Sometimes things just spiral out of control for a coach or manager in sports, and there’s no way of reeling things back in. That’s what happened to Mike Matheny.
After a 100-win season in 2015 in which he should have been the National League Manager of the Year, Matheny’s teams never rebounded after a loss to the Cubs in the NLDS, and he was fired on Saturday night; replaced on an interim basis by bench coach Mike Shildt.
In the past, Cardinals Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. has talked about the goal of the franchise being to compete for the playoffs each and every year. But where they were when Matheny was fired wasn’t good enough for the owner. “Some places winning is…just a winning record, or even .500…is acceptable,” DeWitt said. “Players have a nice season, go home and then get back to their families. But not in this city, not with this franchise and not with this history, and not with our great fans.”
The club reached its nadir in the last couple of weeks. Along with poor fundamental play for two and a half seasons, a lack of offense brought the Cardinals back to a game over .500 with a Saturday loss to the Reds. It was reported that Matheny hadn’t communicated with outfielder Dexter Fowler in months.
Last week, Bruce Levine of 670 The Score in Chicago, who covers the Cubs every day, told us that Joe Maddon and Davey Martinez made it a point to over communicate with Fowler. Every day they told Fowler how good he was and how important he was. They developed the “you go, we go” philosophy, making him believe he was the linchpin for the Cubs offense. Matheny made the grave mistake of not properly pushing Fowler’s buttons, and his lack of communication hurt his chances of sticking around.
Additionally, the revelation that Matheny was levying team fines to relief pitchers based on intel he was getting from closer Bud Norris couldn’t have helped. Those revealed items, along with what became a six-game home losing streak and a lethargic club, DeWitt and President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak to finalize a decision to fire Matheny on Friday.
“The more we reflected on this, Bill and I felt that this was a unique opportunity to hit the reset button. As we enter this All-Star break, it gives each of us an opportunity to reflect on what we need to do differently,” Mo said.
What they need to do differently starts in the clubhouse. How would Shildt like it to work? “Honest and positive in communication style. Inclusive. We’re gonna work through this together…everybody working together and pulling together.”
That’ll be a refreshing change for a guy like Fowler.
Regarding the clubhouse issues and their impact on the move, Mozeliak says “when you make decisions like this, it’s always an aggregate. I think some of what was being reported over the last few weeks is not something that was pushing us in this direction in any more of an expedited manner. It was clearly a reflection on how we were playing and the overall performance and results.” It’s kind of a chicken or egg situation. Mozeliak believes the play of the team caused some of the clubhouse problems, and ultimately caused the change. Or the lack of chemistry caused the performance. Either way, it led to Matheny’s departure.
The feeling around the club was stale and stagnant, and Mozeliak recognized the need for a change.
“Having a new voice, having a fresh voice, is something that we feel is important as we look forward to the second half,” Mo said.
Shildt’s plan is simple. “The biggest thing is about being more consistent and appreciating what we do well. There’s been a lot said and written, rightfully, about what isn’t right and what needs to be improved, and we get that. But there are a lot of things that are positive. We need to get back to that mindset and get back to consistency in different areas of the game, and we’re going to think about how we’re going to attack that.”
That would mean leaning on strong starting pitching and getting good work out of an improved bullpen.
What it would NOT mean is trying to be a running team with players that aren’t good runners; trying to plug defensively deficient players into positions they struggle at; putting a lefty like Austin Gomber…who gets beat up by left-handed hitters…into a game to get a lefty out.
It’s important to put players in position to succeed. Many times, Matheny would leave a pitcher in to get beat up when he had relievers available, or wouldn’t play the odds when he had a clear advantage with a particular statistical matchup. Shildt has access to the name numbers, and hopefully he’ll use them to the club’s advantage…to concentrate on what players do well rather than putting them into positions with the HOPE of succeeding.
DeWitt recognized what was happening with Matheny, and to his credit made the move. “Sometimes when a manager is at a place for a long time, a fresh voice and a new approach when you’re struggling can be successful and energize the club,” he said. “That’s what we’re looking to see happen under Mike (Shildt).”
It appears championship success wasn’t going to happen under Matheny. We’ll see if Shildt makes a major difference for the 2018 Cardinals, or if what’s happened so far is all that this group of players is capable of.