“And just like that, as mysteriously as he arrived, he was gone.”
– Oscar Martinez, The Office
It wasn’t quite Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre, but after the Cardinals lost to the Cardinals 8-2 Saturday night, dropping to just a skosh above .500 at 47-46, manager Mike Matheny was dismissed from his managerial duties. The Cardinals remain in the playoff race, but it’s been a tumultuous month behind the scenes in St. Louis, from normal run-of-the-mill struggles to public friction with right fielder Dexter Fowler to the latest report — written by the tireless Mark Saxon of The Athletic — of Bud Norris’s old-school clubhouse antics with rookie reliever Jordan Hicks.
While Matheny’s role in the Norris-Hicks situation probably wasn’t the main factor behind his dismissal, I have few doubts that it was a contributing factor. Saxon received a lot of pushback publicly about his reporting on the issues, but these types of wagon-circling denials from teams when a story becomes embarrassing isn’t just common, it’s practically de rigueur. That doesn’t necessarily negate the veracity of the original reports.
In the end, though, it usually comes down to winning. Like most managers, Matheny lived by the win before he died by the win, the extremely successful Cardinal seasons at the start of Matheny’s tenure making him as unassailable at the time as he was vulnerable by 2018.
In a piece for ESPN in 2013, Anna McDonald reported on the relationship between the analytics-friendly front office headed by then-general manager John Mozeliak (who’s since been promoted to team president) and the more traditional Matheny.
“I believe how [Matheny] puts a lineup together is that he is utilizing things we give him from upstairs, but we don’t want to bury him with having to overthink things. Most importantly, we hire a manager to make that lineup. I do think one thing that Mike and his staff have done a very good job of is embracing anything we can put together as far as advanced scouting for them. Trying to eliminate small sample sizes and make them accept larger ones for probabilities has been helpful. Mike, he is a young manager that is very interested at looking at the best ways to be successful, so that’s always a good sign when you have that in an employee.”
Few analytics types, myself included, really thought much of Matheny as an in-game tactician. But that’s only part of the job of a manager. I’ve talked a lot about admiring Joe Torre as a manager for the Yankees not because of his in-game acumen but simply because, unlike a lot of managers, he didn’t stand in the way of his team’s success. Sometimes, keeping the team from killing each other is what a manager is there for, which is why I praised Dusty Baker’s hiring by the Washington Nationals as the right move at the right time for that particular club.
St. Louis has long been known for its relative lack of drama, an organization that, under Mozeliak, tends to be run quietly and carefully, knowing that, despite the team’s ability to punch above its market size financially, there’s also less margin for error than the Yankees and Dodgers possess. With the team struggling, there’s been a lot of very unusual off-field drama. While the biting between Dexter Fowler and the team got the most notice, of greater concern perhaps regarding Matheny’s reputation as a Leader of Men™ was Rick Hummel’s June report on the communication issues between some of the team’s pitchers and their manager.
Reyes also didn’t tell Matheny he was in any pain at the time he was visited at the mound in Milwaukee, although most of the actual pain might have come later in the day.
This brings us to staff ace Carlos Martinez, who said he was hesitant to throw too hard in the early innings Tuesday in his first Cardinals start in nearly a month after he suffered a less severe torn lat. Martinez reiterated Wednesday he was “scared” to throw too hard until he aired it out in his final inning, the fourth.
I felt that Matheny would probably survive the 2018 season, but he didn’t quite make the All-Star Break and will be replaced for the time being at least by bench coach Mike Shildt. Both hitting coach John Mabry and assistant hitting coach Bill Mueller were also relieved of their duties, unsurprising given the team’s overall offensive performance in 2018 and the long-term failure to match the level the 2011-13 versions of the club.
One thing that’s difficult to assess is Mike Matheny’s management of the bullpen. To my eye, it has usually looked problematic, and I once said that if I were trying to demonstrate to someone what Mike Matheny’s bullpen usage is like, “I’d drop 500 spiders into a kindergarten class.” Attempting to gauge a manager’s effect on pitcher ERA is an incredible challenge, but one quick-and-dirty way to look at usage is to see how bullpen run prevention lines up to win probability added. WPA is a very noisy stat in the short run, but I was curious to see what it would say about Mike Matheny’s bullpen management, so I’m looking at bullpen ERA- over 2012 to -18 and seeing how the ranks differ from the WPA.
|Team||ERA- Rank||WPA Rank||Diff|
At least by this rough measure, Matheny comes out better than I expected over this period, basically average. That said, it’s worth noting that Cardinal relievers have been 17th in ERA- but 28th by WPA since the beginning of 2017, so perhaps there’s an argument to be made that Matheny’s managed down to expectations.
[It also struck me, though it didn’t at 2 AM, that the FIP- vs. WPA chart would also be useful, as I should not assume that inherited runners and the like evens out over the years. Matheny looks a bit worse here, though deeper study of this issue is warranted -DS]
|Team||FIP- Rank||WPA Rank||Diff|
One thing about the firing is that Mozeliak’s place in the organization is different than it was when Matheny is hired. Whatever your opinion on Tony La Russa, Mozeliak in 2011 was a 42-year-old general manager, still relatively early in his tenure. Replacing a manager bound the Hall of Fame is a difficult task, and the team was already taking a chance in hiring a manager with no professional coaching or managing experience. With the ample benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say Mozeliak made the wrong choice — it’s hard to say that Terry Francona, a finalist for the position at the time, wouldn’t have been the better choice — but I don’t think it was necessarily a good place to go all Statty Q. Nerdington. The Cardinals’ next manager, if it’s not Schildt, will likely be more analytically inclined. Joe Girardi is already being cited in several Hot Takes as the favorite to replace Matheny, but sitting here, just hours after Matheny’s dismissal, I’m skeptical.
I’m not a believer in the idea that firing managers gives a real short-term bump in team performance. While there’s data that shows this, it also doesn’t take into account the effect of mean reversion. A manager is more likely to be fired while his team is underperforming rather than overperforming, after all, so simply attributing improvement to managerial replacement is a bit like suggesting that a patient who’s just left the hospital is healthier because of all the Jell-O and ice chips he consumed. But given the tense situation in St. Louis and the team’s performance, it was time for a parting of the ways.
As of press time, I have no idea if Matheny plans to start Michael Matheny Manager Company. (See, that’s a callback to the start of this article!)
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.