I’m not gonna lie; I’m a bit salty about something Mike Matheny said in a recent Q&A session with ESPN’s Mark Saxon. There are some really basic comments, of course. There is also one really insightful note where Matheny acknowledges that he’s a bit “envious” of guys like Dexter Fowler who can mix professionalism with fun so naturally. Matheny even said, “it wasn’t anything I was capable of doing, and I struggle with (that) in the job I have now.”
It’s an interesting admission, one of the few times we’ve seen The Manager acknowledge such a thing. I think the fact that he recognizes it and is willing to say it out loud is good. Maybe that self-awareness can help promote some positive change moving forward.
Before I go any further I do want to be clear about something: I like Mike Matheny. In my experience he’s a genuinely good person, he works his ass off and he cares tremendously. Whatever personal shots follow – and I admit there will be some – are not about life away from baseball. They’re about Mike Matheny, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. They’re not about Mike Matheny, the father, husband, son, etc. See, some of his comments were insulting. As you’ll read, he implied that people asking legit questions were either intentionally ignoring certain factors for some insidious reason or that they just weren’t smart enough to understand something as elementary as “experience” for pro athletes. When guys in Matheny’s position insult my intelligence with nonsense, ignoring tangible evidence that is readily available to anyone willing to look it up, I tend to have a negative reaction.
I’m not here to talk about that nice stuff, unfortunately, because we also saw the other side of The Manager.
The passive aggressive side.
The side that either sees an alternate reality or some kind of media conspiracy to denigrate the Cardinals organization getting in the way of “facts” reaching the fans. Maybe it’s just the side of him that doesn’t want to admit out loud what we all watched play out last season, that his team stunk at the most basic of baseball fundamentals (more on that further down).
The full quotes are in the link above…the key notes, the ones that have me a little hacked off today, follow:
Matheny to Saxon: “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. Four of the eight position players were in the minor leagues the previous year.”
Man, so many things to fact check here…
Wheeler Fact Check: Only three of the “eight position players” actually spent time in the minors in 2015. Aledmys Diaz, Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty. Diaz spent the entire season there. Grichuk played in 103 Major League games in 2015, though, which was nearly 2/3 of the season. Piscotty appeared in 63 Major League games in 2015 and that’s nearly 40% of the season. The strange thing is that Piscotty was one of the Cardinals best, most consistent defensive players last year…kinda weird to throw him into this discussion, isn’t it?
The other “regulars” were Yadier Molina (33), Matt Adams (27), Brandon Moss (32), Kolten Wong (25 – played in 150 Major League games in 2015), Matt Carpenter (30), Matt Holliday (36), Jhonny Peralta (34) and Jedd Gyorko (27 – 2016 was his 4th Major League season with 400+ at-bats). Unless he’s counting Greg Garcia as one of the “eight position players” – and why would he? – then his statement was factually incorrect. Even with Garcia he’s still incorrect, just not as much.
(Yes, I realize that’s more than five guys above and beyond Diaz, Grichuk and Piscotty, but we all know the lineup was jumbled all season because of poor performance, injuries and demotions. The point is, VETERANS had the majority of at-bats and innings played.)
So let’s break this down on the infield, which was clearly the biggest area of deficiency for the Cardinals defense last year. The outfield wasn’t stellar but it wasn’t as problematic as the infield. Fun infield facts:
* The average age of the Cardinals who played 1B last year was 31 years-old.
* The average age of the Cardinals who played 2B last year was 27 years-old.
* The average age of the Cardinals who played 3B last year was 29 years-old.
* The average age of the Cardinals who played SS last year was 28 years-old.
How about trying these on for size as well:
* 63% of the innings played in the Cardinals infield last year were by players whose average age was 30 years-old. Carpenter, Gyorko, Peralta, Moss and Adams were those players. Since Wong was in his third Major League season we could include him, which would bring the percentage of innings played by “experienced players” to 74%.
* Only 27% of the innings played in the Cardinals infield last year were played by Diaz (16%) and Wong (11%).
* The other 10% were mostly Garcia and Holliday with a little Tejada in the mix.
Now, Diaz struggled badly in the first part of the season but he “only” made 16 errors in 910 innings. That’s one error every 56 2/3 innings in the field. Gyorko made 6 errors in just 218 innings at SS, which is one error every 36 innings. Garcia made 5 errors in 226 innings at SS, which is one error every 45 games. So yeah, Diaz struggled (though he got better later in the season) but the other Cardinals shortstops were way, way worse. Gyorko and Garcia combined made an error every 40 innings. Put another way, at that rate they would have combined for 23 errors if they had played the same 910 innings that Diaz played.
That means that their error rate was 42% worse than that of Diaz. Now, errors aren’t the only way (or the best way) to measure defense but one thing they do measure is that those are outs that need to be recorded, plays that need to be made. And even though Diaz had his difficulties the more veteran, experienced players struggled even more.
Wheeler Fact Check: Everyone who covered the team – tv, radio, print – noted how many players shuttled in and out and how many of them were younger/inexperienced players, with varying levels of big league time, who were proving themselves as Major Leaguers. It was a constant, if not daily, theme for everyone watching the team, fans and media alike.
