The Strange Case of Mike Matheny

I don’t know if anyone noticed, but something’s been going on over in the sports section of STLtoday.  It began a week ago, with reports that former Cardinals catcher Mike Matheny would be interviewed as a possible replacement for Tony La Russa.

Perhaps this didn’t come as a huge surprise to a lot of people.  Matheny was a well-respected leader on the team many years ago. He was hard-nosed and competitive.   Even then, there was talk that he would make a good coach or manager some day.  But on closer examination, it was a little unusual.

Matheny hasn’t been a manager in the minors, like Ryne Sandberg, Chris Maloney, or even Joe McEwing.  He hasn’t been a coach with the current Cards club like Jose Oquendo or Joe Pettini.  And he certainly doesn’t have the big league pedigree of Terry Francona or Joe Maddon.

Matheny’s coaching experience, as far as I know, is limited to a few years as a spring training instructor and a series of videos for Protege Sports.  Does that mean he’d be a bad manager?  Of course not.  I’m actually an advocate of signing an inexperienced manager because someone without a history is going to cost less.  And I don’t think that the manager is terribly important.  As long as he gets along with his players and doesn’t make too many horrible mistakes, he probably has less effect on the success of the team than the backup catcher or mopup reliever.  There’s no reason to break the bank on a manager.

I’m in a pretty small minority with that viewpoint, however.  So it was a bit unusual to me that the Cardinals, fresh off a WS victory, would consider replacing a high profile manager like La Russa with a complete rookie.  I didn’t think too much about it, though.  I honestly thought that they were interviewing Matheny as a courtesy or a curiosity.  At that point, I assumed that Oquendo, Sandberg, and Francona were the real candidates.

Then STLtoday featured an article which detailed Matheny’s interview with the Cards.  This piece highlighted his positive attributes, addressed his lack of experience, and was quick to point out Matheny’s bonds with Dave Duncan, Yadier Molina, and of course Albert Pujols.

Once again, this was only slightly unusual at the time.  But now, almost a week later, there haven’t been any similar articles about the other candidates.  There have, however, been stories considering the merit of hiring an inexperienced manager as well as a Bernie Miklasz article contemplating Matheny as a potential choice.

If you’re as cynical as me, you realize that STLtoday might be floating a trial balloon.  They might be preparing Cardinals fans for what they already know or suspect: Mike Matheny is the frontrunner to replace Tony La Russa.  We’ve certainly seen it before.  Rasmus’s departure came on the heels of various stories about his difficulty with the Cardinals coaching staff.  McGwire was floated as a potential hitting coach in the news before he was hired.  Are we seeing that same thing now?  And why?

Why Matheny?  Why would the Cardinals–who have spent the last 16 years demonstrating that they value the position of manager far too much–hire a completely inexperienced skipper?

Two possibilities come to mind:

1. This may be an unfortunate response to a crisis of leadership.  The Cardinals have been Tony La Russa’s team for so long that they might not know how to live without him.  Perhaps they hope to keep his reign alive as long as possible by hiring a figurehead manager, and allowing Duncan and McGwire to make the real calls.  This isn’t a particularly flattering analysis for Matheny, but it is something that should be considered.  Matheny is a blank slate, and perhaps the Cardinals want to shape his future with the help of La Russa’s old coaches.

Of course, if this was the goal, why not hire Joe Pettini?  He’s filled in for La Russa numerous times.  He probably knows La Russa’s style better than anyone but Duncan.  He’d be the natural fit if you wanted to ensure maximum continuity.  Which leaves me with…

2. This is Mozeliak’s power play.  And it’s really goddamn interesting.  When Walt Jocketty was dismissed following the 2007 season and replaced with Jon Mozeliak, I assumed the new GM was nothing but a puppet for Tony La Russa.  Jocketty left over disputes with management.  Mozeliak was an org team player.  Throughout his time with the Cardinals, he’s been at La Russa’s beck and call.  He traded Brendan Ryan and Colby Rasmus.  He acquired Matt Holliday, Ryan Theriot and Lance Berkman.  The media made no attempts to conceal where these moves truly originated.  La Russa wanted these players (or he wanted them gone) and Mozeliak made it happen.

Now La Russa’s gone.  There’s a power vacuum.  And I think this is a surprising move from Mozeliak to come out of the shadows and establish that he’s no longer just an apparatus of a larger-than-life manager.

How do I figure this?  A little tidbit that has come out into the public  eye since this search began.  Mike Matheny has been working for Mozeliak, in the GM’s office, for the last year or so.  Think about this quote from the above-mentioned Miklasz article:

“He’s also served as an adviser to Mozeliak. An unofficial assistant GM, if you will.”

