As expected, and as planned, Kansas City Royals GM Dayton Moore made it official on Thursday by hiring his friend Mike Matheny to take over for the retired Ned Yost as the team’s manager.
In reality the KC job belonged to Matheny as soon as Moore brought Matheny to the Royals nearly a year ago as a special adviser for player development. The Royals’ plan of succession was in place, and Matheny has formally returned to managing after getting sacked by the Cardinals after an ugly loss to the Reds on July 14, 2018.
Over in Kansas City my friends — including media associates — want to know about Matheny. Is he a good fit for the Royals? Considering that Matheny had an impressive overall record in St. Louis, why did the Cardinals fire him? What were his strengths and weaknesses as the St. Louis manager?
Let’s go through this:
1. Matheny’s overall record of 591-474 worked out to a terrific .555 winning percentage. He’s one of four men to manage the Cardinals for more than 1,000 games. The other three are Baseball Hall of Famers Tony La Russa, Red Schoendienst and Whitey Herzog.
And Matheny (.555) has the highest winning percentage in the group, above La Russa (.544), Herzog (.530), and Schoendienst (.522.) Current manager Mike Shildt has a .571 winning percentage in his 231 regular-season games.
2. Unlike the others, Matheny didn’t win a World Series despite having capable teams that were un the hunt. He finished with a 21-22 postseason record as the Cardinals’ manager. That includes a 7-12 mark in his final 19 postseason games — caused, at least in part, by Matheny’s memorable tactical blunders. (See: David Ortiz in 2013 World Series, and Michael Wacha in Game 5 of the 2014 NLCS. That’s just a couple of examples.)
3. Matheny was hired to replace the retired La Russa after the Cardinals won their second World Series under TLR in 2011. So he had the benefit of inheriting a World Series champion. But the Cardinals also lost Albert Pujols to free agency after the 2011 campaign. On the And No. 1 starter Chris Carpenter missed much of the 2012 season due to injury. On the flip side, Carlos Beltran was signed as a free agent before 2012 to help the lineup to compensate for the loss of Pujols, and Beltran put up positive numbers in ‘12 and ‘13.
4. The bottom line, at least for me: without having to pay his dues as a manager or full-time coach in the Cardinals’ minor-league system, Matheny walked into an enviable set of circumstances that came equipped with substantial player talent, a successful management infrastructure, tremendous fan support, a strong revenue base, and a winning team culture. It would be pretty hard for any manager to mess this up. We’ve seen novice managers hired more frequently in subsequent years. But back when the Cardinals hired the inexperienced Matheny to manage, it was viewed as an unconventional move. He was fortunate.
5. Matheny did very well for a while, leading the Cardinals to the postseason in each of his first four seasons. The success included the 2013 NL pennant; steering the Cardinals to a spot in the NLCS for three years consecutive years (2012-2014); and winning 100 regular-season games in 2015.
6. Let’s back up: why did the Cardinals take a chance on Matheny? Other more established managers (including Terry Francona) were available.
A bunch of reasons.
— First, Matheny commanded immense respect as the team’s catcher from 2000 through 2004. He developed a reputation for being a strong, tough leader. And Matheny’s leadership skills were appealing to Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt and GM John Mozeliak.
— Matheny was still quite popular with Cardinals fans from his days as a gold-glove winning catcher for some awesome La Russa-led teams. With Pujols departing and La Russa leaving, DeWitt viewed Matheny as the new and ideal “face of the franchise” presence to fill the void and keep the fans happy. In short: Matheny fit the demographic of the Cardinals’ fan base; he would be good for business.
— Mozeliak anticipated a youth movement in the post-TLR phase, with the Cardinals developing prospects through the St. Louis pipeline. And Mozeliak believed Matheny would be a positive, patient mentor for young players.
— Pardon my bluntness, but after working with the great but intensely headstrong La Russa for so many years, the front office liked the idea of having a younger, impressionable manager that was easy to control.
— The front office also believed Matheny would be open-minded and enthusiastic about incorporating advanced metrics as a competitive tool.
