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John Mozeliak Shakes Things Up, and That Should Get Mike Matheny’s Attention

After Friday’s shakeup by Cardinals GM John Mozeliak, the team responded by sweeping a three-game set against the hideous Philadelphia Phillies.

Yeah, yeah, I know.

The Phillies have the worst record in baseball.

But the Cardinals were playing like the worst team in baseball as they came home from an 0-7 road trip, reeking of smoke from Scooter Gennett, and overloaded with 17 losses in their previous 22 games.

The Cardinals couldn’t have asked for a softer mark than the Phillies, who had lost 28 of 38 games coming into Busch Stadium. Make that 31 out of the last 41. The Cardinals just had to slap the Phillies around. And except for the 7-0 complete-game shutout by Carlos Martinez, it wasn’t convincing, with the Cardinals dodging more trouble with a pair of one-run wins on Friday (3-2) and Sunday (6-5.)

Given their terrible play in recent weeks, the Cardinals were desperate to get some win — even if the triumphs came over their Class A minor-league team in Peoria.

I don’t discredit a team’s wins. MLB clubs don’t get to make their own schedules, or cherry-pick their own opponents. The Phillies were in town. Three games. You either defeat them, or sink deeper into the cesspit. The Cardinals made it through, winning only their second series at home since the end of April.

Was this the response Mozeliak was looking for?

Put it this way: Mo came into the weekend looking for his team’s pulse.

So I’m thinking the GM is feeling just a little better today.

Now, a few comments about Friday’s agitation …

1. By rearranging part of Mike Matheny’s coaching staff, Mozeliak aimed a warning shot at his manager. 

“I want him to feel confident we trust him to do his job, but we need to do better,” Mozeliak said during Friday’s press conference. He added: “I think everyone, including myself, is not in the most secure position right now,” Mozeliak said.

2. OK, but is Matheny really in trouble? 

In my opinion — no, not yet. A few reasons: a three-year contract extension that’s guaranteed through 2020 … there’s chairman Bill DeWitt Jr’s strong support of Matheny, and I don’t think BDJ is close to turning on his manager … there’s the dormant division; despite playing awful baseball, the Cardinals go into Monday’s day off only 2.5 games out of first in the weak-tea NL Central. This doesn’t mean the Cards deserve to be only 2.5 games out; but the division has been very forgiving. So there’s at least a chance to win. The Cardinals haven’t been ejected from contention … there’s Matheny’s overall winning percentage of .563,  which puts the Cardinals third in the majors since Matheny took over in 2012. And his record also includes making the playoffs in his first four seasons and winning the 2013 NL pennant.

My point here isn’t to defend Matheny and to try and make the case that he warrants generous job security.  I’m just reading DeWitt the best that I can. Matheny is only 62 games into his long-term contract extension; do you really expect DeWitt to cash out this soon and and pay Matheny off through 2020? Please.

And there’s this: up to this point DeWitt and Mozeliak have been willing to tolerate a lot of stuff with Matheny: his bumbling bullpen management; his preferential treatment of veterans at the expense of younger players’ development; his odd lineup construction; the soiled team fundamentals; Matheny pushing his players to be aggressive on the bases even as they run off the cliff time and time again; the skipper’s love of outdated, foolish, old-timey baseball tactics such as wasting outs by having a good hitter try to sac bunt when there’s already a runner in scoring position.

(Matheny did it again Sunday … taking Dexter Fowler’s home-run bat out of his hands, calling for a sac bunt with Matt Carpenter on second base. Why? It was just another ridiculous decision, and Fowler popped the bunt into the air, with the Phillies turning it into a double play. This moment loomed large when the Phillies rallied in the ninth … but the Cardinals held on for a 6-5 win.)

If DeWitt and Mozeliak were so willing to accept this (with enthusiasm) during Matheny’s first five-plus years on the job, then I find it difficult to believe that the bosses are just now turning impatient. Good grief, they gave Matheny his new contract the day after the Cubs won the World Series — in sort of a defiant “Make No Mistake, He’s Still Our Guy” statement. The bosses had to know that, left unattended, Matheny’s hard-to-break flaws would eventually drive the club into a losing rut. And that’s happening. This could have been prevented by holding Matheny to higher standards. Now that management has sent the message, we may see a more humble and open-minded Matheny.

I don’t think DeWitt and Mozeliak have altered their assessment of the manager in a drastic way. Is Matheny is at risk of losing his job this season? No, I don’t think so. Matheny’s cover has always been his record … a good overall record, even though he repeats the mistakes, and hasn’t evolved as a manager.  As long as Matheny can get the Cardinals winning again, he’ll be fine. How much winning? Only DeWitt knows what his personal standard is.

