Cardinals news from a Sabermetric point of view

What kind of manager will Mike Matheny be?

Kevin Reynolds of Deckacards recently posed the question in the United Cardinal Bloggers roundtable: “With TLR, Dunc, and Jocketty no longer in place, and Mo, Matheny, and Lilly in control…and Pujols out of the picture…how do you see the identity of this club changing this season and over the next 5-10 years?” Kevin went on to clarify to “Consider Mo’s interest in growing prospects rather than purchasing veterans (like Jocketty), Mo’s interest in database inclusion, Matheny’s defensive prowess as a player, Matheny’s training under TLR, etc.”

First, we think that projecting anything for Matheny beyond his two-year contract presumes a lot. Second, it might be starting with a false premise to say that John Mozeliak has interest in growing prospects rather than purchasing veterans. We would argue that his approach isn’t altogether different from Jocketty’s: Consider that in the last three seasons, he has traded only young for old (acquiring the likes of Ryan Theriot and Pedro Feliz, and signed several veterans (Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook, Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman, Carlos Beltran, Rafael Furcal).

Given that Mozeliak hired Matheny with no managerial experience and that Tony La Russa advocated for him, it’s difficult to imagine that Matheny will break free of the mold set for him. Not that that’s a bad thing, but we’re not sure that we’ll see anything novel in either the team’s approach to player development or game management.

Other than those facts, Matheny is a fairly blank slate. After all, he’s never managed in professional baseball, so all we have to go on is claims about him (such as TLR’s that he would trust Matheny with his daughter) and his own words. In particular, he has said that he’ll rely on instincts honed from his playing days: “I believe I owe this organization to be myself. I’m not here to try and clone Tony or any other manager or coach, but I believe I’m a collection of all the above.”

So with that in mind, let’s review some quotes that Matheny made and that were made about him during his playing days:

“The pitching aspect is where I get the most enjoyment in this game.” — Matheny, SF Gate

Given Matheny’s insights into the pitching game, the Cardinals may yet compensate for the absence of Dave Duncan (a fellow former catcher, we might add). Matheny very well may function as an extra pitching coach, which will add some interest to mound visits. Whereas La Russa generally visited in order to change pitchers, Matheny’s purpose might also be to talk pitching.

“It’s just a position I kind of picture like an interior lineman, one of the things where you know at the end of the day you contributed to the win, and that is satisfaction enough.” –Matheny, SF Gate

If we can draw anything from this, it may be that Matheny has a proper sense of place with respect to being manager. Matheny’s predecessor had a way of overshadowing by overmanaging; perhaps Matheny will be content to help contribute to wins by not having to “star” in them.

Jason Christiansen, a Cardinal in parts of 2000 and 2001, said Matheny is a force in the clubhouse, too. Christiansen recalled a feud he had with La Russa that got so bad they would not shake hands on the field after Christiansen saved some games. “Mike came in and grabbed me by my jersey after the game and darn near threw me into my locker and said, ‘You need to talk to him right now and straighten this out. If we’re going to be a ballclub we all have to get along, ‘ and he darn near pushed me into Tony’s office. We got things straightened out.” – SF Gate

“There’s a better atmosphere in here,” he said. “A big part of this year was Mo (Moises Alou) calling us out last year. We had 25 guys in here, and as soon as the game was over you had 25 guys going in 25 different directions. Last year it was like every man for himself, and that’s a recipe for disaster.” –Matheny, SF Gate

Christiansen’s anecdote speaks volumes about the, er, hands-on approach that Matheny is capable of. It’s clear that he has had at least a couple of different experiences of clubhouse dysfunction, so it’s reassuring that he seems to take a proactive approach to it, as opposed to a passive-aggressive approach that TLR occasionally took.

Yet he seems to lack discernment when it comes to being in touch with the reality of the game. Consider his comments about Mark McGwire after McGwire’s House committee testimony in 2005.

“He’s someone I admire, and I think every guy in uniform needs to be grateful for what he did for baseball, helping rejuvenate it after the (1994-95) strike. Sammy as well,” Matheny said. “He served as an icon for the game, an ambassador. He brought the fans back, and I have a lot of respect for him.” — SF Gate

To be fair, we’d like to hear whether Matheny has an updated view of McGwire and the use of PEDs in baseball. Otherwise, he appears to be dreadfully similar to TLR in either his cluelessness or disingenuousness regarding an important issue of integrity of the game.

One of the fascinating storylines of the upcoming season will be Matheny’s development and emergence as a manager. As we recall, Tony La Russa didn’t blaze any trails in his first managing gig. And before it was all said and done, he mixed some novelty with outmoded conventionality. Our guess is that Matheny won’t rock the boat his first year, but he just may be a pitching coach in disguise.

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