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If Cardinals Players Still Stand Firmly In Mike Matheny’s Corner, It’s Time To Show Their Loyalty

The way I see it, and this is just my opinion, but Cardinals GM John Mozeliak made his feelings known on several fronts when he reorganized the team’s coaching staff.

1. The time for tidying up the team’s bedraggled fundamentals is long overdue.

2. The standards must be raised. Now.

3. The coaches need to be smarter. And more willing to push, prod and challenge players.  Oh, and this: advanced metrics can be your friend.

4. The manager shouldn’t assume that a three-year contract extension means 100 percent security.  So it’s time for the manager to conduct a thorough self-inspection as part of making the necessary changes that will help him evolve. (If indeed that possible.)

5. The manager can have a Best Friend Forever on his staff, but if the BFF is the batting coach for a sputtering 26th-ranked offense that lacks an identity, the Best Friend Forever may not have a job forever.

What about the players, and their personal and professional relationship with manager Mike Matheny and the coaches?

Matheny has received considerable praise — from me, his bosses, and many others — for his leadership skills. It has been stated and restated many times: Matheny is a players’ manager. He fosters unity and loyalty. He has the players’ backs. He will protect them from the evil media, shelter them from criticism, and never embarrass them publicly.

And in return, because of his unshakable support and non-stop encouragement, he will guide them through adversity on the way to becoming better people, better players.  And the second part of the deal: the players will appreciate the loyalty and always play hard for him.

Matheny believes in the “Servant Leader” philosophy most notably espoused in modern times by Robert K. Greenleaf.  Here’s a sample, taken from Greenleaf’s own words.  The servant first, Greenleaf said, is there “to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.”

That’s swell.

Unless, of course, the servant leader’s team becomes soft and sloppy and comfortable and doesn’t compete as hard as it should. It’s a problem when the servant leader’s team takes advantage of his loyalty and unconditional support. By, say, going to the manager to get his permission to beg off after a dedicated coach (HELLO, JOSE OQUENDO!) asks them to go to the field in a pregame session to fix flawed fundamentals .

Thoughts …

– If the Cardinals’ players are indeed loyal to Matheny and want to play hard for him … well, fellas, this would be a great time to show it. Because your servant leader has been put on notice by the GM. He could use your support. If you want this guy to be your manager for a long time, let’s see a response. Let’s see how you really feel about him. Not that Matheny’s job is any imminent danger, but Mozeliak did launch a warning flair to get the manager’s attention, and the coaches’ attention. I assume this was done to get the players’ attention as well.

-Playing hard isn’t just a physical endeavor; it’s also mental. It’s being sharp instead of careless and reckless when running the bases. It’s about applying full concentration on the defensive end. The mental game is a hugely important element of competing and winning.

– There’s no excuse for the clumsiness we’ve seen. Since the start of last season the Cardinals rank 26th in the majors in defense according to the metrics used by FanGraphs. Among the 30 MLB teams, the 2017  Cards have lost the most runners on base (54) via unforced error.

Last season they lost 47 runners trying to advance (8th most), and had eight runners picked off (7th most.)

This season, the Cardinals had the third-highest count (22) for runners lost attempting to advance. They’ve had the seventh-highest count on runners being doubled off base on a fly ball (five.) And they’ve had the most runners (nine) picked off first base.

Over the last three seasons the Cardinals have the most picked-off runners, 17, in the majors.

Why was this team allowed to become so sloppy … and stay sloppy?

Where was the accountability at the field level?

Look, the manager can’t always be buddy-buddy with the players. He can’t always be the nice guy who will make excuses for them, or defend them, when they screw up. He can’t always keep playing veteran — to maintain their loyalty — when younger, more talented players are sitting.  The manager must hold all 25 players to  more stringent standard. He can never let the environment become too comfortable.

This is an interesting phase for Matheny, now in his sixth season and feeling some heat for the first time during his term in office. Matheny’s direction — his status, and perhaps his fate –will be influenced by the players’ performance.

