If the Cards Hired Terry Francona Instead of Mike Matheny, Would Things Be Different?

When future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa retired after the 2011 season, the Cardinals had a chance to replace him with another future Hall of Fame manager.

Terry Francona, who had won two World Series as the manager of the Boston Red Sox.

The Cardinals hired Mike Matheny instead. He’d never managed before on any level. But team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and general manager John Mozeliak were impressed with Matheny’s natural leadership skills and longterm potential to develop into an outstanding manager.

Francona took 2012 off, and was hired by the Cleveland Indians before the 2013 season.

In fairness to DeWitt and Mozeliak, Francona had just parted ways with Red Sox management, and the split was emotional and nasty. He was also going through a divorce in his personal life. Francona may have been burned out. He may have needed a year away from managing to decompress and rejuvenate. That’s one view, but Francona has said he was ready to manage in 2012.

It makes you wonder …  what if?

I only bring this up for two reasons:

1. Earlier this week, Mozeliak announced the firing of pitching coach Derek Lilliquist and made it clear that it was important for the Cardinals to bring in a pitching coach who understood the value of advanced metrics as a tactical tool. A coach who would enthusiastically utilize the information handed to him by the Cardinals’ astute analytics department. And speaking on my radio show, DeWitt said his organization wanted to hire a pitching coach to help Matheny navigate his way through the baseball-metric world. Matheny, DeWitt insists Matheny has a positive attitude about incorporating the data supplied by the analytics staff.  And that’s good to know. But by making this move, Cardinals’ ownership-management signaled that the dugout, including the manager, had to be more receptive and fluent in sabermetrics.

2. I came upon a Washington Post profile of Francona. It was a great piece written by Dave Sheinin. And something jumped out at me: Francona already is educated and well versed on advanced metrics, and that process began a long time ago. Among managers, Francona was way ahead of the curve in discovering the benefits to be found in baseball’s new frontier.

If I may translate …

— DeWitt is a strong proponent of advanced metrics and proved that by reorganizing his baseball front office in the early aughts … hiring an analytics department … bringing in Jeff Luhnow to implement a new system with an emphasis on using advanced methods for valuing talent.

— It makes sense for DeWitt to employ a manager who is comfortable, or even knowledgeable, with the owner’s guiding philosophy and determination to find an edge on the competition. What would be the point of having  a manager who is ambivalent (or worse) about DeWitt’s strategy?

— Matheny may be moving closer to fully embracing these concepts. Again, that would be positive for Matheny’s growth. And would make him more effective in the dugout. And that can only be good for his team’s winning percentage.

— But it’s also true that DeWitt and the front office could have hired an advanced-metrics enthusiast and practitioner as their manager before the 2012 season.

— If Matheny is trying to catch up in this vital area, that’s fine. But by hiring Francona, the Cardinals would have given themselves a significant head start … a six-year head start.

Francona was the star of the MLB 2016 postseason. His Cleveland starting rotation was chewed up by injuries. He was low on starters. He couldn’t just play it straight, like a normal regular-season game where managers count on starters giving the team six or seven innings.

Francona went as far as he could with the deteriorating rotation, finessing as many innings as possible. But that couldn’t last. So Francona was aggressive about limiting a tired starter’s exposure and fast-forwarding his best relievers into the game to cover multiple innings.  In multiple Cleveland postseason wins, Francona managed with admirable urgency by summoning lefty Andrew Miller or righthander Cody Allen much sooner than usual to protect a slim Indians’ lead. Or to keep a slight deficit from expanding.

Francona’s tactics were an example of something analytics people have been shouting about for many years: if a team is facing a critical, pivotal high-leverage situation that should be handled by the best pitcher or pitchers you have in the bullpen … then get your best reliever into the game. Do not wait, or it could be too late.  Don’t go with some mediocre reliever in the early or middle innings because you want to save your top reliever (or two) for a late-game scenario that may not materialize.

Though the Indians eventually lost to the Cubs in a tense and thrilling World Series Game 7, it was a miracle for the Francona’s team to get that far. His bold, creative maneuvering shattered the ancient paradigm and displayed an innovative way of thinking. Cleveland survived in October by winning game after game because of a manager did not flinch when it was time to defy baseball’s standard customs for bullpen deployment.

