Randal Grichuk, Oscar Taveras, and the pathology of bad management

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In his first 48 major-league plate appearances, Randal Grichuk was awful. Twice called up from Triple-A Memphis as a fifth outfielder in April and May, he looked utterly helpless at the plate, hitting just .136 and striking out once every three at-bats.

In his next 48 major-league plate appearances, Randal Grichuk was terrific. Called up once again in late August to replace the injured Shane Robinson, he looked from the get-go like an entirely different player, going 16-for-47 with one walk and posting a .907 OPS.

It would have been ludicrous for the Cardinals to write Grichuk off based on his performance in the first few dozen at-bats of his big-league career. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. But it’s every bit as irrational to install him as the club’s permanent starter in right field based on his performance in his next few dozen at-bats. And that’s exactly what manager Mike Matheny has done.

Because make no mistake: Grichuk is the Cardinals’ starting right fielder. If that wasn’t clear in the last few weeks of the regular season—after Sept. 12, Grichuk received nine starts to Oscar Taveras’ five, and 42 PAs to Taveras’ 24—it was certainly clear on Saturday night in Los Angeles, when Matheny again penciled Grichuk into the lineup over Taveras in Game 2 of the NLDS. When it matters most, the Cardinals’ manager has left no doubt as to whom he trusts.

Grichuk went 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts against Dodgers right-hander Zack Greinke, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s familiar with his career numbers vs. right-handed pitching. His splits are glaring; in six seasons as a professional, he’s slashed .264/.307/.457 against righties and .315/.358/.587 against lefties.

Sep 6, 2014; Milwaukee, WI, USA; St. Louis Cardinals right fielder Oscar Taveras (18) reacts after hitting a 2-run home run in the fourth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The left-handed Taveras’ career splits aren’t quite as lopsided as Grichuk’s, but they’re real enough that the Redbirds’ two rookie outfielders make for an ideal platoon in right field. And yet Grichuk started four crucial games against righties as the club chased a division title in the final weeks of the season, and his start on Saturday in a playoff tilt is the latest unequivocal sign that Matheny has abandoned the platoon in favor of all Grichuk, all the time.

This is bad management. It comes down to this: there is simply no rational basis for the belief that Randal Grichuk gives the Cards a better chance of winning right now than Oscar Taveras does, particularly against right-handed starters. Grichuk performed well in September, but competent managers don’t make important decisions based on 60 or so plate appearances, and while Grichuk may turn out to be a perfectly fine major-league hitter, at no point in his development has he been judged to be a player of Taveras’ potential.

It’s undeniable that Taveras has struggled in his first major-league campaign, but Matheny hasn’t helped matters with his La Russian refusal to place his faith in a talented young player, particularly late in the season when he began to find himself at the plate. Tellingly, Matheny’s affinity for small sample sizes doesn’t extend to Taveras: in the first two weeks of September, the rookie posted a line of .400/.444/.560, and his manager responded by benching him for eight of the club’s remaining 12 games.

Matheny’s deeper failure is one of culture and leadership.

But this is about more than stats and starts. Matheny’s deeper failure is one of culture and leadership, and it was most visible shortly after the trade of Allen Craig and Joe Kelly to the Red Sox, when anonymous teammates slammed “the way [Taveras] has gone about his business” in comments to the media. For a manager to so lose control of his team that players are taking public potshots at a 22-year-old rookie is inexcusable. Is it really fair to expect that Taveras would thrive within such a hostile clubhouse environment?

This has been a recurring feature of his young career: whispers and rumors and hints of controversy that never add up to much of anything, but still cause fans to ask vague questions about “character” or “makeup.” Call it the Puig-ification of Oscar Taveras. Much of the criticism of the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig is absurd, too, but at least there’s some small justification for it in his botched plays, TOOTBLANs, and other minor disciplinary issues. We’ve seen nothing like that from Taveras—just a young kid adjusting to life in the majors and having some fun along the way.

And now here we are in the postseason, with Taveras having been dumped from the starting lineup based on less than a full month’s worth of at-bats by a fellow rookie. The best-case scenario in all of this is that Mike Matheny is a poor decision-maker and such an ineffective leader that he can’t keep clubhouse disputes from spilling over into the media. At worst, he’s not only enabling the ugly undertow of Taveras backbiting but actively indulging in it. Neither possibility inspires confidence in his abilities as a manager.

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