well as those exceptional leadership and communication skills means he’d have no problem keeping an MLB clubhouse in order. His analytical mind makes for a great way for any Front Office to work in concert with the field manager, something that has been sorely lacking in St. Louis.
Let’s examine some quotes from Kapler, which I took the liberty of accumulating from the internet. If these quotes don’t make you wish he was the Cardinals manager, well, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Some team is going to get a competitive advantage from hiring this guy, and I’d like it to be the Cardinals, as unlikely as that seems following Matheny’s latest extension.
First, we’ll start with a guest-article Gabe Kapler wrote at weei.com. I encourage you to read the whole thing, as it’s a great read thanks to several neat stories from his playing days. Here’s a great quote from the article about the off-season following the 2005 season when the Red Sox first saw him as being managerial material:
At some point, Ben [Cherington, then a Vice President of the Red Sox,] opened my eyes wide when he sent me a study on the sacrifice bunt and the value of the out in major league baseball at the time. I considered myself to be a student of the game, but this was the first time I had a baseball man illuminate such a study. It was at that point that I realized that baseball players are not the most educated people in our game — far from it.
This is kind of classic to me. Valuing On base percentage is one of the first things Beane put into practice. You could more appropriately call OBP “Not making an out percentage” if it rolled off the tongue better, because that’s the most important facet of it. Outs are the most precious resource in the game, and most Front Offices have understood it for years now. Now consider the quotes you’ve heard from Mike Matheny about bunting.
Here’s a good one that concerns batting average:
The player still thinks he’s going to make a boatload of money because he’s hitting .300, and he might … but not because he’s excelling in that statistic. He may be shocked to find that he’s not in as high demand as a guy dominating a peripheral measurable.
This also extremely refreshing to hear from a potential field manager. Matheny has made it pretty clear that he values the traditional statistics. That’s not strange for an ex-ball player managing ball players. Kapler is the exception here, not Matheny.
Next up, we’ll look at an interview Kapler gave to xnsports.com in 2013 on the battle between traditional stats and sabermetrics. Again, I urge you to read the whole article, as it’s a great read. Kapler touches on the Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera MVP race, which was of course part of the broader war between traditional and new stats. Kapler would have voted for Trout as MVP in 2012:
If you simply examine the issue on the surface, I believe Trout was and is more valuable to the Angels than Cabrera to the Tigers. The guy that significantly impacts all aspects of the game for me gets the edge. Obviously it’s our duty as students of the game to not get caught up in the Triple Crown nonsense as two of the three statistics, BA and RBI, are fatally flawed.
That last sentence where he calls out batting average and Runs Batted In is fantastic. Mike Matheny, like probably most managers, take RBI’s way too seriously, despite the fact that they’re much more often a factor of where you hit in the order than anything else. I also assume the same manager that put Stephen Piscotty and Kolten Wong in center field last year would have preferred Miguel Cabrera’s incredible hitting but lackluster base-running and defense over Trouts’ amazing all-around game.
Kapler doesn’t completely discount scouting though. Like the Cardinals, he believes both help get us to the truth of player evaluation:
A progressive baseball mind will unequivocally take scouting and analytics and combine the two. The more scientific our sport becomes, the more data is king. And data comes from everywhere including but not limited to scouting, player development, performance, the sabermetrics community, clubhouse reports on makeup, etc.
Kapler doesn’t just talk like this to the media though. He puts in action as part of his job with the Dodgers. Check out this article from ocregister.com, which covers Scott Schebler’s “struggles” at Triple-A, and Kapler’s advice for the prospect:
Over Memorial Day weekend, new Dodgers director of player development Gabe Kapler visited the Triple-A Dodgers in Las Vegas. The two men met, and Kapler presented Schebler a pack of data, six or so metrics that showed he wasn’t so much struggling as he was getting unlucky. More than 30 percent of the balls he was putting into play were traveling 95 mph or faster, a number that should lead to more success, more power.
Exit Velocity, I think, is a good first step to get players to buy into the advanced stats. Players are already used to understanding the importance of velocity from the pitching side. It’s easy for a player to understand that the more velocity a pitcher has, the more margin for error he has on command. It should similarly be easy for them to understand that the harder you hit the ball, the more likely it is to be an extra-base hit or just fall in for a hit (outside of texas leaguers). It also doesn’t depend on a multitude of calculations, like wOBA, or it’s logical extension, wRC+.
That’s not the only way that Kapler is making moves with the Dodger’s though. For our last source, let’s go to VEB’s sister site, TrueBlueLA.com, the Dodger’s SBN site. When they - and the rest of the media at the time - saw Kapler as the inevitable next field manager for the Dodgers, they had this to say:
Kapler, the Dodgers' director of player of development, among other things in 2015 totally revamped the food fed to the players across the minors, opting for more nutritious fare. That practice began in spring training at the major league facility as well, with organic food and no more soda.
This seems like such a simple change. Baseball is a multi-billion dollar business. They pay their minor league talent horribly though. Investing in more nutritious food, even across an entire Minor League organization, is a drop in the bucket compared to signing free agents to hundred million dollar contracts. Getting their players - which are the teams’ most valuable asset - the type of food that is going to optimize their performance is a slam dunk.
For a quote not from Kapler himself, let’s see what his boss, Andrew Friedman thinks. Friedman of course is the current President of Baseball Operations with the Dodgers, after a historically great run as the General Manager of the shoestring budget Rays. Here’s what he had to say after hiring Kapler:
"He's incredibly bright, he's a tremendous leader of people, and he's an exceptional communicator," Friedman said in November 2014 when Kapler was hired. "It's so hard for players, who are so mired in it, to sometimes see the bigger picture or even look at it from a different perspective. Gabe is incredibly skilled at seeing things at different perspectives."
If you didn’t know much about Gabe Kapler, you do now. I ask you, What else could you want from a manager? Complaints about Matheny inevitably brings up the question of which other manager would be better. While I sometimes loathe the decisions Matheny makes, swapping in another status quo manager will only change the details of what we complain about.
Gabe Kapler however, breaks the mold. He has what every manager needs, an ability to control a clubhouse by virtue of his leadership and the fact that he’s been there before. He has something few of them have though, which is an open-mindedness and analytical nature to question the status quo, and contribute to change for the better. The Cardinals probably aren’t going to pull what the L.A. Rams did and fire a lead decision maker just months after agreeing to an multi-year extension. Still, I really wish they would, and replace him with possibly the Billy Beane of field managers. For one last quote, I’ll leave you with how Kapler himself sums up how he tries to live his life:
"I want to be flexible, I want to be nimble. I want to be thoughtful. Those are some of the cornerstones of my belief systems."