Things have been, well, different for the Cardinals this year. Over the entirety of the 21st century, the Cardinals have absolutely earned the title of being a “Model franchise”. Only the Yankees can really match what they’ve done. In 2016 however, they missed the playoffs while their historical rivals dominated baseball for basically the entire year, culminating in a World Series championship.
What the Cards did in 2016 wasn’t even really something the team should have been ashamed of. They won 86 games, and missed the playoffs by one game. Their BaseRuns record indicated they should have won 88 anyway, which would have put them in the playoffs. A fan that watched all 162 games would have watched 162 games that mattered. Most “down years” are much worse. Most down years don’t involve winning records. That the fan base can be so upset with such a season is just further evidence of how good the Cardinals have been the last 20 years.
2017 has been more of the same. This year the team has played below .500 ball, but going into yesterday’s game, the Cardinals have a better BaseRuns record than the Rockies, Brewers, and Pirates, and are also just a half game behind the Cubs. If BaseRuns is too mathy for you, there’s the fact that this team has scored 31 runs more than their opponents this year. The Cardinals’ problem, more than anything, is that in the last year and a half they’ve been the victim of bad luck.
That’s just how baseball goes though. The Cardinals overperformed their BaseRuns record in 2013 and 2015. Even though there’s more games in baseball than in any other major sport, there’s still enough variance involved that a team’s true performance isn’t completely reflected by the win-loss record.
Anyway, the Cards have that “Model franchise” label. For me, that mostly just means they’ve been a consistent winner. The Cardinals both embraced statistical analysis and were keen to the value of drafting and developing their own talent far quicker than most teams. That is the single most important reason for their success since Albert Pujols headed for the coast. At this point, pretty much every team values those things.
But there’s a very vocal part of both the fan base and the media (local and national) who insist that their success is at least partially owed to their slavish devotion to doing things “the right way.“ There’s a sense that not only are the Cardinals successful, they do so in the most noble way possible.
Well, putting aside the moralizing and the simplistic notion that there’s only one right way to win baseball games, there’s several reasons right now to feel like they’re not doing things “the right way”. I’m not even talking about all the base-running and defensive blunders the team has committed over the last year and half.
As you might know, I often write about the Cardinals through the lens of Statcast, a high-tech system which tracks players and the ball in ways that were previously unable to be done. Stuff like Launch Angle (the angle off the bat) and the Exit Velocity (the speed the ball leaves the bat). As MLB releases more and more neat information, we find more and more new ways to evaluate players.
One such case, was an article by Travis Sawchik at Fangraphs. In a single game, the Cubs gave up seven stolen bases to the Nationals. When the media asked catcher Miguel Montero about it after the game, he blasted the starting pitcher (Jake Arrieta) for not holding runners on and being slow to the plate.
With Statcast data, Mr. Sawchik was able to show that Montero was actually correct. Arrieta was “exceptionally slow” to the plate, and while a lot of Montero’s pop-times were below average, it didn’t really matter. Sometimes Arrieta was so slow to the plate that there was no point in even throwing.
My thoughts on this topic are well encapsulated in a comment in that article by fangraphs user “Sadtrombone“, who said the following: “You’re not wrong, Miguel, you’re just an asshole.“ That got 74 upvotes, which seems like a lot, relatively speaking.
Presumably, his point was that it’s one thing to say that sort of thing to Arrieta after or during the game, even in front of his teammates. It’s entirely a different thing to slam your teammate to the media. While baseball is more about individuals who play as a team than actual teamwork in most major team sports, these are still 25 players who have to spend a whole lot of time together and have at least one similar goal. The Cubs evidently felt similar, DFA’ing Montero the very next day.
The Cardinals, evidently, do not. Thursday was not a good day for any Cardinals fan. That was the game where Trevor Rosenthal’s lapse of judgement on covering first allowed a walk-off loss to occur. The game recap here at VEB by Jon Snowzeliak includes a series of gifs of the play, including one with a good shot at Rosenthal and his hesitation.
In the last one, you can clearly see a frustrated Matt Carpenter, after holding onto the ball with no one to throw it to. It’s not that I’m bothered by. Carpenter, like pretty much every professional athlete, is much more competitive than the average person. He wanted to win, and the frustration he displayed in the moment was probably only a very small fraction of what he felt inside. It actually is an example of him holding back a bit.
The problem I have is that he combined this with talking to the media about it. Here’s a quote:
"It's frustrating when you give games away like that," Carpenter told MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch. "That just can't happen. You can make errors. You can strike out. But you can't do that. … Those are things that you can control. Covering the bag. He knows. He knows that. It's just unfortunate."
Carpenter is right and wrong here. He’s right in that a big part of the frustration is absolutely that Rosenthal made a completely avoidable mistake. It’s not like he hung a curve, which is something that no one wants to do, but is just going to happen sometimes.
But this was only the play that cost the game by virtue of a summation of plays before it. If the offense provided more than two runs that day, the game wouldn’t have ended at that point. One play never completely decides a game. Pinning an entire loss on Rosenthal is a simplistic way to look at it, and an incorrect one at that.