Matheny has struggled with this since his first day on the job. Staying with starters too long. Failing to manage with the necessary urgency by going to his relievers early. Thinking outside the box.

Perhaps the new pitching coach will help Matheny show the way … the new way.

Last fall, Francona instantly became a baseball hero of analytics departments everywhere. But thing is, this wasn’t an epiphany for Francona. After all, his .629 postseason winning percentage ranks 2nd in MLB history behind Joe McCarthy.

And Francona has been in alignment with the analytics crew since becoming Boston’s manager in 2004. It’s one of the primary reasons Cleveland recruited Francona in 2013. The Indians rank among the most advanced, data-driven operations and Francona was the ideal fit.

Just as Francona would have been a good fit for the Cardinals back in the late fall of 2011.

“He’s an extremely open-minded person,” Indians GM Mike Chernoff told the Washington Post. “He doesn’t just accept information; he embraces it. And he’s always been a relationship builder. That’s what allows him to learn and adapt.

“He welcomes the analytics guy who has just discovered something in the numbers into his office just as quickly as he welcomes the old-school scout who has something to tell him. He prepares for games better than anyone. He crushes information. He then manages off his experience and his preparation. That’s the gold standard for a manager.”

With Francona, the Indians have the best of both worlds. He’s a true leader. His communications skills are unmatched. He uses humor and self-deprecation and an Ordinary Joe persona to avoid coming off as haughty or too serious. But he’s also studying data and listening carefully to suggestions made by analytics staffers.

Francona’s players adore him because he’s so much fun to play for.

The analytics specialists adore Francona because he takes their work seriously.

That’s a special manager.

What if …

Thanks for reading and have a great weekend.



  • Christopher Toth

    If only …

    … a bookend question is what would have happened had the Cardinals promoted from within and made Luhnow the GM kicking Mo upstairs.

  • Scott

    Did Matheny throw a party and forget to invite Bernie??? Seems like lately, Bernie wants some major revenge against Matheny for a wrong committed in the past.

    • rightthinker4

      No party, Bernie just pointing out what happens when a team makes a bad hire, and refuses to admit it. They get rid of everybody, except for the one that is the problem.

      • Scott

        I’m looking at the current players that Matheny had to manage this year, and just don’t see a playoff team there. Luckily, we had a few players that were unexpected overachievers, or else this season would have been a disaster. It’s very possible that Matheny did the best he could, with the hand he was dealt by the front office this year.

        • Gavin Morgan

          We didn’t have good enough players to win a playoff series, but if we did, the problem still remains, we get out-managed in close games or when the pressure is high.

          • Scott

            Ok, and the fact that our bullpen was very inconsistent this year had nothing to do with us being out managed? LOL. Ok, blame Matheny if you want, but someone needs to look at how this year’s roster was assembled. We really expected Peralta and Yadi to be our four and five hitters all year, going into the season???

          • Big T

            MM was a great manager in 15 when we won 100 games. He isn’t when we rebuild without the five tanking years, high draft choices and an extra 40+ million in salary like those baby bears. I am with you Scott MM not the biggest problem.

            Where was Andrew Miller in our Bullpen. Oh that’s right he was dressed like Bowman!! Leake and Fowler our “big” signings MM fault?? Where did Encarnacion sign? Now where is our legit #3 and 4 bats?? Blame it all on MM. You can’t run a Fairmont horse at the Belmont and expect to win. Have to trust the process.. Impatient spoiled fan base of which I too am frustrated.

            David’s post above lists three excellent reasons for our record. Loss of Reyes on day one and Rosie in mid August when we were three back are two more… But blame it all on sabermetrics and MM.. Don’t see it

        • David B

          It’s not necessarily either a roster problem OR a managerial problem. It can be both. When you look at the outcome in one-run games, the record within the division, the loss of games to the Cubs in which they had the lead, just to cite 3 categories, it’s hard to argue that the manager wasn’t a factor. I can’t help but wonder what Matheny loyalists are waiting to see from him that hasn’t emerged in 6 seasons. Is he going to become a better manager of his bullpen in year 7? Is the “Mike’s guys” favoritism going to end? Will baserunning and other fundamentals improve due to some random variable?

