GM John Mozeliak's decision to hire the inexperiened Mike Matheny as manager has worked out better than anyone reasonably could have expected. Except for maybe Mozeliak himself, who obviously had a lot of confidence in Matheny's leadership ability and all-around potential.
In Matheny's two seasons, he's gone 2-for-2 in leading the Cardinals to the postseason. They've won a wild-card play-in game, two NL division series, an NL championship series, and of course an NL pennant. The Cards' 16 postseason victories are the most by an MLB team over the past two seasons. And the team's 185 regular-season wins under Matheny rank fourth in the majors since the beginning of the 2012 season.
Matheny has established a strong working and personal relationship with his GM and team owner Bill DeWitt Jr. And the same can be said of his relationship with the players. Matheny connects.
“I've always been a big supporter of Mike and understood that there would be some growing pains,” Mozeliak said recently during an interview at the team's complex in Jupiter. “But I do think what's been obvious, looking back at the past two years, is just his level of confidence in how we're running things as an organization.
“And he's had the ability to put his own fingerprints on it. Just seeing how players respond to what his message is – they're very receptive and they certainly respect him in his role.
“Between confidence and just pure player respect, that's changed quite a bit, and in a very positive way.
“I also think his game management continues to grow. So as his confidence and his experience come together, it becomes a really nice recipe for success. And he has a great staff, and that's one of the keys to a manager's success, having key guys in place to help him.”
Matheny has improved significantly in some areas. And some of his ideas have worked very well.
For instance …
From his first season to his second, Matheny reduced the number of outs wasted on unnecessary sacrifice bunts.
And Matheny's emphasis on pushing it on the bases by encouraging runners to advance the extra base on suspect outfield arms paid off in 2013. According to Baseball Prospectus the Cardinals finished second in the majors in base-running runs (BRR) in 2013. They were 13.4 runs above the MLB average. Great work by Matheny there.
In some areas, Matheny's improvement from Year One to Year Two was obvious. Now for the question: Going into this third season in charge, can Matheny make additional improvements?
Of course. Couldn't we apply that to every mortal man or woman, no matter what they choose to do for a working career? In my job, I wake up every day knowing that I can be better … and should be better. Some readers would undoubtedly suggest – and perhaps with just reason – that I don't do anything right.
So with that standard in mind – nobody's close to perfect – here are some ways that Matheny can improve as manager in 2014:
1. Go to the bullpen sooner: This is always a tough call for a manager. And if his decision doesn't work, he'll be blasted by unhappy fans and snarky media. Leave a struggling starter in to give up a go-ahead two-run double, and the manager gets ripped. Remove the starter and bring in a reliever to give up that critical double, and the manager gets ripped.
That's the nature of the job. But he Cardinals have an enviable collection of power arms and specialists in their bullpen, and they plan on keeping seven relievers again this year. As long as fresh arms are available for duty, there's no reason to stay with a fading starter. But Matheny has done that too often in his first two years – postseason included. Game 5 of the 2013 World Series was one of several examples. Now, if you're reading this and you want to start whining about how unfair it is to second-guess the manager, then here's my response: managers have been second-guessed since 1882, or whatever. It comes with the job.
Playing fantasy manager in the stands or in the press box is a time-honored baseball ritual. It's actually part of the entertainment. It isn't a personal attack. Or as Tony La Russa always said: “You don't want to be second-guessed or criticized in this job? Then gp find something else to do for a living.”
2. When making bullpen decisions, put more emphasis on matchups. This one should be easily correctable. Just one example illustrates what we're talking about. The Cardinals signed LH reliever Randy Choate to be their late-inning repellant against lefthanded hitters. So if you're team is getting bashed by the preposterously torrid LH-batting David Ortiz, then use Choate to try and cool him down. Choate was underutilized in 2013.
3. Catch up to the advances in the industry by deploying more aggressive defensive shifts. There were a lot of reasons for the Pirates' exciting transformation in 2013, and their progressive-minded use of defensive shifts was high on the list. Rather than capitulate to pitchers who began mewling whenever the occasional ground ball rolled through a vacant spot, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle listened to his GM and the organization analysts who gave him data-supported recommended shifts to use against certain batters. It worked – beautifully so.
The Pirates were an awful 25th among 30 teams in defensive efficiency in 2011. They improved to 10th in 2012, and came in at No. 5 last year. The shifts saved them runs. The generally slow-footed Cardinals lacked range and were ranked 21st in defensive efficiency last season. Matheny says he plans to incorporate more shifts into the defensive strategy this season. We'll see if he follows through. The last time he tried it extensively – but briefly – in 2012, his pitchers complained, and Matheny backed off. But the data doesn't lie. So what will Matheny do if his pitchers begin whining again? This should be interesting.
3A. This strategy also requires more of a commitment to defense from the dugout. If Jon Jay remains well below average defensively in center field, then it's worth sacrificing some offense by using one of the game's best center fielders, Peter Bourjos, in a defense-first mode.
4. Be more aware of reverse platoon splits in choosing a pinch-hitter, a reliever, or when filling out the lineup card. Just because Shane Robinson bats right, it doesn't mean he's more effective against lefthanded pitchers than RH pitchers. For his career, Robinson's combined onbase-slugging percentage is 43 points higher against RH pitchers than LHP. The same applies to relievers who have demonstrated an ability to do better against “opposite” hitters. Example: lefthander Sam Freeman has been more effective against RH bats than LH bats in his limited career. By a difference of .154 in combined onbase-slugging allowed. Most of the time the platoon splits cut along the expected lines. But not always.
5. Don't get too caught up on scoring loyalty points with the players. This is a big one. It's also a complicated issue. And a sensitive one. Matheny manages under the guiding principle of the “servant leadership” theory. The simple explanation: a leader chooses to help and support those in his employ rather than impose his command and control.
Matheny wrote about this on his blog at MikeMatheny.com:
“The best advice that I can give is to selflessly serve the people around you, with no thought of getting anything in return. Eventually, the contagious nature of your generosity will make its way back to you and a bond of trust will infiltrate your clubhouse.”
This has generally worked well for Matheny. His players are loyal to him. But the danger is going too far ... like sticking way too long with a tired, and burned-out closer (Edward Mujica) or a closer (Mitchell Boggs) who has completely lost his confidence. Or putting a used-up reliever on the postseason roster at the cost of having an extra batter for a more capable bench. That happened last fall; Matheny didn't want to hurt Mujica's feelings by excluding him from the postseason roster. So the Cardinals carried Mujica in October and willingly left their bench short. And that limited bench was a factor in situations where Pete Kozma had to bat instead of being replaced by a pinch-hitter. When you put the player ahead of the team's greater interest, you take the risk of having the misplaced loyalty backfire.
Professional baseball players want to win. That's the goal. And while they appreciate having a manager who won't embarrass them publicly or otherwise make them look bad, they also want a manager who will make the tough decisions that will give the team its best chance to win.
When Matheny pulls the plug on a player who no longer can perform, he isn't betraying the player – he's doing what's best for the other 24 players. The other 24 players know what a manager's job is. And they also know that if you can't perform, and you become a liability, then the manager has no choice but to go in a different direction.
Players won't view Matheny as a heartless back-stabber for making an obvious, necessary change that will help the team realize its objective. Besides, Matheny has clearly established trust with the players. They know his heart is sincere. He doesn't have to keep proving it.
Thanks for reading …