If these players love Matheny and want him as their manager for a long time to come, I think we’ll see a positive response. I’m not necessarily talking about in the win-loss record. I’m talking about applying their skills, and focus, in a way that will lead to improvement.

And I’m talking about energy, and passion, and commitment.

Is that corny? Yes. But so is the servant-leadership concept. Matheny has been very good to his players (well, most of them, anyway.) If the players care for their manager, they should serve his interests — by playing good, smart ball. If Cardinals players remain firmly in their manager’s corner, then they should repay his loyalty.

Or … not.

We’ll see.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: John Mozeliak Shook Things Up, and That Should Get Mike Matheny’s Attention

  • Joe Belkin

    As always Bernie nailed it. It’s become apparent this team lost their disciplinarian when Oquendo left and they need someone to fill that role. And quickly.

  • Mike Cheak

    Sometimes the answer is the simplest…maybe the answer to the defense is “many of these players are just not good defensively” and saying they should be better and even working on skills is not going to significantly change that.

    • Mark Steinmann

      Mike, I agree with what you are saying, and actually want to expand on it. Other than starting pitching (and this is debatable), no part of this team is “good”; there simply isn’t enough above average talent. Take TLR, Maddon, Whitey, whoever, this is at best about an 88 win team. But Matheny and the rest of the coaches do not come close to doing the #1 job of any manager/coach; putting your players in the best possible position to succeed. Asking bad baserunners to be aggressive on the basepaths; stupid. Not believing in proper positioning for mediocre outfielders: stupid. Mismanaging a mediocre collection of a bullpen: stupid. They’ve taken an 85 win team and made them an 80 win team. Can a manager learn in his 7th season (next year)? Maybe, but Matheny has shown no abilitiy to adapt his way of thinking, so I say no.

  • LPD

    I can’t help but wonder if the Oquendo-LaRussa regime sustained itself through Matheny’s first 2-3 years as manager and then gradually petered out, esp with the loss of Oquendo last year. And now we’re getting an honest, unvarnished look at what Matheny can (or can’t, as the case may be) do in the role. Yes, there are other issues too, such as poor decisions when assembling the 25-man roster and an over-reliance (and over-valuation) on the farm system and what it can deliver in terms of hitters and position players with real talent. Either way, as a longtime fan I find it very painful to watch a Cardinals team with such poor fundamentals and sloppy defense. Below average defenders didn’t used to have a place on the team unless they swung a big bat to compensate. Now, seemingly, all you need to do is be tight with Matheny (i.e., a veteran) and attend his Bible Study meetings.

  • Jay

    I wanted Oquendo to be the coach when LaRussa left, I think Matheny is a great guy but he consistently gets out coached and his players do not play hard for him, unlike how they played hard for LaRussa.

    With the focus switching to Latin America for new talent it would have made more sense to have Oquendo to coach. Oquendo is seasoned, assisted LaRussa for decades, and always had player loyalty. Oquendo is only 53, he could be the teams manager for easily a good decade. Mozeliak and DeWitt have an opportunity to right a wrong and fix a lot of problems this team has by hiring Oquendo and firing Matheny (or moving him somewhere else in the organization).

  • flood21

    I like Oquendo and he might well be why the Birds have gone backwards, but I don’t see other teams knocking his door down to take over their teams.

  • Christopher Toth

    Bernie, I don’t disagree with your analysis at all but all of these excuses for why Matheny hasn’t gotten the job done are rivaling in number those put forward by Hillary Clinton as to why she lost. At some point, all of us just need to sit back and take in the totality of everything that’s gone wrong and realize there is only one conclusion possible: Matheny isn’t the guy. If he were, then you would not have the material you do to write a 25 chapter book on everything that’s gone wrong under his stewardship.

    ^ Just a joke re: Clinton. I am a non-partisan and hate both parties and am not trying to politicize this discussion or offend anyone.

