The St. Louis Cardinals were the worst baserunning team in the National League last season, and manager Mike Matheny wants them to be more aggressive again this season.
This weekend, per Ben Frederickson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Matheny again commented on his aggressive philosophy: “Our coaching staff has done a real nice job of emphasizing, then rewarding, guys when they are keeping the throttle on and trying to take that extra base.”
This, really, is the last thing St. Louis Cardinals fans should want to hear. In 2016, the Cardinals lost 19.8 runs on the bases, a total worth approximately two wins. The Cardinals missed the playoffs by one game.
And the team wasn’t horrible on the basepaths because they were too passive; in fact, they were terrible from being over-aggressive. By stolen base success rate (SB%), the Cardinals were last in the MLB at 57.4%. By Ultimate Base Running (UBR), which measures value from taking extra bases and avoiding extra outs, the Cardinals were last in the MLB at -14.3 runs.
The St. Louis Cardinals have not had a roster constructed for stealing bases in quite a while. wSB measures run value from steals by adding value for every successful stolen base and subtracting value for every caught stealing. By this measure, the Cardinals have been a below average base stealing team every season over the last ten years.
However, in that same period, the Cardinals have been very good baserunners once the ball is in play. From 2007 to 2015, the St. Louis Cardinals had the third best UBR in the MLB. Even in Matheny’s first four seasons, the Cardinals had a positive UBR of 6.3 runs. They were creating value through baserunning even as aging stars like Matt Holliday, Jhonny Peralta, and Yadier Molina clogged the basepaths.
Yet, during the 2016 offseason, Mike Matheny pushed for more aggressive baserunning. The result? The 2016 St. Louis Cardinals were last in SB%, last in wSB, last in UBR, and second-to-last in BsR.
So, naturally, Mike Matheny again calls for the team to be more aggressive on the basepaths in 2017. His coaching staff is rewarding players for being aggressive on the bases, instead of rewarding them for being smart. This philosophy has been evident especially over the past two seasons.
In 2015, Derrick Goold reported that Matheny said “aggressive is always better.” In the same article, Matheny was worried that players were becoming “gun shy” after running into outs. That they were opting for passive avoidance over an aggressive mistake. Matheny “[doesn’t] want to be that kind of team.” Instead, he wants “to highlight those aggressive plays even if it’s aggressive mistake.”
Matheny doesn’t highlight when the smart move is to stay put and extend the inning. He highlights when the Cardinals make bad decisions which lead to outs.
Unsurprisingly, with the manager pushing players to make decisions they otherwise should not have, the team’s overall baserunning has been on a steady downward trend throughout Matheny’s tenure:
Under Matheny, the Cardinals SB% has dropped from 71.7%, which was only a little below average, to 57.4%, which was dead last. Their wSB has dropped more than three runs, and their UBR has fallen by 14 runs. The team’s 2016 UBR dropped 18 runs from 2015 to 2016.
2015 was a pleasant exception. The Cardinals broke even on the basepaths, in large part thanks to a UBR which ranked in the top third of the MLB. Unfortunately, much of the team’s baserunning value came from Jason Heyward, who had not taken any classes at the “Mike Matheny School of Base Running” before that season. Coincidence?
The team’s best baserunner since 2012? Kolten Wong. The same Kolten Wong who takes shelter in Mike Matheny’s dog house on an annual basis. Matheny fails to see the value Wong brings defensively, and he fails to see the value Wong brings on the bases.
What sticks out the most from the chart above, though, is the sudden dropoff in UBR from 2015 to 2016. What changed?
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I think it’s safe to say that the decision to steal a base is between the player and manager, while the decision to take an extra base is on the player and third base coach. Well, in 2016, Jose Oquendo was not the Cardinals third base coach.
During Oquendo’s third base tenure (from 2000 to 2015), the Cardinals were the MLB’s best baserunning team with the ball in play. Their UBR of 92.1 was nearly 40 runs better than the second best mark. In that same period, the Cardinals ranked 29th by wSB at -53.4.
So, it’s safe to say Jose Oquendo and his baserunning philosophy added a lot of value to the Cardinals over 16 seasons. Unfortunately, Oquendo was not the team’s third base coach in 2016, and he will not be going forward.
Instead, Chris Maloney is the team’s third base coach. Chris Maloney first appeared as the Cardinals first base coach in 2012, the same year Mike Matheny took over as manager. All of Maloney’s base coaching experience has come under Matheny. He undoubtedly learned and practices Matheny’s baserunning philosophy. The result? Plays like this:
Overall, as measured by BsR, the switch from Oquendo to Maloney led to an 18 run UBR drop. Another strange coincidence.
As it stands, this is a huge indictment against Mike Matheny’s view on baserunning. Matheny values aggressiveness just for the sake of aggressiveness and at the cost of smart baserunning. The St. Louis Cardinals new base coaches, Maloney and Bill Mueller, have certainly learned Matheny’s philosophy, and the result in their first year was flat out terrible.
The projection systems expect the Cardinals to improve in 2017. Steamer predicts a team BsR of -3.7 while Depth Charts expects a -4.1 mark. These projections expect a bounceback from Molina and Peralta, which I think is unlikely given their ages. The addition of Dexter Fowler and a commitment to keeping Kolten Wong in the lineup should help, though.
Ultimately, if the St. Louis Cardinals had just broken even on the basepaths last year like they did in 2015, they very likely would have been a playoff team. Instead, they were left on the outside looking in. Let’s hope the team can overcome Matheny’s philosophy on baserunning in 2017.