        • Mark Lee Arbogast

          Dude, third place IS A DISASTER

  • Jeff Behrens

    The Cardinals probably win the 2013 World Series if Francona managed the team like he managed in the postseason for the Indians in 2016. Back then we chalked up leaving starters in too long, ignoring trends (continuing to pitch to David Ortiz, the only Red Sox batter who was hitting) or “Mike’s Guys” (keeping Shelby Miller and Eduard Mujica on the roster even though he was never going to use them) as a young manager who was still learning.

    Four seasons later…..

    • David B

      Not to mention the deployment of Wacha in the 2014 post-season.

  • David B

    Thanks for exploring this, Bernie. In one sense the question cannot be answered; in another, it answers itself. Of course, there are other issues with MM’s approach to managing besides the issue of using analytics. Unfortunately, when it takes the FO 6+ years to begin to have second thoughts, the lack of urgency speaks for itself.

    • Michael Freeny

      Because they know we’re going to pack that stadium every night.

  • Mark Steinmann

    We probably don’t get bounced with 3 consecutive losses in 4 straight playoffs. Probably win one more ring; the 12-14 teams could have/should have won one. Unless Francona gave them the impression he wasn’t ready to come back, there is no justification for not hiring him.

    • Michael J Griffon

      Exactly Mark, I said they would regret this way back when they hired Matheny

    • LawrenceKScardsfan

      I didn’t like the decision at the time. You have an experienced WS winning coach willing to interview for the job and you hire a guy with no, NO major league experience. How can Bernie suggest that this front office is in love with sabermetrics when they make such a bogus and dumb move???

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      • JDinSTL

        He openly admitted he wanted the job. Mozeliak’s arrogance gets in the way, again.

        • terry

          It wasn’t Mozeliak’s fault Francona didn’t get hired, it was the JU not wanting spending the money for him.

          • John W

            What in your mind is the JU ?

          • JDinSTL

            Sure thing. Gump wasn’t Mozeliak’s boy, no way.

      • geoff

        This is the same Francona who had just totally lost control of a ball club in Boston and had problems off the field as well. It could just be that he was not all that impressive in his interview. I hardly think money was much of an object. Mo has missed on contracts and commitments to players that account for in the neighborhood of 100 million dollars in the past couple of years. I don’t think Bill DeWitt would even blink at a three and a half million price tag for a manager.

        • LawrenceKScardsfan

          When Maddon became available, I went on record saying that the Cardinals should fire MM and hire him. Who knows what goes on in the minds of DeWitt and Mo. I’m half inclined to think its about religious philosophy as much as baseball philosophy.

  • David

    The only thing you really need to know is that Francona was offered $3.5M to be manager of the Indians. Matheny got $750,000 in 2012 when he was hired. And now you know why DeWitt hired who he did.

    • maryville

      Do you have some inside info on this?

    • LawrenceKScardsfan

      Totally agree – as my comments have been saying for some time, sabermetrics only takes you so far. You still have to be willing to spend the money. And this owner is too risk averse to catch the Cubs.

      • geoff

        Funny thing about saber-metrics and peoples’ perception of what kind of players it takes to win games. A few years ago these threads were chock full of people who wanted Jon Jay drawn and quartered because he was the worst center fielder on earth and blah blah blah, while there were people like me saying teams that win have players like Jay who just play the game well. Now we all look up and talk about what a great job the Cubs have done building a roster and how they have totally embraced all of the saber stuff and lo and behold…their starting center fielder for much of this year and who was an integral part of yesterday’s victory was Jon Jay, who many of these internet experts wanted run out of town on a rail. I don’t think signing Jay exactly broke the bank up there in Chicago. I would rather watch Tommy Pham play the way he plays, than watch a player like Grichuk, who strikes out too much , or Carpenter who goes to the plate looking to walk…I liked watching Matt better when he was an aggressive .300+ hitting doubles machine.

        • LawrenceKScardsfan

          Yep – it always puzzled me on the Cards Talk forum how many people hated Jay. Granted, he did have a weak arm, but the rest of his defense was passable and his offense was pretty good. Fowler does deliver power and good offensive stats. BTW, I was surprised to see Jay had not committed an error in nearly 200 straight games. That’s darn good.

