The End of Mike Matheny

I can’t remember ever getting up before church on a Sunday to write a post.  I’ve scheduled some for Sunday.  I’ve written some Sunday afternoon.  But it’s rare when the Cardinals do something on Saturday that requires a discussion that can’t wait until Monday.  The first in-season managerial change in 23 years qualifies, however.

I had just opened up my Twitter app last night when I saw a Tweet that was just 42 seconds old:

Now, I’ve seen people forge press releases, using the letterhead to pass off similar news.  Usually they aren’t very good–the fonts are wrong, the terminology blatant, so I initially figured that this was the same.  I mean, it was 10:15 or so at night.  What were the odds that the Cardinals were going to do something this drastic while a lot of folks were sleeping?

Then I looked and saw the blue check mark.  For once, Twitter’s verification system actually paid dividends.  I still didn’t quite believe it and was starting to check my email for the press release when more confirmation started rolling in from the media and others.  It was true.  The Cardinals had finally decided that Mike Matheny had reached the end of the line.

I can’t tell you that I was one of those reacting with jubilation at the news.  For one, while Matheny has plenty of money now, he’s still gone through this rejection from his bosses and is now, at least at the moment, away from the game that’s made up most of his adult life.  It has to be gut-wrenching to go through that sort of thing, as anyone that has been fired can attest.  People don’t like to be seen as a failure, but being fired from a national platform is going to make you feel that way.

I also wonder how much this is going to impact the results on the field.  If the Cards come out and win today, then take four of five from the Cubs after the break with no player changes, then maybe you can start tracing more of the bad play and results to the manager.  Don’t get me wrong, I know Matheny’s choices and actions definitely played a role in how the team has played over the last few years, but I don’t think it’s going to immediately turn around on the field.

While I wasn’t ecstatic about it, it was pretty clear that it was time for a new leader for this team.  Many folks, especially Brenden Schaeffer, were talking about the fact that the Cardinals and Matheny had been talking about “it’s going to happen”, “it’s going to turn around”, “we’re better than this and we’ll show it” for a long time now, about three years, and that run, that improvement, that returning to sea level….never seemed to happen.  Last night, in what turned out to be Matheny’s last press conference (I’m guessing not having to do those is his silver lining today), Derrick Goold asked him if he had anything solid to base that on, any adjustments that they see need to be made or some internal metrics or work that show someone on the verge of breaking out.  Matheny’s answer was basically, “No, but these guys have been good in the past so I’m sure they’ll be good in the future.”

That may not have been what made the decision for the DeWitts–and as someone noted in our Twitter group chat around tonight’s All-Star Roundtable Podcast, that was a detailed press release, not something thrown together at the last minute–but I think that’s what had started to irk a lot of Cardinal fans.  You can put lipstick on a pig only so often.  I’ve said it before: rebellions are built on hope, but I don’t know that it’s a sound strategy for baseball teams.  While there are limited options to what a manager can do to improve things–at the end of the day, it’s the players that hit and pitch–continuing to try to mask the problems makes you look out of touch with what is really going on.

Do I expect a manager to come out and say, “Man, Tyler Lyons can’t throw that pitch to Joey Votto and Tommy Pham really has to hit that ball in the fourth” and on and on, detailing all the different failures by his players?  No, of course not, no matter what some might think.  However, it’s not hard to acknowledge things that aren’t working at least in general terms or at least express frustration or understanding that this isn’t the baseball fans want to see.  Someone asked last night if I wanted to see players thrown under the bus and of course nobody wants that.  Dealing with the media is going to require a bit of blandness and you definitely don’t want to poison relationships by doing a lot of public criticism.  However, saying “we’re going to have to make some changes because this is unacceptable Cardinal baseball” doesn’t single out anyone and would make people, at least temporarily, feel better and acknowledge that they understand the problem as well.

There was some talk on Twitter that the Jordan Hicks/Bud Norris situation was the last straw, that Bill DeWitt Jr. didn’t like hearing about some old-school antics going on in the clubhouse.  While that story seems to have been softened in the public eye over the last few days with comments from everyone, especially Hicks, it’s possible that ownership realized that if anything of that nature was not only being condoned but somewhat encouraged from their manager, that was an issue because that wasn’t the sort of clubhouse they wanted.  Again, three straight mediocre years probably is a large part of it as well, but they couldn’t and wouldn’t defend him any longer.

Mike Matheny currently–and, most likely, will for a while–ranks fifth in all-time wins by a Cardinal manager.  The first four are in the Hall of Fame.  The next three are in the Hall of Fame.  Which means Matheny’s going to stand out like a sore thumb when this list is perused in the future.  Folks are going to know La Russa and Whitey Herzog and Red Schoendienst (Matheny came 30 wins shy of passing Billy Southworth for fourth).  When it comes to Matheny, I wonder if my son’s generation will, in 30 years, say, “Oh yeah, I forgot he became the manager.”

Let’s also give Matheny a little bit of credit for his first few years at the helm.  People like to say that he took over a World Series winning team, which is completely true, but it was also a team that had lost its cornerstone in Albert Pujols.  We’ve seen it over the last few years how vital having that rock, that overall presence, in the lineup can be.  Lance Berkman had less than 100 AB that year and moved on at the end of it.  The team that played in the 2013 World Series had a lot fewer ties to the 2011 squad than you’d expect after two years.

I don’t think you can just say that he had great players and that’s why he won.  There was a lot of turnover in those first few years and the team was able to win.  Heck, go to 2015 and while we don’t like the result and it did feel like late in the season they lost traction, they still won 100 games.  I’m not saying that Matheny gets all the credit there but I do think we tend to overlook or discount some of the good work he did as manager.

You could say some of Matheny’s downfall was a decline in the quality of players he had, which is possible.  The Cards were somewhat buoyed over his span by out of line seasons, such as the 2013 squad that was ridiculous with runners in scoring position, but the young players that the Cardinals developed never reached superstar levels and some of the free agent signings were a bust.  There’s no doubt that the failure of the team over the last three years isn’t entirely on the manager, though his advocating for Greg Holland might show that he wouldn’t have been much better in the GM role.

The hitting coaches, John Mabry and Bill Mueller, go with Matheny out the door.  (Twitter is not going to know what to do with itself for a while, not having anyone to blame.)  Mike Shildt takes over, which is what the front office has been positioning him for as well.  I’d give pretty good odds that Shildt will keep the job after this season, but we’ll see what the club says when they have their press conference this morning.  It’s fun to speculate on names like Joe Girardi or Mark McGwire or others, but there is a lot of value in a guy that’s come up through the Cardinal ranks, that knows the Cardinal Way, that has spent time developing players.

You are also going to hear names of legendary players in the past, like Willie McGee or Scott Rolen.  Given the fact that some probably thought Mike Matheny would be great before he was hired, I’m thinking they’ll try to go a different route than the unproven former player.  Besides, can you imagine some of those guys spending every day talking to the media, doing the postgame interviews and the like?  That’s such a huge portion of the game now and I don’t think a lot of those guys want that sort of attention.

It’s going to be a different second half.  This would seem to indicate a willingness to break it all down or to make some moves that we up to now had thought off the table.  We’ll see what develops but if nothing else, it’s a shakeup for a team that really needed one.  Hopefully the results will be what the club expects as well.

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