7. So what went wrong for Matheny in St. Louis? Plenty. It was a gradual decline, stemming from several factors. Let’s roll through it.
— Matheny did not embrace analytics. And as he gained more seniority as the manager, he flatly rejected the management push to use (one example) defensive shifts. And this notion of controlling Matheny? Mozeliak and DeWitt were wrong about that. Matheny turned out to be quite stubborn; his early success reinforced his job security. But also inflated his ego.
— Matheny was surprisingly impatient with young players, often banishing them to the bench after a brief slump or other baseball malfeasance. Matheny, the hard-shell catcher, blatantly preferred old-school veteran types to the youngsters. And that was especially true when the youngsters asked challenging questions.
— Tactically, Matheny was a mess. Addicted (for a time) to bunts. Mishandling of the bullpen. Playing inferior players because of veteran status and their perceived (or real) loyalty to him.
–Matheny’s communication skills were fine at first. He did a nice job of fostering a positive atmosphere. But he had a difficult time accepting challenges to his authority. Even if a player sincerely offered an opinion — or even just asked a question — that went against the company line, the Matheny line … this made the manager insecure, and caused him to shut down. Some players were, in effect, given the proverbial cold shoulder. Other players were frustrated because they never knew where they stood with Matheny.
— Matheny gradually lost the clubhouse. Not every player, of course. But when the iconic catcher Yadier Molina openly blasted Matheny on Instagram, it offered a revealing look at the clubhouse troubles.
— Matheny’s neglect of baseball fundamentals became such a sore point that respected coach/teacher Jose Oquendo asked to change jobs — leaving the big-league staff to instruct the team’s youngest prospects.
— Over Matheny’s final five (full) seasons as manager, the Cardinals were a minus 118 in net base running gain according to the database at Bill James Online. For a point of context, consider this: in 2019, Shildt’s first full season as manager, the Cardinals were a plus 77 in net base running gain.
— The Cardinals were often mediocre defensively during Matheny’s final seasons. And from 2012-2017, they ranked near the bottom of the majors with only 15 total defensive runs saved via shifts. And 12 of the runs saved came in one season, 2014. In 2019, Shildt deployed shifts that saved the Cardinals 30 runs defensively.
— A big part of this was on the front office for an erosion of offensive talent, and for enabling Matheny instead of demanding that he change. He wasn’t the only party to blame for the Cardinals’ three straight years of missing the postseason.
— That said, the team’s winning culture deteriorated under Matheny’s watch. Matheny allowed the standards to slip, and not in a minor way. That was, perhaps, his most appalling failure.
8. Matheny still has the potential to be a quality manager, and the Royals are putting him in the job at a good time.
Moore and Matheny are tight. Matheny, who tended to get paranoid in St. Louis, should feel more secure in Kansas City because of his bond with the GM.
The Royals are in a rebuild mode. The pressure isn’t there, at least for now, to make the playoffs and win another World Series.
Even though St. Louis is a famously soft sports-media market, the pressure of having to win wasn’t easy for Matheny. His 2016 and 2017 teams didn’t make the playoffs. The 2018 team was wallowing before his dismissal. And after the rival Cubs hired Joe Maddon as manager, Maddon took on the alpha dog persona and intimidated Matheny. All of this made Matheny a very uncomfortable skipper.
I assume Matheny will have more patience and tolerance for the Royals’ young players, and the KC-bound prospects that will soon graduate to the majors. He has no choice, right?
In his second chance as a big-league manager, I assume and hope that Matheny will be more diligent and honest about examining his own work, recognizing his flaws, and learning from past mistakes. The necessity of conducting a thorough self-inspection didn’t hold much interest for Matheny during his final two or three years in St. Louis.
Frankly, his haughtiness must disappear. And if Matheny can take a hard look in the mirror in his new residency, he’ll have a chance to be an effective manager in Kansas City. And maybe even develop into a special manager. But that also depends on the overall direction of the Royals franchise from a new-ownership perspective in the years to come.
Thanks for reading …