With the return of baseball comes a return of many time-honored traditions. Internally justifying paying $9 for a beer brewed 2 1/2 miles down the road from Busch Stadium. Complaining about umpires. And perhaps most importantly, drawing conclusions from three games.
But when it comes to evaluating the managing of Mike Matheny so far, we can examine the last three games with the knowledge of his previous four seasons. What we have seen can confirm what we have seen in the past or contradict previous results, suggesting that a new leaf has been turned.
The starting lineup on Sunday was a bit experimental. After 1,614 career games in left field, Matt Holliday played at a different position for the first time. Jedd Gyorko, a second baseman by trade, played at shortstop. Randal Grichuk, who came up as a corner outfielder, played in center field, while Tommy Pham, who came up as a center fielder, played in left.
But most of these moves, even if questionable, make sense in a certain light. Holliday's outfield defense, never a hallmark of his game, has gone from adequate to passable to troubling as he entered his mid-30s, and ideas which could prolong his career merit consideration. Although Jedd Gyorko is not a natural shortstop, injuries to Jhonny Peralta and Ruben Tejada made Gyorko, who is strong against lefties, a logical pick to start against Francisco Liriano. And while Pham may be the safer bet to be a good defensive center fielder, Grichuk displayed terrific fielding in 2015.
Tommy Pham batting second and Randal Grichuk batting fourth seem to be a bit overly dependent on relatively small track records built primarily in 2015, but again, Mike Matheny probably deserves some benefit of the doubt here. This isn't assigning arbitrary people high-leverage batting order spots: it's assigning people who demonstrated some degree of MLB success high-leverage batting order spots.
Of course, things went sour quickly for the Cardinals on Sunday. An inning into 2016, Tommy Pham left the game with an oblique injury, and after moving Holliday to left field (the correct decision, personal excitement for the Holliday at first experiment notwithstanding), Matheny made the dubious decision to play Matt Adams, with a career 48 wRC+ against lefties, against the left-handed Liriano.
Things were a bit different for the second game of the season. Holliday and Gyorko were back in more natural positions, while Aledmys Diaz, promoted after Tommy Pham was placed on the Disabled List, got the start at shortstop.
The personnel in Game 2 was somewhat expected against another lefty in Jonathon Niese and with Tommy Pham now unavailable. The lineup sported only two left-handed bats: the nearly impossible to sit Matt Carpenter (though sitting him every so often isn't the worst idea), and Brandon Moss, who is a far stronger bat against lefties than primary first base alternative Matt Adams.
One move that caused some consternation was batting Yadier Molina, whose offensive has declined dramatically since 2013, in the fifth spot. But in a vacuum, if Mike Matheny wants to base lineup decisions early in the season on several years of data (which would incorporate Yadier Molina's peak as a legitimate MVP candidate), there is logic there.
There is a bit of cognitive dissonance here, as seemingly this logic would preclude putting Stephen Piscotty (256 career plate appearances through 2015) and Randal Grichuk (466 PA through 2015) in prominent spots in the batting order, but in Game 3, the inconsistencies becomes impossible to ignore.
Oh. And I'm not talking about Seung-Hwan.
Some things stayed the same, and in spite of the Cardinals' relative offensive mediocrity in the first two games of the season (of course, five runs in 11 innings isn't too terribly far off of a league average run scoring rate), it's hard to argue some of these maneuvers. Sure, Matt Carpenter's .476 OPS in the first two games of the season was not exactly robust, but what happened in two games should not supersede what had happened over the previous three years. And my blind, preposterous loyalty to Matt Adams against righties aside, Moss against righties is perfectly fine.
Randal Grichuk was benched after two games. Two.
As if to absolutely assure that Matheny would start Grichuk (or a healthy Pham) in center, John Mozeliak traded Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos in the offseason. And for the first two games of the season, Matheny seemed very on board with playing Grichuk, not only starting him in center field but batting him in the cleanup spot, where baseball's big power bats are expected to shine.
And the next day, Grichuk couldn't even crack the lineup. Sure, guys are going to get days off, and a player hobbled by injuries in 2015 like Grichuk is as logical of a player as any to get them, but the Cardinals were slated for a day off the next day, they had a day off two days prior, and four days prior, they had their 172nd consecutive off-day. Either the Cardinals gave Jeremy Hazelbaker his first career start over Randal Grichuk as a matter of not wanting the latter to start two consecutive days, troubling in its own right, or because he performed poorly in nine plate appearances.
Jeremy Hazelbaker performed well, hitting a home run and making a nice, if not transcendent, play in center. But independent of whatever opinions you have about Randal Grichuk's future, and opinions among Cardinals fans on Grichuk tend to vary widely, Wednesday's decision regarding center field may reflect a continuation of a tendency for Mike Matheny to focus on microscopic sample sizes when filling out lineup cards.
Perhaps it will work out, as it did on Wednesday, but it also creates a risk that potentially ideal lineup fits could be eschewed due to poor first impressions.