The End of a Love and a Season

I decided to wait before I wrote a post about the end of the Cardinals’ season.  I was very angry, and when I am angry I tend to say things that I later wish I hadn’t.  I also waited to see how the rest of Cardinal Nation reacted, as well as the rest of the Baseball World.  Maybe my perspective was skewed.  It turns out it wasn’t.

Mike Matheny is being pilloried for his managing of the NLCS, more specifically his managing of Game 5.  It isn’t undeserved.  That was one of the worst managed games many of us had seen all season, and that is saying quite a bit since Matheny has managed many games badly.  We Cardinals fans bear the brunt of it because we see it on a daily basis.  The postseason gave the rest of baseball a front row seat to our misery.  This season has been especially  bad, more so than the first two of Matheny’s seasons. If baseball players can regress, I don’t know why managers can’t do so as well.  Matheny certainly did.

I liked Mike Matheny as a player.  When it was announced that he had been hired as the Cardinals’ manager, I remember thinking that his lack of experience was a little worrisome, but his other qualities might make it a decent hire.  Matheny was anathema to the prior manager, Tony La Russa, in terms of personality.  La Russa was querulous and prone to quarrels and public clashes with some of his players.  Ozzie Smith, Scott Rolen, Colby Rasmus, to name a few.  Matheny was much more introspective and less prone to bouts of churlishness.  He was more likely to bond with his players than quarrel with them.  What I didn’t understand was that bonding would create problems of its own.  I also didn’t realize how stubborn and old school Matheny was.  I foolishly thought that being younger, he would be more open to modern baseball thinking.  I was dead wrong.

What happened this season is anyone’s guess.  Perhaps two years of success reaching the postseason went to Matheny’s head and he thought he was infallible.  The signs of what was to come really began in Spring Training.  There were young players vying for spots on the big league club.  Highly touted players like Oscar Taveras, Kolten Wong, and Carlos Martinez.  In addition, GM John Mozeliak had brought in new players to add to the mix.  First, shortstop Jhonny Peralta was signed as a free agent amid controversy over his suspension for PED use the year before as a part of the Biogenesis investigation.  Peralta was brought in to replace Pete Kozma, who though an above average defender, was woefully inadequate with the bat. This signing, despite it’s controversial beginning, was met with much joy by Cardinal Nation, as Peralta’s bat was seen as a vast improvement to what had been experienced with Kozma.  Furthermore, no other viable candidate for the shortstop position was to be had within the ranks of the Cardinals’ minor league system, so the transition was seamless and without disputation by Matheny.  Not so with the second new player.

Mozeliak also made a trade in the offseason to bring in center fielder Peter Bourjos from the Angels.  Bourjos was an elite defensive center fielder, widely considered the best in the game at his position.  Bourjos had had mixed results with the bat, posting a final line of .271/.327/.438 in his first full season with the Angels in 2011.  The next two seasons were tough for Bourjos; he was put on the bench in 2012 due to the emergence of phenom Mike Trout, and a desire by the Angels front office to give playing time to grossly overpaid for his skills Vernon Wells.  His final line for 2012 was a woeful  .220/.291/.315  in 195 PAs.  After Vernon Wells moved on in 2013, Bourjos was back in the starting lineup, pushing 2012 center fielder Trout to left field.  Unfortunately for Bourjos, a couple of unlucky bouts with injury put him on the sidelines for much of 2013.  Despite that, Bourjos posted a final line of  .274/.333/.377 in only 196 PAs, one more PA than in 2012.  Mozeliak had made it clear that Bourjos was brought in to improve the defense in center field, and the implication was that Bourjos was to replace incumbent Jon Jay in that position and relegate Jay to the bench as the 4th outfielder.  Jay had had a below average year in 2013 as a defensive center fielder and his weak throwing arm had always been a source of consternation.

