Major-league managers tend to get too much credit and blame. A favorite pastime of baseball fans is to second guess the manager. While a manager has an impact, players win or lose games and, by extension, postseason series. The role a manager has on a team's record is hard to pin down because most of his managing occurs away from fans' view. It involves managing personalities and thus is difficult if not impossible to assess.
The indefinable nature of a manager's effect on a team at once benefits and hurts (at least in fans' eyes) St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. 2014 was a tough season for the team and manager. It culminated in a five-game NLCS loss—at once a success and failure. And Matheny's poor in-game decision-making and strange handling of players has led to some fans calling for his ouster.
The Cardinals' NLCS run marked the third time in as many years under Matheny that the club reached that postseason round. Last year, the Redbirds won the pennant and reached the World Series before losing the series 4-2 to the Red Sox. In the two Wild Card era that is quite a feat. Anything can happen in a seven-game series, which is even more true for the five-game Division Series, and the Wild Card play-in game, which the Redbirds won in 2012 en route to seven-game NLCS loss, is a coin flip. Whether it's Devil Magic, skill, luck, or some combination thereof, the Cardinals have had a tremendous run under Matheny. If we extend back to 2011's World Series championship, it's even more incredible. Therein lies the rub: Cardinals fans aren't happy just to have their team playing in October; they expect to win the World Series. And so, for fans, three straight Octobers ending with three consecutive losses is as unacceptable as it is unsatisfying. But for a front office, it's not only acceptable—it's ideal.
As St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz recounted in his piece on the manager's employment status, general manager John Mozeliak discussed the organization's view of the 2014 season during his and Matheny's joint press conference last Monday in St. Louis:
"If you look at the success the organization has had under Mike Matheny, and if you understand the value of his leadership as the manager, obviously he’s done a lot of great things," Mozeliak said. "I understand that Mike gets second-guessed and scrutinized for his strategical decisions. That’s part of the job. But you have to understand the respect and appreciation he commands in the clubhouse for the way he runs the team.
"I don’t think there are many (current) managers who have done that as well as Mike — the combination of accomplishments and the appreciation the players have for him.
"And he’s been doing this for only three seasons. He’s continuing to grow as a strategist. I can assure you we’re very pleased to have Mike Matheny as the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals."
Mozeliak's words are not worth their weight in gold: In that same press conference, the GM said that Adam Wainwright's throwing arm would not require surgery; four days later, Wainwright underwent surgery on his throwing arm to trim cartilage. But in this particular instance, I believe Mozeliak. Matheny is the manager Mozeliak hired. Mozeliak hired neophyte in the area of in-game strategy seemingly because of Matheny's credentials as a Leader of Men. Matheny's in-game decision-making hasn't gotten better and his leadership style has turned out to be something different than what Mozeliak sold fans on at the time of hire. Nonetheless, Matheny is Mozeliak's guy and after three consecutive NLCS appearances (something St. Louis accomplished once under former manager Tony La Russa) in his first three years as manager, it's understandable that the GM is lauding the manager (and by extension himself) during the 2014 postmortem press conference.
But is such a results-bases assessment appropriate?
A manager's job duties can be divided into two separate areas: managing people and managing games. To be sure, there is some overlap. For my money (and apparently the Cardinals'), managing personalities over the nine months of a baseball season is the most important aspect of the job. While in-game decision-making can be pretty easily judged, the Leader of Men part of the job is much more difficult to quantify. That being said, Matheny receives high marks for his style of people management. So high that Crown USA apparently gave Matheny an advance to have Jerry Jenkins ghost-write a book on his behalf about being a leader.
The problem with this is the chicken-and-egg dynamic that underlies assessment of a manager. Winning tends to lead to praise about a manager's leadership without much thought as to whether the team won in spite of or because of his leadership. Applied to Matheny: St. Louis hired him because of his people skills; the players like him; the Cardinals have made it to the NLCS three years in a row; so Matheny is a skilled leader. The team's success is because of the manager not in spite of him. Never mind that Matheny's managerial career was born on third base—taking over a reigning World Series champion with a healthy payroll and one of the top farm systems in baseball—and he's getting credit for having hit a triple.
Such thinking appears off, though the inclination not to rock a boat that has been successful is understandable. For the Cardinals to replace Matheny at this juncture would be for ownership and management to say, "We expect to do better than we've done under Matheny's tenure." Such a statement is absurd in regards to the gauntlet of randomness that is the MLB postseason. There's no assurance of doing better than making the NLCS. In fact, there's no reason to believe that the Cardinals' NLDS tyranny will continue—I'd be surprised if St. Louis is in the NLCS next year regardless of who the club's manager is. Making the NLCS is incredibly difficult; winning the pennant is harder still; accomplishing a World Series title has the longest odds of them all. Firing Matheny would improve the chances of such accomplishments only minutely if at all.
Enter Joe Maddon.
On Friday, Maddon exercised the opt-out clause in his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays to become a managerial free agent. Unlike Matheny, Maddon has years upon years of managerial and coaching experience. He managed for six years in the minors before becoming a big-league coach with the Angels for nearly two decades (twice serving as interim manager). It wasn't until 2006 that Maddon was hired as a big-league manager. His managerial career didn't start out in an ideal situation; it began in Tampa. The Devil Rays (as they were known at the time) were eight years old when the franchise hired Maddon and had never had a winning season, though the farm system was well-stocked thanks to nearly a decade of losing. After two years under Maddon's leadership, the Rays still hadn't posted a winning season. But in 2008, they won 97 games, the American League East, and the pennant. It was the first of six consecutive winning seasons, in five of which the club won 90+ games. What's more, Maddon is a media darling, the quirky type of leader that movies are made about even if Crown USA apparently won't pay him to write a book with a "Manifesto" in the title. Furthermore, his decision-making gets high marks. Oh, and per the New York Times he's been a Cardinals fan (baseball and football) since he was a kid:
"I’ve been a huge Cardinals fan since 1963," Maddon said proudly in a telephone interview from his home in California. Maddon and his father, Joe, had made the pilgrimage from Hazleton, Pa., to Yankee Stadium for a Yankees-White Sox game, and at a souvenir stand outside the center-field bleachers, Big Joe asked 8-year-old Joe if he wanted a hat. The blue cap with the red "StL" beckoned him.
"From then on it was the St. Louis Cardinals in baseball and the St. Louis Cardinals in football – I was hooked," Maddon said.
Maddon has cachet of the professional and narrative type. He's a bona fide Leader of Men who is pretty smart when it comes to in-game decision-making. If the Cardinals are going to replace Matheny at manager, Maddon is one of the few men that they could hire and win the battle of perception over such a move.
Will the Cardinals do it? Almost certainly not. And so the Cubs will probably hire Maddon and we'll be forced to wonder what might have been for at least the next five years as the bespectacled Leader of Men manages a franchise that is positioned similarly to the 2006 Rays in terms of young talent but also has oodles of cash to spend on retaining their homegrown players as well as free agents.