Make A Wong Right

Okay, the title is cheesy.  Bad puns are not my literary métier.

The point is that the recent demotion of rookie second baseman Kolten Wong was not in fact in the best interests of Wong, or the Cardinals team.  It may have seemed that way to manager Mike Matheny.   However, what seems appropriate to Matheny has not lately been altogether logical or effective.

Let me expound on that a bit.  As was the case with most Cardinals fans, the demotion of Wong at the time it was initially made, created a head scratching moment for me (actually it was longer than a moment, but go with me here).  The rookie wasn’t hitting well, but he was holding his own at the same time most of the starting lineup was doing the same or worse.

Enter Mark Ellis.  Mark Ellis was signed in the offseason as “insurance” in the case of a struggling or ineffective Wong.  I thought it was a good signing at the time and I still think so.  The 36 year old’s best playing days are behind him, but he brought a solid defensive pedigree and a decent, but not overpowering, bat.  Ellis is a career .293 hitter, but his bat is on the declining side of that average.  Even hitting at a .250ish clip would be more than adequate for a part-time infielder.

So Ellis develops knee issues during Spring Training and begins the regular season on the 15 day DL.  Not a problem, because Wong has a very good Spring Training and begins the season with a modest 4 game hitting streak.  A couple of 0fer games follow, then he is right back with another modest 6 game hitting streak.  That brings us to April 13, the day Mark Ellis gets sent on his rehab assignment.

Wong goes 0 for 4 on April 14.  On April 15, Mark Ellis’ rehab assignment is cut surprisingly short (1 start) and he is headed back to the Cardinals, who were in Milwaukee.  Wong is hitting .255 at this juncture.  Ellis is put into the starting lineup that night and goes 0 for 3.    Wong starts the next game (April 16) going 0 for 3, but is pulled after the 6th inning and replaced by Daniel Descalso, who had started the game at 3B (don’t even get me started about Descalso).  Descalso contributes nothing that night at the plate, going 0 for 4, and the Cardinals lose the game 5 to 1 to the Brewers.  That is the only game the Cardinals lose in that series, by the way.

Wong starts the next game in Washington (April 17), and goes 2 for 6.  Matheny has one of his WTF moments the next day and starts Ellis.  Way to congratulate Wong for his previous day’s performance, huh?  Wong starts the next game (April 19), then sits two games for Ellis.

Now by this time, Wong had played sporadically and his performance at the plate had taken a not unexpected turn for the worse as a consequence.  Let’s remember, shall we, that Wong was hitting .255 at the time Ellis was unceremoniously ripped after one start from his rehab assignment.  That was when the roller coaster ride began.  By April 25, Wong starts his last game, and on April 28 he is demoted to Memphis.

Let me take a brief sojourn from this tale to point out that a similar course of events was going on for Peter Bourjos.  During the same Milwaukee series (are we seeing a pattern here?) the Bourjos saga began.   Bourjos started the last game of the previous series with the Cubs (April 13) and went 1 for 3 with a triple and an RBI.  His average had climbed t0 .219.  He was rewarded the next day by being benched for Jay.  He started the next game (April 15) and went 1 for 4, raising his average to .222.  Again he was rewarded by being benched for Jay for the next two games.  He played sporadically after that, starting only 4 of the next 15 games.  Not unexpectedly, his batting average plummeted over that period.

What can one conclude from this series of events?  One person concluded that Matheny was making terrible choices and managing poorly.  That person was Joe Sheehan, a writer for Sports Illustrated, who also publishes his own newletter, the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter.  In an article written for that newsletter entitled “Mike Matheny’s Terrible Choices” Sheehan had this to say about both Wong and Bourjos:

 

What I don’t understand is the urgency. If you rank MLB managers by “likelihood of being fired in 2014,” Matheny is going to be down at the bottom with John Farrell and Joe Maddon. A similar security envelops the front office. There is no baseball reason, no job-security reason, no organizational reason to panic after two weeks of baseball in April. Yet Matheny dumped two starters before Patriots Day. No, let me rephrase: Matheny dumped two new-guy starters before Patriots Day. See, Allen Craig was playing worse than both Wong and Bourjos were when they were benched — .133/.184/.133, with poor outfield defense — and was never challenged. Matt Holliday was at .214/.327/.310, also not helping in the field, through April 12. Heck, Mark Ellis has played considerably worse since coming back than even Wong did while he was here: .205/.273/.231. Matheny seems to have one set of standards for some players and a second set for others.

 

I have to say I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Sheehan.

I have attempted to impart some logical reasoning into the demotion of Wong.  At one point I had convinced myself it made sense and even expressed this to others.  My way of making it sensible was to reason that since both Wong and Ellis were not contributing with the bat, and both needing regular playing time to rectify that,  sending Wong to Memphis was the only practical way to accomplish that, because Ellis could not be sent to Memphis freely without restrictions and Wong could.

However, there was another aspect to this I had not considered.  Ellis was on a rehab assignment in Memphis starting April 13.  He only started one game and it was cut short.  At that time Wong was still holding his own at the plate, hitting better in fact than such players as Allen Craig, so why wasn’t Ellis allowed to continue his rehab assignment?  Perhaps if he had been allowed the 20 days allotted, or even half that, he might have been in a better situation at the plate than he ended up being after getting only 1 rehab start.  What was the urgency in getting him back?  It appears to me, at least, that Matheny cashed in the “insurance” policy way too soon.

The answer may lie in what Joe Sheehan suggested.  Mike Matheny panicked.  Is the fact that the roller coaster rides for both Wong and Bourjos began with the series against the Brewers significant?  The hot team, the team who was looking to challenge the Cardinals in the NL Central division?  The Cardinals team was struggling offensively, Matheny felt he had to do something, so he directed his attention to two players with whom he did not have much of a history (none at all prior to this season in the case of Bourjos).  Two players who perhaps Matheny did not feel comfortable with?  Were Wong and Bourjos scapegoated so that Matheny could play two players he preferred in Ellis and Jay?  Matheny didn’t have a history with Ellis either, but Ellis was an older, established veteran who had years of experience in the field and at the plate.  Wong was a rookie, and a still unknown.

At the beginning of the Milwaukee series the Cardinals were 7-5.  By the second game of the series the Cardinals were on a 4 game winning streak and were 9-5.  What was the supposed panic based on?  After the Cardinals lost the 3rd game of the series and the real lineup tinkering truly began, the Cardinals lost 10 of their next 16 games, being almost swept by the Cubs of all teams.

Matheny’s actions were neither logical nor effective.

The Cardinals have now won two games in a row.  Wong is still in Memphis, but Bourjos started last night’s game against the Braves and was a key to the win.  He went 2 for 4 with an RBI, his speed on the bases was instrumental in inducing an important error by Platinum Glove winning shortstop Andrelton Simmons, and he made a run saving catch in center field.  Will he be rewarded by being started tonight, or will he again be benched for more Matheny lineup tinkering?  Will Wong, who is hitting well in Memphis, return when he is eligible to do so?

These are all the $64,000 questions Cardinals fans are waiting to discover the answers to.

 

Thank you for reading.

 

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