For baseball fans, one of the all-time great pastimes is picking on the team’s manager. In part, this is because we of limited athletic ability know we cannot do what the players on the field are doing, and thus imagining ourselves in that position requires quite a bit of imagination, but we can all think and make decisions and so can all at least theoretically imagine what we would do if we were in the role of the manager. For better or worse, griping about the manager’s decisions is as much a part of our national pastime for fans as are hot dogs and filling out scorecards. It is not always fair- in fact, it is quite often that a fan’s proposed idea is an even worse idea than whatever the manager is doing- but no matter what, it is always pervasive and always will be.
In particular, a lot of this attention will always fall on bullpen management. Along with setting lineups, making bullpen decisions is where a manager’s strategy is truly put on display, and where we can examine the decision-making process on a micro level. In fairness, managers all across the league don’t make things any easier on themselves, making the same mistakes over and over and never re-questioning whether their strategies that fail repeatedly have become antiquated. This article is going to be heavily critical of Mike Matheny, but I will actually begin here with a mild defense of him by saying that he is far from the only manager who makes glaring bullpen mistakes. Perhaps most famously in recent history, Orioles manager Buck Showalter refused to call on lights-out closer Zach Britton in a winner-takes-all Wild Card play-in game, in a situation wherein the Orioles lose if they allow runs, because it was not a traditional save situation. Showalter’s blunder in 2016 should have made even “old-school” managers abandon the traditional idea of the “closer,” but just as recently as May 31st, the Cardinals benefited from Clint Hurdle calling on closer Felipe Vazquez despite Vazquez having pitched the two games prior, and refusing to take him out even when Vazquez gave up multiple hits and two runs and didn’t get any outs and generally had no command, resulting in a Yairo Munoz walk-off home run. Heck, even Joe Maddon, who gets treated by the media as a progressive brain genius, has cost his team wins by falling back on traditional ideas of “getting guys right” as opposed to giving their arms some rest. Clearly, this is something managers league-wide struggle with, meaning Matheny’s is no unicorn in that regard.
This is where the defense of Matheny ends, though. Even though fans love to jab at their manager’s bullpen decisions no matter what, and even though managers across the league struggle with bullpen management, Mike Matheny had stood out among the rest. Cardinals fans have found themselves continually exasperated with Matheny’s decisions, from starting Randal Grichuk in center field despite the fact that he physically could not throw the ball to starting Matt Adams in left field and Jose Martinez at first base despite the fact that Matt Adams is a natural first baseman and Jose Martinez is a natural left fielder and both are really bad at the opposite position (and despite the fact that perfectly capable left fielder Tommy Pham was toiling away in Memphis).
The bullpen strategy, though, is where Matheny truly drives Cardinals nation nuts. The 2014 NLCS decision to bring in Michael Wacha, who had been hurt and hadn’t pitched in weeks, with the entire series on the line, was widely panned and even today sticks out as one of the most costly single managerial decisions of this decade (and the given justification was even worse!). More recently, we have been forced to witness the continuing adventures of Greg Holland, with Matheny in numerous instances continuing to trot Holland out in save situations, despite the fact that Holland clearly has been a shade of his former self, in order to “get him right.” This one misguided notion has cost the Cardinals multiple games in what has been and promises to be a tight division race.
Matheny’s bullpen exploits have been perhaps most eloquently explained by the great Dan Szymborski:
When Mike Matheny was hired as Cardinals manager in 2012 during a time where it was trendy to hire a recently-retired former player as manager despite little to no formal managerial experience. Not so coincidentally, these managers have not found a whole lot of success and in fact most are no longer employed. Even the Tigers, who among MLB organizations are arguably the recent kings of bad decisions, saw things were never going to improve with Brad Ausmus and cut ties. Matheny, though, remains, in no small part due to making multiple deep playoff runs with rosters so naturally talented that it was exceedingly hard not to. Articles written in the last couple years about Matheny’s struggles discuss his “lack of growth,” which is fair, but six years in, it’s fair to question at this point whether there is no growth capable of being made.
The Cardinals organization is not oblivious to this. Over the past few years, we have increasingly seen the front office makes moves not only to add talent to the bullpen as all organizations try to do, but to work around Matheny’s deficiencies. Brett Cecil was signed to a rather pricey 4-year contract to add a stable late-inning left-handed option over a long period of time. This past offseason, the Cardinals traded away Randal Grichuk for a return headlined by late-inning relief option Dominic Leone (a move that killed two birds with one stone, as mis-handling Grichuk was another consistent Matheny snafu). Most egregiously, they signed Greg Holland on Opening Day to give Matheny an “established” closer, a move which has proven incredibly costly for the team. We have also seen the team sacrifice an extra spot on the bench to give Matheny an 8-man bullpen, “necessitated” by the manager’s lack of trust in certain options and over-use of other options leading to fatigue. As we get further and further into Matheny’s tenure, it seems that more and more the front office constructs the roster with the idea of mitigating Matheny’s bullpen miscues in mind.
