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Matt Adams, Mike Matheny, and The Philosophy of Failure

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Matt Adams being back with the Cardinals has led to some existential thinking, which seems odd.

St. Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

This team is on a roll. Yes, it’s unfortunate that none of the clubs the Cardinals really need to lose right now seem to be losing; the Brewers took the same two of three in their series against the Pirates the Redbirds did in Colorado, and the Cubs went one better, stomping all over the hapless Reds en route to a sweep and actually gaining some breathing room in the standings. It’s fun when your team rolls off five wins in a row; way less fun when the team you’re chasing does the same.

Still, so long as the Cards just keep winning consistently, everything will probably turn out okay, one has to believe. I’m still ever so slightly skeptical of their chances of actually getting into the playoffs this season, simply because I think there’s at least one more 1-4 stretch coming sometime in September, when a bullpen blowup and a 1-for-15 RISP hitting night combine to turn an easy 3-2 into something really damaging, and the hole they dug prior to the managerial change was just so deep. That they are in the position they are now is nothing short of miraculous.

The best part of this resurgence, though, has been the fact that the Cardinals do not simply appear to be on a hot streak. I mean, they are on a hot streak, obviously; they’re playing something like .700 ball since Mike Shildt took over and GirMoz the Destroyer remade the bullpen. But this isn’t a team just winning tons of tight games like the Mariners, way outperforming their underlying numbers. The Cards are not just hot; the Cardinals appear to be good. Their actual record is 73-58. Their Pythagorean record, which is based on run differential, is 73-58. Their BaseRuns record, which strips out sequencing and tries to establish what a team ‘should’ be doing with neutral luck, is...73-58. This is the team the Cardinals are, is what I’m saying.

And that’s good news. BaseRuns thinks the Cards should actually be a touch worse in terms of scoring runs, but a similar touch better at preventing them, leading to basically the same spread and outcomes. So we don’t have to look at this club, project them forward, and immediately start running around in a panic that the sky will be falling again as soon as next April.

It’s something to keep in mind, as we both revel in the current run of magnificence and consider where this puts the club in the long run. A couple months ago, it felt like a retool was inevitable this offseason, with a larger rebuild at least in the realm of possibility. Even those of us who believed the organisation had plenty of assets to be good, such as myself, thought they absolutely had to do some remodeling of the roster. (Always important to keep in mind right now that the Dexter Fowler question is still going to have to be answered at some point this offseason, most likely.) Now, it really feels like they’ve got most of the roster they need for next season in place, though it’s still worth looking at this group and acknowledging it could be better.

The team still feels like it needs a centerpiece hitter for the cleanup spot. The bullpen lacks strikeout punch, particularly going forward. I can see the argument some might put forth in favour of adding a hammer to the top of the rotation, a la Patrick Corbin, though I feel in the abstract there are more pressing concerns, and in the concrete that Corbin himself has enough durability concerns I’d be hesitant to make a large investment there.

But let’s leave bigger picture roster question off for now, and look at a smaller, more specific question this morning.

First off, I want to state for the record that I’m going to be talking some about Mike Matheny here, and the things I have to say will probably not be positive. It’s not my intention to simply keep piling on, nor do I wish to try and relitigate his tenure in some way through this column. But he’s central to this story, and I cannot ignore the reasons why, nor try and sugarcoat my thoughts on how he affects this whole thing. So if you’re tired to reading about how problematic the former manager of the Cardinals was, sorry about that, but he’s in here for a reason.

I have to admit, I had somewhat mixed feelings when I first heard the Cardinals claimed Matt Adams off waivers from the Nationals, and that the man they call Big City but really should have downgraded now to something like Large Suburb was coming back to the fold. On the one hand, it made perfect sense to me that Adams would be a good fit for this roster; the Cardinals are severely lacking in left-handed bats this year, and if the cost for adding a potential RHP killer was sending Patrick Wisdom back into the limbo of Memphis, then sign me up.