          • geoff

            People often overlook what a fine base runner he is. He is as good first to third as any speedster. People often get too caught up in one particular narrative or another when it comes to the value of ball players. I would rather have a Jon Jay than a Randall Grichuk on my roster any day. I haven’t seen much of him for a few years but when he played here, he was a career .300 hitter.

  • Rich Rauch

    Although I can and do blame them for hiring Matheny–no doubt Mike’s a good man and a great guy but, even after six seasons, he’s still a bumbling, novice manager–Francona didn’t just “take 2012 off.” At the time, his life was in shambles, a train wreck. If for no other reason, he needed the time off just to prove he hadn’t gone and wasn’t going off the deep end.

  • Michael J Griffon

    Anytime you have a chance to hire Francona or Matheny it’s a simple you hire the proven manager with that has won over no experience but it was all so Matheny could be the yes man because let’s not fool ourselves this is the MO show he runs it all the new GM is just a puppet that even looks out of place in a public setting.

    • ken

      punctuation is your friend.

      • Mark Lee Arbogast

        It was never mine…lol

  • daniel murray

    Sure it would Bernie .. he could’ve spent his own money and bought a closer and impact bat .. or it could’ve been different if they dug up the deceased Sparky Anderson and put his remains in uniform…..

  • Rich Saunders

    Terry vs Mike, front office solve it all With Stanton, Darvish, and Chapman in a Redbird uniform for Christmas!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • ken

    how can one seriously doubt that the cards would have been, and would continue to be, much better off by hiring francona instead of matheny? this organization made a colossal blunder by making the wrong choice there. it’s just that it took a while for it to become clear.

    • Mark Lee Arbogast

      Ken, it was clear to many of us at the time it happened. The front office tried to spin it that Francona didn’t really want the job. Even suggested that he said he wanted time off for a while and wasn’t ready which also made the impression that the Cardinals pressured him into interviewing.

    • David B

      I’m less inclined to criticize them for not hiring Francona at the time. I was living in Boston in 2011 and had a chance to watch the Red Sox meltdown then. It was much more ugly than anything that’s happened here. There were some really destructive personalities on that Sox team, and opinions varied about how much blame to assign the manager. But I suspect a lot of teams would have had lingering questions about hiring Francona at that point. The Cardinals made the choice they made then, and I can live with that. What’s hard to accept is the FO’s response to the trajectory the team has been on for the last 3 years. Bernie’s critique of the manager’s role in this decline is pretty compelling, imo.

  • Michael Freeny

    Hiring Francona would’ve made too much sense. And we stopped doing things that made sense a while ago.

    • Jody Wassmer

      Yep, you are correct!

  • LawrenceKScardsfan

    It seems to me that if you a sabermetrics-driven club, you hire a sabemetrics-driven coach. That was not done. And this is why I believe there is a major disconnect between the sabermetrics driven analysis and the willingness to spend money to implement the recommendations of the analysts. Again, all the sabermetrics in the world won’t help you if you don’t have the proper goals.

    First error – failing to realize that to win you must challenge the Cubs for the division lead. You cannot simply play for a wild card slot.

    Second error – you don’t hire a coach (or coaches) that doesn’t use sabermetrics.

    Third error – you make sure you have a sabermetrics analyst in the dugout to provide real-time suggestions on what to do.

    Fourth error – you make sure that your sabermetrics tools value reward as much as risk. Cards management is too risk averse and it hurts the team. This is why we didn’t go after a big bat, a closer, and a starter at the start of this season. The value equation was too conservative.

    But the key is challenging the Cubs. Unless you are willing to do that, all the sabermetrics in the world won’t mean a hill of beans.

  • Phillip Mezzapelle

    With an experienced manager like Francona, whose to say we couldn’t have produced the first real dynasty in Cardinals history? Like winning back to back WS’s . i hate to have to once again jump on the ” I hate MM BANDWAGON”, but the more you look back on the four straight playoff eliminations, the more you cannot help but see how the other teams manager was not one move, but even two moves ahead of ours. Come to think of it, that’s one of the most important qualities that succesful managers have. they seem to have the ability of knowing what the opposing manager is going to do. No point in crying over spilt milk. We can only hope that MM becomes a bit more opened minded and is willing to do some things differently. I hope so, because I’m convinced Mr. DeWitt wil not fire him.

