St. Louis Cardinals: How to fairly evaluate Mike Matheny

PHOENIX, AZ - JUNE 27: Manager Mike Matheny
PHOENIX, AZ - JUNE 27: Manager Mike Matheny /

I’ve not been a big fan of  Mike Matheny during his six-year tenure as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals.  So I’ve been thinking about what would make me a supporter: What would I like to see this season that might turn my opinion around?

Let’s be clear: I very much want Mike Matheny to succeed, both for his own sake and for the benefit of the St. Louis Cardinals. But a variety of things about his decision-making have left me cold, so at least in this writer’s mind, it’s an uphill climb for him to become a top-echelon, major-league manager.

And it sure seems that he’s at a crossroads, as the front office has foisted a largely new coaching staff upon him. St. Louis Cardinals stalwarts Jose Oquendo and Willie McGee return, and Mike Maddux replaces Derek Lilliquist as the pitching coach.

Despite managing a team with a history of strong support for its managers — five managers have led the Cards for all but a handful of seasons in the last six decades — the turnover of Matheny’s subordinates does not bode well for him if another playoff miss ensues.

It all started with a huge dose of hope.  St. Louis loves its heroes, and Matheny, with five of his 13 big-league seasons and three of his Gold Gloves here, walked into the job fresh off the team’s 2011 World Series championship win.  Though he had no previous professional managing experience, he was known as a strong leader and inherited a pretty darn powerful lineup.

From 2012 to 2015, Matheny kept the team competitive, and despite my criticisms, for that he deserves credit. I note in particular that he navigated the injury-laden 2015 season with aplomb. He took the team to a first-place, 100-win record ahead of both the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates, conceding only a crazy-good 525 runs against in the process.

Still, I have shared many of the same criticisms that other St. Louis Cardinals fans do. His inconsistent lineups and bullpen use; questionable in-game moves; inability to use an effective speed game; and at least to me, his elevating of loyalty over performance, have all given me pause about his ability to compete with the best.

Let’s be clear, it’s awfully hard to prove or disprove the impact of managing on a team’s record. Here’s a 2016 Fangraphs piece about assessing American League Manager of the Year that discusses analytics, and also touches on Matheny’s place in the pecking order. The article focuses on four key factors that can be quantified to an extent in determining how good a manager is.

In listening to MLB Radio this week, I heard former player Steve Sax note he thought a good manager can add 5-8 wins to a team’s side. While I think that’s particularly optimistic, there’s little question that both player and bullpen management, along with in-game strategy and decisions, can play significant roles.

As for Matheny himself, concerns emanate from an inability to grasp who the man actually is in the dugout. LaRussa was an analytically inclined toughass who left no decision unturned. Whitey Herzog‘s pedal-to-the-medal, whirling dervish style was well suited to Busch Stadium II in the Astroturf era; you always knew what you were getting.

Matheny? I’m not sure. He’s lauded for his great relationships with his players, but I don’t quite get how that’s translated to winning more games than the talent he’s given would otherwise. He’s not a devotee of speed; the lack of defensive discipline has undone the Cardinal Way the last several seasons; and he’s by no means a master sabermetrician.

Fans were often critical of LaRussa, rightly or wrongly, for his hyper-focused approach, but at least they knew what they were getting. For me, a large part of my angst with Matheny is that I’m not sure if he even knows what we’re getting. The answer so often appears to be blowing in the wind.

For a guy with no professional managing experience, you might expect that at the outset. And because he was gifted some exceptional talent, he was able to push through the first three years with some mighty fine success, though some of us thought better choices could have propelled the Redbirds to at least one title in that period — face it, we’re spoiled here in St. Louis.

But now the bloom is off the managerial rose, and two years of mid-80s wins — performances that, to be fair,  the bottom third of MLB might hunger for — have made both ownership and fandom anxious about what’s to come. And while Mike can’t be held accountable for the front-office signings, or lack thereof, the question remains: Can he maximize what he’s been given?

So what would make me come around to the Matheny camp, to believing he can squeeze the extra win or there that can elevate a good team to very good or great? I would put my “things to watch” into three categories:

The great duality question: Loyalty versus the quick trigger

On one hand, Matheny seems to want to give an overly generous presumption to long-time veterans, such as Adam Wainwright. On the other, he often yanks the younger guys after a couple days if they don’t live up to his expectations. Both Kolten Wong and Randal Grichuk are examples of this tendency.

So what I’m looking for in this campaign is whether Matheny can temper both of these instincts toward a happier middle ground. If Waino, for instance, who has not truly had a strong season since 2014, is showing less than what a rotation slot merits, will Mike be willing to make a shift toward Jack Flaherty, John Gant or another?

Conversely, will he bury young relievers at the end of the bullpen bench rather than allowing them to develop? His seeming reliance on the same guys over and again, and doghousing of  young pitchers in particular, can take its toll on reliever arms.

Matheny has given some youngsters key roles, perhaps at the urging of senior management. But still, we’d prefer to see John Brebbia not get the shelving treatment, or Sam Tuivailala dip in and out of the big-league equation.

While its fine to use the Memphis shuttle to save arms, especially in this era of 10-day disabled lists — the Los Angeles Dodgers were masters of it last season — one must utilize the full complement of who is on the MLB roster at any given time. Let’s hope Mike does.

Will speed and defense buttress the bats?

The St. Louis Cardinals have been a woefully station-to-station type of team in a number of recent years, with perhaps a tease of speed here and there (thanks to Tommy Pham for last year’s aggressive efforts in particular).

Stolen bases have certainly not been their forte, though to be fair to Matheny, with limited exceptions, neither were they under LaRussa, whose distaste for risking the loss of baserunning other than through a sacrifice was almost palpable.

But this team has got the speed goods, and now a McGee as coach to push them in the right direction. Dexter Fowler,  Pham, Wong, and especially Bader, can motor. Will Matheny take advantage of this to squeeze out the extra base when needed?

Switching to the defensive side, this team holds huge potential at several key positions. Jedd Gyorko, Wong, and Gold Glover Marcell Ozuna join all-time defensive juggernaut Yadier Molina in the everyday lineup. Bader provides exceptional depth at three outfield positions, and Carson Kelly gives the same at catcher.

With tutelage from Oquendo, this team has some real potential to shine defensively. Will they, and will Matheny recognize that this is an aspect of the team that provides another potential upside that can grab the game or two that could make the playoff difference?

We shall see.

Lineup (and roster) construction: Using the tools of the trade

This overlaps someone with the first point above, but in a broader sense: Does Matheny know how to best construct lineups, both from player management and analytic perspectives? And is the roster constructed at times to work around some of the manger’s preferences or, less politely, inadequacies?

We’ve seen Matheny experiment with a bazillion lineups in the past, and he seems to have a “hot hand” approach at times, especially as it relates to youngsters.  His data sets sometimes appear to be exceedingly small, as he seems to make judgments based on a fairly small number of at bats.

It will be interesting and telling if the manager shows more patience and persistence this year in his lineup moves. Will he be able to withstand the desire to over-manage his lineup based on daily ins and outs? Will bench coach Mike Shildt have a stabilizing influence on Matheny?

Next: Is a six-man rotation a good idea?

It’s going to be interesting to see how and whether Matheny responds to the new coaching staff on his key player usage and in-game decisions this season. If he can consistently learn from and apply lessons as the season progresses, I’ll be squarely in his corner. If not, I might be back writing the postscript to this column.