On the other hand, I did have a slight pang, thinking about Adams coming back, because it’s not that hard to remember why the club moved him last season, and the issues the end of his tenure here brought to the fore. Adams was famously playing left field, with basically no practice whatsoever, while Tommy Pham was stuck patrolling the outfield in Memphis. Adams had the platoon split of a player who needed strategic deployment, but the playing time of a slam-dunk all-star. Matt Adams, through really no fault of his own, it should be said, was emblematic of an awful lot of what was dysfunctional about the 2017 Cardinals.

But then a funny thing happened: I remembered that the Cardinals have a new manager now, and I actually trust him to be able to deploy the assets he’s given in a smart, tactically sound way. And at that moment, basically all of my concerns about Matt Adams coming back melted away, and I was able to simply look at his splits, see that career .869 OPS/130 wRC+ vs right-handed pitching, and appreciate that the club was adding a real weapon to their offensive assault.

And then, because I am someone who is always worried about the long-term outlook on things — probably comes from covering the draft and prospects all these years — I started thinking a little bigger picture, and what Adams could mean for the Cardinals beyond just this stretch run.

The easiest answer to the question of what Adams’s role will be with the Cardinals beyond September and, potentially, a playoff run, would be: nothing. Maybe a handshake, maybe a fond pat on the back on the way out the door. The Cards’ roster is already fairly crowded, and it’s not likely getting less so in the near future. It would seem like a player with such a narrow range of roles as Matt Adams would not be a great fit.

However, I think there’s at least one potentiality where Adams would, in fact, fit well on the 2019 Cardinals’ roster. See, when we’re discussing and arguing over moves to be made, and moves to be avoided, one of the big questions that comes up time and time again is: where does the big investment need to be made? In other words, I think most of us agree that the Cards could really use a big difference maker, whether that’s an ace pitcher or that long-awaited Big Bat, but the question comes down to where you find that player. As it stands right now for the Cardinals, third base is probably the spot you look to first. Jedd Gyorko has one more year on his contract, and while he’s been a fantastic player for the Cards the last couple years, he’s not the sort of player around whom you build a club. Paul DeJong is going nowhere, Kolten Wong has established himself as almost certainly a keeper unless a team really goes over the top to try and acquire him, and Matt Carpenter is tough to beat as a first baseman. Catcher is not an option, and the outfield is crowded. If there’s one spot to be upgraded in a big way, it would seem third base is the best option.

However, I think there’s an argument to be made against that, due to both the lack of available options (i.e. I don’t think the Rockies are trading Nolan Arenado, Josh Donaldson is no longer a centerpiece kind of player, it appears, and it seems a fait accompli Manny Machado will be wearing pinstripes next year), and the fact that, even without planning too much around hypotheticals from the farm system, it’s worth understanding there’s a solid chance that the next star player produced by your minor league system may very well be a third baseman. Between Elehuris Montero, Nolan Gorman, and Malcom Nunez, the Cardinals have more talent concentrated at third base than any other single position in the minors right now. It is, of course, absolutely worth pointing out those players are all almost certainly a ways away, yes, but also not so far away that you might not think about going with shorter-term options at third base.

So how does this all relate to Matt Adams? Well, because if you decide that maybe it would be wiser to try and invest money somewhere else in the 2019 Cardinals that isn’t third base — say, Bryce Harper for left field, dealing Marcell Ozuna over the offseason, or going for a Corbin-type rotation upgrade to try and simply overwhelm opposing teams with run prevention — then one could absolutely see a solid argument for rolling Jedd Gyorko and Matt Carpenter back in 2019 at third and first again. And if you do that, there’s actually a pretty good case to be made that Matt Adams, noted masher of right-handed pitching, would be an ideal platoon mate to keep on board for Gyorko.