When Spring Training rolled around, Matheny made statements to the press that seemed to suggest that he had other plans for his outfield than what Mozeliak had indicated.  Despite this, when the regular season started, Bourjos, not Jay, was the starting center fielder, at least for the first two weeks.  Bourjos had a slow start with the bat (being in a new league and seeing all new pitchers is not an easy thing for many major league hitters; Curtis Granderson had a similar slow start with the Mets).  However, by the time the Cardinals played their home opener, Bourjos had started to hit.  On April 8 in a game against the Reds, Bourjos went 3 for 4.   However, by April 15 Bourjos was relegated to the bench in favor of Jon Jay, who had hit a home run in that series in Milwaukee, but who was hitting worse than Bourjos at the time.   Bourjos had a short stint in May when he started regularly for about 3 weeks, but then again was benched in favor of Jay.  Bourjos never again regained his starting slot.  Matheny did what he had hinted at in Spring Training ; played the incumbent Jay, who went on to justify his manager’s choice by having a career year at the plate.  There is no way of knowing what kind of numbers Bourjos would have put up had he received the playing time it was initially indicated he would receive.  He ended up with a final line of .231/.294/.348 in a sporadic 294 PAs.  Bourjos’ defense, however, turned out to be exactly as advertised.

Young prospect Kolten Wong had a similar start to the season as Bourjos.  Wong, who was favored for the starting job at second base as a result of the offseason trade of David Freese and the movement of Matt Carpenter to take his place at 3rd base, had his share of issues with Matheny.  The Cardinals had signed veteran Mark Ellis as an insurance policy for young Wong, but Ellis started the season with injury.  Wong was holding his own as a starter in April, but many of the rest of the veteran players were struggling.  For some reason we will all likely never know, Matheny suddenly benched Wong and recalled Ellis from his rehab in Memphis after only one start and installed him at second base.  A few weeks later, John Mozeliak, seeing that Wong was not getting playing time, sent him to Memphis so that he could play regularly.  Wong tore it up at Memphis and was brought back up weeks later and reinstalled at second base, where he remained more or less for the rest of the season.  Matheny had bouts of yanking Wong to play Ellis or Daniel Descalso, bouts that most of us never understood.  We also never got a reason for the sudden displeasure by Matheny for Wong back in April.  The only explanation we received was that Wong needed to “face adversity” whatever in the hell that meant.

There was another controversy of sorts that occurred in Spring Training regarding the starting rotation.  It was reported in the press that  there would be a competition for the final rotation spot between incumbent starter Joe Kelly, and the young Carlos Martinez, who was a starter in the minor leagues but had been brought up in 2013  to pitch out of the bullpen.  It turned out that Martinez pitched much better in Spring Training than Kelly; but when rosters were announced at the end of it, it was Kelly who was given the starting spot over Martinez.  Again, Matheny acted in a manner that was contradictory to what the media and the fans were led to believe was the case.

The signs were there that this season was not going to be free from frustration and contention.  Matheny had shown his willfulness cards in Spring Training and in April.    The loudness of Matheny’s willfulness became a cacophony in the matter of Allen Craig.  We all know how that played out and how it ended.  But the willfulness of Matheny didn’t end there.

So what is the bottom line in all of this churning up of past events?  It is to demonstrate that Mike Matheny had his own plans that he stubbornly stuck to, no matter what the end result.  The Bourjos/Jay controversy ended up working out for the team and for Jay(not so much for Peter Bourjos). The Allen Craig debacle did not.  The team struggled for 3 1/2 months with Allen Craig flailing away at the plate with no end in sight until John Mozeliak stepped in and ended it.  But the stubborness, the rigidity in thinking that Matheny had displayed continued on.  Matheny would play the players that he wanted to play, in situations where they were not suited. Marginal players like Daniel Descalso and Tony Cruz were placed in situations where they were not the best options available, time and time again.  Better players like Oscar Taveras and Peter Bourjos were left to rot on the bench, or were brought in in the least optimal circumstances.  Rookie Randal Grichuk, known for his propensity to strike out and for his inability to hit right handed pitching with consistency, was given a starting role at the end of the season in favor of better options. Number one prospect Oscar Taveras, for whom the Allen Craig trade was made to give him an opening to start was again benched in favor of another inferior player.   Favoritism became one of the buzz words for Matheny’s managing style.

All of Matheny’s quirks, the farcical bullpen management, the misuse of personnel, the nonsensical double switches and the endless, unnecessary giving away of outs by bunting incessantly, these foibles became known in Cardinal Nation as “Mathenaging”.  By the time the postseason came around, the rest of the baseball world would  become aware of Mathenaging, and they would be dumbstruck.  It all culminated in the disaster that was Game 5 of the NLCS, the game that ended the Cardinals’ season.

