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 Yadier Affair

There is something wrong with Yadier Molina and that means bad news for the Cardinals.

If there is anything that Cardinals fans should take for granted, it’s a good defensive catcher. Over the last decade, the Cardinals have employed two excellent starting backstops.  First there was Mike Matheny.  Then, after he left for San Francisco, Yadier Molina took over and has held the job ever since.

First, there was Mike Matheny. Matheny was an abomination with the bat. In 2001, he got 424 PAs despite a .218/.276/.304 line.   Don’t look too long at that stat line.  It’s  been known to cause headaches, confusion, nausea, and abandonment of hope.  Also you can add the BA, OBP, and SLG together and it’s still lower than Barry Bonds’ 2001 SLG (.863) so there’s that.

There’s probably a good argument that Matheny should not have been an everyday player for a major league team.  But that’s not what I’m writing about today.  Matheny managed to keep the starting job because Tony La Russa loved him, and because he was amazing behind the plate.  A disclaimer: evaluating catcher defense with statistics sucks right now.  I’m not sure if anyone has come up with a good stat yet, so I’m stuck using the eye test (which is both biased and bad in general) and numbers that may only be marginally illuminating.  But I don’t think anyone will argue that Matheny was a bad catcher.  What stats we do have back up my assertion: in his five years with the Cards, he averages 4.4 passed balls a year, 27.2 wild pitches, and 2.8 errors.  For his career, he threw out 35% of attempted basestealers.  He also won a few Gold Gloves, but so has Derek Jeter so Gold Gloves mean nothing.

Yadier Molina followed him with more excellence.  In his first 6 full years as the Cardinals’ starting catcher, Molina averaged 6.3 passed balls, 28.7 wild pitches, 6 errors.  Not as good as Matheny, but outside of a godawful 2006 (which he redeemed with a certain timely HR) he’s a better hitter and he’s thrown out a stunning 46% of baserunners.

Granted, there are a lot of things wrong with all these numbers I’ve thrown out there.  The difference between a passed ball and a wild pitch is the whim of the official scorer.  CS% is also dependent on the pitcher and the speed of his delivery.  Errors?  Official scorer again.  But Molina, like Matheny, passes the eye test.  Almost every game, we see his strong throws and his quick feet and his ability to block the plate.

Something’s different this year.  He’s not as quick as he has been in the past.  His arm is weaker and more errant, though he’s still managed to nail 38% of runners.  This speaks to the baseline that he’s deviating from–a bad throw from Yadier is still a good throw.  His errors yesterday were bad, and that’s what prompted me to make this post, but that’s not the biggest issue.  Most pressing, he’s not protecting his pitchers like we’re used to.  He’s not getting out in front of pitches before they can fly errant.  It shows both on the field and in the (admittedly bad) stats.  He already has 14 wild pitches and 2 passed balls.

What does this mean?  It’s not just bad for Yadier and his quest for a fourth Gold Glove.  It’s bad for our pitchers.  For a decade now, our pitchers have never had to fear bouncing a curveball in front of the plate.  They’ve been able to throw a slider off the outside corner without worrying about it slipping from the catchers glove.  And they’ve rested a bit easier with a speedy runner on first base.  Undoubtedly, TLR and Duncan’s pitch selection has been influenced by this security as well.  But what if it went away?  If Molina is injured, or age and workload are catching up to him, the pitchers will have to adjust.  Hopefully the “Dave Duncan Effect” wasn’t actually the “Cardinals Catcher Effect”

Hopefully this is just a slump.  People say defense doesn’t slump.  Those people never watched a full year of Brendan Ryan.  If Yadier Molina works his way out of this, then I’ve written a whole bunch of words about nothing.  But it’s a concern, especially when the defense everywhere else on the diamond is so suspect.

PS: This weekend I will be taking part in the fourth annual UCB Progressive Game Blog.  It’s a collaborative look at a single game, with each inning handled by a different blogger.  Check out the information here.