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United Cardinal Bloggers roundtable: What grade for Matheny and how can he improve?

[The United Cardinal Bloggers have begun their offseason roundtable discussion in which member bloggers take turns posing a question each day to the others. Today’s question comes from yours truly, and we appreciate the thoughtful responses from our colleagues. We’ll answer our own question in a subsequent post.]

What grade would you give Mike Matheny for 2012, and how would you like to see him improve in 2013?

Mike Matheny gets a B-plus. As a rookie manager, he led a team into the postseason that lost Albert Pujols and was without Chris Carpenter and Lance Berkman for large portions of the season. In the postseason, they competed well until running out of gas in the last 3 games of NLCS. He conducted himself well with the public and media. He appeared confident and established his own style and identity with his decision-making.

To improve, would like to see him stress fundamental baseball more, meaning how to advance runners with outs, hitting to the opposite field, not being so dependent o the home run or the big inning. Would also like to see him meet with UCB bloggers in 2013.

— Mark Tomasik, Retrosimba

 I’d probably say a B, perhaps a B+.

The Cardinals brought Matheny in to be a leader of men and in that role, he delivered.  There was no public grumbling in the clubhouse, the players obviously didn’t quit on him, and he didn’t seem to throw anyone (save perhaps Ryan Jackson) into the doghouse.

That said, he still has room to grow in the tactical side of things.  Bunting was highly overrated for Matheny this year and I never want to see him bunt the runner to third with nobody out again, especially when it’s your number-two hitter that’s doing the bunting.  I felt he got a little rigid in his bullpen use later in the year as well, with Mujica in the seventh, Boggs in the eighth, and Motte in the ninth no matter the score, how much the bullpen needed rest, or the fact that someone like Trevor Rosenthal got the last out of the sixth and could have easily gone longer.

All in all, it was a successful first season for Matheny and I hope he continues to grow into the job.

 — Daniel Shoptaw,  C70 At The Bat

 I’m pretty sure I’d give him an A, a high B at the least.

I didn’t much care for some of the bunting, and I had my share of questions about pitching moves, but I loved the overall aggressiveness on the basepaths, to name just a few situational things that jump out at me.  But at the end of the season, this rookie manager took a team that had significant injuries & significantly inexperienced guys at the ML level to within one game of a World Series appearance.  Now, the way the season ended with being so close & the starting rotation sputtering almost as badly as the offense…may or may not be a function of proper rest for guys throughout the year, as we saw very very early on.  Remember that getaway day early early in the season at CIN, where (I want to say) Berkman, Freese, & Beltran all had the day off, and the team schedule had an off day the next day?  Maybe the key injuries played a factor in not being able to give guys days off as he’d originally planned, resulting in running out of gas just a little bit sooner than we’d all have liked, who knows?  I’m more concerned about the results than anything else, and getting within a game of going back to the World Series is good for an A in my book.

 — Dathan Brooks

 My first instinct was to give him a flat C, but I think he actually earned a B. As mentioned already, some of his tactics weren’t all that thrilling — bunts are rarely a good strategy unless the pitcher is up, and I frequently had issues with his bullpen management, but aside from these areas, he did fine; even better than fine in some areas. His clubhouse leadership skills appeared strong, and he did make some good personnel moves. He inserted Jon Jay in the leadoff spot proactively when the center fielder’s OBP started spiking, and he even resisted the urge to make Skip Schumaker an everyday player, something La Russa was never very good at. As a result, Schumaker’s production was better than it has been the last few seasons.

For the most part, I like what Matheny did with roster management and batting order, and those are probably the two areas I’m most concerned about with any manager. And again, the guy does seem to be a capable leader, for whatever that’s worth. All in all, there’s not much not to like, and there’s certainly nothing he can’t improve in.

— Spencer Hendricks, StanGraphs


Grade: B

He needs to do all those things that others have mentioned. Pick better spots to bunt in the order. Quit labeling definite spots in the pitching order as a rigid use. Allow pitchers with experience as starters more chance to pitch longer in a game.

— Tom Knuppel

Grade: B. Plays well with others, comprehension needs improvement.

But seriously, he’s done well. I can think of lots of ways he could have been worse. If Bobby Valentine is an F with the Red Sox (and is now out of a job), then Matheny deserves a solid B.

