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Mike Matheny and the two-hitter

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It may not be his biggest problem, but Mike Matheny continues to fill out less-than-perfect batting orders on his lineup cards.

Miami Marlins v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

On Wednesday, with Aledmys Diaz, who had started the previous eight games of the 2017 season at shortstop while hitting second in the St. Louis Cardinals batting order, receiving his first day out of the starting lineup, the Cardinals yielded to Greg Garcia to fill Diaz's position.

This was a reasonable decision. Although Garcia has not stuck as an everyday MLB player, he was very effective in 2016, mostly in a reserve role, and it increasingly appears that, with age, Jhonny Peralta is no longer equipped to handle the shortstop position even on a sporadic basis. Jedd Gyorko has faked it at shortstop in the past, but he was already being called upon Wednesday to play third base. All in all, assuming Aledmys Diaz needs some days off, Greg Garcia is a reasonable pick to take his place.

The problem is that Greg Garcia, arguably the third-least accomplished hitter in the Cardinals lineup (behind Eric Fryer, who was getting the start while Yadier Molina had an off-day, and Mike Leake, whose reputation for being a good hitter for a pitcher does not quite supersede the fact that he is still very much a pitcher), batted second.

Before I delve any further into why this is a problem, let me first address something many of you are thinking right now—yes, batting order doesn’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things. And not merely in the “this is just sports, shouldn’t you be concerning yourself with something more important?” sense (yes I should, and no I won’t); an optimized batting order is generally considered to only swing the pendulum by a handful of runs in a season.

But optimizing the team’s lineup order is a frustratingly simple and intuitive move. And those few runs could have easily been the difference in 2016, when the Cardinals missed the playoffs by one game. That Mike Matheny is not doing it is not the sole cause of the Cardinals’ early-season struggles, or even a major cause, but it is a symptom of a refusal to break away from conventional wisdom from which other MLB organizations are shifting.

Sabermetric lineup theory suggests that the three most pivotal spots in the batting order are first, second, and fourth—in a perfect world, a manager would put the best of the three at getting on base as the leadoff hitter, the best power hitter in the cleanup spot of fourth, and the best overall hitter second. Lineups decisions aren’t usually this clean—in 2016, a healthy Matt Carpenter was the team’s best hitter, the team’s best on-base guy, and the team’s best power hitter. In a vacuum, placing him at any of the three spots would be defensible.

The addition of Dexter Fowler, a high on-base player who lacks Carpenter’s potential for extra-base hits, made Carpenter as leadoff hitter less tantalizing, as his relative advantage at leadoff hitter is smaller than at #2 or #4. Instead, Matt Carpenter has spent the season thus far batting third.

Aledmys Diaz is not the worst possible option to bat second. He may not be one of the three best hitters on the Cardinals, but his 2016 production in addition to another year of Major League seasoning suggests that it is at least possible. Early results support that hypothesis. But judging by Matheny’s previous number two hitters, it does not seem that the goal is to maximize Diaz’s production. Two of the most commonly used two-hitters in the Mike Matheny era have been Jon Jay and Kolten Wong, sporadically good hitters but never among the very best hitters on the team.

Matt Carpenter has been atop the leaderboard for games spent batting second, but this was primarily before he became one of the team’s best hitters; in 2015, he frequently batted behind Kolten Wong, a low-OBP player who likely inherited the leadoff job because he was fast. Most of Matheny’s #2 hitters have been semi-fast players, a stereotype of sorts for the spot; perhaps the player most suited for the spot for a sabermetrically-inclined lineup was Carlos Beltran, who may have benefited from a scouting lag which would imply that Beltran was still close to as fast as he was in his prime.

But if Greg Garcia is being put in the highest leverage spot in the lineup (granted, he was 1-for-3 with a walk, but this was hardly enough to suggest that he is a high-end offensive threat for the Cardinals), it is hard to rationalize that Mike Matheny is improving in such a simple, easy to understand task.

What is especially frustrating about this particular shortcoming is that putting your best or near-best hitter second in the lineup has the kind of logic which could be more easily explained to a complete novice than to an established manager. Some sabermetric principles take a bit of explaining—the logic is eventually sound, but it is not necessarily immediate.

But “you want your best hitters to get to hit more” is obvious to the point of coming across as condescending to explain, if not for the fact that batting Matt Carpenter lower in the order goes against this logic. The notion of the leadoff hitter being the guy who is most likely to steal a base and the second hitter being a guy capable of bunting are antiquated vestiges of the Dead Ball era, and even managers who aren’t especially statistical in their approaches do not abide by these rules of thumb—Matt Carpenter, after all, spent several years as a leadoff hitter despite not being particularly fleet of foot.

But Matt Carpenter was declared to be a three-hitter this season, just as Matt Holliday before him was declared to be a three-hitter. And thus he is a three-hitter and always will be. It matters not how much mathematical work can be shown to downplay the impact of a three hitter on the lineup compared to the spot before or after him—his spot in the lineup is not about maximizing the offensive production of the Cardinals, but about prestige.

Admittedly, the gap is so small between the ideal lineup and a Mike Matheny lineup (his ordering is suspect, to be sure, but it’s not as though he’s, like, batting the pitcher near the top of the order) that it may be worth providing emotional comfort to players in exchange for slightly worse run efficiency on paper.

But it should be accepted that if players are obsessing over their spot in the order as a reflection on their future, and to move elsewhere in a change which could help the team on paper would impact their performance in reality, this reflects negatively on Mike Matheny’s ability to handle young players and juggle egos. It does not necessarily mean he is bad at it, but it means he is not supernaturally good at it. And these are the parts of the job at which Matheny is said to be so gifted that we should forgive his other shortcomings.