I suppose it is technically better to mitigate the mistakes rather than not, but at a certain point, it raises the question, is it worth it to spend so much effort mitigating the manager’s mistakes, rather than just finding a new manager who doesn’t require so much mitigating in the first place? Six years in and numerous “growing pains” to learn from, Matheny has not seemed to improve his approach much if at all. Herein lies the question that this article set out to ask: is it even possible to Matheny-proof a bullpen, or are we stuck where we are?
Given this lack of growth over six years with no signs of improvement, and so much effort being spent working around the mistakes, the Cardinals appear to be left with two options:
Option #1: FIRE YOUR STUPID MANAGER JOHN
Sorry, I had to get this out of my system. Bottom line is, this one doesn’t seem to be happening any time soon. Our good friend Craig Edwards of Fangraphs and formerly of vivaelbirdos made the ultimate case for the Matheny experiment to come to an end back in 2016. An updated version of this article would no doubt reach the same conclusion but would have even stronger evidence. Some fans have gone to more drastic measures to back the cause, to no avail. Regardless of what the fans and bloggers think, the fact is that if Matheny could be fired for bullpen screw-ups, he likely would have by now. It does seem strange, since there has clearly been a disconnect and tension between Mozeliak and Matheny for years now. Something keeps him around, and whatever it takes just hasn’t happened yet. There could be another entire long-winded article written about this, though, so I’ll leave that where it is.
Option #2: Construct the Roster Progressively & Let it Sort Itself Out
Back in January 2016, Ben Markham at vivaelbirdos wrote a good article making a case for how the bullpen can be “Matheny-proofed.” In the article, one of Ben’s key points was that a strong stable of middle relief options will help mitigate one of the most consistent Matheny blunders: leaving in starting pitchers too long. That offseason, the Cardinals legitimately had seemed to build towards that end. Of course, here we are now in mid-2018, and we know that this didn’t wind up happening. This isn’t to say that Ben’s point was incorrect; rather, this is to say that his point was perfectly sensible, and the fact that it didn’t wind up working out that way is evidence that the real problem with Matheny lies elsewhere. Namely, Matheny doesn’t leave starters in too long because he doesn’t trust his middle relief options; he leaves starters too long because he wants them to “work through it,” or because he thinks pulling them will lose their trust, or in some situations because he wants them to get a win for their W-L record. Regardless of which of these reasons it is on a given night, the point is that these are mistakes he makes as a matter of philosophy rather than something based in how the roster is constructed.
This apparent fact that Matheny’s strategic mistakes are philosophical is a big problem. Roster construction can be dealt with, but philosophy is what it is. If evidence that the philosophy needs overhauled was enough to make Matheny re-evaluate, he would have done so by now. Whether it’s pure stubbornness or Matheny merely sees the mistakes as aberrations is hard to say, but either way, it’s hard to see this changing any time soon. Thus, from the perspective of John Mozeliak & Mike Girsch, if you find yourself in the awkward but apparently real position that the strategic deficiencies will never improve but you insist on hanging on to Matheny for some reason, then the next best thing you can do is try to mitigate these deficiencies as much as possible.
How, then, do you work around the problems that come with Matheny’s strategic philosophy? Ironically enough, my proposal involves constructing the bullpen as you would if your manager was more progressive with respect to bullpen usage. By that I mean that you build the bullpen with a number of legitimate options, but not necessarily with the consideration of pitchers who fit into “established” roles.
Perhaps that needs to be fleshed out a bit more. The first fact we have to acknowledge, and which is a clearly established truth at this point, is that relief pitchers are unpredictable. The Mariano Riveras and Trevor Hoffmans of the world who can maintain success as a reliever for a long stretch of time are the exception and not the rule. This is especially true now when relief pitchers are throwing even harder and thereby tearing up their arms more frequently. Instead, it is more common that even the best relief pitchers will have down years, will find brief periods of success that don’t last all that long, or will randomly find a new level of success that they haven’t shown before (for example of the last point, check out what Adam Ottavino is doing for the Nationals so far this season). Relief pitchers have an incredibly wide variance, and teams should thus be smart about how they invest in them. Even if you fall in the “it’s not my money” camp, the other problem, especially for a Matheny-lead team, is that a big investment in a relief pitcher comes with the specific expectation that he will fill a specific role.