I’ll make this point too: Matheny has had the masses scratching their heads over his quirks and work since 2012, which means that Matheny was rewarded and thus enabled by the GM and owner. If I’m a manager that constantly does all of this silly things and gets praised and handed contract security … I’m probably going to think that I’m the second coming of Billy Southworth, and there’s no reason for me to change a thing.

Yes, I realize that DeWitt fired GM Walt Jocketty a year after the Cardinals won the 2006 World Series. But that was different. DeWitt made the bold move to put an end to the corrosive infighting and front-office political war between Jocketty and director player development Jeff Luhnow.

3. Mozeliak turned up the pressure with coaching changes that will have the manager squirming a little as he feels some heat for the first time as Cards’ manager. 

When Mozeliak promoted the highly regarded Memphis hitting coach Mike Budaska to the big club to assist batting coach John Mabry, the GM’s message couldn’t have been more obvious. Mabry is Matheny’s BFF. Matheny is 100 percent committed in his loyalty to his BFF.  And by elevating a minor-league coach that’s admired by so many of the Cards’ younger veterans, it sets up a potential line of succession. There’s a part two: Mozeliak also promoted acclaimed hitting coach George Greer, who is a favorite of management, from Class to Triple A Memphis to take Budaska’s spot. Mozeliak made it clear: Matheny’s BFF should realize that he does not have a job for life, especially with the Cards lagging at 26th in the bigs in runs per game (4.07.)

4. Now that’s Shildt’s duties have expanded and changed and can have more influence, I think he can make a positive difference in sharpening this team’s gross fundamentals. 

My theory:  Shildt, a George Kissell baseball descendant, has one of the best and brightest minds in the organization, and he could make a difference … as long as he was ALLOWED to make a difference. I doubted that Matheny would give Shildt authority and the freedom to smartly use advance metrics as a tool for maximizing defensive positioning. (As well as other areas of the team where the information, culled from advance metrics, can enhance your team’s chances of winning.

My concerns were basically reaffirmed when Mozeliak gave Shildt a more meaningful role as part of the reordering of the coaching staff. Shildt will coach third base; he is a clear upgrade over the reassigned Maloney. And Shildt has been put in charge of the outfield defense — an area that’s embarrassingly inept this season, and for no justifiable reason. The Cardinals are minus in Defensive Runs Saved at every outfield position this season. At minus 13 DRS, the Cards rank 27th in the majors in outfield defense.

It’s my opinion — and we’ll see — is Shildt will utilize the reams of available information to properly align his outfield defense. It happened in Friday night’s win over the Phillies. Remember the game-saving catch by Tommy Pham in left field? According to the Statscast data, Pham had a 29 percent chance to record an out there. But he made a terrific grab on a ball hit down the LF line for the game’s final out. ham made the catch moments after Shildt adjusted Pham’s positioning and moved Pham closer to the line.

That’s an example of what Shildt can do. (And another promoted coach Ron “Pop” Warner, may be able to assist in improving the infield defense.)

Shildt  needed to have the freedom to make those adjustments.

With this move, Mozeliak took care of that.

5. The GM is trying to fix coaching-staff flaws that were an obvious factor in the erosion of the Cardinals’ historical dedication to fundamentals.

If Mike Matheny and his coaches couldn’t or wouldn’t clean things up, Mozeliak intervened to do it for them.

Mozeliak will also be under increased scrutiny for the team’s talent level, but that’s another topic to be vetted (again) later.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Miklasz – Mike Matheny Looks Overwhelmed, and I Can’t Say I Blame Him

  • Harold Atkins

    Couldn’t agree more. Glad SOMEONE finally has done SOMETHING. Too many coaches and players had seem to stop caring.

  • I think bringing Pop Warner up to the big club is the a bigger shot across the bow than discussed. Pop has managerial experience and is highly regarded. By bringing him up he gets to work with the team and can become the replacement coach if they make the move to fire MM. They wouldn’t replace MM with any of the existing coaching staff IMHO.

    • James Berry

      I somewhat kind of agree with you. But i’d say the one who should feel the immediate pressure is Bell. Bell either is nothing more than a yes man, or is so inept in his attempts to sway some of Matheny’s poor decisions, that he’s disregarded by Matheny.

      What is more likely to happen first, since Matheny just signed the extension, is Bell being fired and Pop being installed as the new bench coach. One with a stronger voice.

  • Jody Wassmer

    Once again, Bernie is the ONLY St Louis-based writer who consistently writes the truth. Though Matheny is a clear liability, Mo and Dewitt will stay with him unless the team really heads south.

  • maryville

    Bernie wrote: “Matheny’s bumbling bullpen management”. Hmmm, might this be more of a lack of bullpen pitchers who can get outs, i.e., not turning victories into losses?

