Editor’s note: Mike Bauer (intelligent, talented) wrote this very good post last week about whether the St. Louis Cardinals would fire manager Mike Matheny during the season. I, site manager John Fleming (naive, bad at planning) told him that we should run the post on Monday morning, since there was “no chance” Matheny would be fired before the All-Star Break. Anyway, as soon as I wrote the story about the firing of Mike Matheny, I informed Mike that we would still use this post and that I would cop to being an idiot, which is what this is.
The early 1990s were a pretty dark period for the St. Louis Cardinals. Following owner Gussie Busch’s death in 1989 and Whitey Herzog’s resignation as manager the following year, the team slumped through a few disappointing seasons under the ownership of Anheuser-Busch, who seemed more interested in maximizing profits than building the Cardinals into a championship contender.
Even though the Cardinals were good enough to win at least 83 games in each of Joe Torre’s three full seasons as manager, they were never quite good enough to earn a trip to the playoffs. Then, in June of 1995, with the Cardinals sitting at 20-27, 10 games out of first place, and facing down their eighth consecutive year with no postseason, Torre was abruptly fired.
Everything ended up working out for both parties. Torre went on to manage the New York Yankees, and would oversee a dynasty in the Bronx just a few years after taking the job. Meanwhile, the Cardinals were soon sold to Bill DeWitt, who then turned around and hired Tony La Russa, kicking off over a decade of consistent winning and success.
Torre’s firing is one of just two times in the past 38 years that the Cardinals have fired a manager in the middle of a season (Ken Boyer was relieved of his duties following an abysmal start in 1980). Fast forward to today, and the Redbirds find themselves in a situation similar to the one they were in in the early 90s. Fans are dealing with a disappointing if not downright boring team that appears headed for its third straight year out of the playoffs, along with a front office that appears to have grown complacent with the team’s mediocrity.
As of this writing, the Cardinals are 47-44, 7 games out of first place and 4 games out of the second NL Wild Card spot. Fangraphs gives them a roughly 27% chance of making the playoffs. So, while the team is still technically “in” the playoff race, their realistic chances of playing in October are looking bleaker by the day.
But the 2018 Cardinals season has been undeniably frustrating for reasons beyond wins and losses. The club is still dealing with the fallout from its latest PR crisis in the Dexter Fowler situation, which is highlighted by a report from The Athletic‘s Mark Saxon that Fowler and manager Mike Matheny barely talk to each other anymore. Just when it appeared that this story was about to blow over, we got another report from Saxon about closer Bud Norris apparently being allowed to harass his younger teammates, specifically Jordan Hicks (more on that later). All of this comes just a year after Matheny had a public spat with Yadier Molina over the later’s physical stamina.
By now, we all know that Mike Matheny is both a horrible tactician and that he’s not the “player’s manager” he’s sometimes cracked up to be. Since going to the World Series in 2013, the Cardinals have experienced a gradual decline in how their seasons have ended, and all four of the team’s postseason appearances under Matheny have ended with three consecutive losses.
Seven seasons into his tenure as Cardinals manager, Mike Matheny has not improved as either a tactician or as a leader, and between the team’s on-field struggles and their ugly perception issues around the baseball world, it seems as though a vast majority of the Cardinals’ flaws can be traced back to him. So, with no clear end to any of this in sight, should the St. Louis Cardinals fire Mike Matheny during the season?
Before we answer this question, let’s consider the following:
- The Cardinals shuffled their coaching staff in the middle of last season, and did it again this past offseason. This suggests that the front office realizes that something isn’t working, but since neither of these moves have improved the team’s performance, is it time to realize that Matheny’s assistants may not be the problem?
- If the Cardinals are to make a playoff push in the second half of the season, they’re going to have to jockey for position with teams like the Dodgers, Giants, Nationals, Phillies and Rockies. With the possible exception of Philadelphia’s Gabe Kapler, does Mike Matheny give you a tactical advantage over any of the managers of these teams? And if the answer is no, what’s the point of keeping him around for these final two months?
- In the report on Bud Norris I linked to earlier, Matheny reveals that he’s designated Norris (whom we’ve known for a while to be a meatheaded punk) as a kind of “Clubhouse Cop” who goes around and keeps track of players who aren’t living up to the team’s “standards” so that Matheny can turn around and levy fines against those players. To top it all off, Matheny admits that he doesn’t know if Jordan Hicks will benefit from this kind of treatment* from Norris, but justifies it with an Old Man Yells At Cloud quote about how baseball used to be so much tougher Back In His Day. (*Note: Hicks himself has downplayed the incident on Twitter, but it still doesn’t do much to make the clubhouse sound any less toxic)
- So, to recap, Matheny seems to be allowing if not flat-out encouraging a culture of clubhouse bullying, doesn’t know if it’s a good thing for his young players or not, but continues to do it because “that’s how things used to be” or something. If this is the case, what exactly does Matheny bring to the table as a manager that justifies this kind of behavior?
- If we know that Matheny has feuded with two of the team’s most prominent players like Molina and Fowler, how many player-manager clubhouse disputes haven’t been made public? And between this and the apparent treatment that young players receive from certain veterans at the manager’s amusement, what kind of message does this send to other players around the league, including free agents, about the clubhouse environment in St. Louis?
- If free agents don’t want to play for Mike Matheny or spend time in a toxic clubhouse, what kind of position does that put the club in heading into a historic 2019 free agency period that will include the likes of Manny Machado?
- If Matheny has truly lost the clubhouse as there is every reason to believe, what gives anyone the idea that he can get it back?
Firing Matheny now would give someone like Jose Oquendo or Mike Shildt the chance to spend the rest of the season auditioning for the job, while the organization can get a head start on identifying and pitching themselves to other candidates. Considering how unpopular Matheny has become with fans, firing him now might actually be positive PR for a franchise that can’t seem to get out of its own way at the moment. It may provide the Cardinals with the spark they need to make the postseason, and even if it doesn’t, moving on from Matheny will at least be a positive long-term move for the club.
Although mid-season firings aren’t that common, the Cincinnati Reds fired Bryan Price back in April following a 3-15 start (which makes one wonder why they didn’t do it sooner, but I digress). Since then, Jim Riggleman has managed the team to a respectable 38-36 mark (The Cardinals, meanwhile, are 37-35 in that same span). Sure, getting some injured players back from the disabled list has helped Cincinnati’s cause, but considering that they averaged 69 wins a year in Price’s four full seasons as manager, having a new voice in the clubhouse probably helped things a bit.
The All-Star break presents the Cardinals with a good opportunity to hit the reset button on 2018 and focus on making a second half surge. With the Cardinals still within striking distance of a wild card spot, there’s at least the possibility of one hot streak making enough of a difference to make the playoffs.
Ultimately, I believe that if the Cardinals were going to make any kind of in-season coaching change, they would’ve done so by now, which means Matheny will probably be allowed to finish out the season. But if you believe that Matheny has both lost the clubhouse and is already on the hot seat as is, then there doesn’t seem to be much of a point in waiting two months to do the inevitable.