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Are the Cardinals reining in Mike Matheny?

The Cardinals have struggled with fundamentals and bullpen management, and appear to be addressing those issues by taking away some power from the manager

St Louis Cardinals v Colorado Rockies Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

When the Cardinals announced yesterday that Jose Oquendo was returning to the St. Louis Cardinals for a coaching role, the praise was nearly universal. Oquendo checks a whole lot of boxes as a player in the Whiteyball 80s and an important member of Tony La Russa’s staff in the most successful run in franchise history. He’s also well-versed in fundamentals and carries on the traditions of teaching baseball that date back to George Kissell. We know Yadier Molina likes Oquendo and Kolten Wong does, too. The hire looks to be a very good one, but does this hire plus the team’s attempts to bring in a new pitching coach signal a desire to reduce Mike Matheny’s responsibilities with the Cardinals?

Derrick Goold reported that John Mozeliak and Mike Girsch went down to Florida last week in an attempt to bring Oquendo back into the fold in the majors. The conversations didn’t begin last week, either:

The Cardinals talked to him as far back as 2016 about a role in the dugout that would keep him on Matheny’s staff, but Oquendo suggested he didn’t want to “halfway” coach. This past summer, Mozeliak spent time with Oquendo in Florida and explored what kind of position would bring him back to the majors.

Oquendo is likely to take on a more prominent role on and off the field:

Within the walls of the clubhouse, Oquendo was viewed as a trusted confidant for players, an instinctual adviser for fielders and a quality control valve who had the respect and trust of players to call for improvement.

Oquendo’s hire alone would provide little evidence that Matheny’s role with the Cardinals is shrinking in some way. Oquendo was on Matheny’s staff through 2015, and bringing him back into the fold is pretty much a no-brainer. That said, Oquendo seems likely to exert a little more power and a little more control over operations with the Cardinals, especially given the team needing to convince him to come back.

The currently open pitching coach role also appears likely to take some of the decision-making out of Mike Matheny’s hands. As John Mozeliak recently told Derrick Goold,

“When you hear about rotation management, and you talk about third time through the order, there are times when that is very real, and you can do that,” Mozeliak said at the close of the season. “September comes to mind. It’s a lot easier when you have expanded rosters. Then there’s in-season when you’re trying to save your bullpen at times, because it’s on fumes, and ultimately you have to push a starter. When you’re looking at pitch strategy and the modernization of the tools we have available to us, we need somebody who understands it, has interest in it, can communicate it, and can teach it.”

Mike Matheny is not good at managing a bullpen. Whatever his strengths, making the decision to go to the bullpen and who to rely on is not something he’s been good at as manager. He was the worst manager in baseball at pulling his starter, statistically. It was something fairly easy to identify earlier in the season, and his use of the bullpen late in the year left a ton of room for improvement.

It’s also clear that Matheny hasn’t been able to get buy-in from his players on some of the more updated methods to prevent runs, and as the quote from Mozeliak above shows, they are looking not just for better decisions, but for someone who is better at communicating those decisions.

Derrick Goold’s chat yesterday helped spell out why the Cardinals pitching coach position might be a desirable one.

They are looking at this as a coordinator role, and that could give a pitching coach far more autonomy when it comes to direction the staff takes and decisions are made. It also could give a pitching coach a chance to show he's ready to be a manager -- if that's the goal. It's no coincidence that we're seeing pitching coaches getting considered for open manager spots. With starters going fewer innings and bullpens becoming more hyper-specialized and hyper-use the game is in pitching decisions and pitching instincts, and some of the best pitching coaches in the game excel at the decisions/thinking that managers must now be able to do.

Derek Lilliquist wasn’t providing what the Cardinals wanted out of a pitching coach, and it appears that to either a) entice a new candidate to come to St. Louis or b) supplement the manager’s weakness, the Cardinals are trying to improve the team by giving the manager fewer responsibilities.

We’ve seen the club repeatedly make roster decisions around Mike Matheny’s weaknesses. Last season, the club again tried to make lineup decisions simple for the manager by providing starters at every position, but an early season injury that caused Stephen Piscotty to miss some time resulted in Matt Adams in the outfield. The emergence of Tommy Pham and Jose Martinez along with the struggles of Piscotty and Randal Grichuk as well as Dexter Fowler’s issues in center field caused some difficult outfield maneuvering by the manager. Matheny also ran into some trouble communicating with his catcher and franchise icon about whether he was tired.

Although it didn’t quite work out last year, it is the goal of the Cardinals front office to “consolidate”. If the Cardinals make some of the big moves they are expected to, next year’s everyday lineup should be pretty easy to fill out. Of course, if Oquendo is taking on a stronger role in the field and in the dugout, the front office makes it as easy as possible to fill out the lineup, and the new pitching coach is going to have more influence on pitching changes, what is it exactly that Matheny is going to do next season?