As I said at the beginning of this post, the criticism is not undeserved.

What do we have to look forward to for 2015?  I don’t know.  Matheny begins a 3 year contract extension in 2015 so he will still be the manager for the next 3 seasons, barring anything unforeseen.  Will we have 3 more years of Mathenaging?  I think that question is in the hands of John Mozeliak.  What he does or does not do in the offseason will probably give us an answer.  In a future post I will lay out what I think some offseason moves should be, but this post has gone on quite long enough.

I am not as angry as I was.  I am more resigned and sad.  Goodbye 2014 season, you had your good points, but you ended badly.

Thank you for reading.

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15 Comments

  1. BW52

     /  October 18, 2014

    Pretty good summary.You didn`t even mention MM misuse of the bullpen.I would like to see what your vision for this offseason will be.

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  2. A wonderful article Marilyn. I look forward to the follow on about off season moves. I do have one question I hope you will address.

    “Matheny begins a 3 year contract extension in 2015 so he will still be the manager for the next 3 seasons, barring anything unforeseen. Will we have 3 more years of Mathenaging? I think that question is in the hands of John Mozeliak. What he does or does not do in the offseason will probably give us an answer.”

    I do not understand what you mean by that. You indicate that you think MM will be here, but then seem to say that things Mo does this winter could determine if we have three more years of Mathenaging. The implication, it seems, is that it could be possible for MM to stay on but we would not have any more Mathenaging, due to something or other that Mo could do this winter, What, for heavens sake? Or do I misunderstand your meaning?

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    • There are several things he could do. Hire a bench coach (it is rumored that Aldrete is going to Oakland; even if not, he can be replaced) that has been given the power to override any Matheny decisions that he thinks are wrong, or just convince him that they are. Additionally, he can either trade or non-tender players that Matheny is playing too heavily (like Descalso, or Cruz) or who are blocking other players. There are also things he could do that are not visible to us, like have a long talk with Matheny and dictate to him what he is to do differently or lose his job.

      What I am saying is that Mozeliak has the power to change things. Whether he exercises that power remains to be seen.

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  3. blingboy

     /  October 18, 2014

    Well, if any of those things are necessary, then the manger needs to go. But I recognize that the logical thing isn’t always how it plays out. My feeling is that whatever is done will be behind the scenes and invisible to the public (and media). The empowered bench coach would not work, IMO, and would be humiliating to Matheny. I mean, why have Matheny then? I can’t see the Cards doing anything like that. We’ll see. Thanks for responding.

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  4. baseballmania

     /  October 18, 2014

    I get some things you are saying but how do you actually know what goes on behind closed doors. No way can they or will they hire a bench coach to tell the manager what to do.
    I say once again Mo provided the chess pieces for Matheny to move. Managing a bullpen takes a skill. Managing a bullpen with young players who were brought up as starters doesnt always work . But thats how its done. Thats on Mo, not Matheny. And then you take them out of their routine they were trained for to do every 5 days and there they are up and throwing every night. Disaster.
    Oh and then there is using your aging catcher every game, why is everyone so shocked yadi has had injury issues? Or afraid to give the left fielder a day off.Did everyone think he would
    continue his hot streak…no way.
    Its not all on Matheny. I know you know players have little contact with the manager on a day to day basis. Its the coaches who are responsible for how players perform.
    And no one has made any attempt to teach or force Rosenthal another pitch? I feel really badly for him, he wont last another year.
    Not sure why people are complaining. Did you all REALLY think Matheny would beat Bochy.

    And the games or season was not embarrassing. Thats baseball. I cant believe people are complaining that after making the post season 3 seasons and no WS ring is silly. Do you know how difficult that is just to get to play in october.

    Its so easy to be a monday morning quarterback.

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  5. baseballmania

     /  October 18, 2014

    A friend of mine made a comment i found interesting. The cardinals have the benefit of drafting well and raising players well. They dont spend the money because they are in a division where they dont have to.
    In other words it is what it is.

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  6. blingboy

     /  October 18, 2014

    ” They dont spend the money because they are in a division where they dont have to.”

    An astute observation. With the Cubs suspending (at least for now) their ‘buy a team’ efforts, it doesn’t take much to be the big spender in the NL Central. It shows up in post season versus the big boys, I guess, but don’t tell the Royals. 🙂

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