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Mike Matheny and the Church of Clutch

Quietly, Mike Matheny was a remarkably clutch player. Has that affected his managing?

Giants v Cardinals Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Ted Williams is one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived. By FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, the Boston Red Sox legend ranks 8th among position players, just ahead of Cardinals legends Rogers Hornsby and Stan Musial. He is even greater by wRC+, a statistic which measures a player’s contributions at the plate, where he ranks second to Babe Ruth among players with triple-digit or more plate appearances—if your all-time starting nine also includes a designated hitter, it would be virtually impossible to not put Williams onto it.

However, following his playing career, Ted Williams became a manager, and things did not go nearly as well. His tenure as manager of the Washington Senators (and later the Texas Rangers) was initially praised, garnering him a Manager of the Year award in 1969, but the team’s fortunes declined under Williams, going from winning percentages of .531 to .432 to .396 to .351.

It’s hard to quantify this sort of thing, but the reputation of Ted Williams as manager was that his tremendous success as a player made him unable to relate to his less talented (read: all of his) players. Surely, Ted Williams worked hard as a player, but he also was one of the most naturally talented hitters in the history of the world—merely telling players “be as good as I was” doesn’t do much.

Largely because of Williams, there is a bit of folk wisdom that says that extremely successful players make for poor managers (which ignores borderline Hall of Fame player Joe Torre, but a persistent narrative is going to persist whether or not it is true). But when it comes to St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, this is not a concern.

Of all players in Major League Baseball history who are below replacement level per Baseball Reference’s measurement of WAR, Matheny ranks 13th in plate appearances (Cardinals hitting coach John Mabry ranks 20th—I’ve spent a year and a half trying to figure out ways to stretch this fun fact into an entire post, but I’ll put it here instead). Matheny was barely below replacement level (-0.3 over 4287 plate appearances) and by Baseball Prospectus WARP, which incorporates more defensive metrics for catchers, he rates a little better (2.2 WARP with a higher threshold for replacement players) but regardless, Matheny was certainly not a superstar along the lines of Ted Williams.

But there is one statistic by which Mike Matheny is the greatest player in Major League Baseball history.

You’re probably thinking it’s a defensive statistic, as his reputation as a player was of a defense-first catcher, but it is instead an offensive one. Mike Matheny is the most clutch hitter in history.

Okay, this might merit some explanation—there are some qualifiers here, but it’s not that cherry-picked of a factoid. Of the 816 players in MLB history with at least 750 plate appearances in high-leverage situations, moments in which a team’s win probability can be most dramatically affected by a single play, Mike Matheny has the highest tOPS+.

What this means is that Matheny was the player in history who was the best in the big moments relative to his normal level of play. If, like me, you believe that “clutch” is at most an overrated phenomenon and perhaps a statistical fluke, this shouldn’t mean much. Even if you believe that clutch is a real and significant thing, it probably shouldn’t mean a ton anyway—Matheny’s tOPS+ of 139 (#2 was 127, from longtime Baltimore Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts) is largely a reflection of his being such a poor hitter in non-high leverage situations.

Under this particular split, Matheny’s OPS was .761 (while playing prominently during high run-scoring seasons), the same as Jimmy Rollins and Chase Headley in high-leverage situations, players whose tOPS+ were 105 and 104, respectively. David Ortiz and Derek Jeter, anecdotally considered wildly clutch players, have a tOPS+ of 102 and 98. Jim Thome was, technically, un-clutch with a 97 tOPS+, but his OPS in these situations was .939, a higher career OPS than Alex Rodriguez. So, to be clear, you still want the best possible hitter hitting.

I doubt Mike Matheny is aware that he is the most relatively great high-leverage hitter in history, not because he is not aware of his career but because it is a pretty niche stat to know. But on a subliminal level, does Matheny know that he was clutch, or at least that he had a track record suggesting clutchness (whether these splits are a fluke or a sincere reflection on his ability, though I suspect the former, is largely irrelevant)? And if he does know, is he possibly falling victim to the Ted Williams trap of expecting players to do what he does and rise to the occasion in big situations?

Thirty players have had at least forty plate appearances in high leverage situations during Mike Matheny’s tenure as Cardinals manager. Thirteen have been above their career norms in high leverage situations. Somewhat poetically, the three players with the most plate appearances in such situations—Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter, and Matt Holliday, are clustered right around the mean tOPS+ with their marks at, respectively, 106, 103, and 99. Again, I don’t believe that any of this is particularly relevant in terms of determining that a player is actually more qualified to bat in big situations—just that it might affect the perception of him.

The top three players by tOPS+ are fairly separated from the pack: Pete Kozma, Tony Cruz, and Skip Schumaker. None of the three were perceived as being great offensive threats, but each did arguably overstay his welcome with the Cardinals. Kozma struggled mightily at the plate in 2013, and while this could be arguably be justified because of his defense and the lack of great backup option with Daniel Descalso second in line, his clutch reputation may have bought him time during his extra base hit-less in 111 PAs 2015. But since we’re on Pete Kozma clutch hits...

I don’t care how much that play may have hurt the Cardinals going forward. It was worth it.

But Kozma was not the only “clutch” Cardinal to remain despite lack of overall offensive production: Tony Cruz spent four full seasons as a sub-replacement level backup catcher and Skip Schumaker was a marginal player who was the regular starting second baseman in 2012 while Matt Carpenter, who played second base in 2013 and was among the league’s best players at the position, was relegated to a utility role.

Throughout the list, there are several examples of the more clutch player winning out in position battles. Mark Ellis is above Daniel Descalso, who is above Kolten Wong. Jon Jay is above Peter Bourjos. The whole list can be found using the Baseball Reference Play Index, whose existence led me to the Mike Matheny tOPS+ fun fact in the first place and thus led to this post. Please credit or blame them accordingly.

But there are more notable examples which go the opposite direction. In 2014, Mike Matheny, in replacing Allen Craig (110 tOPS+, pretty clutch), could have gone with Oscar Taveras (even more clutch, with a 120 tOPS+), but instead opted primarily for Randal Grichuk, the least clutch position player of the Mike Matheny era. It took an injury to keep Jhonny Peralta out of the lineup this year, while Peralta is one of the least clutch Cardinals of the Matheny era, well below the mark of Jedd Gyorko.

Tommy Pham has been far above-average in high leverage situations and it required every known outfielder in the Cardinals organization to go down with injuries before Matheny would play him—one could argue (and I would agree) that Matheny’s hesitance to use Pham is a shortcoming, but it is not this particular shortcoming.

On the surface, this might seem like an almost patronizingly minor bit of praise towards Mike Matheny. But in Ted Williams, there is some precedent of ex-players being enamored with players who are like them—Williams had an open distaste for pitchers. And that Mike Matheny views Yadier Molina favorably, particularly during his first two, MVP-caliber seasons, would hardly be considered unusual. So for as much as many of us, myself included, criticize the Cardinals manager, he is probably at the very least not falling into this particular trap.