  • Derrick Hawks

    Hell yes it would be different.

    • Big T

      Lots of beer and wings in the club house….

  • Mark Lee Arbogast

    I was so excited when Franconia came here to interview until I realized that as a WS winning manager he would require a commensurate salary and Matheny, with only little league experience would be super cheap. They were not going to pay Francona 6 or 7 million dollars when Mike Matheny could be had for half a million.

    • Mark Lee Arbogast

      Also, why do the Cardinals suffer so many pitching injuries?

      • John W

        The Cardinals are not the only team to suffer pitching injuries, just take a moment and look at any stats line !

      • geoff

        Did you read the article? Francona got all the way to the series but, when he got there he had almost no pitching left. He was able to cobble a competitive staff together but, not enough of one to actually win. This year Miller has been injured so he may not have that same luxury in the post-season. Tito is a really fine manager, better going away than Matheny.

  • bobbyorr

    Wanted Francona then, want him now.
    Dang Dewitt should have asked me.

  • Aaron

    Oh, if we’d only gotten Francona. The Indians are going back to the WS this year and they are probably going to win it, giving him 3 in the last 13 years. Matheny may say the right things behind the scenes, but I don’t believe for one second that he’s going to change. Why do we have to keep removing coaches all around him when it’s obvious the biggest problem is with the guy in charge? How many more sacrificial lambs will this coaching staff have before Matheny gets the axe?

    • Jody Wassmer

      It’s almost comical. Bring in a quality control coach, fire the 3B coach, fire the pitching coach, fire the bullpen coach. The REAL PROBLEM is right in front of MoTie and Dewitt and they don’t want to acknowledge it. And Mad Mike isn’t going to change overnight. He’ll go with his gut and his favorite boys time and time again.

  • Scott Warren

    Give Matheny a break, it has only been 1,000+ games including the playoffs, give him time. What a joke.

  • Daniel G. Fink

    Again, it’s clear that the analytics department was pioneered to facilitate off season, economical value transactions, rather than on field strategy. In that light, Mr. DeWitt is “catching up” also.

  • keith walker

    IMO it was after a huge personality in Tony MO wanted someone he wouldn’t be subordinate to and he could control. a butt boy who would do what he was told and just soldier. wasn’t money IMO. but what was bone stupid is they could have kept on keeping on with a francona who would have loved to take over with such a good nucleus and keep up the winning and could have brought home another one. Bad decision as MM was awful at managing a bp initially and still is

  • Greg Gibson

    Well observed, Bernie. What if….

  • geoff

    This is all supposition being made by a writer who obviously hates Mike Matheny on every conceivable level. I don’t know one way or another but, I would guess that Francona would have had a hard time winning with the personnel Mike has had and been told to put on the field over the last two seasons. The bullpen coming out of Jupiter this year was suspect at best, and by subtraction got better as the season went along. Mike didn’t have a closer, and he certainly didn’t have Miller. His starters were fine but had to be coddled a bit. Mo handed him Broxton and Cecil and Siegrist, all of whom were just not good at all. Mo decided that Grichuk was just as good as Holliday, that Peralta would be a great clean-up hitter. Who knew Carpenter really could not hit anywhere but the lead-off spot, even though his vaunted saber-metric numbers proved he couldn’t. Who didn’t realize that what made Carpenter good as a lead-off man was his ability to drive the ball into the gaps and hit all of those doubles, which masked his bad base running, which was exposed when he changed to being a walk or home run or strike out guy? Who knew Piscotty would go off the same cliff that Allen Craig did? Diaz got lost at the plate so badly that his hitting couldn’t justify his lack of range at short. ( quick aside here.. when Mo panic traded Miller for Heyward, Atlanta traded Andrelton Simmons shortly after for a Coke and a bag of chips to the Angels… just think if Mo had traded Miller for that cracker jack shortstop) Mo has over and under valued some of the wrong players and coaches and the Cards became not very good at any facet of the game in short order. Now they are saying they need a starter yet they haven’t approached the top right-handed starter in this off-season, who they had in the fold and who said he wants to stay. If we are going to look at how the Cards fell so far so fast it would be a lot more prudent to look at Mo, who has the organization paying out in the neighborhood of 100 million dollars in dead money over the past couple of years. Oh but I forgot …MO is beyond reproach because he is a saber-metric guy. If you give Matheny a lineup with eight Tommy Pham-like producers….not a bunch of guys swinging for the gates, he can win. The roster for the Cards just didn’t have enough good players, they were below average fielders,they were not good hitters, and they were the worst base-running team I have seen in my sixty plus years of watching the Cardinals play. Saber metrics don’t mean crap if you don’t have players who can actually play the game.

