This is Part II. For Part I, click here. A few introductory paragraphs are used for both posts. Feel free to skip down to the first Heading if you have already read Part I.
The playoffs are a crapshoot. There is no magic formula to ensuring a team's success once it reaches October. Once the playoff field has been narrowed down to eight teams, the teams are all so good and so close in talent that no result is a true surprise. Good pitchers have bad games. Great hitters can't seem to get a ball to drop. The reliable reliever has a bad game. These events happen, and they can shape a series, causing some teams to advance, or in the case of the Cardinals, to head home before the ultimate goal could be achieved. A manager cannot ensure a World Series victory nor can his presence guarantee a defeat, but that does not excuse a manager for his role in defeat nor does it prevent praise in the case of victory.
The easy route at this point would be to recite a litany of errors and complaints that have continued to frustrate fans. This season's playoffs came with puzzling pitching moves in Games 2-4 after making positive choices in the first game when John Lackey pitched well for seven strong innings and go the first batter of the eight inning. Facing more adversity the rest of the series, Matheny could not seem to find the right move to put the Cardinals in a position to win. Citing individual errors can be constructive in uncovering problems, but without evidence of continual poor choices or a solution that provides consistent strategy moving forward, the benefit is limited. With that in mind, I have come up with some prospective suggestions that, in this author's humble opinion, would help improve the quality the managing for the St. Louis Cardinals as they turn the page on this season and look forward to the 2016 season.
Rest Any Player Who Has Played 12 Consecutive Games
Twelve is an arbitrary number, but sometimes arbitrary guidelines can prevent the potential of rationalizing poor decisions for the sake of immediacy. At the end of the season, Mike Matheny admitted he might have worked his players too hard this past season. Mike Matheny's players respect him, and part of that is likely due to him writing those same players into the lineup every single day. Matheny trusts the players in situations where Matheny needs to put himself in a position to make the tough choice to overrule his players.
A few examples:
The following charts show how many days in a row several Cardinals' position players started during the 2015 season.
In May, Kolten Wong started more than 20 days in a row, but for the most part, he had some rest mixed in during the rest of first half. Coming out of the All-Star Break, Kolten Wong started more than 30 games in a row as he began to tire and his numbers began to suffer. While there were off-days not present in the chart above, also not included are the games where Wong had the day off and he ended up playing multiple innings. After losing his starting job early in 2014, getting demoted for a brief time and then hitting the disabled list for a time, Wong made just 100 starts in the majors in 2014. The number of starts jumped to 140 this season, including a month straight during the most grueling part of the season. Blaming Wong's poor second half numbers (71 wRC+) entirely on being overworked would be a little too convenient, but completely dismissing overworking ignores the evidence.
Next is Jhonny Peralta:
Looking at the second half, the 33-year-old Peralta appeared to get a decent amount of days off, not starting too many games in a row without a break. For Peralta, the overwork was potentially done in the first half. Peralta started 94 of the Cardinals' first 97 games and made at least 12 consecutive starts four times in the first half, including a 37-game game streak during May and June. For comparison, Brandon Crawford of the San Francisco Giants did not have a single streak starting more than 12 consecutive games until the season was already half over. Peralta got a few more days off inn the second half as his numbers suffered.
If Peralta was overworked, the damage was done in the first half. A driver cannot go 90 mph, then claim a plan to go only 50 mph later on to balance out the speed. The violation occurred when going 90 and no slowdown later on reverses the earlier speeding. We understand this easily when it comes to overworking pitchers, preventing them from throwing too much in starts, but it is less intuitive when it comes to playing everyday. The Pirates implemented a plan this season, and stuck to it even as they chased the Cardinals.
The counterpoint to the two totals above is a lack of depth in the middle infield. Pete Kozma does not provide the type of production that warrants more playing time. The argument this offseason is that with more middle infield depth, Mike Matheny will use his bench more. Matheny might very well use a different backup more often next season, but the decision to keep playing Peralta and Wong is on Matheny. He did the same thing last season when the primary backup was Danield Descalso after giving him ample playing time in 2012 and 2013. Tony La Russa regularly played Aaron MIles.
The issue is not the quality of player, as the difference between Miles and Descalso and Kozma is not great. The issue is letting the backup, whomever it is, play so that regulars get rest. Heading into the season, Peter Bourjos, Pete Kozma, and Tony Cruz were three of the principal bench players on the team. Combined, that trio had 13 times when they went at least ten games in a row without getting a start. When Greg Garcia took over for Kozma as the backup, he had a ten-game streak of his own. While many have differing views of Peter Bourjos as a player, he is at worst a quality backup, and he was buried by his manager on the Cardinals.