Matheny to Saxon: “We had smart people covering our team who don’t want to give that much credit. They don’t understand the importance of experience.”
Wheeler Fact Check: These “smart people” don’t want to give that much “credit?” Why wouldn’t they want to acknowledge it? Are they “haters?” Are they trying to bring you and the Cardinals organization down? I mean, seriously. WTF are you talking about? The people who cover the Cardinals (Saxon, Langosch, Goold, Hummel in print plus all of us in the TV and/or radio business) are not trying to bring you down, man. Nobody is twisting anything. People are just reporting and/or talking about what EVERYONE can see, especially the fans.
See, when the manager takes this kind of stance and uses the passive aggressive “smart people” phrase and implies the rest of us simply cannot see the most obvious of things, he is also calling out a large percentage of the fan base. Cardinals fans are no different than those of us who work in the media. They saw all the errors, the bad baserunning and the shoddy, inconsistent play all season long. Who the hell are you crapping?
Again, the inexperience of some guys and the inconsistencies of some less-than-established players was noted CONSTANTLY by everyone.
And yeah, we do fully understand how important “experience” is. The thing is…you either don’t know that your team was a lot more experienced than you let on or you conveniently ignored that as a means of convincing some people that you and your team were somehow being treated unfairly by these mean old reporters who have the gall to…GASP…ask questions that might not have tidy little answers.. That is hot garbage.
Man, that snarky “smart people” thing really bugs me. You know why?
Because we can all, fans and media alike, SEE THE DAMN GAMES!!!! Every. Single. Day.
They keep stats too. We can look those up, ya know?
The 2016 Cardinals team was a poor fundamental baseball team and it had nothing to do with talent, age or experience. It’s not rocket science, brain surgery or String Theory either and it needs to be worn by everyone – the veterans, the young guys plus The Manager and His Staff as well…
So chew on these, Skipper…
* Yadier Molina missed the more wild pitches than he had in any other big league season. Molina tied his worst season ever in passed balls (his first full season, 2005) with 8 and he had his worst throwing season ever (21% caught stealing rate compared to his career average of 42%). Some of that CS% is on the pitchers, sure, but if that’s true it’s also a FUNDAMENTAL BREAKDOWN on their part. Unacceptable either way.
* The Cardinals ranked 11th in the NL in errors with 107.
* The Cardinals ranked in bottom 4-5 teams in errors in the NL at three of the four infield positions. The only exception was 3B where they finished 7th.
* The Cardinals ranked 12th in the NL in sacrifice hits. That’s the ultimate “pride” point for a team that talks a lot about the fundamentals, isn’t it? Getting bunts down when you need to?
* The Cardinals had both the lowest stolen base total (35) in the NL and the worst stolen base percentage in Major League Baseball (57%). The league average is a 72% success rate and no other NL team was below a 63% success rate.
* The Cardinals ranked 24th in Major League Baseball with 20 runners thrown out at home plate.
* They ranked 21st in Major League Baseball in Extra Bases Taken Percentage, taking the extra base on only 38% of opportunities.
* The Cardinals tied for 23rd in Major League Baseball in scoring from second base on a single.
* According to Fangraphs’ Base Running Runs measurement the Cardinals were good for -11.4 runs on the base paths last season, THE WORST IN MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL.
* The most damning stat of all: because of all of those things the Cardinals missed out on a playoff spot by one stinking game. One game. An opportunity tossed away because the people who preach “The Cardinal Way” to anyone who will listen fielded a team that couldn’t bunt, field their positions or run the bases.
So pardon me, Mike, if I refuse to accept the “you ‘smart people’ don’t know what you’re talking about” routine. Instead of playing the weak, tired “blame the media” game how about you just keep it simple, huh? How about acknowledging the team’s 2016 shortcomings without trying to hide behind the dreaded “Media Monster” for cover from the fallout?
The question Saxon asked that got the “smart people” response was this, by the way:
“Everyone has talked all winter about the need to improve your defense and baserunning after last season, when both were major deficiencies. Could you see any signs last spring that those aspects of the game could prove worrisome?”
Mike didn’t even come close to answering the question. Instead he attacked a tried and true Straw Man. Instead of answering the question that was asked, Matheny deflected and answered a question that was not asked because it allowed him to say what he wanted to say – that we’re all seeing it wrong and he has to explain it to us like we’re children.
The problems for the 2016 Cardinals had nothing to do with the comprehension skills of the fans or media in town. They had everything to do with the people in uniform, as a collective, failing to do the most fundamental things that are taught in the sport.
The facts are the facts. Don’t get passive aggressive with the rest of us just because you don’t like the real answers to the questions that are rightfully being asked coming into 2017.
Don’t hide behind a false narrative that you were “young” or “inexperienced” at too many positions. The average age of the Cubs infield alignment in the playoffs was just under 24 years-old. They seemed to do just fine with the whole catching and throwing the ball thing, with base running too, youth and experience be damned.