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Mike Matheny still thinks it’s 2013

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For the Cardinals manager, Blurred Lines is still the song of the summer, Breaking Bad is finishing strong, and Matt Adams and Kevin Siegrist are core players.

St. Louis Cardinals v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images

When I watch the moves Mike Matheny makes, especially in terms of which players he calls on in key situations, one question often crosses my mind:

“Who does he think this player is?”

It could be Matt Adams continuing to find his way into the lineup, even ridiculously in left field. It could be Kevin Siegrist coming in to pitch in high-leverage innings. For these guys (and several others), the manager sees a very different player than I do.

And for a long time, I just threw up my hands and said “hashtag Mathenaging.” But I kept wondering, why these guys? Why do some seem to get infinity chances while others are benched after an 0-fer? And then I noticed something of a pattern.

If you were on the team in 2013, Mike Matheny still envisions you as the same player you were then.

Matt Adams saw his first real playing time in 2013, and slashed .284/.335/.503, while hitting 17 homers in just under 300 ABs. The big fella from Slippery Rock looked like he could just be the classic, power-hitting first baseman. His 2014 numbers were pretty strong, too... but since 2015 he’s posted just a 92 wRC+ and his power has been more an assumption given his body type than an actual thing that happens.

Kevin Siegrist made his debut in 2013, an unheralded prospect drafted so late that most of the teams had already left and the cleaning crew was sweeping up. But he exploded into the big leagues, throwing an upper 90s heater. He earned the 2nd most WAR of any Cardinal reliever that season, and didn’t even debut until June.

It’s been a long time since Kevin Siegrist was that pitcher, and as Joe noted Monday, his velocity continues to plummet every season.

Michael Wacha was another young pitcher to announce his presence with authority in 2013. He started nine games during the regular season, posting a sub-3.00 ERA and FIP. Then he really impressed in the playoffs, especially in Game 4 of the NLDS vs. the Pirates, facing elimination, when he tossed 7 13 strong innings, giving up just one hit and two walks. He would start 5 games that postseason, posting a 2.64 ERA and 0.91 WHIP.

It would first become clear that Matheny still envisioned Wacha as the pitcher from that 2013 run the very next season, when he would inexplicably call on Wacha to throw his first postseason pitches in the 9th inning of an elimination game against the Giants. You may remember the result.

Kolten Wong also made his debut in 2013, though unlike these others, he struggled. In just 60 PAs, Wong slashed .153/.194/.169. Infamously, he was also picked-off to end Game 4 of the World Series.

It’s pretty well-documented that Wong has never been a favorite of Matheny, despite repeated, vocal support from the front office. Matheny’s lack of trust in Wong has so colored the public perception of the player, I’d wager if you asked the average Cardinal fan which of these players has been the least productive, he’d be the one they’d chose.

And yet, here’s how they shake out by WAR since 2013:

WAR since 2013 - WAR

Player WAR
Player WAR
Kolten Wong 5.7
Michael Wacha 4.6
Matt Adams 2.2
Kevin Siegrist 2.2

Each of these guys has had periods of success and struggle in their Cardinal careers. But for some reason, for Mike Matheny, they seem to be encased in amber as whoever they were at the end of the 2013 season. Why then? Was that the last happy moment before his parents told him they were getting a divorce?

One reason might be that while 2012 was largely a holdover from the La Russa era, 2013 saw a number of players - these mentioned above, plus Matt Carpenter, Carlos Martinez and others - emerge for the first time. This was in many ways the first Matheny team, if you want to call it that.

That Mike would feel a certain affection and nostalgia for these guys is understandable, but one of the most essential traits for a manager is to recognize who his player are AT THAT MOMENT, not who they were in the past, who they could be some day, etc.

You see this disconnect in things like the Matt Adams left field spectacle, when Matheny justified his decision by saying “the bat plays.” Since 2013, Adams has been barely a league average hitter. Since 2014, he’s been below average. Matheny has a picture in his mind of what Matt Adams’ bat is, but we’ve got about three years of data at this point that say otherwise.

None of that is to say that Adams was never a promising hitter, or that the team shouldn’t have given him the opportunities they did in 2013, 2014, etc. But at a certain point, it became clear to most of us that this was a player whose skills were better suited to a bench role, or at the very least whose offensive value did not compensate for playing him wildly out-of-position.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, either. Go all the way back to 2014 and the Curious Case of Allen Craig. At what point that season did it sink in for you that this guy had just completely lost it? For how many weeks and months after that did Matheny keep running him out there? We’ll never know how long that would have gone on, as Mozeliak actually had to trade Craig to shield the team from the manager’s delusions of who the player was.

It’s this propensity of Matheny to see players - at least certain players - in some idealized form that makes my stomach turn when I wonder what will happen if it’s ever necessary to pull Wainwright from the rotation, or how the manager will handle the declining years of Yadier Molina.

The front office and on-field staff should be well ahead of the fans. They should know when a player’s skills are changing before we do. But with Matheny, too often it feels like we all know a player isn’t who they used to be (for better or worse), while he’s still imagining it’s 2013.