    • silencedogoodreturns

      is it Matheny’s fault players are hitting .226? That they get picked off first? How?

      • Christopher Toth

        Essentially your argument appears to be is one of it isn’t fair to hold Matheny accountable whatsoever for how his team plays. If that were the case, then there really is no need for a manager and a nifty IPhone app could due the job of managing in lieu of a live body.

        Respectfully, but strongly disagree with you. A manager sets the tone and tempo. His oversite of his coaching staff is key in avoiding .226 batting averages or pickoffs, etc. He’s also responsible for not overusing and/or overexposuring players such as what he did to Rosenthal & Maness last year. And he’s definitely responsible for nurturing young talent at the MLB
        level especially given that was one of the primary reasons he got the job as articulated by both DeWitt and Mo. Thanks for responding. The last word is your’s.

        • silencedogoodreturns

          I think a manager can make many decisions which can cost his team wins. I don’t think “oversight of coaching” has a single thing to do with hitting .226. These guys are professionals who have played at this level for years.

          • Christopher Toth

            Silence, just acknowledging your comment. Thanks.

        • Big T

          What is your arguments side? That the manager is filleted when his team is not winning because of bad fundamentals on the part of the players? Where does the accountability stop being mostly on the players work ethic and GM to provide an adequate team to manage? Did you feel the same way about Matheny when we won 100 games in 2015? This with a team that had more injuries and hurdles than any team in recent history? Or how he managed them last year to within 1 game of the playoffs and fourth best record in the NL despite losing his entire infield to injuries during the same month? Just saying you can’t have it both ways.

          Hitting coach probably needs a little fire in his back side and players need to put more work and play with pride, but as silencedogoodreturns points out MM is not the one hitting .226. Nor is he the one making bad base running mistakes or routine playing errors. My thoughts here are the manager gets way too much blame and little credit during good times. MM has been in the top four of manager of the year for the last four years, correct? This year MM has not been provided a legitimate thump er bat to put in the four hole and/or third hole. This shortens the length of their line up and unfortunately that shows in productivity everywhere.

          I believe MM has earned a longer leash than most and I understand why people are impatient. We have been spoiled over the past 20-25 years. Cardinal Way will rise again my friend be patient.

          • Christopher Toth

            Big T, I didn’t see this until Sunday night. I could throw a ton of examples at you of poor managing but rather than do that, I’ll leave it at this. What kind of a manager let’s his starter give up 9 earned runs and then two days later lets another starter give up 7 earned runs. Players of course bear blame, but so too do deer in the headlights managers and especially this one who stands frozen like a statue on the dugout steps and let’s way too big of a hole to be dug that makes it nearly impossible to make a come back.

          • Big T

            Christopher, I suspect that his thought process was he tried to protect an already over used bull pen with 47 more games in the next 48 days….Maybe not who knows. Doesn’t sound too smart either way.

            Silences point and my response were based on the manager getting too much credit and too much blame despite the lack of execution on the players part. I do agree with your original point that a manager can set the tone for his team but ultimately they have to execute it.

            Matheny’s handling of the bull pen and batting Yadi 5th even despite the others struggle are the two things I see as questionable or poor on his part. Enjoy reading your responses to Bernie’s articles. Have a great day and Go Cards!!

          • Christopher Toth

            Big T, same and back at you. To answer a question you asked that I failed to respond to earlier, I advocated early for a strong bench coach to help Matheny with the strategy of the game so as to shore up his weaknesses in that regard while doing so in a constructive way given that he hadn’t yet managed at any pro level.

            At the time of his hiring, I got the why. Matheny’s a decent guy, good media role model for kids, and it did appear that he could help foster the developlent of younger players at the MLB level.

            My gut read is where Matheny began to fail was in taking a by the numbers approach that worked just fine in the 100 and 97 win seasons wherein the players carried the team but at two costs: (1) the Cards were too predictable offensively making it easier to defend against them in playoff series and (2) wearing out of key players by overuse including Rosenthal, Maness, Lynn, Yadix etc.

