As the Cardinals struggle to make the playoffs this year and the lynch mob gets ready to hang Mike Matheny should we fall short, I thought it might be time for some perspective, good or bad. I looked into Cardinals team history for managers to compare Matheny with, skipping Tony La Russa (who did have three losing seasons with the Cards) and Mike Jorgenson (who only managed half a season) and settling on Joe Torre.
Now this wasn’t the Yankees version of Torre. He joined the Yankees after he left us and had a great run there.
Before he joined the Cardinals, though, he hadn’t been a very successful manager. He’d managed parts of 9 seasons for two teams (The Braves and the Mets) and only made the playoffs once, in 1982 with the Braves. In fact, from what I’ve heard and read, part of the reason Torre got the job was because of the fact that he, Dal Maxvill and Ted Simmons, the Cards GM and director of Player Development at the time respectively, had a good relationship going back to the days when all three were players.
One thing to keep in mind, though: Making the playoffs then wasn’t nearly as easy as it is now. As things stand now we have three division titles as 2 wild card teams. Back then we had 2 divisions on each side and no wild cards. Torre’s one playoff appearance looms larger given that information.
In 4 full seasons including 1994’s strike-shortened season, Torre’s Cardinals only finished above 3rd place once, in 1991 when they finished second.
Matheny, on the other hand, has made the playoffs in each of his 4 full seasons as manager. Mike must be the better manager then, right?
Not so fast.
First, there are those changes I mentioned. While Mike has only made it as a wild card once, he’s also had the benefit of managing his entire career in the 3 division era. Go back to a 2 division, no wild card setup and two playoff years disappear – 2012 (the wild card year) and 2014, when the Nationals (East) and Dodgers (West) both had better records than us.
Plus Mike has had the luck to have a good owner to work for, one who invests in his team. Back in the early 90’s, after Gussie Busch died, the brewery, led by Fred Kuhlman, took over the team. They weren’t as interested in the team as Gussie was, as it distracted them from the core business of making beer. As a result, Maxvill didn’t have as much to work with as John Mozeliak does today. Would things be different if he had? We’ll never know. As mentioned, Torre already had an established relationship with Maxvill (and remains friends with him today.) A good working environment like that can (in theory) help overcome other issues like the aforementioned lack of financial support. Obviously, it didn’t work out that way, but I can see management’s thought process.
Matheny didn’t have an established relationship with Mozeliak going in, and that shows at times. Mozeliak feeds Matheny talented youngsters like Oscar Taveras, Carlos Martinez, Kolten Wong etc, and Matheny doesn’t always embrace them. He gives at bats to guys like Greg Garcia who don’t have as much upside instead of letting guys like Wong develop and reach their potential. To his credit Mike is using Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver, but those guys are only on the team due to injuries. Mike has no choice *but* to use them.
In the end, who’s better? How would Torre do if he managed today’s Cards? We know that after he was fired in 1995 he went to a Yankees team with more resources at their disposal in 1996 and immediately won a World Series (the first of four he won there) so I can’t help but think that with the resources of the current Cardinals team he’d do better job than say, having three third place finishes like he did when he was here.
I also think all of those resources (as well as more chances to make the playoffs) mask Matheny’s weaknesses. For example, he kept running Trevor Rosenthal out there when he was struggling. Seung-hwan Oh only became the closer after Rosenthal got injured. What if Rosie hadn’t gotten injured? A smarter manager would’ve removed him from the closer role earlier. Mike often seems to have “his guys” that he sticks with, no matter what, and while I’m sure the players he sticks with appreciate that, it doesn’t always positively affect the box score.
What do you guys think? Matheny or Torre?
As always, thanks for reading.