The St. Louis Cardinals are wrapping up the first month of the seventh season in which a stark dichotomy has been presented between the two sources of perceived power within the organization.
In one corner stands Mike Matheny, the square-jawed ex-jock who is seemingly the manager of the Cardinals because he looks the part. He was hired by the Cardinals in 2011 to replace the legendary Tony LaRussa not because he had a track record of managerial success (he had never managed at a level higher than Little League) or even because he had an illustrious playing career (Matheny was below Replacement Level for his career–this wasn’t a Ted Williams being hired to manager the Washington Senators situation). Mike Matheny felt like a manager, either because he looked the part or because he absolutely nailed the interview (given his lack of credentials in 2011, I suspect both parts are true).
In the other corner stands John Mozeliak, the general manager-turned-president of the Cardinals who finagled his way into his first job in Major League Baseball, with the Colorado Rockies, because Dante Bichette liked him. He may have stumbled into his entry-level position, but Mozeliak didn’t become Cardinals GM overnight–he joined the organization when Walt Jocketty arrived in St. Louis in 1995 and slowly matriculated his way up the food chain, eventually replacing Jocketty.
Mozeliak is less than two years Matheny’s senior, but aside from age, the two feel dramatically different. For all of Matheny’s “looks the part” cache, Mozeliak is (subjectively) what those who dismiss sabermetrics (usually as some bastardization of the word, like “cybermetrics” or something) imagine when envisioning the death of all that is good and pure about baseball–a nerdy-looking combination of thick-rimmed glasses and bow ties.
While this dichotomy might make Matheny a hero and Mozeliak a villain among the kind of casual fan who cares more about the optics of the Cardinals than their execution (a defensible position, though not one I share), for those of us whose sensibilities align more with sabermetrics than Gut Feelings Of Lifelong Baseball Men, it is just as easy to turn Matheny into an avatar of a dumbed-down version of baseball while turning Mozeliak into an infallible representative of all that is right (intellectually, not morally) about baseball.
But this assumes that Matheny is Absolute Bad and Mozeliak is Absolute Good (never mind, of course, that if a manager is terrible, some blame falls on those who hired him and presumably believed he would not be terrible). And in the case of struggling Cardinals reliever Greg Holland, while Mike Matheny has received an enormous amount of (mostly deserved) blame for his handling of the bullpen, this one falls primarily on John Mozeliak.
The popular refrain is that the Cardinals signed Greg Holland as a veritable security blanket for Matheny. That when the Cardinals and Holland agreed to a one-year, $14 million contract which was first reported on the first day of the 2018 regular season, the purpose of the signing was to give the Cardinals manager an “established closer”, a relief pitcher with a track record of accumulating saves.
But for all of the criticism that Mike Matheny receives as Cardinals manager, and much of it is justified, that he is beholden to the Closer title is not a criticism based in evidence. He stuck religiously with Jason Motte in his debut season as Cardinals manager, so stridently that no Cardinal other than Motte recorded a save that season, but it’s hard to fault him too much–Motte struck out 10.75 batters per nine innings and had a sub-3 ERA. The next season, the Cardinals changed closers twice, going from Mitchell Boggs to Edward Mujica and then to Trevor Rosenthal. In 2016, when Rosenthal struggled, Matheny went to Seung Hwan Oh, and in 2017, when Oh struggled, Rosenthal took the job back.
Even more than dispelling “Matheny needs a closer”, this demonstrates how fickle the role of closer is. Brian Wilson of the 2010 San Francisco Giants is the last instance of a World Series-winning closer holding his team’s closer role from the beginning of the season to the end of the World Series. Any notions that the Cardinals “needed” a proven closer can be easily refuted with a look at recent history. Greg Holland’s value to the Cardinals comes from him being a fine reliever (his 7.11 ERA and 7.12 FIP so far suggest he isn’t this, but in theory), not being some necessary safety blanket.
On Friday night, Greg Holland had a disastrous blown save which eventually cost the Cardinals the game, and while it may have been by accident (in fact, it probably was), Mike Matheny’s use of Greg Holland was consistent with the way a sabermetrically optimal manager would use his fourth or so best reliever. Yes, it was a save situation, but because the Cardinals had a three run lead, their Win Probability according to Baseball Reference was 96%. And with the bottom of the order coming, the actual odds of a Pirates comeback may have been lower. A major part of bullpen optimization is not only using your best guys in the biggest situations–it is not using them when it can be avoided in order to save them for the biggest situations.
But if, hypothetically, Mike Matheny did demand Greg Holland, a basic followup question could be “So what?”
Mike Matheny is, fundamentally, an employee of the front office. Surely, he has some voice in what players are brought to the team, but he does not have the final say in the matter. And if one were to look at the situation, removing names and preconceived notions of a person’s stat-friendliness, we would see a front office which spent $14 million and forfeited a valuable second-round draft pick for a pitcher whose recent track record is most optimistically measured by the fickle, context-driven statistic of saves, and we would see a manager who has treated said pitcher as the decent reliever his recent run suppression numbers suggest he is, rather than the elite one his save totals suggest he is.
At this point, the Greg Holland signing looks bad. Holland’s in-season ZiPS projection (which considers his current numbers along with expectations for the remainder of the season) is for 0.4 Wins Above Replacement–at this low of a mark, Holland isn’t even reaching the expected value of the draft pick foregone to acquired him. If you believe that Greg Holland is irredeemably broken, then you can certainly argue that Mike Matheny has used him improperly (i.e. he has used him), but the most prominent blame should go to those who thought investing so heavily on a broken reliever was a good idea in the first place.