The Cardinals won again Sunday night, knocking off San Francisco 6-3 to take two of three from the Giants over the weekend. The wins weren’t notable stylistically for the Cardinals, they were run-of-the-mill, grind it out and protect-the-lead victories.
We’ve become used to winning, and many of us have become quite spoiled or personally arrogant.
Bernie Miklasz and I talked about Mike Matheny in our podcast last week, about how we can easily criticize the Cards manager on a micro level. We can pick out situations in which we would do something other than what he did. We can question trying to bunt with Yadier Molina in the ninth inning of a game against the Cubs, or pitching Kevin Siegrist so much, or placing Trevor Rosenthal in a game with a 2-1 deficit on Friday night.
I was actually shocked by the BFIB’s Friday Twitter reaction. The vitriol would lead one to believe fans think they would do a better job than Matheny, or that he shouldn’t have the job.
One Tweeter wrote of managers “I judge them primarily on in-game moves. A roster can make any manager look good/bad if we just look at win %.” Another wrote “we aren’t judging Mike on winning % are we name one position player he’s developed from that #1 farm class!?” And “simply amazing. Smoke and mirrors.”
One more wrote, “Opposing managers run circles around Mike Matheny’s bullpen usage. #STLCards.”
In fact, one of the main complaints about Matheny is that he doesn’t handle a bullpen well. If a bullpen’s job is to protect a lead (which I believe it is), Matheny does as well as his highly regarded contemporaries in the dugout.
With this weekend’s wins, the 2016 Cardinals are 23-0 when leading after seven innings, 28-0 when leading entering the ninth. Since the start of 2012, when Matheny took over for Tony La Russa, the Cardinals are 340-20 (.944) when leading after seven innings, 363-13 (.965) when leading after eight. If you’re going to argue about the quality of relievers, there’s no reason to talk about a manager’s ability to handle said ‘pen, right?
If they pitch like Esteban Yan and Pedro Borbon Jr., circa 2003, it doesn’t matter when you bring them in. They’re going to suck. And if your problem is the way relievers are used when the team is behind, the initial problem is either with the offense or the starter. So this conversation is reserved for bullpens trying to protect leads that reasonable people would believe have good pitchers. Think of bullpen handling as you would players being clutch late in games.
Joe Maddon, who I think is as good as anyone at building a bullpen, has a 323-22 (.936) record since 2012 when leading after seven, and is 334-14 (.960) after eight. In the same four-plus seasons, Bruce Bochy of the Giants is 308-26 (.922) when leading after seven and 322-14 (.958) when up after eight. In Pittsburgh, Clint Hurdle is 314-15 (.954) when leading after seven and 335-9 (.974) after eight since 2012.
Every good bullpen is going to pitch well unless a manager messes it up. When that happens, the team loses games. In regards to getting wins at the end of games, Matheny is as effective as anyone at actually finishing with his bullpen preserving the lead. So this idea that he is costing the Cards games with his bullpen management is absurd.
One of the other complaints about Matheny is his use of the bench. This year’s Cardinal club has a Major League leading ten pinch hit home runs and have hit a National League best .353 off the bench. Somehow, he’s picking the right player at the right time to be the best pinch hitting team in the NL.
Lineups? He uses a lot of them. And those lineups have led to the Redbirds scoring 77 more runs than the second best scoring team in the National League. With the information available; matchups, analytics, park factors…a manager would be foolish to NOT use what’s afforded him in that regard. If Yadier Molina is 2-26 against a certain pitcher and Randal Grichuk is 9-15 against the same guy, why hit Molina fifth and Grichuk seventh?
It’s foolish in this day and age to write down the same lineup every day and go to the dugout and fold your arms. Matheny is smart about using numbers to his advantage.
At the end of the day, he does the thing that’s hardest for a manager to do. Matheny gets his players to play hard pretty much every day for six months. La Russa did that well. So did Joe Torre and Bobby Cox. Those guys were attacked for their managerial style and moves, but they all made the Hall of Fame. Torre won four World Championships, La Russa won three and Cox won one. It’s hard to win a World Series, but it’s impossible of you can’t get players to play.
People can complain and call the Cardinals manager terrible, but they’re wrong. With his 405th win on Sunday, Matheny maintained the top winning percentage among active managers at .574. That winning percentage is seventeenth all-time among managers with 100 or more games, and is eleventh among those who spent most of their career working after 1900. Joe Girardi is second among active managers at .554, Don Mattingly is at .550, Maddon is down the list at .531, Bochy is at .505 (.518 with the Giants) and Hurdle is at .491.
Matheny took over a World Champion franchise, but not necessarily a World Champion team. From the 2011 Champions, Matheny never had Albert Pujols. Lance Berkman played 32 games with 97 plate appearances for Matheny, and Rafael Furcal was lost after one injury riddled season in 2012. After 2011, Chris Carpenter started three more games due of injury, Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel and Arthur Rhodes left, and Matheny had one good year of David Freese before injuries struck.
Indeed, La Russa’s lineup that started game seven of the 2011 World Series was Ryan Theriot 2B, Allen Craig LF, Pujols 1B, Berkman RF, Freese 3B, Molina C, Furcal SS, Skip Schumaker CF, and Chris Carpenter P.
Matheny’s to open the 2013 season was Jon Jay CF, Matt Carpenter 3B, Holliday LF, Craig 1B, Carlos Beltran RF, Molina C, Daniel Descalso 2B, Pete Kozma SS, and Adam Wainwright P.
The argument that he was left “a Ferrari” is a non-starter due to the fact that ten players from the World Series roster; Berkman, Mitchell Boggs, Chris Carpenter, Dotel, Furcal, Jackson, Gerald Laird, Nick Punto, Arthur Rhodes and Theriot never played a full season for Matheny. Last year’s 100-win team had five players La Russa managed; Wainwright, who only pitched the first month before being injured, Lance Lynn, who pitched eighteen games for La Russa in 2011, Matt Carpenter, who had nineteen at bats in 2011, Holliday and Molina.
So that argument doesn’t hold water. Yes, we can complain about Matheny allowing his pitchers to keep pitching to David Ortiz during the 2013 World Series, or about bringing Michael Wacha in to pitch to Travis Ishikawa in the 2014 NLCS, or about bringing Rosenthal into Friday’s tied game. But singular moves don’t define a manager and don’t make him great or terrible.
In this case, let’s look at the big picture, because that’s what defines a manager. He’s helped develop players like Carpenter, Jay, Matt Adams, Carlos Martinez, Wacha and Stephen Piscotty. He’s won consistently at a greater percentage than any of his peers. The bottom line for his moves passes the math test.
Those that are complaining about the manager are searching for something to complain about. How do I know? Because over the last four-plus years, nobody is doing better.