The Mike Matheny era of St. Louis Cardinals Baseball was at times messy and mistake-riddled, but not always. Though imperfect as a manager, there are a few things Mike did right. And that is where the focus of today’s post will be.
He batted Matt Carpenter at leadoff
Back in 2013 Matt Carpenter was a twenty-seven-year-old coming off a solid year as a bench player and trying to cement his role as a starter. He spent the first month of the season hitting in various spots of the order before his talent at getting on base was obvious. Despite not possessing the traits an old school “traditional leadoff hitter” was generally considered to have, like speed and base-stealing ability, Mike Matheny installed Carpenter at leadoff. From there, Carpenter took to the spot and never looked back, taking 632 plate appearances from the leadoff spot with with a .398 on base percentage and 145 sOPS+.
While now it is common to see these atypical guys leading off games, it had not really taken off until Mike Matheny put Matt Carpenter there.
He had faith in young relievers
This one is a little tough to prove, because Mike Matheny’s bullpen usage was never a strong point. In 2013, the Cardinals bullpen started out as mess. The closer from the previous season, Jason Motte, was out rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, his obvious replacement, Mitchell Boggs, had been completely ineffective, and Fernando Salas had not been up to form. In an attempt to find a solution from within the organization, then General Manager John Mozeliak brought up a platoon of young arms like Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist, and Seth Maness. Mike Matheny, perhaps with no other options, put a lot of trust in those young players, along with Trevor Rosenthal, who broke camp with the team. He also installed Edward Mujica in the closer role, despite the fact that he had never closed out games before and did not necessarily have what was considered prototypical closer “stuff”. In 2014 he made Pat Neshek one of his top relievers, though he had for most of his career been considered a “ROOGy” (right-handed one-out guy).
Mistakes had been made from these points, but Matheny’s initial trust in these players was encouraging at the time.
His statement after the death of Oscar Taveras was beautiful and poignant
“I was asked last night to give some words regarding the tragic death of Oscar Taveras, but I just simply couldn’t.
First of all, it felt like a bad dream that could not be real, and when reality kicked in, my words didn’t even seem to make sense. To say this is a horrible loss of a life ended too soon would be an understatement. To talk about the potential of his abilities seemed to be untimely. All I wanted to do was get the guys together and be with our baseball family. I know the hurt that comes along with buying into the brotherhood of a baseball team. That hurt is just as powerful as the joys that come with this life. Not to say it is even close to the depth of pain his true family is going through, but the pain itself is just as real. The ache is deep because the relationships were deep, and forged through time and trials.
To the many fans who have already reached out with condolences, and to the many more who are in mourning, thank you for taking these players in, like they are one of your own. This level of care is what sets our fans apart.
In my opinion, the word “love” is the most misused, and misunderstood word in the English language. It is not popular for men to use this word, and even less popular for athletes. But, there is not a more accurate word for how a group of men share a deep and genuine concern for each other. We loved Oscar, and he loved us. That is what a team does, that is what a family does. You will be missed, Oscar.”
He cared so much about his players
A lot of Mike Matheny’s shortcomings as a manager seemed to stem largely from just how much he cared about his players. Even deposed, he still seems to be looking out for them. Per Rick Hummel of St. Louis Post Dispatch:
Matheny said he had only to look at himself for the Cardinals’ many problems this season. “I realize I have to take the responsibility. When we can’t get things going right, that’s my job,” he said.
“I know who shoulders the blame. The blame falls on my shoulders.”
It is a difficult thing to unpack. On one hand, having a level of empathy for the people he managed was good thing - it should have allowed him to related to his players and in turn, earn their respect. On the other hand, a manager needs to do what is best for the team, even if it hurts some feelings. Sometimes that means benching someone he managed for years, perhaps even considered a close friend, for the young phenom. It means taking out or pinch hitting for the struggling veteran before he can get the win. It means benching the superstar iron-man catcher for his own good. His care for his players drove him to make poor decisions. At his core, Mike Matheny seemed like he was still one of the players, not their superior, and his various attempts at acting as a manager always went awry. It is why Kolten Wong did not understand how he was part of a platoon and that would be a good thing, why Yadier Molina was offended for being seen as “tired”, why Dexter Fowler flat out stopped talking to him, or why Bud Norris was giving him reports on the other pitchers.
Mike Matheny did a lot of things wrong. He often misused his bullpen, he double-switched with reckless abandon, and towards the end of his tenure he seemed to have lost control of the clubhouse. But it was not all bad all the time.
It was just time to part ways. Goodbye to Mike Matheny, and good luck!
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