Mike Matheny’s 2015 book, The Matheny Manifesto: A Young Manager’s Old-School Views on Success in Sports and Life, is an insightful look into what leadership should be, especially with children in sports. There’s no doubt that the St. Louis Cardinals manager has top notch leadership ability. The year the book was published, Matheny used these leadership skills to guide a team depleted by injuries to important players to 100 wins and the best record in baseball.
The man is a leader, but he’s not a tactician.
“Old-School” is part of the title of Matheny’s book, and he certainly can be considered old-school in the way he runs the team. Now in his fifth season, Matheny has ‘his guys’ who fall into particular roles, and these standard roles aren’t challenged regardless of the situation.
This is especially noticeable in how he manages his late-inning relievers. In 2015, Matheny used Kevin Siegrist in 81 games, Seth Maness (who had a 4.26 ERA) in 76 games, Randy Choate in 71 games, and Trevor Rosenthal in 68 games. The next most-used pitcher, Carlos Villanueva, only appeared in 35 games.
Come hell or high water, Matheny used Maness in the 7th, Siegrist in the 8th, and Rosenthal in the 9th.
Baseball simply isn’t this straightforward. Let’s look at the Cardinals’ game in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night. Michael Wacha needed 79 pitches to get through 4 innings. These were stressful pitches, too. Considering his poor spring, the fact that it was Wacha’s first start of the season, and the cold weather, you would think Matheny would be careful with his 24-year-old starter, yes? Nope. He sent Wacha out to start the 5th and it went as expected.
With no help from Diaz who flubbed up a potential inning-ending double play, Wacha loaded the bases with 1 out. The 1-run game was on the line. It’s the perfect situation for Maness who sports a career 21 percent double play rate, a full 10 percent higher than the league average. The perfect fireman for a key situation, yes?
Nope. It must have been ‘too early’ for Maness to pitch. Matheny called upon Lyons who then gave up a sacrifice fly before getting out of the inning. Sure, the decision didn’t completely blow up in Matheny’s face, but you can’t be distracted by the results and, instead, need to look at the original logic and if it is sound.
There was another example of this type of thinking later in the game. Jeremy Hazelbaker, a career minor leaguer who is this year’s spring training feel-good story, hit a bloop double down the line to lead off the 9th inning. This brought Wong, a lefty who hits right-handed pitching well, to the plate against Pittsburgh’s (conveniently) right-handed closer.
Matheny’s decision? Let’s throw away an out. Wong was told to bunt. This team’s offense is not good; they finished 24th in the league in runs scored last year and the Cardinals didn’t bring in Mike Trout in the offseason to fix that. Instead of giving his team three chances to plate Hazelbaker, an above-average runner who was already in scoring position, Matheny took the bat out of Wong’s hands.
After the game, Matheny commented on how Carpenter ended up flying out after Wong hit anyway, trying to defend his decision. Again, you can’t use the ends to explain away the flawed means. Carpenter hitting a homerun after the failed bunt still wouldn’t have made the decision to bunt a correct one or one subjected to question.
One decision Matheny can’t even use the results to justify is his propensity to put Molina in the 5th spot in the lineup. He went 0-4 and gave no reason for Pirates pitchers to respect the hitters in front of him.
I love Yadi, but at this point in his career there’s absolutely no reason for him to hit 5th. Never. His thumb injuries have put an end to his days of being a power threat. You can probably see the theme here, though. Yadi is one of Matheny’s guys, so he gets preference. It’s illogical. As Brad Thompson often says, I would be fine if Molina went to the plate without a bat because he has so much value behind the plate.
The last decision I want to critique is how Matheny so often removes key bats for pinch runners late in tie games. Last night he pinch ran for Matt Holliday with Greg Garcia in the 10th inning. I understand the basic idea behind it: take Holliday off of the base paths and add some speed.
Here’s the problem: Greg Garcia isn’t Vince Coleman. He’s not even Peter Bourjos. He has slightly above average speed at best. He made no attempt to steal second or even put pressure on the pitcher. This eliminated the Cardinals’ 3 hitter in a tie game against a division rival in extra innings for no real benefit. It also put the pitcher’s spot behind your team’s hottest hitter, Piscotty, and your team’s slowest-starting hitter, Grichuk. Not exactly a recipe for success. Especially on a team that has to claw and scratch for every single run.
In the end, it is only fair to acknowledge the fact that Matheny is 100 games over .500 (375-275) in his first five seasons as manager. However, he has never proved to be a great tactician, especially with the bullpen, over those years. Even more concerning is that he doesn’t seem to be improving.
The 2016 Cardinals simply won’t see their offense greatly improve on their poor performance last year. Slight improvement may occur if the team stays healthy, but nothing significant. At the same time, this year’s team can’t expect the same quality of starting pitching as last year’s historic performance. The 2016 team also appears to have a weaker defense behind those pitchers.
The team isn’t trending up in these areas. It may, in fact, be the worst team he has managed so far. This is going to put even more pressure on Matheny to make the most of what he has. He needs to be brave enough to go against his normal strategies when the game dictates it. He needs to be big enough to own up and learn from his mistakes so that he can actually become a better strategist. He needs to realize what type of team he has and alter his typical moves to best fit that team.
Keep leading, Mike, but please be more flexible. It is time to start improving your strategy.