When the St. Louis Cardinals hired Mike Matheny in November 2011 to replace the legendary Tony LaRussa, the widespread perception was that, in contrast to his predecessor, Mike Matheny was young enough that he would be willing to adapt to new-school, analytically-driven managerial styles. Less than a month after his hiring, David Laurila referred to Matheny as a “saber-friendly Cardinal” in a post for FanGraphs.
Once Mike Matheny actually began managing Major League Baseball games (keep in mind that at the time of his hiring, Matheny had never worked as a coach or manager in professional baseball and his managerial experience was limited to Little League and a brief period as a special adviser for the Cardinals in 2008), it became apparent that Matheny’s sabermetric bona fides were more than a bit overstated. Between seemingly arbitrary lineup construction which often saw mediocre hitters placed in high-leverage situations, over-use of statistically dubious sacrifice bunting, and bizarre bullpen management based on archaic pitcher roles, there is no shortage of criticisms of Matheny’s tactics on paper. As ESPN’s Dan Szymborski once put it, “If I had to demonstrate to someone what Mike Matheny’s bullpen usage is like, I’d drop 500 spiders into a kindergarten class.”
But when Matheny developed a track record, the narrative shifted to something less tangible–that while Mike Matheny may not be perfect on paper, he is valuable in ways that may be even more important in the long term. While Tony LaRussa was known for his curmudgeonly ways, getting into confrontations with Cardinals from Ozzie Smith to Ron Gant to Scott Rolen to Brendan Ryan to Colby Rasmus, Matheny was considerably closer in age to his players and was only half a decade removed from playing in the Majors himself.
Perhaps Matheny was never going to be inventive, but this isn’t a prerequisite to managerial success. Consider Dusty Baker–he has long been maligned by sabermetrically-inclined fans and analysts, but his teams consistently won. The stark differences between his successes and his theoretical deficiencies doesn’t disprove the latter, but rather suggest there’s more to the equation. Perhaps managing is 25% tactics and 75% human resources, and if your manager is a poor tactician and a great, to borrow a cliche frequently used in reference to Matheny, “leader of men”, then that’s still a pretty good thing. The pros outweigh the cons.
But what is the evidence that Mike Matheny is an exceptional leader? Morale did seem pretty high with the Cardinals during his early seasons, but the team was also overwhelmingly successful. The true sign of a leader is not his popularity when things are going well, but his ability to maintian morale when things are going downhill. Just since the beginning of 2017, here are a few examples which seemingly suggest that Mike Matheny is not as popular in the Cardinals’ clubhouse as his reputation suggests.
- When Tommy Pham not only didn’t make the 2017 Opening Day roster, but playing time in left field went to career first baseman (and it showed) Matt Adams instead, Pham noticed. Pham, who had spent parts of three seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals already, says that he considered quitting baseball. Pham had spent extended time with Mike Matheny and evidently had no faith, despite good MLB and MiLB numbers, that he would get another chance at the big league level.
- After outfielder Randal Grichuk was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in January, he commented that Cardinals outfielders were confused by the team’s allocation of playing time–that the team would reward players for a good previous game or punish players for a poor previous game and that this would create unnecessary stress for players.
- This week’s controversy regarding Dexter Fowler, usually cited as a referendum on John Mozeliak (which, it can be two things). While Mozeliak should not have made these comments publicly regardless of whether or not he is correct, what Mozeliak insinuated, that Dexter Fowler was not giving full effort, is itself a referendum on Mike Matheny. It’s one thing to put Dexter Fowler in a subpar position to succeed in the batting order, or to make him attempt an ill-advised sacrifice bunt–a manager who is unable to motivate professional athletes, who got where they are in life by being 99th percentile overly competitive psychopaths in the first place, to try their best is simply unfit for the job.
In addition to these cases, there was the case of Mike Matheny quickly abandoning rookie top prospect Kolten Wong in 2014 after less than a month (in which his offense was very clearly hurt by an abnormally and unsustainably low batting average on balls in play) while sticking militantly by Allen Craig, despite his lower walk rate, higher strike rate, diminshed power, and perfectly normal BABIP (though a steep drop from his historically lucky 2013). The purported prospect whisperer Matheny was quick to give up on one prospect, and unwilling to give another prospect (Oscar Taveras or Randal Grichuk) a chance.
There was Matheny’s unwillingness to play Taveras, the Cardinals’ once-in-a-generation hitting prospect, even after John Mozeliak had dealt Craig to the Boston Red Sox, seemingly to force the manager’s hand, to a point where there were plenty of whispers that Taveras could be traded in the off-season before his untimely death. I don’t know what Taveras’s level of “coachability” was, and because of his death none of us are probably in the most objective place to speculate on it, but this was the exact kind of situation that is supposedly Mike Matheny’s specialty.
There was the aforementioned Matt Adams left field fiasco, after which Adams, formerly a useful if not especially versatile first baseman, was traded to the Atlanta Braves for minor leaguer Juan Yepez in an Allen Craig-like turn of events–Mike Matheny had to be kept from playing Matt Adams in left field by taking him away from the roster. This may seem like a tactical misfire, and it was, but it is also a referendum on Matheny’s ability to communicate with players. As with Allen Craig, Mike Matheny was either unwilling to have an uncomfortable conversation with one of his players, or he was naive to the need to have that conversation in the first place.
Maybe expecting a manager to placate potentially fragile egos of hyper-competitive Major League Baseball players is asking too much, but if Mike Matheny isn’t being paid to do this, what is his upside? What is, in his seventh season as Cardinals manager, his broader appeal? What is he good at?
I think we’ve just kind of accepted that Mike Matheny is a good players’ manager because if he isn’t, his continued employment doesn’t make sense. Our natural tendency is to assume that the Cardinals are acting rationally, that there has to be something we aren’t seeing. Perhaps there’s more than meets the eye. But perhaps the Cardinals’ front office, as they did by shifting the blame for Dexter Fowler being disappointing since signing in free agency from themselves onto Fowler himself, are once again unwilling to acknowledge their own mistakes.