We were treated to another classic Mike Matheny interview this week thanks to Mark Saxon, who covers the Cardinals for ESPN.com. As the usual Matheny spin goes, this was a beauty. And if you were hopeful the Beloved Leader of Men spent significant offseason time examining his own job performance and identifying ways he needs to improve … well, I have a real, live, actual unicorn to sell you at a low price.
When asked about the team’s problems with defense and base running in 2016, Matheny never really explored the topic. Didn’t really answer the question or acknowledge the defense/running issues. Instead, he sought to play it off by citing his use of so many “young” players. And Matheny criticized the media for, well, I don’t know what the media did exactly. My best guess is that we discussed and wrote about the defensive and base running flaws last season. Areas that obviously were harmful to a team that won 86 games and failed to make the playoffs. Areas that were so deficient, the team’s general manager did an offseason roster overhaul in an attempt to fix the flaws. Keep in mind, the overly sensitive Matheny once told me that he considered my use of statistics — facts — to be personal attacks.
Here’s the complete answer from the manager:
“It’s amazing how little regard people actually put into how many young players we put on the field last year. The conversation kept going all season long without people really acknowledging it. We had to throw Aledmys Diaz into the lineup at the last second when he had spent the previous season at Double-A. Kolten (Wong) really hasn’t found the traction in the league yet. Those two guys were in the middle. We had to search to find a center fielder, and Randal Grichuk hadn’t spent a full season in the big leagues. Our right fielder (Stephen Piscotty) hadn’t spent a full season in the big leagues. Four of the eight position players were in the minor leagues the previous year.
“Everyone wants to hold them to the level of consistency, and they’re not polished veterans yet. It’s absurd. We had smart people covering our team who don’t want to give that much credit. They don’t understand the importance of experience. It just takes time. They’re being asked to do something completely different at every level. It’s different. It’s tougher at every level. This team should be in contention, I get it, but we put people in some of the most important positions on the field who haven’t even established themselves as big leaguers.”
In Washington D.C. this spreading of false information would be labeled as “alternative facts.”
1. Matheny is blaming the wrong players. In pointing to Wong, Grichuk and Piscotty as reasons to explain the Cards’ shaky defense in 2016, Matheny was so off target it boggles the mind. It’s absurd and dishonest to see him copping an excuse for his own mismanagement of the roster by singling out three players who were PLUS defenders in 2016.
Wong had 5 Defensive Runs Saved in 2016, which ranked sixth among MLB second basemen. Over the past three seasons combined, Wong’s +19 in Defensive Runs Saved puts him in the top five among big-league second basemen.
Grichuk was a +7 in DRS for his play in center field last year, which put him 10th at the position. And Grichuk is a +15 center fielder in his two-plus seasons in St. Louis.
As for Piscotty, he played a fine right field in 2016, coming in at +4 DRS, ranking 11th at the position. Picscotty received praise all season for his work in right field.
Wong, Piscotty and Grichuk aren’t all that young, either.
2. The Cardinals’ inadequate defensive last season was more about older guys — Matt Holliday, Brandon Moss, Jhonny Peralta, Matt Carpenter — who were on the minus side. Catcher Yadier Molina also slipped defensively in 2016. And Matheny wants to make this about “young” players? But of course. Matheny would never point out defensive shortcomings by veterans. But he doesn’t hesitate to put it on young players who were actually above-average defensively. This is strange … no, check that. It’s typical for a manager that shamelessly applies double standards in personnel/performance assessments.
3. As for Diaz, the fourth player mention by Matheny, he struggled defensively early on, but improved by playing every day. Diaz finished the season with a minus 4 DRS, which put him 23rd among MLB shortstops. But I don’t recall any media people organizing a protest in front of the manager’s office, demanding that he bench Diaz. Quite the opposite.
The Diaz narrative in 2016 was firm and consistent: he was having a superb season offensively, some defensive missteps were understandable, but he’s worked at it and was secure as a daily lineup presence. I don’t recall a single, credible media person ripping the Cardinals or Matheny for playing Diaz. In fact, some media (not me) correctly pushed for Diaz to open the season at shortstop after Jhonny Peralta’s injury. Instead, the Cardinals opted for Mets castoff Ruben Tejada to take over at short. Diaz only got his chance as a last option, after Tejada went on the DL.
4. Another point must be made: Matheny was incorrect when he said “four of the eight position players were in the minor leagues the previous year.” Diaz was in the minors in 2015. Piscotty spent a little more than a half-season in the minors in ’15. Grichuk didn’t clock any minor-league time in 2015 but missed games while on the DL (twice) in ’15. Being in the minors for an injury rehab assignment doesn’t count. OK, we’ve accounted for two players (Diaz and Piscotty) that had minor-league residency in 2015. Again, Matheny claims four of the team’s 2016 eight position players were in the minors in ’15.