Mike’s strengths, as others have mentioned, are in the area of clubhouse leadership and batting order. He excelled in those areas. While bullpen management was too rigid, I have to say it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a bullpen as remarkably “lock-down” as the Cardinals had late in the season. He did find a recipe that almost always worked in that area. Now he needs to investigate other recipes that work just as well and in edge situations. Mike is also loved by the team, and that counts for more than we can ever know. Look what happens when the opposite is true. A season of mutiny and under-performance marred the Red Sox all year.

I wouldn’t say he necessarily bunted too much, as I would say he bunted inappropriately. I never want to see a top of order hitter out there bunting, unless that hitter has been *seriously* slumping. Even then, the results must justify the waste of an out and a good bat. The complaints from fans really piled on when bunting was used too much and the bunts failed (3rd strike foul bunts, pop-ups). I have confidence that he will learn and grow.

If he can learn to minimize or at least use bunts strategically and productively, he upgrades to an A-. When he learns what made those bullpen guys so great in the slots he put them in, and how he can use those strengths in other parts of a ballgame, he becomes a solid A.

— Wes Keene

 I give him a solid B-.  He was handed the keys to a Ferrari and managed not to crash it in the driveway.  He drove it in the slow right lane of I-270 at about 6am on a Saturday morning, and he kept driving the same way on I-55 near the 210 exit 30 minutes before first pitch.  Next year I’d like to see him use all the gears and not worry about what he sees in the rear view mirror.  In my view, that requires that he separate himself from some of his ideas and let the players do what each does best.  Bunting is not one of the things any of these guys do best.

— Dennis Lawson

 My grade is a B+. For a rookie manager with no experience and a lot of injury issues to deal with, he did a great job in getting the team as far as they did in October.

My areas for improvement are the same as what many have mentioned already, especially the reliance on bunting (particularly because most of the time it was detrimental). I would have liked, especially in October, to see a little more variance with the lineup. Sure, when it worked and everyone was hitting, it was fine. But as the hitting stopped in Games 5, 6 and 7 of the NLCS and the same lineup was out there, it would have been nice to mix things up and try to get something, anything, going. And, as was already mentioned, there were some peculiar lineups during the regular season from time to time too. But his leadership abilities and his way of dealing with the players — which of course were the reasons he was hired — were definitely impressive.

 — Christine Coleman, Aaron Miles‘ Fastball

I’m going to have to give Mike Matheny a nice little B and hope he manages to learn things I don’t think it’s possible for him to learn. That’s not to say anything specifically against Mike Matheny, but to say something against Major League managers as a whole and how stuck in their ways they’ve generally become/always been. Matheny had a roster full of players capable of both getting on base and hitting bombs, and he asked them to sacrifice and steal bases in weird situations far too often. He also seemed fond of intentionally walking opposing hitters in situations that could only result in more trouble. I think Matheny believes he’s doing the right things here because, hey, tradition says you have to be “tricky.” Tradition says bunts and intentional walks are necessary as well as “fundamental” and “tactical.” I’m of the belief they aren’t.

But there were positive aspects to what Matheny did as well. The thing I really enjoyed was that he simply got the right guys in there on most days. It sounds so simple, but it’s something Tony La Russa seemed to struggle with from time to time. Matheny didn’t though; he let his best players get the bulk of the at-bats, went to his big guns in the bullpen more than his shaky ones down the stretch, and even managed to maximize the value of one Jared Schumaker. Given how much more important it is that Matheny gets his best players on the field more often than not, I can forgive the small mistakes much more easily.

— Brian Vaughan, StanGraphs

 I give Matheny an A.

Without Dave Duncan by his side or the Cardinals’ best hitter for the last decade, Matheny managed this team to the NLCS.  An improvement in 2013 would see the Cardinals winning the division.

— Daniel Solzman

 I’m going to give him a B- (that’s minus).

While Matheny did a great job as a rookie manager “not screwing up the team for the most part,” he didn’t seem to offer anything substantial in his first season. His primary approach seemed to be “get out of the way of this championship team and learn.” From that perspective, he did a great job – mostly – but this is the big leagues. If you want to be graded softly in your learning year, go manage a AAA team first. Taking the job at this level means you’re ready for the deep end – or at least ready for the consequences.

I had an old mentor during my marriage counseling program that said, “Often the things we love about a girlfriend/boyfriend before marriage can become the thing we hate about them as a spouse.” Obviously oversimplifying things, an example might be loving the fact that your significant other is a decision maker while you’re dating can become “my spouse is so controlling!” about five years into marriage.

