Mike Matheny is a good guy, but that doesn't mean he's a good manager.
Matheny owns 544 career regular season wins as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. He has 428 losses behind the dugout steps, and a playoff record of 21-22. It doesn't seem so bad when you look at the easy numbers, but after six years on the job, Matheny still isn't a good manager. There are certain things that he needs to learn in order to be truly successful, but his time is running out.
Let me preface this by saying that the guy doesn't stink at his job for a lack of trying. He says all the right things, defends his players endlessly, and presents a notable figure on and off the field. If heart and gusto translated to wins, Matheny would be Tommy LaSorda already. It's too bad it doesn't work like that in the big leagues. Here, if you don't know what you are doing, it shows immediately.
When Cardinals President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak picked the former catcher to be the next manager of the Cardinals after Tony La Russa retired, Matheny had as much experience as myself: zero. He hadn't managed a single minor league game, not had he served on a minor or Major League bench as a coach. It was the boldest of bold moves, and in the early going, the move wasn't looking too shabby.
The Cardinals went 88-74 in 2012, garnered a wildcard spot, and won seven playoff games. In 2013, Matheny's team went to the World Series, losing in six games. After a 90-win season in 2014, the Cardinals won 100 games in 2015, only to be knocked off by the Chicago Cubs in four games. The past two years has included zero playoff games. After winning 16 playoff games in his first two seasons, Matheny's Cardinals have won five in the past four Octobers combined.
Slowly but surely, Matheny's managing skills, or lack thereof, has cost his team direly in key spots. Think about the 2014 NLCS where a cold-armed Michael Wacha was allowed to serve up the series-ending home run. A couple of games before, Randy Choate pitched to too many batters, which doomed Game 4. In 2015, Matheny let a sick Jaime Garcia take the mound and turn the Cubs series around. There's a laundry list of bad moments, thus coining the phrase, "Wins above Matheny".
Matheny's biggest issue is in-game management, the moments that require tactical thinking and the ability to see three or four moves ahead during a close baseball game. An avid chess player, Matheny can't convert the board game to the field and prepare himself. Whether it's sticking with pitchers too long, going to certain relievers too often, or cultivating a group of players that he depends on over others no matter what, Matheny hasn't changed his ways in six seasons.
This is the guy who let Matt Adams play left field last season. Matheny let Jon Jay, who was mending a sore wrist and clearly wasn't right, start many games in the outfield years ago before going to someone else. Matt Bowman jumps up every the bullpen phone rings due to Matheny's overusing tendencies. If you ask Matheny, Matt Carpenter can do no wrong, but Kolten Wong better keep his head on a swivel.
He can't manage a bullpen and may fill out lineup cards blindfolded for all we know. Matheny has a few years left on his contract, but that doesn't mean the Cardinals couldn't fire him at any moment. Up to this point, they've shook every tree around the guy. Derek Lilliquist was canned even though the pitching staff didn't fare as badly as most assumed last year. Coaches were sent packing and others were reassigned. Matheny remains in protective managerial custody as 2018 unfolds.
The real question is clear: will he become a good manager in year #7? I have my doubts, but here's what he needs to do.
First, let Mike Maddux work the pitching staff. Whatever Mike says should go on this team. He's better than Matheny ever will be at managing pitchers. Make it seem like a game. Instead of "Simon says", it's "Maddux's way".
Second, treat Jose Oquendo and Willie McGee like lifelines to a time and place where the team had good managers at the lead. Ask them questions, take a lot of notes, and stay out of their way. You are the manager, but definitely not the smartest guy in the room. If you are Batman, they are Alfred Pennyworth and Lucius Fox. Without them, you are just a bunch of muscles running through the tunnels with excellent hair.
Third, pick a lineup and stick to it. Certain parts will change, but keep the core intact. Put Carpenter wherever you desire, but keep him there. Get some continuity going.
Fourth, make sure the bullpen arms have roles before May 1. They need to...oh wait. Just listen to Maddux. He'll know what to do.
Fifth, don't complain to the media about the fans. It doesn't end well.
Look, you can point to the win-loss record all you want, but it's old news. The past two years have featured mediocre to fundamentally flawed baseball teams, and that is tied to a manager. A manager's worth in wins will be up for discussion for the next decade, but he should be the brain child of how a team plays and adjusts. If the manager can't adjust, how can the team make the necessary changes?
Here's another thing. The Cardinals were terrible in one-run games and divisional games last year, which are two key factors in a manager's strength. If Matheny can't be a good shot caller in close and tight games, I wouldn't expect the overall record to sit too much higher.
Do I think Matheny can make the improvements? No. Why would he change his ways now? The man is more stubborn than a fitted sheet, and seems to be protected from up high by the suits. A 1,000 games into his managerial career, and he makes the same mistakes as he did on day one. But how safe is Matheny's spot?
If the Cardinals derail this season and miss the playoffs, I'd expect Matheny to lose his job. You can't have $3.5 million in the seats annually with a $100 million-dollar payroll, and miss the playoffs three years in a row with two wildcard spots in play. It's a bad look for a classy organization like the Cardinals.
Protected or not, 2018 is key for Matheny. Outside of Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina, these are Matheny's players. This is his team, so he needs to lead it correctly for once. Get out of your own way and stop trusting your gut. However, a new roster doesn't exactly make a guy feel too safe.
The huge success Matheny had early on is a distant memory now. The Cardinals invested dollars in players like Dexter Fowler and acquired explosive talents like Marcell Ozuna, but there is a slow burn youth movement happening as well. The team is changing over, which means a managerial change wouldn't be a sudden move.
In September, I wrote that Matheny should be fired. Nearly seven months later, my opinion hasn't changed all that much. I don't think he can adapt or improve enough to be a World Series winning manager-but I'd love to be wrong. Comeback stories are as sexy as a bowl of double-fried chicken wings at Sybergs, so bring it on, Mike.
At the age of 47 staring up at the Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers in the division, Matheny's Cardinals have their hands full. The lineup has thump, the rotation has more questions than answers, and the bullpen is an an island of misfit toys-but the real question going into this season is how many games will the manager cost the team?
Matheny is a good guy, but can he be a good manager? I have serious doubts, but let's play ball and find out. This much is true: Matheny is in the best possible situation with the best possible support system since he's been a Major League manager. There are no more excuses.
What do you think, Cardinal Nation?