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Mathenaging: Mike Matheny doubles down on double standards

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Manager Mike Matheny is not the Leader of Men the Cardinals sold us upon his hire.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

When the St. Louis Cardinals hired Mike Matheny to take over for the retiring Tony La Russa as the team's new manager, fans were sold on the traits the inexperienced Matheny brought to the table.

  • Matheny's only major-league experience (other than playing) was as a special assistant to general manager John Mozeliak, a role in which he roved the organization's farm system to work with prospects. This, we were told, was evidence of Matheny's commitment to Bill DeWitt's vision, as implemented by Mozeliak, that the Cardinals would have a pipeline of young, cost-controlled talent feeding the big-league club.
  • Also cited as a positive was Matheny's leadership skill. As a catcher, he was the proverbial "coach on the field," helping pitchers be all they could be. He brought intangibles that helped his team win. Matheny was a natural Leader of Men, who would have no problems steering a big-league clubhouse of 25 men throughout the 162-game grind.

Matheny the manager has revealed himself to be neither of these things.

To be sure, everything is easier when the Cardinals are winning—even if it's in spite of the manager and not at the clip at which they should be winning. Last season, the Cardinals hit (especially with runners in scoring position), the team led the National League in wins, and came within two victories of the franchise 12th World Series championship with young players contributing in prominent ways to the team's success.

During the Hot Stove, Mozeliak signed Matheny to a contract extension. The message was clear: Mozeliak didn't care that the Cardinals had underperformed their Pythagorean record for two consecutive seasons; Matheny's leadership as field manager was of the type the organization wanted. But in 2014, Matheny has revealed himself to be an emperor standing naked before Cardinaldom, spouting out the double standards by which he reigns with no time for player development.

Matheny has two sets of standards. One for rookies and another for players who are "accomplished" in his eyes—a view that is often clouded by sentimentality. To Matheny, players like Allen Craig, Daniel Descalso, Mark Ellis, and Shane Robinson are accomplished players who must be treated fairly. "It's not like they're rookies," he asserted to the media a couple weeks ago. The implication being that fairness doesn't cross his mind when dealing with rookies. Given his deeds and words in 2014, there's little reason to believe otherwise.

First, there was the nonsensical demotion of Kolten Wong at the end of April. At the time, Matheny spouted a litany of reasons for Wong's demotion—none of which made sense. At the time, I attempted to interpret Matheny's bizarre explanation:

Wong will return to Memphis, a level at which he has nothing left to prove, and play every day, which will help him learn how to overcome adversity in spite of the fact that he's doing a lot better at overcoming adversity in the majors although he is probably faking it but that's good, too, and part of the process of becoming a big-leaguer which can be learned in the minors playing every day. Or something.

It turns out that Mozeliak gave the real reason as Matheny was blowing smoke. Wong's multi-millionaire veteran teammates weren't hitting so the Cardinals demoted Wong, the rookie, in order to try and give the lineup a jolt. Put otherwise: In Matheny's clubhouse, the team will demote an underperforming rookie for the sins of his veteran teammates. For some reason Mozeliak cosigned this decision. Mozeliak and Matheny sent an early message to the roster that, in St. Louis, deference to veterans trumps fairness to rookies.

The Allen Craig vs. Oscar Taveras choice has presented perhaps the starkest illustration of Matheny's prejudices as a manager. Matheny preferred longtime VEB favorite Craig despite the one-time slugger's struggles post-Lisfranc injury. As Craig's batting struggles continued into July with little reason to believe his production would improve, Matheny addressed questions about Taveras's playing time by declaring that it was his job to win at the major-league level and that he and his coaching staff didn't have time for player development. In doing so, Matheny indicated that playing Craig—a player who only helps the Cards win with his bat—over Taveras gave the team a better chance at victory despite Craig having a BA that was hovering around .240, an OBP in the .290 range, and a SLG of about .350.

Mozeliak diagnosed the problem from his perch atop the organization's baseball operations and took dramatic action, trading Craig (and fan favorite Joe Kelly) to Boston for John Lackey. The right-field playing time issue was resolved. Taveras was the club's primary right fielder now that Craig was no longer in the picture.