So who were the other two? Surely he can’t be referring to Greg Garcia, Tommy Pham of Jeremy Hazelbaker. They weren’t lineup regulars for St. Louis in 2016. But even if they were full-time starters, they were hardly major contributing factors to a subpar defense. Hazelbaker was just a tad below average defensively (minus 1 DRS.) Pham was below average defensively (minus 4 DRS). And Garcia was above-average defensively in 2016. Again, the team’s worst defensive players in 2016 were Matheny’s preferred veterans. Not “young” guys or borderline big leaguers.
5. In another interview this week, Matheny mentioned Jedd Gyorko “bouncing around” multiple positions when talking about the Cards’ defensive woes in 2016. Overall Gyorko was a plus 5 DRS in 2016. His only below-average position was shortstop, and his performance there wasn’t hideous (minus 3). Gyorko was a positive defender at second base and third base and average defensively at first base. Gyorko was hardly a reason for the bad team defense — but Matheny inexplicably and falsely points a finger at Gyorko, who should be praised for his solid work at every infield spot.
6. I really did laugh out loud when Matheny said Wong, “really hasn’t found the traction in the league yet.” Gee, I wonder why? Maybe it’s because the manager is always in a rush to bench Wong as soon as Wong slumps or presses. Matheny’s decision to bury Wong on the bench on multiple occasions has prompted GM John Mozeliak to demote Wong to the minors (twice) to get playing time and stay sharp. How does a “young” player “gain traction” when the manager is so quick to plant him on the bench?
Wong performed well offensively and defensively after being recalled from AAA Memphis last June 16 but never got the warranted amount of playing time for a team that needed his defense and speed. And to add to the instability and confusion, Matheny came up with a foolish idea to plop Wong in the outfield.
7. The same applies to Grichuk, who was benched repeatedly by Matheny in 2016, with Mozeliak having to send Grichuk to Memphis to get regular at-bats. Matheny and his hitting coaches were obsessed with the idea of redeveloping the young slugger’s hitting approach instead of just letting Grichuk be Grichuk. (Awesome power, plus many strikeouts.)
When Matheny finally backed off and told Grichuk to just go and play, Grich relaxed and liberated himself. In 185 plate appearances after his second demotion, Grichuk had 16 doubles, a triple, 12 homers, 33 RBIs, a .579 slugging percentage and an .881 OPS. As was the case with Wong, Grichuk was held back by Matheny, who wasted too much of Grichuk’s season.
Hey, it’s the media’s fault for getting all of this wrong.
What the hell, Matheny should have just said or tweeted this:
The Cardinals were GREAT defensively in 2016!
The dishonest media won’t report that!
A couple of other pearls from the Matheny interview:
— Asked about changes to the spring-training regimen after last season’s messy fundamentals, Matheny dodged the question. He said he’d been “on the phone with the players. I have to make sure I’m hearing what they say. I need to make sure we’re on the same page, because we won’t get what we’re looking for if there isn’t complete buy-in.”
Translation: Matheny, as always, remains dutiful and deferential to his veteran players. He doesn’t want to upset them, and must make sure they sign off on any change in plans. If the Beloved Leader of Men insists on a more disciplined, structured and labor-intensive camp — you know, because he’s in charge and all — and the veterans disapprove, Matheny may tick them off. And Mike can’t afford to have that happen. He counts on them to keep the clubhouse in line and can’t alienate them. He’s compromised.
— I love this one from Matheny, so let’s revisit: “Very few players jump into the league without having some adversity they get to grow by. Every one of those guys improved last year. I don’t think they’ve been given enough credit for either. Kolten shined defensively at the end of the season. That wasn’t something that just happened. Randal looked free at the end of the year. Those things just don’t happen. They had to had adversity along the way.”
Translation: Matheny believes a player benefits from adversity? OK. Maybe this explains why he created “adversity” by jerking Wong and Grichuk around with playing time and mixed messages. And if the manager believes players raise their game through adversity — well, that’s awfully convenient, isn’t it? When said players are finished with the process of fighting through manufactured and concocted adversity and show improvement, guess who gets to take credit and say “I told you so?”
Yep. Mike Matheny. The same guy who unnecessarily generated the adversity. Young players don’t need adversity. They need playing time. They need a fair opportunity. They need a manager that won’t give up on them, a manager that doesn’t have double standards or a pro-veteran bias.
Thanks for reading …