            Why?

            My gut read is Matheny has yet to fully transition from a player’s mode to that of a manager’s (that’s not to say he hasn’t excelled in other areas; clearly he has).

            Being a MLB player undoubtedly brings with it a ton of advantages to any would be manager, but it also frequently brings blinders to the equation to wherein a player’s perspective isn’t always the best manager’s perspective.

            I joke about the deer in the headlights aspect of Matheny, but my more nuanced read of him is that he is just stubborn and is intent on winning his way and that approach is a clear carryforward of his playing days.

            Managers can’t afford to be stubborn. If an opponent beats you by X approach, then you need to go with Y or Z. The former can work well over a long season with a talented roster of players, but it can bite you in best of 7 series.

            Likewise, former pro managers can’t be loyal to players in the same way they were loyal to their teammates. They have to be loyal to the talent that’s producing for them.

            I raise that as this is the biggest aspect of Matheny’s reign that has surprised me. I was fine with his hiring although I preferred Francona but also at the time understood given the chaos of Boston’s clubhouse back then, I could see legitimately why the Cards took a pass; no one including me knew the full story.

            Right or wrong, the Cards as an organization bet on developing their own talent and a pivotal aspect of that top to bottom approach was a MLB manager who could – and would – be effectively in transitioning those players onto the 40 man roster.

            But all too often, Matheny has has done just the opposite. He’s favored veterans over youth to the point as mentioned above he’s harmed their playing health and availability. He’s also undercut the confidence of many of those players he’s charged with developing.

            It would be one thing if the Cards hadn’t laid out this organizational plan, but they did and Matheny was charged with making this crucial aspect of that plan to work.


            I – like most – don’t believe Matheny is going anywhere. Given the success DeWitt’s had as an owner, while I may pull my hair out from time to time, not only does he have the right as an owner to keep Matheny on, he’s arguably earned that right too for patience by the Card’s fan base. Ditto Mo. To that end, I’d still like to see a strong bench coach along with a sabremetrics guru as a coach to better exploit this key aspect of the modern game.

            Best to you again.

      • Doug Palmer

        I would say that it is not the managers fault players are hitting .226. However, it is a manager’s (and hitting coach) responsibility to determine why they are hitting so poorly and to implore his players to make the necessary adjustment to improve. If it is a single player, then we may attribute it to many things and perhaps a player is just not capable of adjusting to the adjustments that pitchers have made to his swing, when it is an entire team it is imperative that we look a little deeper and search for a common denominator. As for getting picked off first, it is absolutely the coach’s responsibility to let the base runner know when his lead is too big and when the pitcher is throwing to first. Players get picked off from time to time and it is no big deal, but when the team show’s a pattern of excessive number of players getting picked off it is time to look right at the coaches and or philosophy of play. To blame everything on the players all the time is the most ludicrous and shallow of thinking. Likewise to blame everything on the managers and coaches falls in the same category. However, when the entire team is going in the wrong direction, it falls on the manager to reverse that trend. Whether it is his fault or not is of no consequence – that is the job he signed up for and is getting paid quite well to do. It is not about fault – it is about responsibility.

        • silencedogoodreturns

          I don’t disagree with your last few sentences at all. I just said it wasn’t the coach/manager’s fault when a player doesn’t hit

  • Tony Blanco

    Sadly, there is very little Matheny can do to make Diaz and Carpenter more quality defenders at their position. Matt Carpenter just is not a good 1B. He has below average range and he just looks uncomfortable there.

  • James Berry

    Jose is happy where he is. There are quotes from him stating this to be true. There are also quotes from him that he had been wanting to be in Florida and teach baseball as opposed to being in St. Louis, as manager or bench coach. Let the man do what he’s happy doing.

    As for the players, they take their queue from leaders. Hopefully this recent purge and replacement of some of the staff helps in that regard.

