In 2011, following a dramatic seven-game World Series victory and with their farm system suddenly loaded with potential impact Major League players, the St. Louis Cardinals looked as positioned for long-term success as they had arguably at any point in their history. Sure, the 2011 team didn’t really “deserve” the World Series title that they were twice one strike away from yielding to the Texas Rangers–they were a Wild Card team which had obvious pitching deficiencies and were an afterthought entering the postseason behind the Rangers and the Philadelphia Phillies, among others. But they won it. And a couple days later, legendary Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa retired.
The position as Cardinals manager was understandably coveted, and some of the biggest names in the profession were floated about as candidates for it. Tampa Bay Rays (and future Chicago Cubs) skipper Joe Maddon was considered a candidate, given his success in a much smaller market and his background, having grown up a fan of the Cardinals. Terry Francona, recently dismissed as manager of a Boston Red Sox team with whom he won two World Series titles, was available and apparently very interested. Longtime coaches such as Jose Oquendo, while less spectacular in terms of name recognition, were also considered.
But instead, the Cardinals hired former catcher Mike Matheny, a man with no professional managerial or coaching experience, to take the reigns of arguably the most desirable job in Major League Baseball. Aside from some informal Spring Training-related special coach positions, Matheny’s highest level of coaching was Little League.
Matheny was the type of player one might assume could handle the position reasonably well–he wasn’t a great player, but he was well-regarded as a clubhouse leader and had a good reputation for handling the Cardinals’ pitching staff while he was in St. Louis. But it all did seem a bit odd.
The typical modern view of baseball managers is that they don’t have much impact, that the gap between the best and the worst managers is probably just a few wins per seasons. It isn’t as though a 100-win team would go from a good manager to a bad one and suddenly be uncompetitive. Tony LaRussa may have been a Hall of Famer, and Mike Matheny may have beeen a novice, but the Cardinals were still a good team.
The difference between a great manager and a pedesterian one is often a matter of inches. Tony LaRussa is recognized as a legendary Cardinals manager because of the tremendous success of his sixteen-season tenure in St. Louis, but what if the Cardinals completed their 2006 NL Central collapse, missing the postseason (that they won 83 games and made it was itself a hallmark of extremely good fortune) altogether? Considering the team’s collapse into abject mediocrity in 2007, does LaRussa even remain manager through 2011 in time to win a World Series which, had Nelson Cruz just been a split-second faster in retrieving David Freese’s game-tying ninth inning triple, could have easily been another postseason defeat?
A manager may not make a huge difference, and the “only a few games would change in the long term” may be accurate, but we never know when those games will hit. Without finding a specific example, Tony LaRussa surely botched a regular season game in 2004 as badly or worse than he botched the team’s bullpen strategy in Game 5 of the 2011 World Series, but since that team won 105 games in its regular season campaign, we don’t think about it much. Maybe that’s not fair. But it’s hard not to think about the high-profile blunders.
The 2012 Cardinals had a lot going for them that the 2011 team did not–the loss of Albert Pujols was an obvious one, but Adam Wainwright returned, Carlos Beltran (largely accepted as the counter-move to Pujols joining the Angels) played admirably in right field, Allen Craig went from solid bench player to a regular who received MVP votes, and Yadier Molina had his best season as a Cardinal. By cumulative FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, it was the best season the Cardinals played since 2004. But the Cardinals limped into the postseason, benefiting from the newly-concocted second Wild Card position, and advanced all the way to Game 7 of the NLCS. They were one game away from a World Series which was eventually swept by the National League champions.
In 2013, the Cardinals went from a bit unlucky in terms of the correlation of their record and their run differential to extraordinarily lucky, having unprecedented levels of success with runners in scoring position throughout the season en route to 97 wins. But the team had somewhat obvious flaws–third baseman David Freese was suddenly ineffective, though Mike Matheny refused to give more than a token amount of playing time to rookie Kolten Wong, whose presence would also allow Matt Carpenter to move to his natural position of third base. Mitchell Boggs was a disaster immediately as the team’s closer following a Spring Training injury to Jason Motte, yet he remained in the role until he was ultimately designated for assignment, a move which ultimately showed a massive disconnect between a manager who had unflinching faith in Boggs and a front office that didn’t even believe he belonged on the team.
The 2013 season ended, for the second of four consecutive seasons, with three consecutive losses, this time in the World Series, lost to the Red Sox in six games. It’s admittedly not as easy to point to a six-game loss as on the manager as a seven-game loss, but the issues which had caused criticism of Matheny during the regular season, but which ultimately did not hurt the team’s playoff positioning, came to the surface in the World Series–he was relentlessly loyal to some ineffective players and he would leave starters in games entirely too long.
In 2014, Mike Matheny made the most high-profile tactical blunder of his career when he deferred to Michael Wacha to pitch in a tied game in Game 5 of the 2014 NLCS instead of Trevor Rosenthal. Wacha, who had not pitched in a month, was brought into the game, per Matheny, because it was a tied game on the road, and Rosenthal would be needed for a save situation. This was the most famous of Matheny’s flaws. Ben Lindbergh famously (while the Cardinals were still in the playoffs following a 100-win regular season) noted that Mike Matheny was worse at utilizing relievers in proper game leverage than a random number generator.
A case could be made that Mike Matheny, tactically speaking, improved during his 2 1/2 postseason-less seasons as Cardinals manager. He bunted less. He would put top relievers in tied games in non-save situations. But that the team was losing diffused the primary, mostly effective defense of Matheny during his successful first four seasons–that the team won. Those of us who believed the team was winning in spite of, not because of, Matheny, weren’t exactly surprised that a team with less talent was less successful, but he remained, even if slightly improved, less than ideal as a tactician.
And then, as the team struggled, Matheny’s supposed strength, his ability to handle the egos and emotions of a Major League clubhouse, started to be exposed as a weakness. Tommy Pham semi-openly questioned Matheny. Randal Grichuk questioned the communication in the clubhouse once he was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays. Dexter Fowler reportedly cut off communication with his manager. The team’s top two relievers were embroiled in controversy which was read by many as a form of clubhouse bullying.
Mike Matheny’s ultimate legacy in St. Louis is that he was the manager for some very successful teams but never quite won the World Series. I’ve long detested judging coaches or players strictly on rings, but if you work under the belief that Mike Matheny was a below-average manager, and you consider how tantalizingly close the Cardinals came to winning it all since 2012, it is hard to not think about what could have been.