St. Louis Cardinals: In Defense of Manager Mike Matheny

Sep 26, 2016; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny (22) walks back to the dugout after putting in relief pitcher Luke Weaver (62) during the fourth inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 26, 2016; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny (22) walks back to the dugout after putting in relief pitcher Luke Weaver (62) during the fourth inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports /

The St. Louis Cardinals are reportedly considering a contract extension for manager Mike Matheny. This news irks some, if not many, but this Cards fan thinks it’s the right move.

Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Friday that the St. Louis Cardinals would prefer not to have Mike Matheny enter the 2017 season with just one season remaining on his contract. Despite missing the playoffs for the first time in his managerial career, Matheny appears to be nearing a contract extension. While Mike still has support in St. Louis, this news has left some scratching their heads.

Matheny has managed the St. Louis Cardinals for five seasons, and the team has seen great success under his watch. In that time the Cards have made the playoffs four times, making three NLCS appearances and capturing the pennant in 2013. In the first four years of his career, Mike has placed in the top-five in manager of the year voting. So why is it that a growing camp in Cards nation is calling for his head?

There are very few predictable factors in this game. But there’s a phenomenon in the world of sports, a consistency that reaches every corner—even baseball. That, of course, is an overreaction. More specifically one in the form of calling for a manager or head coach to be fired.

In Matheny’s case, as it is for most big league managers, most of his criticism is centered around his use of the bullpen. Those in St. Louis who are fed up with Matheny cite his favoritism towards certain relievers. His apparent lack of creativity or willingness to adjust his in-game strategy has frustrated many in the gateway city.

The easiest example is his use of Trevor Rosenthal. Matheny has leaned as heavily on his closer as any manager in baseball over the last handful of seasons. From 2012-2016 only 13 relievers in the NL threw more innings than Trevor.

In 2015, Rosenthal pitched more innings in high leverage situations than any pitcher in baseball. Perhaps that’s why Rosenthal struggled so mightily this year, ultimately landing on the DL with rotator cuff inflammation.

It’s true that Matheny is reliant on Rosie, but who can blame him? Look closely at the names on that first list. Many are elite closers. They’re all guys with such talent and efficiency in closing out games that managers are willing to, if not dependent upon, calling on them game after game to save the day.

Is it really fair to blame Matheny for Rosenthal’s injury struggles? If Aroldis Chapman or Kenley Jansen landed on the DL with shoulder inflammation, would fans be second guessing their usage? I doubt it.

Since 2012, three pitchers in St. Louis’ pen have seen the vast majority of work. But what’s so wrong with that? Kevin Siegrist has been effective over that span, and Rosenthal ranks in the top-25 of all relief pitchers in WPA from 2012-2015. Matheny may be stubborn, but if it results in wins then what’s the gripe?

A loss is almost never understood as simply a loss in today’s world of sports. There’s always a reason. There’s always an army of fans sitting at home who, with the benefit of hindsight, think they know exactly what bullpen decisions cost their team the game. The “bullpen hindsight guy” is cut from the same cloth as the “play call hindsight guy” on NFL Sundays. In other words: They’re both the worst. 

I can only imagine how these conversations irk managers in Major League Baseball. These men dedicate virtually all of their time to understanding their rosters, the personalities in the clubhouse, and the rigors of a 162-game season. Imagine waking up the morning after a tough loss and being met with the outcry of thousands who somehow think they understand this team better than you do?

If the current frustration with Matheny lies not in bullpen management, then from where does it come? I hope the answer is not results. Missing the playoffs once is not even close to a justification for firing a manager who is so highly regarded by his peers, and who has seen so much success in his first four years.

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Matheny’s predecessor, Tony La Russa, is one of the most highly regarded managers in baseball history. Tony won a World Series in both the AL and the NL, and has put together a hall of fame career. But even La Russa has managed some sub-par teams. In fact, in 16 years as the skipper in St. Louis, La Russa missed the playoffs 7 times.

I’m not sure if the criticisms of Matheny are grounded in anything other than unreasonably-high expectations in St. Louis. Expectations that he himself helped raised. I hate to say it, but the “best fans in baseball” are starting to get a little spoiled.

Just take a look at Matheny’s reputation outside of St. Louis. In 2015 ESPN The Magazine asked 117 players: “If you could play for any manager (other than your current one), who would it be?” Matheny was the fourth most common answer. Behind Terry Francona, Bruce Bochy, and Joe Maddon.

Obviously lists like these are subjective, but it’s not just the players who feel this way. A quick google search reveals that Matheny’s name appears near the top of every top managers list: Top-5 on, top-10 on, and top-10 again on Nick Cafardo’s list of top managers for the Boston Globe. My defense of Matheny doesn’t rest on these subjective lists, but there is a pattern here.

Mike Matheny is as highly regarded as they come. Highly regarded by the players, by his peers, and by the media. So why not St. Louis? No manager can guarantee playoff appearances. But Matheny is off to one of the better five-year stretches to begin a career that you will see.

Next: Dear Bruce Bochy Please Win

Have some patience, St. Louis. You’re looking at a man who commands the respect of not just his clubhouse, but the entire league. What are the alternative options? It’s not exactly like Sparky Anderson is available and waiting for the job. Let’s extend the man’s contract. The defense rests.