Here’s another point: who is Carpenter to talk about someone else’s mental lapses? Former VEB writer Joe Schwartz sums things up succinctly:
Should we ask Trevor Rosenthal for his thoughts on Matt Carpenter's base running?— stlCupofJoe (@stlCupofJoe) July 21, 2017
Carpenter has made a lot of his own bone-headed mistakes. And that’s OK. He’s still one of my favorite players. But it’s especially not a good look for him to be talking that way about someone else. Again, it’s one thing to say something like that in the clubhouse. Heck, tear him a new one, just do it behind closed doors.
This incident on it’s own wasn’t enough to for me to want to write an article about it. It’s late July, and this in my opinion is one of the most important trade deadlines the Cardinals have approached in recent memory. Will the Cardinals decide this isn’t their year, and make the best out of it by being sellers? I sure hope so, but maybe the team that legendarily ran baseball in September and October of 2011 just won’t see things similarly.
The point is, pretty much all of my articles this month have been about transactions the Cardinals could make. Today was supposed to be about looking at teams that could use Michael Wacha or Lance Lynn. I still will probably publish that later in the week. But the possible return from those two isn’t what keeps swirling in my head today, it’s this topic.
What pushed me enough to write about this was newly minted Head of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak’s comments the other day. Here’s one quote that made me uneasy:
"Are those kinds of mistakes just going to be like, eh? Then, it's like, 'Get your paycheck and go home.' And to me, that's a very scary place to be if that's where the mindset is. Because it's certainly not mine.
This is continuation of Mozeliak’s comments talking about changing up the culture and attitude of this Cardinals team. The implication being that the team doesn’t care about making the mistakes their making, because hey, they’re getting paid anyway.
Again, maybe Mozeliak is completely right about what he’s saying. Maybe the team is making errors, base-running mistakes, and mental gaffes because they just don’t care enough. If this isn’t the case though, it’s easy to see these comments as offensive. No one wants to get chewed out by their boss, how about instead he chews you out in front of customers or clients?
Sometimes, things need to be said. These people are all adults. It’s necessary for a boss to address subpar performance, but in what way can this be considered “the right way” to go about it? Here’s another quote that bothered me:
I feel like I'm not going to make excuses for people or players. Everybody points the finger upstairs to try and find the solution or the move. Well, maybe 25 [players] need to look in the mirror."
This comes off as a person tired of taking criticism from the media. This is, again, an extremely understandable position. And also, again, it’s one thing to hold a meeting and says these things, internally. But in what way is the right response to point your finger at the players so publicly? Especially a team that supposedly prides itself as being a player-friendly organization? Taking media criticism is just a part of the job for a General Manager or Head of Baseball Operations. It’s still a dream job that a lot of us would love to have. Deflecting the criticism in the media to another part of the organization is just not the right response, to me at least.
Like with Carpenter, I take no solace in criticizing the way Mozeliak handled this situation. I think he’s been a fantastic GM, and it doesn’t even matter what I think. The numbers speak for themselves at this point. Since Mozeliak got the GM job before the 2008 season, the Cards are second in regular season wins, second in playoff wins, first in total wins, first in total postseason games, and tied for first in terms of qualifying for the postseason. He has a pretty amazing resume, and we should all be grateful for his stewardship.
While the team’s success since he took over is often cited as evidence that Mike Matheny is a strong manager, that’s completely different. The field manager only has so much say. Lineup order and putting relievers in the most leverage-appropriate situations can only mean so much. Clubhouse atmosphere can only mean so much. It mostly comes down to the players and their performance, of which the GM has the power to trade, sign, and let go. The only remaining MLB players Mozeliak inherited when he assumed the GM spot are Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina, and he’s re-signed both of them multiple times. This is John Mozeliak’s team more than it’s anyone else’s.
However, the way he’s handled the frustration of the Cardinals’ play this year reflects poorly on him. I know it’s been a frustrating season. #STLCards Twitter the day the Cardinals lose is one of the angriest places I’ve seen on the internet. Perhaps the criticism in the media - including social media - just got to him there. Still, I’d prefer he said something like he believes in his players or that their record undersells their performance this year, which is absolutely true anyway! If you want to get real with the team and say they need to look the mirror, tell them, not the media. Deal with the criticism you’re getting, rather than pointing the finger elsewhere.
In the last year and a half I’ve heard two specific things that are challenging some people’s fandom. One is Mike Matheny. A lot of people are sick of the lack of logic that governs his thinking. LaRussa was widely criticized, but you could at least usually see his logic. Often, it’s hard to understand what Matheny is even thinking. I don’t care for his tactics either, and I even have a successor lined up, but it doesn’t get me too worked up because the field manager doesn’t matter that much. Again, most of this game is about how the player’s perform.
The other is the base-running and defensive gaffes. I completely get this. I unexpectedly really enjoyed the World Baseball Classic this Spring because it featured some great defensive teams. Sloppy play is hard to watch. Still, there’s other things the Cards do to make up for it, and I enjoy watching them do those things.
However, this blame game the Cardinals are playing is not fun to watch. Watching players blame teammates and a head decision-maker blame the team he assembled is something that absolutely makes me want to not be a fan of this team. Hopefully, this is not the beginning of a trend. Keep this stuff in-house where it belongs, Cards.