    • silencedogoodreturns

      that’s fine, but that’s not the context in which Oquendo was mentioned here.

      • James Berry

        Whether or not it was, it is still relevant. Fans screaming for and demanding something they will not get and can not have, serves no purpose.

  • rightthinker4

    Players in a tough spot. They want to win, but that means MM will remain as manager. Have to play bad, which is not in their nature, to get rid of the manager. What to do?

  • Robert K. Greenleaf? In spring training it was John C. Maxwell. Both are (were) classroom “teachers” on leadership. Unfortunately Mike missed out on on-the-job training by ACTUAL leaders like Dorrel N.E. Herzog (two middle initials!), Tony L. Russa, or Earl S. Weaver. It’s about decision-making, Mike, before, during, and after the game.

  • David B

    A good column, Bernie, but IMO referencing and dismissing the servant leadership philosophy as “corny” is a bit of a cheap shot. There is an interesting germ of a longer article here: to discuss what SL is and how well it is suited to a professional sports team. As I write this, the Cardinals are only 1.5 games behind the Brewers. Honestly, if they outplay the Cubs the rest of the season and win the division, is there any chance you would credit Matheny’s leadership philosophy and how it inspired the best in his players after a rocky start?

  • Lucas Bolton

    Matheny has embarrassed his players publicly many times.

  • geoff

    I saw tension developing with Oquendo two years ago and started talking about it. I really like Jose and his approach to baseball, but I don’t know that he is the “savior” of a poor fielding team. Before last season the Cardinals used their time n Florida to lift weights and play golf, completely neglecting baseball skills. It looks to me like this year is just a carry-over of a bad approach. Mo can bare more than half the blame for what happened. Mo put together the roster. Mo put together a terrible bullpen. Mo signed players to long lucrative contracts when they were simply prospects. Mo traded away his best left-handed hitting power bat for a bag of chips to simply get him off this roster. I still don’t know who Adams pissed off, but he really pissed off someone. I don’t know that Mo and Mike placed near as much value on Oquendo’s stressing of the fundamentals. I also got the impression that the entire coaching staff with the exception of Mabry and Bell and Mueller were handed to Matheny, not chosen by him. Mo and Mike each lost a coach. Based on what I have seen from the coaches Mo has installed at the big league level, there is little wonder that the organization is producing sub-par defenders. I was glad to see Mo clarify his statement about Grichuk coming back to the big leagues. We all went deep end thinking that Pham was going to get screwed. Mo cleaned that up today. I hope Schildt doesn’t become the next Vern Rapp…the guy brought in to clean up a mess of comfortable complacent players.

  • Sorry, but you can’t fire the players theoretically. The blame for a club with poor fundamentals, falls directly on the the shoulder of the manager. And Mozeliak is even more to blame than Matheny.

    When a ship sinks they don’t blame the cooks in the galley, they blame the freakin CAPTAIN!

  • Rich Rauch

    Another excellent column. I always look forward to Bernie’s take. (It’s a warning FLARE, not “flair.” Just sayin! LOL)

  • Terry Ryno

    “By, say, going to the manager to get his permission to beg off after a dedicated coach (HELLO, JOSE OQUENDO!) asks them to go to the field in a pregame session to fix flawed fundamentals .” Whatever player did that needs to be on another team immediately. There is no place on a team for a player unwilling to at least try to fix a flaw.

  • What if the players don’t want Matheny to be manager? We’ve all had bad bosses — typically people just put in the bare minimum to get their check. How does that translate to this team?

  • Mark Lee Arbogast

    The manager has his share of the blame for sure. He needs to run them all out there to practice fundementals like Hitch used to do with the Blues when they were messing up. The basics are what they are messing up most. Unless you count hitting, running, pitching, and fielding.

  • June Jones

    Matheny is a nice guy by all accounts. However, he appears to be leading this team to the old adage of “nice guys finish last.”