Mike Matheny is a much maligned public figure. Perhaps nowhere is that statement more true than here at Viva El Birdos. Even still, it is a widespread sentiment across St. Louis. While many managerial impacts are difficult, if not impossible, to measure there are a few that might give some insight into his actual tendencies. Then, comparing these to league-wide trends might add to the discussion, revealing where the decision maker stands in comparison to his peers.
Although stolen bases are largely influenced by roster makeup, there are strategic elements involved in a team’s aggregate number. In other words, it might reveal something about Matheny, especially if we compare him to the rest of the league.
This graph shows the number of stolen bases by the Cardinals in each season under their current manager. It has been some time since the Cardinals were a run heavy team. Under Matheny, things have not changed in that regard. However, a substantial gap was closed in 2017 as the team is stealing bases at about a league average number.
What if we look at this from a slightly different perspective?
Looking at stolen base percentages instead of aggregate numbers, we see a similar picture—the Cardinals again closed a significant gap in the 2017 season. After being well below league average for the first five years of Matheny’s career, the stolen base rate made it as close to league average as it has been during his tenure.
A possible one year fluke? Perhaps. A small sample size? Maybe. More data will be appreciated. Although this does not address overall base running strategy, which fans have every right to complain about, it does show a noticeable improvement with regard to stolen bases—an interesting counterpoint to the awful base running many have come to expect.
If we turn our attention to reliever usage, do we discover a similar trend of improvement?
To be fair, improvement is a relative term in this category. Using more relief appearances throughout a season is not necessarily good. It could indicate a poor starting rotation, a poor bullpen, or both. It could also point to none of those, but rather to a manager who makes frequent switches.
The large spike visible from the Cardinals and Matheny in 2017 is attributable to the sub-par performance from the pitching staff throughout the year, not to a changed strategy. This graphic does not address the issue many fans have with Matheny’s bullpen management: that he uses some relievers too frequently—Matt Bowman for instance—and refuses, at times, to use the best option at closer.
Matheny is less aggressive than the average MLB manager when it comes to stealing bases. Furthermore, his teams have not been great at completing the task and he has adjusted. As a result, none of his teams have stolen as many bases as the 2012 Cardinals—his first year as manger. As his tendencies pertain to bullpen use, he is more aggressive than the average manager.
These trends, admittedly, tell us more about the Cardinals as a team over Matheny’s tenure than they do about the manager’s tendencies themselves. Although, with those tendencies being very difficult to measure, they reveal, even if only in a small way, his general approach.