In less than a month, Mike Matheny will reconvene with the Cardinals in Jupiter, Fla. for his seventh spring training as the team’s manager.
Despite having no managerial experience at any level of professional baseball, Matheny was hired to take over for the retiring icon Tony La Russa soon after the Cardinals won the 2011 World Series.
For the most part, the Matheny experiment has produced positive results.
Over Matheny’s first four seasons (2012-2015) the Cardinals led the majors with 375 victories. Over that same four-season block, Matheny became the first manager in MLB history to lead a team to the playoffs in his first four seasons on the job.
The Cardinals played in more postseason games (43) than any MLB team over that time, going 21-22 overall. They advanced to the NLCS in his first three seasons and won the NL pennant in 2013. And the 2015 Cardinals topped the majors with 100 regular-season wins.
Things turned — suddenly — during the 2015 NLDS, when the Cardinals were beaten by rival-nemesis Cubs in four games.
The Cardinals slipped again in 2016, winning 86 games and not making the playoffs for the first time since 2010. And the erosion continued in 2017 with 83 wins and the failure to qualify for the postseason for the second straight year.
The Cardinals weren’t awful in 2016-2017; their .522 winning percentage over the two years ranked No. 4 in the NL, and 9th in the majors. But it’s also correct to say that the team is trending the wrong way.
Over his first four years as manager Matheny averaged 93.7 regular-season wins.
Over the past two seasons, the average slipped to 84.5 wins per year.
After going 16-11 in his first 27 postseason games as Cardinals manager, Matheny has lost 11 of his last 16 postseason games … and that includes a 1-6 mark in his last seven.
If St. Louis can’t climb back into the playoffs in 2018, the misstep will mark three consecutive seasons of no playoff ball for the first time since 1997, 1998 and 1999.
If you look at Matheny’s six-season body of work as Cardinals’ manager, the stand-alone numbers are impressive … made the playoffs four times in six years … his teams had the third-best winning percentage (.560) in the majors, behind the Dodgers and Washington. And since 2012, only the Dodgers have competed in more postseason games (45) than the Cardinals’ 43 … and only three teams — San Francisco, LA Dodgers and Kansas City — have won more postseason games.
Still … it’s trending the wrong way.
A two-season downturn is no big deal in a more global, long-view sense. But the Cardinals aren’t the Tampa Bay Rays, or the San Diego Padres. And for an esteemed franchise that made the playoffs 12 times in 16 seasons from 2000 through 2015 it is very much a big deal to bungle the opportunity to make the playoffs two seasons in a row.
The 2018 Cardinals must get better.
That includes the roster-building efforts made by the front office.
But Matheny must do a better job of managing. Based on run differential that’s adjusted for strength of schedule, the 2016 Cardinals should have won 89 games … they won 86. Last season, the Cardinals had an expected wins total of around 88; they finished with 83. The Cardinals underachieved in both seasons in part because of poor bullpen management and flawed fundamentals resulting in too many give-away games. And at least part of that is on the manager.
Can Matheny evolve? Yes.
Five things to work on:
1. Listen to your coaches. Ask for advice. Apply their advice. It isn’t a sign of weakness to empower your staff; it’s actually a sign of strength and confidence and feeling comfortable as the man in charge. For 2018, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak has supplied Matheny with a remade coaching staff that is the smartest and most versatile staff to work with and for Matheny. The manager would be hopelessly foolish to ignore these men in some bullheaded, misplaced display of I’m Right, and I’ll Show You arrogance. New pitching coach Mike Maddux can make a huge difference in Matheny’s career by opening Matheny’s mind and showing him a new way to run a pitching staff and late-inning bullpen tactics. But this can happen only if Matheny is secure enough in his own skin to entrust Maddux and benefit from Maddux’s expertise. This will be a BIG test of Matheny’s true willingness to adapt, evolve, and reinvent himself to some degree. The Cardinals’ deep analytics department can give Matheny valuable data to help him more win games. But that won’t happen unless he drops the old-school believer/boss routine.
2. It isn’t just a matter of soliciting opinions from coaches and using some of their suggestions. It’s also a matter of respect. Along those lines, Matheny must value Jose Oquendo’s commitment to hard work and teaching and instructing players to sharpen their fundamentals. So when Oquendo — one of the great instructors in franchise history — wants to take a group of players onto the field early on a game day to work on their fielding and baseball aptitude … well, be smart enough to say “Sure, Jose, do whatever you need to do to make us better. And thank you.” Here’s what Matheny shouldn’t do now that Oquendo has returned from a voluntarily exile: overrule Oquendo when players complain that they’re tired and it’s hot outside and they don’t want to put in extra time for important work. Rolling over players isn’t leadership … and rolling over is even worse when it means undercutting a highly respected coach.
3. Smarter lineup construction. I think you are all familiar with the issues here. But I’ll cite two examples as a reminder: (A) You do not give Yadier Molina 460 plate appearances as the No. 5 hitter. And (B) you do not remove a truly outstanding .391 leadoff onbase percentage and plus power from the top slot … well, I guess it would make sense to install Molina at No. 5 and pull a prolific onbase machine from the leadoff spot if the goal is to score fewer runs and lose more games.
4. There is a place in modern baseball for old-school values. Play a hard nine. Stay mentally tough and push through adversity. Be willing to do whatever you can to help the team win. Put in your piece. Respect the game. That stuff does matter. But leave the old-school stuff at the clubhouse door. And stop making stubborn old-school mistakes like ordering a sacrifice bunt and wasting a precious out when your team ALREADY has a runner in scoring position with no outs. And must move away from the whole “Hey, I believe in my guy, I respect his guts” mentality when you’re watching a tiring Michael Wacha billow with exhaust fumes in an obvious in-progress meltdown.
5. You can’t have a 25-man roster filled with 25 players who have the same personality, the same cultural background, same world view, the same mindset, the same way of preparing. Accept the differences in your players. Do not mistake flamboyance and charisma as a sign of immaturity or lack of seriousness. Move on from the desire to have prototype players who fit your comfort zone. And please do not suppress young players who have a sincere desire to help lead this team, through actions and words. That should be welcomed, and encouraged. You want to foster a terrific clubhouse environment? Then EVERYONE is in the loop, part of the inner circle. Not just a chosen few.
Best of luck…
Thanks for reading…