Interesting, right?  Pettini and Oquendo are acolytes of La Russa.  They worked on the field with him.  McEwing and Sandberg are managerial prospects from the White Sox and Phillies, respectively.  Terry Francona would bring his own people in.  But Mike Matheny?  He’s been working with Mozeliak.

There is still no predicting who will be the Cards’ manager in a few days.  But I think that Matheny’s sudden ascension to front-runner shows that Mozeliak is ready to make the Cardinals his team.  For better or worse.








The Upside of Tony La Russa

I don’t like TLR. I don’t think he’s a particularly good manager. He’s stubborn and wrong-headed, his bullpen management is puzzling, and he bunts way too often. Of course, this is true of most managers. It’s rare to watch a game where both teams don’t make some inexplicable move that flies in the face of common sense and/or advanced baseball statistics.

Perhaps TLR’s biggest sin is the leeway he’s given. On his own, he’s no worse than a run-of-the-mill bad manager. He makes too much money to make the same mistakes as everyone else in baseball. He seems entirely invulnerable from criticism, even when he does insane things like leak a private trade request from Colby Rasmus to the media that wasn’t actually a trade request.

But I’ve been entirely too pessimistic on this blog lately. I’d like to try and write a positive post about the Cardinals, because outside of Ryan Franklin (and TLR’s misplaced faith in him) the team has been really quite good lately. So I’m going to do the hardest thing I can think of: I’m going to talk about the good things TLR brings to the Cardinals.

First off, there is Dave Duncan. I generally don’t believe that coaches at the major league level have a huge effect on the performance of their players. Most major leaguers are fully developed, most coaches think alike and use similar systems… And most of the time there’s no data to back up the impact a coach has on individual players. Duncan is somewhat of an outlier. He’s helped several pitchers resurrect their careers, and even overseen the transformation from journeyman to ace a few times. I don’t think anyone could have anticipated what he did for Woody Williams and Chris Carpenter. A cursory look across the usual stat-head baseball sources reveals that, for example, fangraphs and Tom Tango, author of The Book via a link to 3-D baseball acknowledge that statistics are consistent with the existence of a Dave Duncan Effect.

Keeping Duncan and losing TLR doesn’t seem like a possibility, so we have to count him among TLR’s positive attributes. Admittedly, it’s really fun to watch Cardinal pitching, and to speculate about which pitchers Dave Duncan could “turn around”. Without TLR, we wouldn’t have that.

Second, TLR is willing to take certain chances that are rare in baseball. They don’t always work, but they show a creativity that is sorely lacking in other managers. TLR’s creativity may lead to mistakes, but I’d rather see a team fail because the manager was thinking outside of the box rather than because the manager was conforming to established thought.

The pitcher hitting eighth? Fantastic idea. I’d like to see it more often. The Book, which I seem to be citing a lot in this post, agrees that it’s the best position to put the pitcher in the lineup. TLR was the first person to try it and the only one who dares return to it, even though it’s the right thing to do. That’s worth something.

Skip Schumaker to 2b? It turned out to be a disaster, but I really respect the Cardinals and TLR for trying. I don’t respect them for sticking to the experiment even though it failed, but I’m glad they tried. Schumaker was a hitter with marginal value in the outfield but a plus if he could play 2b. If it worked, it would have been a coup. Given Schumaker’s willingness to try, his athleticism, and the dearth of 2b options over the last couple of years… I think it was a bold attempt, and there are few managers who would have pursued such an unorthodox move with enthusiasm.

Lance Berkman back in the OF? Okay, the jury is still out on this one. He doesn’t look good out there. He’s been party of 2-3 really bad plays. When we signed him to play RF, we essentially punted defense for a good hitter with the potential to be great. And his hitting has been great. It’s worked so far. He’s made up for his defensive shortcomings by being a much better hitter than Jon Jay or Nick Stavinoha, or whoever else we might have put out there.

There have been other good unconventional things that TLR has tried. The Batista/McClellan fakeout during the Friday rain delay comes to mind. That was a great move, and it’s rare for me to think that any move is particularly great.

Of course, this is all offset by TLR’s problems. Whenever I start to reflect on the good aspects of TLR, I go back and look at this article, Joe Posnanski’s excellent take on the 20 inning game last year: For baseball’s great overmanaging artist, this was his Mona Lisa . La Russa is terrible at times, and he’s unapologetic about it.

But, just once, I felt like looking at his positive qualities. Even if one of those qualities is Dave Duncan, and the other is a fortunate side effect of his hubris.

He certainly makes baseball in St. Louis more interesting.