In an autumn that has already seen 3 managers that guided their teams to the playoffs lose their jobs, the St. Louis Cardinals are attempting a different approach. Despite failing to make the postseason — or even win 90 games — for two consecutive years, ownership and the front office is choosing to stand by their man. I’m not here to tell you whether that is wrong or right. Only time will tell. Rather, I’m stepping away from my usual “anti-Matheny” mentality to understand the organization’s thought process. It has become quite clear that, instead of seeking a new manager, they are trying to evolve, or develop, the one they already have.
First of all…
There is a bad narrative going around. It goes something along the lines of “in what world are Dusty Baker and Joe Girardi out of a job but Mike Matheny isn’t?’. I understand where it’s coming from, but it’s a bad take. And I say that as someone that strongly believes that the Cardinals can do (and should have done) better than Matheny. My problem with this narrative is that all things are not equal. All owner/front office/manager relationships are not equal. Not every clubhouse has a desirable atmosphere. Simply, not every situation is the same. Owners and front offices can choose to move on from a manager for any reason they choose. It’s their decision.
The other issue with this thought process is that I have repeatedly heard people try to have their cake and eat it, too. They say that a good team record does not mean they have a skilled manager. That is absolutely true, check Don Mattingly‘s final 3 years in LA. The team was fantastic, yet he was widely panned as one of the poorest managers in the league. It is this thinking that leads many to dismiss the team success that Mike Matheny has had over his 6 seasons. Fair. However, I then hear the same people turn and say that “John Farrell won 93 games each of the last two years and he got fired” or “Dusty Baker won back-to-back NL East’s and he’s out”. Stop it. If team success can’t be used to argue in Matheny’s favor, then it surely can’t be used to compare others to him and argue against him.
There are many things you can use to argue against him. Just not that.
But I digress…
Let us move on to what the Cardinals have decided to do instead of firing their manager. Piece by piece, they have altered his coaching staff. Compared to the staff that opened the 2016 season (which didn’t include Oquendo) only Matheny, John Mabry, and Bill Mueller remain. In two seasons time, 5 new voices (and 1 old voice returning) have been added to the staff.
The Cardinals have never wavered in their support for the manager. They have always believed that he is the right man for the job. A huge part of a manager’s job takes place out of sight from fans. In these areas, where Mike has earned the satirical title of “leader of men,” the organization feels he is strong. We simply have to take their word for it. What we do see is questionable in-game management.
Defining a good manager…
A good tactical manager, like Tony LaRussa or Joe Maddon, is essentially a net-zero factor for a team. They use a good process that allows talent and player execution to decide the outcome. Over the long haul they do not win you or lose you any extra games, they simply do not inhibit the talent. A bad manager uses bad processes that over the long haul will lose games and inhibit the talent. This causes teams to underachieve. A really bad manager is bad in-game and loses control of the behind-the-scenes aspect. This is when teams crumble.
To summarize, a good manager is net-zero and a bad one is a net-loss. Generally.
So what the Cardinals have done…
They recognize that Matheny lacks some in-game management skill, but they believe it can be fixed. I believed (as did others) when he was hired that the smart thing to do would be to place an experienced, former manager-type in his bench coach role. A sort of crutch to show him the ropes and be a sounding board as Mike experienced managing for the very first time at any level. They didn’t do that and stuck with career assistants. Now, 6 years later, we complain that the learning curve has been far too long.
Finally, the front office is doing something about it. They addressed the slipping fundamentals and some clubhouse chemistry concerns by bringing back Jose Oquendo and adding Willie McGee to the staff. Mike Schildt, held in high regard by the front office, is now in a position of more authority as the bench coach. Finally, they brought in a pitching coach with 15 years of experience in Mike Maddux. The hire was universally praised and his reputation for preparation is akin to that of Dave Duncan. Before the hire was made, the team described the role of the next pitching coach to be one of a coordinator, holding more control over the pitching staff and more control over pitching decision.
That’s the key right there. They recognized that Matheny’s pitching decisions are his biggest weakness, so they brought in a stud pitching coach to fix it, and in some cases make the decisions for him. Of course, Matheny has to allow that happen.
It’s not uncommon…
For a manager to struggle in his first job. LaRussa, Herzog and many greats have stated that getting fired from their first job helped them improve and thrive in their 2nd job. Look across town at the Blues’ Mike Yeo. After being fired from his first job in Minnesota, he did some self-evaluation and has become a fantastic coach for the Blues. Look around baseball. AJ Hinch was a disaster in his one season as manager of the Diamondbacks. He learned from it and hoisted the Commissioner’s Trophy for Houston on Wednesday night. What I see the Cardinals doing here is simple. Rather than start from scratch again, they want to develop their manager. Look at the drastic change to his coaching staff and the push for a more modern approach. You could consider it a soft reset. A shift from one ‘era’ to the next.
They are attempting to have Mike Matheny for what would essentially be his first, and second managerial job.
It’s fascinating, but only time will tell if it works out.
Thanks for reading!