    • An MLB manager still needs to play the hand he’s dealt, and that means bringing in a reliever when your starter falters in the seventh, which happened twice in the past week. If the relievers continually fail, that’s on the GM. But when the manager doesn’t make a move, that’s on the manager.

      • maryville

        During the losing streak the relievers were continually failing . . . . .

    • James Berry

      While some of the relievers have failed more often than not, seemingly, it’s in part due to how Matheny uses them. I’m speaking mainly of those that were here, and still are, prior to this season. Matheny over used Siegrist for three years and now look at the version of him we have. He used to live between 96-98 with his fastball. Now, if he hits 93 on the gun i’m amazed. His arm must feel like jelly most of the time. Now look at what he’s doing to Bowman. Bowman is on pace to pitch in 87 games. That is ridiculously high. We are witnessing the effect of his being over used. Rosey & Oh are also showing the effects from Matheny’s sketchy BP management.

      I’ll add also, Lilly looks like just another yes man for Matheny. Otherwise he’d make a better effort at controlling usage.

      • maryville

        Bowman, Rosenthal, and Oh may be overused, but who are the alternatives? The bullpen is next to useless . . . . .

        • James Berry

          Well, for one, Matheny needs to stop with this nonsense of not pitching a reliever for a week just in the off chance he may need him for 3 or 4 innings in one day. He’s constantly done that with Lyons and he did it with Gant. Gant was up a full week before Matheny used him. That is how you overwork some relievers and kill others from being successful by not using them.

  • George Belt

    My thought would be that MM’s poor managerial performance is enhanced by their losing record. It is easy to overlook, or ignore, mistakes when the record is a winning one but very difficult when the team is performing so poorly. I would guess eating MM’s salary would not be an issue. I have no idea how much it is but would guess perhaps 1 mil.. but even if 2 mil… it would not be a significant bite to take. The pressure to continue the 3+ attendance numbers will likely push them to move quickly.

    • James Berry

      Since they’ve passed the 3 million ticket sales about 2 weeks ago, that itself has no bearing this year. If season packages were to drop significantly for next season, then you’ve got something.

  • I’m wondering about the bench coach, David Bell. Haven’t heard anything about him during the Cardinals’ downturn. Does MM not listen to him? Or is Bell just getting a free pass? Or do MM and DB just think alike? (Which is certainly something you DON’T want in a bench coach, unless the manager doesn’t need a bench coach in the first place.) None of these three scenarios is very good.

    • Realist50

      You raise a good question, and these changes leave me wondering what exactly Bell does.

      Shildt is in charge of outfield defense positioning, which logically could be an area for the bench coach. Even before that, Shildt’s official Cardinals bio says that as Quality Control Coach he “focused on advance scouting analytics and assisting with the team’s day-to-day preparations”, which sounds like it’s taking on a big portion of what a bench coach would do. If Shildt is the analytics-friendly guy on the coaching staff, he sounds like a better fit for bench coach than third base coach.

      It sounds like Pop Warner will be involved with infield positioning, which is another logical area for the bench coach.

      I assume that Lilliquist, as pitching coach, is the main sounding board for decisions on when to pull starters and how to use the bullpen. That’s just my assumption, though, so maybe I’m mistaken.

      The Pirates have been noted as an example of a team where the manager and coaches have been very open to accepting useful input from the analytics staff – http://grantland.com/the-triangle/pittsburgh-pirates-mike-fitzgerald-mit-sabermetric-road-show/ . That’s been true even though Clint Hurdle might be expected to be an “old-school baseball guy.” I have to think that Mozeliak – obviously an analytics-friendly GM – looks at that example with envy, or wishes that the team had hired Terry Francona over Matheny after interviewing both of them back in 2011. Because I have to think that Mozeliak watches in-game decisions like having Fowler sacrifice with Carpenter on 2nd and seethes at just how bad they are.

      • geoff

        The Pirates actually have a sabermetric coach on staff. Hurdle and the organization have fully embraced sabermetrics, as have the Oakland A’s. That, of course, explains why those two teams have dominated the post-season, and leave little chance for any other team to win a World Series. I believe, based on the post-game stuff, Fowler had Fowler bunting there. Keep in mind that , at the time the Cards interviewed Francona, he had been fired by the Sox after totally losing control of his team. Francona had a good team last year and he did a fine job of getting them to the Series, he is a good and proven manager. Last year Maddon had the better team and had fine pitching, everyone proclaimed him the best manager in the history of baseball, and the Cubs as a juggernaut that could not be beaten for the next twenty million years….Theo had to tank a franchise for five years to put together that team. As it turns out, they aren’t quite as good this year. It looks to me like Matheny can only use what he is given, and Mo handed him an average bunch of players, really good starting pitching, a really crappy bullpen, and a group of coaches, with a few notable exceptions, who were not, able to convince a bunch of comfortable players that they needed to practice if they wanted to be good. Keep in mind, when you have pitching, you have a chance, and the Cards have pitching.

