In the wake of the Cardinals’ World Series loss to the Red Sox, let’s analyze what happened by looking at a few of the series storylines. We’ll start by reviewing the curious case of a player who became a big deal precisely because he played so little: Shelby Miller, who didn’t even make an appearance.
Miller posted the third-most wins above replacement among the team’s starters in the regular season. He had the fourth-best FIP behind Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha and Lance Lynn. And yet Mike Matheny opted for Joe Kelly in the World Series rotation. Matheny took the less explicable decision of giving lesser right-handed lights Seth Maness and John Axford a total of 18 batters without so much as a single batter to Miller. So the question is “why?”
Derrick Goold quotes Matheny as explaining that Miller was “that safety valve for us at the end of the game,” which is to say long relief. It’s worth recalling that prior to Game 6, Matheny sounded a different note, saying (our emphasis added) “We need Shelby to stay sharp in his mind, because at any point, we might need him to come and fill a number of different roles,” though we’ll take him at his later word. The problem is that the way that the pitching staff was configured — plenty of righties who could pitch multiple innings, plus starting pitchers able to return and relieve (e.g., Lynn in Game 6, Wainwright in a potential Game 7) — obviated the need for a dedicated long reliever. Indeed, Matheny never even used another right-handed reliever in Edward Mujica. And given that a long reliever almost by definition appears only in low-leveraged situations — typically in a blowout for either team — optimizing for such a role is probably bad strategy.
Others have alternately suggested that the reason Miller didn’t play was because he was fatigued or that he was injured. But both are also unsatisfying answers. If Miller were either, the Cardinals would surely have simply replaced him on the roster.
By not using Miller, Mujica or backup catcher Tony Cruz, the Cardinal manager effectively managed with a 22-man roster. If he didn’t need the extra pitching, he certainly could’ve used the additional hitters. We understand that the organization has limited options, but surely even a replacement-level player with a platoon advantage, would’ve been preferable to the six disadvantaged plate appearances that Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma had between them. And given that Matt Adams faced a lefty six times, a few in key moments, the Cardinals might’ve used a Brock Peterson for at least a couple.
It’s one thing for a World Series team who wins in four games to use that few players, as the Giants did last year in their sweep of the Tigers. But a losing team has to at least lose after exhausting all options, and the Cardinals didn’t do that this year. Despite playing only four games last year, the Detroit Tigers went to the wall with all 25 men on their roster. The 2010 and 2011 Texas Rangers used 24. The last losing team to use as few as 22 men in at least a six-game series was the 2009 Phillies, and, well, you know what Charlie Manual is doing these days.
Though John Mozeliak prefers not to dwell on the past, saying that “second-guessing the roster doesn’t have traction,” the more troubling question looking to the future is why Miller himself wasn’t and apparently still isn’t clear on why he never saw action. The Post-Dispatch quotes him as saying “There could be something that I don’t know about going on. Maybe I’ll have some understanding in the offseason. I think it’s more they’re just looking out for me, innings-wise. I don’t feel fatigued. I don’t feel tired. I feel really good. There is probably some answer that I don’t know about. I’ll wait to hear it.”
Only two readings of this are possible. One is that the Cardinals clearly told Miller what they’ve said publicly (that he was reserved for long relief, an opportunity that never came) and that Miller is simply misrepresenting that by asserting that something he doesn’t “know about” is going on. The second is that the Cardinals were not straightforward with Miller, and his concerns about the vagueness of the team’s answers or of their not being forthcoming are legitimate. Take your pick, but both cases are unhealthy, the first being disingenuousness on the player’s part, the second being disingenuousness on the management’s.
This apparent misunderstanding is a sad coda to the poor management of the Cardinals’ roster in the series. The ill-advised strategy wasn’t the only explanation for the club’s failure to play more competitively, but it was surely one explanation. Mike Matheny is of course still learning how to optimize his roster, and we trust he’ll do better next time. But the rest of the team’s decision makers, from Matheny’s fellow uniformed coaches to Mozeliak and his staff needed to put the team in a better position.