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Matheny Has Right Message on Injury Honesty, but He’s the Wrong Messenger

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny wasn’t happy with two of his most talented pitchers last week. His frustration raises several intriguing issues, and this is a good time to explore them. 

The background:

During a mound visit in the fourth inning on May 30 at Milwaukee, Alex Reyes misled Matheny, pitching coach Mike Maddux and the Cards’ trainer by insisting he felt fine physically despite a recorded drop in pitch velocity and a look of discomfort on the mound. Reyes was allowed to finish the inning. The damage was done. After missing all of last season following elbow surgery, Reyes made that one start at Milwaukee — and that’s it. He’ll miss the rest of the season after having surgery to repair a torn muscle in his right lat. Reyes initially felt pain in his right shoulder area during his final minor-league rehab start on May 24 but stayed silent.

When Carlos Martinez returned from the DL last Tuesday after missing a month because of a strained lat muscle, he declared himself 100 percent healthy and ready to roll. That was based on one four-inning rehab assignment. But when Martinez made his first post-DL start, he was tentative, lacking in explosiveness, and pitching at a slightly reduced velocity. After the troublesome start, Martinez acknowledged he was was worried about letting go, maxing out and throwing hard after last pitching May 8.

After hearing the bad medical news on Reyes, and learning the truth concealed by Martinez, the irked Matheny vented last Wednesday.

“We are constantly reinforcing the importance of them being honest with us,” Matheny told reporters before the game. “There’s nothing our medical team can do if our guys aren’t giving honest answers. It’s not like this is some great revelation. It’s always being preached how important it is. If they don’t give us all the information, then the odds of them getting back and staying healthy aren’t going to be as high.

“We go with the information they give us. We can’t read their minds,” Matheny said. “If they tell us they’re good and that everything feels fine, at some point, that’s what the bottom line is going to be.  We can’t keep them in an MRI tube all the time. We go with what they’re telling us, what we see and how they’re clinically measuring up. All those things were pointing in a good direction (for Martinez) and we go forward. We didn’t see anything of concern except that he was way out of rhythm, and he’s a rhythm pitcher.”

Matheny sounded off on the subject again Sunday during his weekly phone interview on Sirius MLB Network Radio.

“We create an atmosphere here with multiple touch points for guys to talk to either coaches or medical staff,” Matheny said. “And we cover it as good as we can cover it. And at some point, we have to have an honest answer. The real tough part about that is, guys that have been around here at all for very long realize you just hardly ever feel good. And it’s almost next to impossible at times to really figure out is this the kind of pain that you just kind of have to go through, or is this something that might end up being trouble down the line?

“And the best thing you can do is — and I think we’ve done a good job in baseball in general and certainly in our organization — (emphasize) the training room is not taboo. We’re encouraging guys to get in there and let someone get their hands on you — and be honest. And let’s get ahead of this, because we’re not going to limit your play by what you’re doing in the trainer’s room. It’s going to keep you on the field.”

OK, as you may suspect, I have some commentary on all of this. So let’s count it down.

1. Matheny is correct on this general principle: players should tell the truth about injuries, pain level, discomfort — and whether the stress will compromise their ability to perform and give the team a chance to win.

2. As a barbwire-tough MLB catcher for 13 years, Matheny also knows that athletes keep the truth sealed away because they want to compete and be in the lineup. Expecting  proud athletes to be forthcoming about injuries — and possibly be judged as being “weak” or “soft” — is naive. Matheny endured an unspecified number of concussions during his career. Did he always tell the truth when the manager and trainer checked on him? How many times did Matheny put the gear on and catch nine hard innings when he should have been resting?

3.  A manager, a GM, and a president of baseball operations simply cannot assume that a player is being honest with them. And if there are any doubts, then handle the situation with caution. If you suspect a player is telling you what you want to hear — “I feel great, skipper! ‘’ — don’t automatically fall for it. Push for more details. You can’t make it that easy for these guys to fib their way into the lineup. Managers have to make tough decisions. It isn’t being tough to roll over and say “YES” when an injured player swears he feels awesome and asks to play.  Being tough is saying “NO.” That’s true leadership.

4. What is the upside to letting an injured pitcher make a start or stay in a game when he isn’t close to being where he must be physically to prevail over the best hitters in the world? This does not help the pitcher, it does not help the manager, it does not help the team.

5. Matheny is guilty of hypocrisy here. And double standards. How many times has Matheny granted Adam Wainwright’s desire to pitch when Wainwright was debilitated by injuries? Pitching with a damaged elbow late last summer, Wainwright made two consecutive starts where his fastball averaged 83.8 mph, then 89 mph. And in both instances, his cutter averaged less than 80 miles per hour. A few weeks later, Wainwright pitched again, and averaged 87 on the fastball. Everyone in the ballpark, and watching on TV, could see Wainwright’s weakened state. Matheny ignored it. 

6. After straining a hamstring late in spring training and going on the DL, Wainwright lobbied his way off the DL and into the starting assignment for the Cardinals’ 2018 home opener on April 8. But he wasn’t ready. His velocity dropped during an aborted start; Wainwright allowed three runs, walked four and ran up a pitch count of 89 while getting only 11 outs. Matheny was a willing party to a poor decision. 

7. More embarrassing was the debacle at San Diego on May 13. Wainwright re-injured his elbow while making the obligatory warmup pitches on the mound, but didn’t call attention to it. Instead, Wainwright tried to compete in a major-league game with a fastball that never got higher than 86.9 mph. Wainwright walked six, gave up two runs and three hits, and needed 79 pitches to retire seven hitters before Matheny mercifully removed him. Wainwright had nothing to throw at the Padres, but Matheny watched his ailing pitcher sail soft pitches all over the place, and let this unfortunate spectacle continue long past the point of absurdity. Moreover, Matheny had John Gant warmed up in the first inning, and available for immediate duty to fill long-relief innings. Did Matheny really have to “read minds” to see that Wainwright was hurting and helpless? Of course not. 

8. After that sad event, here’s what  Matheny said of Wainwright:Knowing the kind of pitcher he’s been for so long it’s admirable, but I know it’s frustrating for him not to be able to use the stuff he’s used to having. He needs to know how much we appreciate him as a warrior. When he steps on the mound he leaves everything he’s got all the time.”

9. Whoa. So Matheny berates Reyes and Martinez for attempting to pitch through pain and uneasiness. Ah, but when Wainwright does the same thing — with the manager’s blessing — Matheny generously praises him as a “warrior.” This is confusing. Again: I understand why Wainwright wants the ball, wants to compete.  That’s how the great ones are wired. But this is also why teams pay managers and coaches and expect that they’ll intervene, be strong, take the baseball away from a wounded pitcher when his deterioration is in plain view. Managers are paid to be decisive and prevent scenes like this from happening. Matheny failed that day and lost his podium for delivering lectures on the importance of being honest.

10. If you’re a young Cardinals pitcher, you’ve received some terribly mixed signals here. Matheny wants you to be honest about your physical condition. He wants you to play it straight. And Matheny called out two pitchers for failing to do that. But when a preferred veteran declines to be truthful about his injuries, and pitches without an arsenal to use against hitters on multiple occasions, the same manager holds the preferred veteran up as an “admirable” example of the warrior spirit.

I’d like to support Matheny 100 percent on this. (But don’t worry; he’ll find a toady.) Matheny’s basic message is true, and smart, and valuable: Pitchers you  must  be honest about injuries. But Matheny lost a helluva lot of credibility on this very subject with his Wainwright fiascos.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Worried About Martinez? Dan McLaughlin’s Holding His Judgement Until the Next Start