  • rightthinker4

    MO tried helping Matheny again by reassigning (fall guy) Maloney, and DFA Matheny old fried Peralta. A organization respected hitting coach, Mark Budaska, coming up from Memphis, probably does not bode well for Mabry, another Matheny old friend. If Bernie is right, that Mike Schildt is “one of the best and brightest minds in the organization” he could be Matheny’s successor, sooner rather than later. We will see what things look like at the all star break, which is the 4-6 weeks given by MO.

  • Rich Rauch

    After Mo’s “four to six weeks” remark, I was hopeful the beloved Leader of Men could be held accountable. But, I’m sure Bernie is correct and we’re stuck with him.

  • Christopher Toth

    Bernie, just one simple question. How many times have you – or me or others – noted Mo has traded players to force Matheny to use others or sent down players to stop Matheny from using them too much or sent any other signal including this latest coaching one? Maybe it is just me, but it seems like Mo has sent so many of these signals that maybe it is time to use Navy flag signals as a reminder and run them up the foul poles where Matheny can see them.

  • Aaron

    Once again, Mozeliak swoops in to make changes without any leadership from Matheny. How many times has this happened? When the only way meaningful changes happen is when the GM intervenes, there is a big problem. How many other coaches will it take to save Matheny and Mabry’s jobs?

  • badgerboy23

    Lots to ponder since Friday, Bernie makes great points. I also think the following was interesting: 1) Mo dropped Oquendo’s name twice. It appeared to be somewhat of a veiled threat, and it’s the first time anybody at that level has even vaguely referenced the falloff in fundamentals since that strange disengagement, and I still don’t believe anybody has come close to telling us the truth/whole story. It was interesting to see who spoke to the media after the bloodletting:principally Martinez, then Diaz, and Carp…..a little. Noticeably absent from comment were Waino and Yadi. Last–after the game yesterday, the players were walking by MM for the post game congrats. The camera was very tight and behind MM. Fowler (who had been shown talking to MM during the game in the dugout–somewhat unusual) went first, gave MM a bit of a bro hug. Carp was next and appeared to want nothing to do w MM, no exchange, no look, no smile, appeared to just want by him in a hurry. Caught it, ran it back a couple times, my wife agreed. I believe that Carp also usually sits at the other end of the dugout every game as well. Any thoughts?

    • Realist50

      I’m having a tough time seeing any big back story with Oquendo of organizational infighting or politics, which is what I think you’re implying.

      Oquendo stopped being third base coach in 2016 because he had three knee surgeries in nine months. Here was Goold’s answer to a question about “friction” at the time – http://www.stltoday.com/was-there-some-friction-with-jose-oquendo/article_6aa2e655-2336-552e-8255-fd9e1dde6a60.html

      Oquendo lives in Stuart, Florida, near the Cardinals’ complex in Jupiter. He also said before this season that he’s given up on the idea of getting an MLB manager job – http://www.stltoday.com/sports/baseball/professional/versatile-oquendo-will-shift-focus-again-for-cardinals/article_09c1a0ec-9054-511c-ad3e-247b6e6a9a8f.html .

      Reading between the lines, it sounds like Oquendo likes having a job where he can work in baseball, as an instructor with the Cardinals’ minor league players, but doesn’t have to be on the road for the regular season like he would as an MLB coach. As a player or coach, he’d been in the regular season travel grind more or less continuously for three decades.

      Perhaps there’s more to it, but it seems like a simple enough explanation that a married guy in his 50’s, with 4 kids and a grandkid, decided that he was ready to stop living out of a suitcase and have a more normal home life.

  • Jim Parisi

    To use a Caddyshack analogy this team has turned into Bushwood. A bunch of holier than thou snobs who forgot baseball is supposed to be fun. Maybe that’s why we always finish runner up in our attempts at guys like Robert, Price, etc.

    Bernie what do the players in the league think of St. Louis today? It used to be called baseball heaven by players like McGwire. Has it turned into baseball hell?

    .

  • LoboLoco

    Haven’t seen so much back-bending gyrations since Mary Lou Retton in the 1984 Olympics, in an attempt to save an obviously unqualified manager’s job.

    And to think the Cards passed on Terry Francona that same year. All he’s going to do is wind up in Cooperstown one day.

    I’m thinking the same will not be true of Mike Matheny.

    Of course as Dennis Miller used to say, That’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.