Of course, the actual mechanism wouldn’t be Adams and Gyorko splitting time at third; rather, it would be a three-way split between first and third, with the 200% of playing time breaking down something like 80-60-60 for Carp, Adams, and Gyorko, if that makes sense. Righty starter on the mound? Adams is at first, Carp is at third, and you double-switch Gyorko into the game once the late innings roll around and the opposition tries to neutralise Adams with a same-handed reliever. A lefty starter would dictate Carp at first, Gyorko at third, and you’ve got the big man as your best weapon off the bench. It wouldn’t be the cleanest, simplest solution maybe, but maximising the playing time of both Adams and Gyorko against opposite-handed pitchers could give the club a big boost in terms of production. The downside would be the near-necessity of a specific switch most nights, which could limit the overall flexibility of the club slightly. Still, the advantage gained might be worth the prescriptive nature of the moves.

Hey, wanna play a game? Sure you do. I’ll bet that I can read your mind right now. No, no, there’s no trick to it. I’m just going to look into my computer, through to where you’re sitting and reading this, and I’m going to pluck the thoughts right out of your head. Ready?

Okay. Got it. You’re thinking: what the hell does any of this have to do with Mike Matheny?

I nailed it, didn’t I? Of course I did. No, don’t worry, I didn’t pull out anything else while I was in there, promise. I’m a very discreet and respectful creepy presence inside your head. Scout’s honour.

But seriously, let’s get to the Mike Matheny bit of this, because that’s really the heart of the matter. See, I was thinking of all these roster perambulations at work the other day, right after the Cards brought Adams back, and it suddenly occurred to me how ridiculous it was that last year I was thrilled, and relieved, once the Cardinals finally made the move to get Big City off the roster, because he made so little sense and was gumming up the works in myriad ways, really, and now, just over a year later, I was thinking how elegant a fit he could be for not just this year’s playoff run, but next year’s club as well. That doesn’t make any sense at all, now does it?

And then, of course, I realised the difference is that I believe in Mike Shildt to be able to make good decisions about the players on his roster, and deploy his assets, his resources, in a smart way to maximise their chances of success. Now, that doesn’t mean I agree with everything Shildt has done so far — I happen to think we’re way past the time when Yadier Molina should be back down somewhere lower in the order, rather than hitting second night after night, even though I try very hard not to worry overmuch about lineup order, simply because it’s not worth getting that upset over — but in an overall, general sense, I believe that most nights Shildt is going to put his players, and the team as a whole, in the best position he can to try and win the game. I no longer worry about playing time decisions being made for completely nebulous reasons, nor reliever deployment being less efficient than a monkey with a dart board.

So I thought about it for awhile, and I specifically thought about it through the lens of Matt Adams, and what his playing time, his departure, and his return say about the new manager, and the old manager, and maybe the Cardinal organisation as a whole.

And finally, I came to a conclusion: the Matt Adams story is about failure. Not Adams failing, nor even really Mike Matheny failing. It’s not about failing; it’s about failure. And how we look at failure.

We can accuse Mike Matheny of possessing a lot of bad qualities in his time as the Cardinals’ manager. Anti-intellectualism? Absolutely. Stubbornness? Holy shit yes. Disdain for the press, who by the way are essentially the conduit from the baseball team to the fans, i.e. the people who are actually paying for this whole ludicrous enterprise? You’re goddamned right. Mike Matheny was a painfully arrogant, high-handed man who sought to hide his own fears and inherent smallness behind a dictatorial facade. It was an ugly mask, and an uglier reality underneath. But for all that, there is one thing I would never accuse him of. I would never, ever say that Mike Matheny didn’t care about his players.

Now, that’s not to say he always did right by his players; I think we can look at the playing time decisions and strange sniping and lack of proper channels of communication as more than enough evidence to conclude Matheny did not, in fact, treat his players well all of the time. But I do believe that in his own incredibly flawed, parochial way, Matheny cared about his players, and wanted them to succeed. The problem was in translating that to actual relationships.

A decade and a half ago, the Cardinal organisation brought in Jeff Luhnow to captain the club’s new analytics department, as well as the drafting operation. It’s unclear just how broad the scope of Luhnow’s powers were originally intended to be, whether he was supposed to just head up the quants, or if he was meant to be the new scouting director from the get-go, or if czar of player development was always the long-term view from Bill DeWitt, but we know that he got there eventually, and in relatively short order.

