Cardinals news from a Sabermetric point of view

Cardinals prudent to extend improving Matheny

Kudos to Mike Matheny and the Cardinals for extending the manager’s contract through 2017. We concur with Cardinals GM John Mozeliak that Matheny, though not without a few noisome shortcomings, deserves an extension.

In his second year at the helm, Matheny did what a manager of a team of the Cardinals’ level of talent and mix of experience needed him to do: To not get in the way and to put players in positions in which they were most likely to succeed.

Last week, Bernie Miklasz made a case for Matheny for at least Manager of the Year runner-up. The Post-Dispatch columnist gave the following reasons:

  • The team won the most games in the NL, beating two 90-win teams in the division
  • The team lost its shortstop and closer before season even began
  • The team had to replace 3/5 of its rotation and had to rebuild bullpen
  • The team had many rookies
  • Matheny made Carpenter the second baseman and leadoff man
  • Matheny had to replace two other closers during the season
  • The team lost Allen Craig down the stretch

It’s indeed a strong case … for John Mozeliak for GM of the year (or perhaps John Vuch, for farm director of the year).  That’s because most of the things Miklasz credited to Matheny are GM, rather than field-manager, responsibilities. Matheny may be good at those things, especially (as we suspect) “clubhouse and player leading,” but the observable things he did this year didn’t exactly distinguish him. Yes, he gets credit for batting Carpenter leadoff, but he also gets debited for too many badly timed sac bunts and for batting Jon Jay 62 times in the first or second spots. We’re not sure what Matheny did to overcome the loss of Furcal and Motte other than to play the next players in line for those positions, Pete Kozma and Edward Mujica, whose ultimate ineffectiveness which led to necessitating another replacement was some of Matheny’s own doing. As for the rookies, they were a boon to Matheny. True, he had the good sense to play them, which perhaps wouldn’t have been the case with a Tony La Russa-led team. And though the team lost a big bat in Craig, it didn’t lose any productivity: Matt Adams, Craig’s replacement posted a .365 wOBA (Craig had a .363).

So that gets back to the original point about not getting in the way, which Matheny did well, for the most part, by wisely playing the cards he was dealt. And he had a couple of areas in which he gave players an opportunity to be their best. One was of course featuring Carpenter and giving him as many plate appearances as possible. Another was his bullpen usage. The Cardinal pitching staff was second in baseball in platoon advantage, which is the percentage of time that the pitcher had a handedness advantage, largely a function of the manager’s decisions. Matheny has been well above league average in his first two seasons in the managing business (52% to 45%). In contrast, although La Russa’s teams featured a similar level of platoon advantage, it took him a few years to figure it out: In his first four seasons in St. Louis, La Russa had only league-average platoon advantage. In particular, Matheny deployed LOOGy Randy Choate especially adroitly, giving him a team-leading 70% advantage, second-highest in the league among pitchers with at least 15 innings pitched. Ditto Seth Maness, who faced righties 68% of the time, undoubtedly contributing to his league-leading 30% GIDP rate.

And although he did continue some head-scratching play calling, he operated the offense better than he did in his rookie year. Perhaps comprehending the team’s lack of speed and the overrating of stolen bases, Matheny’s club attempted steals at the lowest rate in the league in 2013 (3% of the time; Milwaukee did most at 9%), an improvement from 2012 (5%). And a few ill-conceived top-of-the-order sacrifice bunts notwithstanding, he decreased sacrifice bunting, doing so at only a 3% clip, an improvement from 4% in 2012.

Despite a few memorable lowlights, such as giving Mujica too many high-leverage situations (he led the team with a 1.68 game-entering leverage index), the Lance Lynn kerfuffle and the unsolved mystery of Shelby Miller‘s World Series rostering, Matheny ultimately proved some of his critics, like ESPN’s Paul Swydan, and, we hasten to admit, yours truly, wrong by persevering into the playoffs. Matheny has indeed been the right man for the job, and the way that the team figures to be comprised over the next few years, likely to continue to be. The bottom line is always going to be about the players, which is why Matheny’s observation that “Fortunately, we’ve had a group of guys who’ve played extremely well in the two years I’ve been here” speaks well of his understanding of his role. As the young players on the team continue to mature under his leadership, may Matheny also continue to improve through 2017 — and beyond.

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