The St. Louis Cardinals management team were recognized as one of the earliest to take advantage of the sabermetric landscape. Today, and especially in 2018, their on-field decisions are some of the least analytical in the major leagues. What the heck happened?
Here’s a startling fact about the St. Louis Cardinals: The duo of Jose Martinez and Dexter Fowler have a net WAR of negative 0.6. The trio of Harrison Bader, Kolten Wong and Jedd Gyorko have WAR of 3.9, in about the same number of total plate appearances as the first two. So there’s a spread of 4.5 WAR here.
Martinez had a whopping offensive June. Yet his total WAR for the season — maybe the best, albeit flawed measure of how he helps the team — is only 0.7, because of his world-awful defense. He and Fowler continue to play a bunch (Fowler less so), maybe to keep peace with more mature players? Who knows. I don’t.
Does it make sense for the defensively-challenged Martinez and Fowler to have so much playing time? Field manager Mike Matheny says it does. Yet despite Martinez’ outstanding offense, the team’s record in June was the worst of the three months this year, with Martinez in the lineup.
Matheny and executive John Mozeliak are want to say the team needs that Martinez bat in the lineup (I can’t explain Fowler, sorry) because of the otherwise paucity of hitting. Is that a proper analysis? I say no, and here’s some context.
Where it went wrong
When the St. Louis Cardinals lost both Jeff Luhnow and Sid Mejdal to the Houston Astros, one had to smell trouble. Neither guy was particularly warm or fan-friendly, but each came from outside the baseball world with new ideas, and particularly with a desire to embrace hardcore statistical analysis. And that showed in draft picks and player development.
But game decisions are largely dictated by the field manager. There’s no doubt that the tandem of John Mozeliak and Mike Girsch have more roster management input than executives would have even a decade ago, but the manager calls most shots.
And those shots are being bungled this year in a major way. While some of the personnel choices are being masked in player shortcomings — which make no mistake, always must get the lion’s share of the attention — there’s little doubt that manager Mike Matheny has left important wins on the field.
First, keep in mind the team collectively — players and manager — are leaving crazy-good starting pitching to waste in 2018. While it’s been patently unfair to ask the rotation to be entirely responsible for the team’s success, that’s mostly been the case. The St. Louis Cardinals starters are ranked third in National League ERA.
And while the bullpen has been collectively atrocious til recently, with notable positive exceptions, it’s certainly improved recently, as the group’s collective ERA dropped almost a third of the run in the last several weeks.
What’s to blame
A major culprit has been poor hitting almost all around. The resurgence of Matt Carpenter has helped considerably, who now is the team leader in WAR. And the loss of Paul DeJong, who was first on the team in WAR when he went down to injury, was a major setback.
But it was painfully obvious from the get go that this team was going to live or die with its starting pitching. And one thing that can make pitchers queasy is the tragedy of poor defending behind them.
In this, Matheny and the St. Louis Cardinals have failed miserably, and the entire organization gets the blame. While Jose Oquendo and Willie McGee were brought in for improvement in this area, the team actually occupies the bottom slot in all of MLB in errors committed.
It’s not that the defensive tools don’t exist on the team. Gyorko was one of the top defenders at any position in the NL last year. Harrison Bader is electric in the outfield.
The tandem of Gyorko, Wong and Bader have a collective 3.3 dWAR. When you couple them with the brilliance of Yadier Molina, and the mostly solid defense of Marcell Ozuna (not his 2017 Gold Glove form to be sure, but at least fair), then even with DeJong out, the team has the potential for strong defensive performance.
Some have been critical of Gyorko for his 8 errors this year, but a look at the dWAR shows his true value, at 1.1, has been impressive. Especially as he’s been asked to move around to make way for Martinez. (We should note that Carpenter is having a far better defensive year than usual, with -0.5 dWAR to date.)
And therein lies the problem. Because with Martinez’ defensive miscues offsetting a huge portion of his hitting prowess, sliding him in and out of the lineup seriously impacts the effectiveness of the St. Louis Cardinals hurlers.
With Fowler, it’s an even easier call, because he has shown no serious likelihood of escaping his batting woes, while serving as a defensive liability almost to the extent of Martinez. With a minus 0.7 dWAR, he and Martinez together have a negative 1.8, or more than 5 dWAR less than the three defensive stalwarts.
And this is, as we said near the outset, in almost exactly the same total plate appearances as Bader, Wong and Gyorko.
Target: Jose Martinez or Mike Matheny
The manager, Mike Matheny, has chosen to slot in Martinez’ bat most days, claiming it’s needed because of the team’s overall at-bat challenges. But I see it conversely — because the team is unlikely to generate a huge amount of runs, having dependable and secure defense provides a better backdrop for the pitchers.
When your team is predicated on a single component for most of its success — in this case, starting pitching — you do what it takes to make that component as successful as possible. And that component is being seriously underutilized.
Matheny got it exactly wrong when he chose to use Wong for awhile as a late-inning replacement. Early innings are just as important defensively as late ones, and more innings are more valuable than less. in fact, it’s the early innings in which the sensational starting rotation needs the support.
The approach the manager has used is particularly errant when the analytics are so heavily tilted in favor of the defensive crew. With such a major WAR differential, you’d think the team would pay more and better attention to emphasizing defense as a priority. After all, isn’t that supposedly why they brought Oquendo and McGee in?
The players’ performance is the number one thing, and in that they are clearly responsible. But the team and manager must put the players in the best possible place to succeed. And in this, I believe that the manager has failed. The team surrenders net wins, and the fans suffer through interminably sloppy defense.
Not, as one would say, how to run a railroad.