The most obvious example of this for Cardinals fans is the aforementioned Greg Holland fiasco. Our own John “Oh Look at Me, Dexter and Aliyah Fowler Read My Article, Look How Special I Am” Fleming wrote a truly fantastic piece a couple of Holland disasters ago about how the Cardinals’ front office deserves a fair share of blame for the Holland situation by caving to the strategic deficiencies of Mike Matheny and trying to give him an “established” closer to make him more comfortable. The tenor of the article, as I’ve always read it, reminds me of the “catharsis” scene near the end of Inception, where in his dream the guy who played Scarecrow in Batman Begins thinks his dad is telling him he’s disappointed because he couldn’t be what he is, but his dad, the guy who played Kobayashi in The Usual Suspects, tells him he was only disappointed that his son tried to be what he was. I’m not disappointed that the Cardinals didn’t give Mike Matheny an reliable, established closer, I’m disappointed that they tried to. We have seen the downside play out exactly: Matheny views bullpen roles as rigid, and Holland was signed with the intention of playing a specific, rigid role, so Matheny has trotted him out there to fill that role even though he isn’t good enough for it right now. Even appearances where Holland has pitched in other situations have been means to that end: trying to “get him right” so he can fit in that rigid role.
Rather, my proposal is to blend lower-key, short-term free agent signings, trades, and pitchers in the upper levels of the farm system then let the best combination work itself out early on and evolve through the season as necessary. Acquire and develop these pitchers not with the goal of pigeon-holing them into a particular role, but instead let their play determine how they should best be utilized. This is not to say that no money can ever be spent on relief pitchers, but instead is more concerned with intent behind the signings. Instead of signing Greg Holland with the clear idea of giving Matheny a comfortable, singular option at closer, what if the Cardinals had signed Brandon Morrow to a deal comparable to the 2-year deal the Cubs gave him? Although this move has not worked out that well so far, the Luke Gregerson signing actually fit this idea pretty well. The Pat Neshek, Seung-Hwan Oh and Bud Norris signings are recent examples of this type of acquisition working out extremely well. A more strategically progressive manager will determine, based on performance, what pitchers belong in higher-leverage and lower-leverage situations and adjust accordingly. Instead of a “closer,” the best pitcher in the bullpen will come in in the highest-leverage situation, whether that is a traditional save situation or not. We won’t get this with Matheny, at least not strictly so since he loves rigid bullpen roles, but this will at least mitigate the ill effects of his bullpen philosophy. Rather than fit pitchers into these roles because he thinks that is where they “belong” and feels beholden to use them there, he will at least determine who fits what role based on how they perform.
For further evidence that this strategy mitigates some degree of Matheny mistakes, look at how various Matheny bullpens have shaken out. Edward Mujica, Trevor Rosenthal, Seung-Hwan Oh, and Trevor Rosenthal again have all pitched their way into the closer role despite someone else being previously seen as filling that role. Just this year, Bud Norris has emerged as a very efficient closer for the Cardinals so far, Dominic Leone was settling into a set-up role before he got hurt, and Jordan Hicks has found success in the set-up role post-Leone injury. In the seasons where the bullpen has seemed like less of a disaster, there was nobody like Holland who Mike feels beholden to anoint as closer; rather, pitchers pitch their way into roles, although it does sometimes take longer than it should. Matheny works his way into fitting the right pitcher into the right role eventually when he does not have pre-conceived notions about who should go where. Thus, if the Cardinals build their bullpen in a way that is conducive to this, and do not build simply to fit particular pitchers into particular roles, some of the damage will be mitigated.
Ultimately, this will not solve all of the problems, as we have seen. The bullpen will likely always have issues under Matheny because of his philosophy. Nothing is going to stop him from leaving in both starters and relievers too long, over-working pitchers he trusts while letting pitchers he’s less comfortable with languish, or fixate too much on traditional roles rather than leverage. The problems that lead to sometimes going with an 8-man bullpen at the cost of an extra bench player aren’t going away. The solution to me still should be to find someone else to manage the team. Since that does not seem to be a realistic option, though, the team should instead try to mitigate the damage as much as possible by not building a bullpen to his preferences and instead let him figure it out based on performance. Avoid the Greg Hollands, and instead let the Seung-Hwan Ohs and Edward Mujicas and Bud Norrises prove themselves.
The headaches are never going away, but at least we’ll have a bigger bottle of Tylenol. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing.
As always, thanks for taking the time to read this long-winded affair. If you have any thoughts or disagreements, or you just want to tell me how wonderful of a writer I am and how much you are loving this site, feel free to leave a comment, or hit me up on twitter at @turpin4prez. lease check out the rest of the fine #content on this site, keep your eyes peeled for more of said #content from me, and check out my mom’s blog The Kitchen Wench for some fine Midwestern cooking. Thanks again for reading, and until next time, go Cards!