    • Big T

      Geoff, I always enjoy your posts. A True die hard baseball and Cardinal fan!! For that I thank you.

      What do you think Bernie would be saying in Chicago if Matheny had done what Maddon did the other night, and gave game 2 away to the Nat’s? You know the metrics say Edwards does ok against lefties… Problem is metrics don’t say enough about elite lefties just totals when pitching to lefties… Bryce Harper not a typical leftie…They also say that Montgomery does good against righty’s? Metrics don’t say Zimmerman is having a MVP type year and is an accomplished and established veteran who hits lefties. Listening to metrics cost them this game and probably series.

      Or how about when Dusty blew game 1 pitching to Rizzo with a righty or at all with the base open just before his double? If I were Dusty neither half of Bryzzo would get a pitch to hit the rest of the way.

      Or in new York when Girardi gave one away by not challenging the hit by pitch call?

      Truth is hindsight is always 2020. Easier to point out the mistakes when your team loses. Hang in there with our Cards. Hopefully we get an accomplished bat. I believe they will get Hosmer from KC and another bat elsewhere. Then they can get one more reliever to go with signing Nicasio. Be great if Lynn would fit into the budget but I fear that won’t happen and I don’t see where they get all the innings in starting pitching they are losing.
      If you get a chance to go to spring training do so. Can’t wait. Go CARDS

    • Rick Brown

      “Mo decided that Grichuk was just as good as Holliday”

      Grichuk was actually BETTER than Holliday this year –

      Grichuk .238 / .285 / .473 22 HR 59 RBI

      Holliday .231 / .316 / .432 19 HR 64 RBI

      • geoff

        My bad Rick…I left out the words of old. Mo decided that Grichuk was as good as the Holliday of old. Grichuk did not strike fear into opposing pitchers. Holliday spent this season injured and probably is done. Grichuk doesn’t look to me like he will ever be anything different than what he was this season. There are some people who think he is fine because he hit 22 home runs. I think he is not fine because he couldn’t get a hit when a hit, or even a productive out would have gotten the job done.

        • Rick Brown

          I think Grichuk could be a .250/.260 hitter with 25-30 Hrs and play good defense. He will never walk much, but could be a productive player if he hit 7th. A good team, like the Yankees or Cleveland might be able to have him in their lineup and win, but on the Cardinals he isn’t very helpful right now as he is one of several guys in the same mold.

          • geoff

            I haven’t yet seen anything to tell me he could be even a .250/.260 hitter, not that hitting .260 would make me consider him to be a good hitter. The home run is in vogue right now because it is instant gratification. I enjoy good baseball, and good baseball, from a hitting standpoint, does not include 125+ strikeouts. I am one of those old school codgers who think triples are the most exciting plays in baseball. I like to see everyone moving. Walks and strikeouts while waiting for someone to hit a home run are just not all that wonderful to watch for me. I know the millennials and the people who embrace saber-metrics without the understanding that stats should be determined by the game…the game should not be played to try to match the stats. As to Grichuk going to another team, I have heard it said that he would be a nice piece of a trade to the Blue Jays for Donaldson, and I don’t disagree at all. I would not trade the farm for a rental like Donaldson but he would be a heck of an upgrade at third base for the Cards. Think of it this way…Bourgious(sp) is still in the big leagues, so there is a place for a player like Grichuk.

          • Rick Brown

            While Donaldson would be an upgrade, it would not be as significant as say, Stanton.

            Gyorko is a good 3B, but the Cards are woeful in RF.

            If the Cards were willing to pay 20 million a year for Heyward, surely Stanton is worth 28?

            His contract will look cheap in 5 years anyway

  • Jody Wassmer

    Well done, Bernie! Well-reasoned and FACTUAL, as always. #becausematheny