Three days after the St. Louis Cardinals won the 2011 World Series there was a collective sigh as their long-term manager Tony La Russa announced his retirement. After sixteen years under the direction of one man, the Cardinals were now in search of a replacement for an iconic figure in St. Louis.
There were some popular and available managers available at the time. Terry Francona had just been let go by the Boston Red Sox after their epic collapse. Bobby Valentine was out there as well. Valentine of course would end up taking over for Francona. Francona received an interview but was never high on the list.
Team President Bill DeWitt Jr. and general manager John Mozeliak had another idea. They’d go in the complete opposite direction of not only La Russa, but in the notion that one of the more popular teams in Major League Baseball needed a manager with a ‘name’. They picked Mike Matheny, a former Cardinals’ catcher with zero managerial experience at the professional level. How’s it worked for them? Very well indeed!
Matheny set out from the beginning of his tenure to show respect to the previous regime, but at the same time made certain he was putting his stamp on the roster and the mindset he expected from his team.
At the start of Spring Training he instituted the philosophy that while the team was loaded with productive hitters, a few of which have very good power, they would be aggressive on the bases. They would not rely on the power alone and would try to generate runs when they could. This meant taking the extra bag if it was there. It meant stealing any base that was given to them. They worked on the old little league run down play of drawing a throw to second from the catcher on first and third opportunities so the man on third could try to steal home. It was successful more than once during the Spring.
He’s shown that he would be willing to give players who work hard the chance to deliver on the field. He allowed Tyler Greene every opportunity to seal the deal as the full-time second baseman by putting him at the position just about every day during a three-week span of Spring Training. He wasn’t assuming anything though, as he also had Daniel Descalso in most games to give him ample at-bats to see if he could be productive on a daily basis. If Skip Schumaker had not gotten hurt, Matheny surely would have figured out a way to work him into the fold as well. Matheny was fortunate to have a majority of the remaining position players in order so he had ample time to make a decision.
At the same time, he has shown that the results need to develop quickly or the hot hand will take over. Greene didn’t do enough to win the job outright, so Descalso began the season playing second base as part of a platoon. Matheny refused to define the situation as a platoon. After Descalso’s hot Spring he was having a difficult time at the plate to start the season and soon Greene was getting at-bats against righties. Schumaker was on the disabled list and that gave each player more time to make a case for themselves. Neither did anything with the time and as soon as Schumaker returned from the DL, he was placed in the position and has started the last three games there. He is hitting well and none of the three is especially brilliant in the field so the guy with the hot bat stays at the position. Matheny may work in spot starts for Descalso and Greene (at other positions around the infield too) but until Schumaker falters for an extended period, it looks like he’s the man at second.
The other notion Matheny hammered home was that he wanted players on his team who were versatile. During Spring Training he had Matt Carpenter playing first, third and the outfield. Descalso played every infield position. Greene played some at shortstop when he wasn’t at second. At the time he knew he had Schumaker, who can play each outfield position in addition to second, and he had Allen Craig who can play first base and the outfield set to return in May.
Matheny assembled a bench that was not only versatile but was ready to contribute when called upon. Matt Carpenter played a bunch of games at first when Lance Berkman went down and was unstoppable in the first few games he played. He has tailed off a bit since, but he provided much more than many expected and did so long enough for Craig to return. He’ll still see some time at first along with Craig until Berkman comes back. Shane Robinson has had a great start to the season and Erik Komatsu, recently designated for assignment to make room for Craig on the roster, was more or less the odd man out because of the position he played and the side of the plate he hits from, not because of his performance.
First and foremost Matheny told his players that they all had to work hard and prove to him and themselves that they would be focused and determined 100% of their time on the field. His demeanor is one of allowing players to do their thing, but he is not averse to laying down the law. He is not a micro-manager, but is fully prepared for all facets of the game. He’ll argue with an umpire when necessary, even get tossed if that’s what it takes. He has earned the respect of the players by showing them he is 100% invested in each game. He leads by example and this is appreciated by the roster. As a group they have played hard every day. There have not been any moments of aloofness that I can remember.
Matheny’s game management has been positive. Who can complain about a 15-8 record? He’s upheld the aggressive play on the bases and for the most part it has worked. Yadier Molina has four stolen bases already and had two in one game yesterday. Rafael Furcal and Carlos Beltran are running again. However, the aggressiveness may have cost them a game the other night when Matheny elected to try the 1st/3rd trick play with two strikes on Molina. Molina swung and missed a ball well out of the zone to protect the play and Greene was thrown out at home to end the game. It is questionable to take the bat out of the hands of a player who has been very productive dating back to last season.
He’s written a lineup that has been as consistent as possible with the injuries. His only fluid position was second base and as I noted earlier that may become solidified with Schumaker. His starters have been very good minus a blip here and there so he hasn’t needed to spend much time in that department. There was one game where he could have been questioned about his use of the bullpen. He took lefty reliever Marc Rzepczynski out of a game against the Cincinnati Reds with right-handed batter Chris Heisey set to pinch-hit. Heisey actually hits righties better than lefties by about 100 points. But, Matheny elected to go with Fernando Salas to get the righty against righty matchup. Unfortunately, it backfired as Heisey singled in the winning run. While no one wants to lose, even that circumstance could be argued both ways.
Speaking of the bullpen, he named Jason Motte the closer at the very beginning of Spring Training in order to nip speculative stories of a closer battle in the bud. He was quick to instill Mitchell Boggs as the go-to eighth inning reliever a spot assumed to be Salas’ going into the season. Boggs actually put himself in the position by pitching lights out so far this season essentially forcing Matheny’s hand.
This is the point of the entire column. Matheny is making calculated but prompt decisions. He will be loyal to a point, but he’ll never let it get in the way of wins. He is loyal to victories. Teams want their manager to get the most out of their players. Matheny has done that up to this point. So long as he maintains a level head, and there is no reason to suggest otherwise, Matheny could have a long successful managerial career ahead of him.
Topics: Allen Craig, Cardinals, Carlos Beltran, Chris Carpenter, Daniel Descalso, David Freese, Fernando Salas, Jason Motte, Lance Berkman, Marc Rzepczynski, Matt Carpenter, Mike Matheny, Mitchell Boggs, Rafael Furcal, Skip Schumaker, St Louis Cardinals, Tony La Russa, Tyler Greene, Yadier Molina