Lately, I’ve been hearing some pretty harsh criticism directed towards manager Mike Matheny. His team’s losing, and he’s been catching a lot of flack because of it. I want to briefly defend him, and examine where he stands as a manager a year and a half into his career.
First, let us recognize our position as fans. Now, just like every other good fan, I criticize the professional umps for blowing calls that I couldn’t make, yell at players for failing to do what I can’t, and I definitely critique managers for the stupid decisions I’m not qualified to make. That’s because I’m a good fan and an aspiring writer. It’s my job. I certainly don’t want to claim any sort of moral superiority.
But it’s easy to look back at a decision and say it was wrong (thanks to good ol’ hindsight); it’s much harder to make that choice in the heat of the moment with a game on the line. When Pete Kozma doesn’t come up with a big hit in the tenth, it’s easy to say that Jay’s sac bunt was a bad idea. But if it works and Kelly scores the winning run, Matheny’s a genius. And, truth be told, there’s good reason to give him the benefit of the doubt.
To begin with, we’re fans and he’s a professional. I stopped playing baseball at about 15. I tell myself it was because the sport got too expensive and I couldn’t afford it, but in reality I wasn’t good enough to cut it. Even if I had the skill (and we all know I had the skill), I didn’t have the dedication and desire that professionals need to get to that higher level. Matheny did. Because he did, he knows more about the game of baseball than I ever will. Sure, reading articles on Fangraphs helps us all understand the game a little bit better, and we can study baseball to no end, but he lives in the game. He’s been surrounded for years by the best in the business, he’s had access to a world that we only get glimpses of.
Beyond that, Matheny has handled himself well as a manger to this point. Thus far in his short career, he has an 156-124 record, good for a .557 winning percentage. That puts him at seventh among all Cardinals managers since 1900 with at least 250 games at the helm. Granted, we aren’t dealing with a full career at this point, and Matheny took over a pretty good team, but his current winning percentage is better than that of Whitey Herzog, Red Shoendienst, and Tony La Russa — three of the Cardinal greats. Especially for a young manager, he has been quite impressive. In Herzog’s first 380 games as a manger, he boasted a 180-190 record; Shoendienst was little better with a 163-160 record in his first two seasons; and even LaRussa was 120-147 in his early years. So, as far as managers go, Matheny’s off to a pretty decent start. I certainly do not wish to imply that Matheny deserves a spot with the all-time greats at this point, but, as my father always said, “a good beginning is more than half the whole.” Although it can feel like he’s managing our beloved Cardinals into the ground at times, perhaps he’s not as awful as you think.
We’ll see how he does down the stretch, and how well he handles himself in the years to come, but if he stays on the same track, he could become one of the best managers the Cardinals have ever seen. Until he appears to be off that track, I’m going to put a little more faith in him.