Apparently caught off guard by the deal, Matheny bristled at the trading of two of his accomplished clubhouse family members and saw fit to stress that most malleable of baseballisms, playing the game the right way, in asserting that Taveras's starting role was secure for but one game:

Matheny would not entertain speculation about Taveras' playing time in the coming days, saying on Thursday that he would be starting "at least for today." Unless the Cardinals opt to add one of those other young outfielders to the roster on Friday, however, this would seem to be Taveras' opportunity to shine.

"He's got to play the game. He's got to play it right," Matheny said. "That is going to be part of his responsibility. There are things he's going to have to work on to try and get better. He's going to have a good opportunity to do it."

Against the Rays, Taveras committed a bad bit of baserunning. And Matheny was quick to bench the rookie for his mistake, indicating that he wasn't playing baseball the right way. Not only that, but the manager also saw fit to openly criticize Taveras in the media, as reported by stltoday.com's Rick Hummel:

Taveras, also a lefthanded hitter, sat out the right-field start for little-used Shane Robinson, another righthanded hitter, but Matheny indicated Taveras might not have played anyway.

Matheny said before the game, Taveras "has a lot to learn. He’s got a lot of things he needs to improve on in every aspect of his game."

Regardless of his .206 average, some of that improvement falls into the category of baserunning/hustle.

On Wednesday, Taveras, running from first with two out on a sixth-inning double by Jay, first watched the right fielder and then made a poor turn at second and didn’t pick up much speed going to third, where coach Jose Oquendo had to stop him, even with pitcher Justin Masterson coming up next.

"The aggressiveness wasn’t there," Matheny said.

Masterson rescued this failing by singling to score Taveras but in a subsequent at-bat, Taveras didn’t get to first quickly enough for Matheny after being frustrated at grounding to first base with two runners on and the rookie nearly was doubled up.

Matheny said he understood Taveras’ frustration, to a degree. "He wants to do his part. He wants to have a big at-bat there. But your part is to get to first base as fast as you can," Matheny said.

There have been "plenty of conversations since," said Matheny, referring to Taveras and the Cardinals’ staff. "Those (are reminders) that that stuff isn’t going to work because we’re here to win on every out, on every play. Every turn on the bases means a lot."

Matheny added: "He’s got people around here that are willing to teach if he’ll be accessible in thinking about the game. He could view it as a day off or he could view it as an opportunity to get better, just like every other one of our guys.

"There’s a group of guys who are going to go about it with everything they’ve got. We just need everyone else to be doing the same.

"Our job is to try and continue to teach. And sometimes, there are tough lessons. He gets it. But getting it and applying it ... those are steps."

Allen Craig, a longtime VEB favorite, has become the touchstone for Matheny's lack of leadership—or, to put it more charitably, his managing style.

By referencing a "group of guys who are going to go about it with everything they've got," Matheny is indicating that Taveras doesn't give such an all-out effort. Of course, this false comparison is utter nonsense. Off the top of his or her head, any Cardinals fan can think of dozens of times this season alone when proven veterans such as Matt Holliday or Yadier Molina—both clubhouse leaders—loaf down to first. And that's fine. Over a 162-game season, players need to pick and choose their spots. Playing all out all the time is not a requirement, no matter how much our parents and coaches romanticized such play was to us as Little Leaguers. In fact, it's probably not even best for the team. Perhaps this is the nuanced view Matheny holds. But it seems as if Matheny is holding Taveras to a standard he doesn't apply to players with more MLB service time: Veterans can loaf; rookies cannot.

Also damning of Matheny's public callout of Taveras's baserunning is Craig's 2013 effort on the bases. The lumbering corner man was thrown out at home plate eight times. Craig was below-average at taking the extra base overall last season. He was the third-worst baserunner in MLB by Fangraphs baserunning runs. Yet Matheny said nothing to the press about his substandard play on the bases. And, as far as I know, Matheny never benched Craig for his poor baserunning.

2014 in general and his treatment of rookies Wong and Taveras in particular have revealed Matheny to be the antithesis of the manager the Cardinals sold fans upon his hire. Matheny is not at all committed to player development or playing prospects—in fact, he has expressly stated that is not the business he is in. Perhaps more damningly, Matheny has revealed himself to be the type of of man who applies double standards to players based on service time while ostensibly justifying his moves with public criticism of the young players that he never engages in with veterans—another double standard in its own right. Matheny is not the Leader of Men the Cardinals made him out to be. One wonders how Mozeliak feels about Matheny today as compared to the date he hired the field manager.