It’s easy to look at what Luhnow did in building the Cardinals into a player-development machine and focus too much on the analytics. To drill down on the sabermetric, moneyball side of things and conclude that it was a revolution of numbers, of cold science over warm humanity, and give all the credit to the algorithms and the analytics. But at the very base of everything, what Luhnow did in revamping the Cards’ player development wing — and what moneyball was really all about to begin with, in fact — was a more elemental idea. It was a question, in fact. A very simple question.

The question was this: what can this player do?

Doesn’t seem revolutionary, does it? Seems like the simplest thing in the world, in fact. What can this player do? Or, put another way: what does this player do well? Put a third way, maybe the best way of all, we could read it as: how can this player help us?

And there, really, is your revolution. It was a small revolution, a quiet one that probably not a lot of people noticed or would ever really credit, but it was a bit of a revolution all the same. For years in baseball, the primary question had been: what are this player’s limitations, and how do we get around them? Clubs were always looking for perfect players, perfect athletes, and then settling for reality when they couldn’t find them. But far too often, when the defining aspect of the world view was to ask what was wrong with a guy, players who possessed skills that really could have contributed in one way or another slipped through the cracks. What’s the old line? We’re not scouting jeans models? It’s one of the more memorable quotes from Moneyball, but it’s also a very important idea to get around in understanding how baseball teams try to scout players today.

Jeff Luhnow’s computer password was related to David Eckstein; we know that much from the Chris Correa nastiness. And really, that makes sense, doesn’t it? David Eckstein was in no way anyone’s idea of the Central Casting version of a major league baseball player, and yet he played ten years in the big leagues and accumulated almost 17 WAR worth of value in that time. David Eckstein was not a star, but no one expected him to be. He was a very solid, valuable ballplayer, and would have been incredibly easy to overlook. Luhnow loved the idea that there were more David Ecksteins out there, players who were either too small, or too fat, or who just didn’t look right for one reason or another, to be noticed by scouts used to looking for perfect athletes but who could play the game, and produce.

The jeans model thing, and Luhnow’s Eckstein love, are two aspects of the same idea, but there’s an even more elemental way of asking the big question. Instead of looking for limitations, just ask the question: what could this guy do to help us?

If we ask that question, we find that Matt Adams, non-jeans model even now in his much slimmer form, can bash right-handed pitching, can play a solid defensive first base, and has shown an ability to come off the bench as a pinch-hitter effectively. He doesn’t struggle when he hasn’t been in the lineup the whole game, which is nice, and he kills pitchers from one side of the plate. Now, along with that good stuff, we do have to acknowledge the limitations. Adams struggles against left-handed pitching, badly. He’s a somewhat limited athlete, and isn’t great on the bases. All that means is that we have to understand when to use him, and where he can help us. How he can help us.

The Cardinals build their development machine on players like Adams. Matt Carpenter had little power in college, and was never going to be much of a defender, but he had an astounding batting eye, very good contact skills, and a brain for the game that came from being a coach’s son. Lance Lynn didn’t look good in his uniform and never really had much in the way of offspeed pitches even coming into pro ball, but he had great natural movement on his heater and an ability to spot the fastball anywhere he wanted. Trevor Rosenthal was a junior college infielder without much of a bat, but he threw 97 in a relief appearance and a Cardinal scout just happened to see it. These were all players who might have slipped through the cracks in another era, or somewhere else, but who were seen by the Cardinals and answered the question of how can this guy help us? in an affirmative way.

Which brings us back around to Mike Matheny. It took me a long time to realise what idea I was trying to tease out from my considerations of Matheny and Matt Adams, but I finally got to it. We saw Mike Matheny bury some players, such as Kolten Wong, when he couldn’t figure out how to fix them, or they didn’t fit into some preconceived box he had imagined up. It’s classic parochial behaviour, really; anyone who does not fit into our narrow conception of the world should be marginalised. It’s also very much the complete opposite of that idea that moneyball was trying to get across, to look beyond your own conceptions and figure out what a player can do for you.