That is sort of true with Matheny as well.

When the Cards and fans were falling in love with the idea of Matheny as a manager, his “steady demeanor” and unwavering resolve were considered pluses. After the extremely emotional and competitive moods of Tony LaRussa, the idea of a ready-steady manager and an everyday lineup were appealing. Once Matheny got into August and September, however, his “steady demeanor” quickly became “stubbornness.” Ultimately, I think he attempted to – rather successfully – make up for his lack of managerial and strategic experience with rigid adherence to beliefs about baseball, a belief in his guys, and scripted roles in areas like bullpen management.

At times, his “stubbornness” was still a plus in many ways – Mujica, Boggs, Motte certainly worked more often than not – but it became a block to his development and the team’s ability to adjust to difficulties. I’ve said it over and over again…it wasn’t so much Matheny’s insistence on bunting that bothered me so much…it was that coupled with the fact that it wasn’t working over and over again, and yet he still tried it.

Also, there has to be something said about Matheny’s inability to close the deal in the NLCS. When it comes right down to it, his team had a 3 games to 1 lead in the NLCS…and they couldn’t get it done. Yes, blame the players and credit the Giants…but also, Matheny had clear opportunities to impact the outcome and he either didn’t make a move or made the wrong one (Carpenter in Game 7, Rosenthal vs. Kelly w/the bases loaded in Game 7, throwing Lynn and Carpenter post-Game 4, sticking with Lynn too long, etc., etc.). Since this is an evaluation of the manager, that has to be considered.

In fact, it could be said that Mike should have lost in the NLDS and the Wild Card game. The Braves essentially handed us the game to advance, and guys like Kozma, Descalso, etc. pulled an unlikely one out in the final NLDS game – a game that Matheny played a role in by leaving his starter in too long. His players likely saved his bacon in that one.

I could even argue that the team shouldn’t have made the playoffs except that 1) the Dodgers couldn’t get it done either and 2) the unexpected play of guys like Kozma et al did just enough to get it done.

All that being said, Matheny did do a good job of keeping the team moving forward and preventing them from getting too down. This season was a heckuva season, to be sure, but especially for a rookie manager. Yes, all the injuries made it challenging, to say the least, but Matheny was handed a World Series Champion – Pujols, TLR, Duncan, etc. be damned. Success was expected. It was one of the reasons Matheny got a shot in the first place. Mozeliak expected the team and the coaches to help Matheny along…and that’s what they did.

Bottomline, Mike did a good job in guiding the team, setting the tone, etc. This team succeeded. He finished with the same record and results as TLR did in his first season with the Cards…but TLR was handed a mediocre team and turned them into almost-World Series contenders. Mike was handed a Champion – albeit a challenged one – and dropped the ball in the NLCS.

His season identified a lot of learning areas. How he adjusts and changes in 2013 will put the final stamp on how successful 2012 truly was for him as a manager.

— Kevin Reynolds

 I really don’t have a lot of additional input to offer from what the rest of the group has already said. Mike Matheny was honestly in a tough situation in his first season. He was given the task of replacing Tony LaRussa and guiding a team with high expectations coming off a World Series championship campaign. Before the season had even begun he lost arguably the team’s best player in Albert Pujols to free agency and the team’s best pitcher from the previous season in Chris Carpenter to injury.

The things I’d like to see him improve on would be: A. Stop giving away outs with unnecessary sacrifice bunts. You only get 27 outs there’s no need to give any away. Position players should rarely if ever bunt. B. Bullpen management. If I had to guess, which it’s a complete guess, I’d say managing the bullpen probably offers the steepest learning curve for a new manager. Those are really the only two things that consistently stuck out for me. More positives than negatives for sure.

Again just some little things here and there but overall a very nice season for the new manager. I would expect more comfort and confidence in 2013. My final grade would be a solid B.

— Dustin McClure

Solid B+ for all of the positive reasons given.

With time, I think a lot of the negatives will settle out – the bunting, etc.

If I had five minutes to convince Matheny of anything it would be to stop double-switching out your best hitters for “defensive replacements” in close ballgames.

— Nick, Pitches Hit Eighth

B+ seems pretty accurate. Obviously his decision making needs work. But, anyone who expected that to be flawless without some experience was even more Team Matheny than I was!