At varying points in Matheny's tenure, the concept of Matheny-proofing the roster comes up. Matheny benches the rookie second baseman in favor of the veteran middle infielder brought in to provide depth, the rookie is sent down to ensure his development is not stunted. Matheny stubbornly plays a slumping, flailing right fielder over a once-in-a-generation talent brought up specifically to play, the slumping player is traded, but the prospect still did not play. A starting pitcher is traded and a potential eighth-inning reliever is brought in to create space in a rotation and provide security in a bullpen so that a top young arm is not passed over in the rotation. Starters are declared at all positions so that daily decision-making is minimized, and players can establish routines even when it means wearing players out. This approach has made timeshares impossible, whether it was center field, right field, or even second base in 2014, the non-Heyward portion of the outfield in 2015 as injuries hurt the team, and as we head into 2016, first base and center field do not have clear starters, and they probably should not as multiple players are likely deserving of receiving at least semi-regular playing time.
There were two players not shown in the graphs above who deserve mention. The first is Yadier Molina. The 33-year-old Molina was on pace to play more games and innings than at any point in his entire career before he injured his thumb as the season wound down. Five times Molina had consecutive start streaks lasting at least 13 games, and four of those streaks occurred in the first half. This is not lack of faith in Tony Cruz. It is blind faith in an aging catcher. Molina is still incredibly important to the Cardinals, but to ride him in this manner, ignoring his age, his declining production, is a disservice to player and team.
Perhaps most upsetting is that Mike Matheny knew all of this information, and Matt Carpenter's exhaustion early in the season should have been a wakeup call. To admit in May that some players might be working too hard is an opportunity to correct a potentially troubling situation. To admit in October to overworking players over the course of the season is poor managing. Carpenter started 27 consecutive games to begin this season before needing multiple days off for exhaustion. He then started seven more before getting a break, which seems appropriate, but then he started 30 games in a row just weeks after being sidelined. He had a few days off here and there around the All-Star Break before starting 67 games in a row until the Cardinals clinched the division.
There is no easy solution to this problem, but understanding that it is the decision-making of the manager, not the quality of the backups that caused the Cardinals to be overworked. When a manager goes with his gut in terms of starting positions, he is going to choose the player he things is better. That is what any of us would do if we are trying to win the one game ahead of us. The problem with doing this every single day is that it institutionalizes a system where the backups never play and the starters are worked to exhaustion. Starting no players more than 12 days in a row seems harsh, but it still puts all everyday players on a course to start 150 games. Players can get more rest, more days off, but setting a guideline prevents one from forgetting, and makes sure that the gut does not always have the final say. The players, by all accounts, respect Matheny and the manager needs to use that goodwill to help players understand that they need days off and it is the manager's job, not the player's, to decide when those days off occur.
Use the Shift
This recommendation is considerably shorter than the one above. The Cardinals use the shift, but the Cardinals do not use the shift near as much as most teams in MLB and they gained no runs from its use last season. The Cardinals are a good defensive team and half the teams in the league are saving in the double-digits in runs per season, but the Cardinals are in the bottom third of all teams when it comes to attempting the shift. They appeared to get good results from the shift in limited use in 2014, but they have not been able to repeat that success in 2015.
In the past, the reason given for not using the shift was that not all pitchers bought into moving the fielders around to the position where hitters are most likely to hit the ball. We should be past the point of getting comfortable when it comes to creating optimal defensive positioning. Shifting is no longer new and unique. The strategy has been around for years and most teams are getting a benefit from positioning the defense where the ball is likely to go. If the Cardinals organization has the data, and they feel that the Cardinals should be shifting only as much as they are, then it is fair to trust the data. However, if the Cardinals organization as a whole believes that the defense should be shifting more, it is on Matheny to either convince the pitcher to buy in or to dictate to the pitchers the appropriate defensive strategy.
Players have said they would run through a brick wall if Matheny told them to. If that is the case, then they should also be amenable for trying a defensive strategy that all of baseball is using effectively.
Managers can be incredibly frustrating to watch as we often wish they would make decisions more in accord with our own line of thought. While hoping for a perfect strategy in all instances is unreasonable, requesting the manager to make better decisions regarding in-game strategy and creating lineups is not the same as yelling at the television every time a move does not work out. I have done my best to critique a few things Mike Matheny does and provide solutions to the deficiencies he has as a manager. I hope I have not come across as unduly harsh or pompous. I am not telling MIke Matheny how to do about 75% of his job that is his domain. I am critiquing maybe 10% of the final quarter in hopes of finding ways to get better. At the end of the day, I am a fan, and all I want is for the team I root for to perform better. It would be easy to just say "100 wins" and laugh off the need to work harder to get better, but the Cardinals and Mike Matheny can get better. He has managed for four years. It has been a learning process and he is still clearly learning, as he should. Next season is hopefully a step forward.