But when it came to Matt Adams, what we saw was Mike Matheny putting a player in a position to fail, over and over again, not by limiting his playing time or undermining his confidence, but by refusing to understand his limitations.

So why? I asked myself. Why was Matt Adams under Mike Matheny such a problematic situation, when he’s a player with plenty of desirable traits, that could make him not just a useful piece for a stretch run, but a solution for a problem we could see next year as well? Why was getting Matt Adams off the team so important last year, when it feels like he’s a great asset to have now?

Because, I finally understood, of the way Mike Matheny viewed failure. Matheny saw any and all limitations as failures, not just failures of executions or physical skill, but moral failures. To Matheny, the suggestion that Matt Adams should really be limited to platoon at-bats and protected against left-handed pitching was not an acknowledgment that Adams has limitations to his game; it was insult to the man Matt Adams is. Saying that Matt Adams should not hit against lefties was the same as saying Matt Adams was a bad ballplayer, maybe even a bad person.

The players Matheny did not cotton to, for whatever reason, were marginalised utterly, to the point they found their confidence damaged, their playing time limited, their paychecks affected by being sent back to the minors when the general manager had to make moves to deal with his on-field manager’s caprice. Mike’s Guys, though, could literally do no wrong, even when doing no wrong included a career wRC+ of 58 against left-handed pitching.

The answer to failure, in Matheny’s worldview, was always to just believe harder. Matt Adams can’t hit left-handed pitching, you say? Well first off, that’s profoundly insulting to my guy, and yes he can. What evidence do I have? I don’t need evidence, you nerd/reporter/satanist/whatever; I have belief! I believe Matt Adams is good, and should play every day, and so it will be.

Baseball is a game of failure, as they say. Managing that failure is perhaps the most important aspect of the game, of the job. Players have to fail, and fail, and fail again, 60% of the time or more, and still go right back up to the plate with confidence they can get the job done, even when we have an overwhelming body of evidence telling us that no, in all likelihood, you won’t. You’re probably going to fail. Because you usually do.

Managers have to understand that failure, and figure out how to get around it, how to counsel their charges through it, and how to minimise the likelihood it happens again. Managers have to understand that failure is not the same as being a failure, and that understanding how often players fail is not the same as condemning them. Front office people, general managers and the like, have to understand failure is the null state of the game, and look past that, past the limitations, and ask that all-important question of how can this player help us. Limitations are not the same as failure, but rather opportunities to fit the puzzle together in ever-tighter, more productive ways.

When you view the world the way Mike Matheny seemed to, I’m not sure you can succeed in a game like baseball. When you write a manifesto telling parents essentially to shut up, never question your authority or your knowledge, and just trust that you know what’s best at all times, I don’t think you’re cut out for a job like this. A worldview based on blind faith, and just believing harder every time someone questions your beliefs, is going to lead to Matt Adams hitting against lefties over and over again, when that’s not what he’s good at, and Kolten Wong sitting on the bench, marinating in his own frustrations, for reasons no one is ever quite sure of.

All of this is really just a very long-winded way of saying that I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of the Cardinals, and where they are, and where they’re going. And more than anything, trying to figure out whether the future really is so much brighter now than it was just a couple months ago.

I think it is. I really do. And that leads me to another question, one which I have not yet been able to answer for myself in any sort of satisfactory way: why did it take so long for the Cardinals to see what we all saw?

I wish I could answer that. I’ve heard things, things about how much certain people in the organisation liked Matheny, largely for reasons that had nothing to do with baseball, and how he was very much a blind spot for some of those people. But I’m not sure that really satisfies me. An organisation that did so much to make the game smarter over the past fifteen years being so blind, so stubborn, so...dumb about their choice of manager feels almost inconceivable to me. I really don’t know how it happened. Why it continued to happen for so long.

Then again, maybe just believing harder in something, thinking that if you close your eyes hard enough and believe things will get better then they certainly will, wasn’t a problem confined to the dugout.

Things seem better now. We should focus on that. But I still find myself coming back to these old questions, and trying to figure out how things got so broken, for so long, before the Cardinals finally decided they needed to fix them.