Everyone else covered the specifics pretty well (bullpen/bench player management, basics like bunting), so I’ll just say this: after a full season of ups and downs, I think Matheny’s biggest positive is his ability to “stay the course,” if you will. He was as cool, calm and collected after 17,000 injuries as he was at the start of the season.

Obviously, no one was happy with the way the season ended — from his body language in that last game, no one was more disappointed than Mike. But, I feel safe in betting he doesn’t make the same mistakes again.

If anything, this season proved he has the intangibles he was hired for. And, much like we said about last year’s team on the field, those qualities — although not quantifiable — undoubtedly account for a good portion of a team’s successes.

I expect more mistakes to be made in year two, but underneath the calm, unflappable nature, I suspect Matheny learns quickly and leads better in 2013… and that he calls for no more than 5 bunts all year! 😉

— Tara Wellman

Manager Mike (that’s the nickname that I gave him on has really seemed to settle in nicely and next year  will only have learned and matured as a manager.  He’s a proven leader and that’s one of the reasons he’s in that position – his leadership skills came through loud and clear.  Of course there are areas that need improvement (bullpen, bunts, etc) and he will improve next year naturally. We’re very lucky and Cardinal management and the fans know that. I’m partial to him. I think he’s great. And as I’ve said before I see a NL MOY for him this year or very soon.

I like how he always has the guys’ in check – he’s really getting to know them. He went into a tough job and came out great.  Maybe I’m just partial, but I see a NL MOY for Manager mike – this year or very soon.

Just like the rest has said, the only place I can see the need for improvement is with the bullpen.  That will come w/experience.

— Mary Clausen


5 Responses to “United Cardinal Bloggers roundtable: What grade for Matheny and how can he improve?”

  1. cardinalnation257 Says:

    Can’t believe someone could have the thought of giving Matheny a C. I absolutely loved his demeanor, especially with the media. It was very LaRussa like, but I think we can expect to see him come out of his shell a little more next year. Only complaint I can give is why he ever took Beltran out of the 2 spot in the lineup. Beltran openly expressed his liking for the 2 spot and how could you keep him out of that spot with the numbers he was putting up in the first half! When he was put into the cleanup and later spots he clearly struggled. As a tremendous defensive player in his own rite, I would also like to see him put an emphasis on defense for this next year as it was the one thing consistently lacking from this team (with the exception of Yadi). Overall a great rookie performance from Mike Matheny, enough for an A- in my book. He has given reason for excitement for this Cardinal team, and for that I cannot thank him enough.

  2. Ziggy Says:

    I give Matheny a solid A.

    Following the Cards online from a distance on a daily basis (I live in Chicago) and taking in a lot of televised Sox games this year, I had the opportunity to compare and contrast Matheny with Robin Ventura’s maiden voyage as manager.

    Throughout the early part of the season and into the summer, I thought Matheny was trying to out La Russa La Russa with all the lineup juggling and relief pitching strategizing. Meantime, Ventura was putting the same lineup in the field day and after day, and successfully challenging the Tigers, the heavy pre-season favorites.

    What I didn’t get was that Matheny was trying to preserve a lineup of creaky veterans (Beltran, Furcal, Holliday) that included oft injured younger players (Craig, Freese). Despite these efforts, all of the Cards big bats missed significant time due to injury – most missed at least a week and many missed for than two weeks. Otherwise we might be looking at a 100 win team this year.

    What Matheny and the team surely realized (and I of course did not) is that if they could keep the ship stitched together through August, they could bottom feed on a diet rich in Astros and Cubs the last couple of weeks to make a final stretch drive run for a playoff spot. Which they did. The White Sox, meantime, flamed out the last two weeks of the season as their big bats went silent.

    One can argue about Matheny’s game tactics, but his overall understanding of strategy based on the hand he was dealt got a team with very fragile health to within one game of the World Series.

    The team rode the high of the NLDS to a 3-1 lead over a very talented and well managed Giants team. The same crafty pitching, defense and timely hitting (and great coaching) that ultimately did in the Cards in seven games took care of the Tigers in four.

    Matheny helped keep his team bouncing back from gut wrenching, devastating losses all year. He got them into a position where they could extend the season. I can’t imagine who could have taken them further this year after all of the signature losses (Pujols, La Russa, Duncan, Carpenter) from the previous year. He had a truly amazing year, as did his team.

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