When Mike Matheny was hired to manage the St. Louis Cardinals, he had never managed a game above the little league level. Or at least that’s how the story goes. I can’t find any verification that he ever managed a game at the little league level, either. Most of the articles from around the time of his hiring describe him as an “assistant little league coach”, which seems to put him a level below the guy who decides whether the team gets to go out for ice cream after the game. But it doesn’t matter. Even if Matheny was making the lineup and pitching changes for the 12-and-under TPX Warriors, he came into MLB with no meaningful professional experience.
At the time, I didn’t think it was such a bad thing. I still don’t, at least in theory. When Mike Matheny was just rumored to be a candidate, I wrote this blog post discussing his surprising appearance among a list of expected names. I defended his potential hiring, because he’s always been a good clubhouse guy and I thought it was ridiculous to pay a ton of money for a good “tactical” manager because unlike on most sports, the tactical moves a manager can make are limited enough that anyone can probably learn to do them.
Maybe I was half right.
We are now two months into Mike Matheny’s third year as manager of the Cardinals and I think I need to start a change.org petition to expand the field of “profanity” so I don’t have to repeat myself so often. I honestly haven’t watched enough other teams lately to say, definitively, that Matheny is the worst tactical manager in baseball, but I’d believe it.
This might sound harsh or spoiled, since the Cardinals were in the World Series last season, but I don’t think it’s wrong. I stand by my earlier assertion that managerial tactics aren’t that important, so even the most bumbling manager isn’t going to implode a good team, which is why (along with some astronomically weird situational splits) the Cards were still incredibly successful last year. However, a bad manager can cost a team a couple wins over the season with his late-innings substitutions, and that number might just be important to a team on the cusp.
Despite everything I hoped, Mike Matheny never learned how to manage. Perhaps even worse than that, though, is that he did learn what managing should look like. Years of playing under Tony La Russa taught him several lessons: a manager meddles with the lineup. He looks at platoon matchups and player history, and makes substitutions that keep players fresh and puts them in the position to succeed. A manager isn’t afraid to cut back the playing time of a star or prospect who is struggling, hurt, or not giving his all. He is quick to make a pitching change, but will let a starting pitcher he trusts work out of a jam. And late in the game, he will use the double switch to control the lineup.
Tony La Russa did all these things and, while sometimes I would disagree with him, for the most part he did them well. The Cardinals experienced unbelievable success under La Russa, and Mike Matheny was around for a lot of that. So he emulates La Russa. He repeats the actions he has watched with precision but without purpose, like a teenage boy who has seen every Jackie Chan movie and thinks he can fight because his moves look the same in the mirror.
Over the last two months, the Cardinals have rarely utilized the same lineup two days in a row, rare for most teams but a staple of the La Russa era. But these changes were haphazard, never moving the struggling Matt Carpenter or Allen Craig out of their established roles, or based on sample sizes so small they would make even the stingiest caterer blush. Like La Russa, Matheny gives plenty of playing time to his bench, but never in a manner calculated to see them succeed. A few weeks ago, Bernie Miklasz detailed his usage of Daniel Descalso, who has gotten most of his time at SS, and in high leverage situations, both of which set him up for failure. Descalso isn’t a contact hitter or a shortstop, but he is constantly dropped into those roles at critical moments.
Matheny has treated several rookies on the team with the JD Drew and Colby Rasmus special, reducing playing time in favor of established veterans and Matheny favorites. I never liked TLR’s approach with Drew and Rasmus, but I at least understood where he was coming from. They were stubborn, set in their ways, and often looked like they weren’t hustling because they’d had every level of the game handed to them on a platter. TLR forced them to earn at bats they had already earned because he thought they needed the adversity. But using that tactic on Kolten Wong, who seems to grind and hustle as much as the grittiest fan favorite? I’m reminded of Mr. Burns on the Simpsons, demanding Don Mattingly trim his sideburns time after time.
And then there are the pitching changes. Despite going to the pen often, Matheny still hasn’t figured out how to use Randy Choate, who has faced righthanders about as much as lefthanders in 2014, echoing the 2013 World Series, which is basically Exhibit A in the case that Matheny doesn’t understand why La Russa came walking out of the dugout so often.
Maybe the biggest sign Matheny doesn’t understand what he is doing, though, has been his use of the double switch. These days hardly a game goes by without an important piece of the offense getting pulled in the late innings so that Matheny can rearrange the lineup. And with the team battling a shaky bullpen in low scoring games, it’s left them high and dry on multiple occasions.
Remember the infamous twenty inning game of 2010? Position player Joe Mather took the loss in a brutal 2-1 battle of attrition against the Mets. Tony La Russa was ravaged by fans and the media for a double switch that pulled Matt Holliday from the lineup and allowed the Mets to pitch around Albert Pujols for the latter half of the game (and took out one of the team’s best bats).
We haven’t had a twenty inning game yet in 2014, but Matheny makes similar thoughtless double switches so often that it’s no longer remarkable. And worse, sometimes they’re done without any reason. On Thursday, Wong was removed from the game simply to push back the pitcher’s spot from 9 to 2, even though the pitcher wasn’t due to bat in the next inning. There was no tactical advantage in the double switch at all and, as a result, Shane Robinson was sent up at a critical moment rather than Wong.
Of course, this problem would be remedied with a better bench—lately the bats coming into the game aren’t much better than the pitchers they are theoretically replacing—but you should never be switching out guys in the 2-5 spots in the lineup unless there is a decided tactical advantage to doing so.
Mike Matheny knows what a manager is supposed to do, but he still hasn’t learned how or why. He plays the part, but only because he’s memorized the lines. It worked for two years, thanks to one of the best front offices in the game and a heaping portion of luck. But if the Cardinals continue to struggle this season, it’s only a matter of time before everyone grows tired of his hollow Tony La Russa act.