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.”
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 .
–– 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.
Thanks for reading …