When the Cardinals lost Tony La Russa, they lost a Hall of Fame manager, the third-winningest manager of all time, and a three-time World Champion. But they also lost something slowly becoming more apparent…a known commodity.
Over the past 16 seasons, we’ve all grown accustomed to the managing habits of TLR - the multiple pitching changes, the lefty/righty match-ups, the constantly changing lineup construction, the versatile utility player, and even 13 active pitchers – habits that, although seen as annoying and unusual by a national audience, became predictable and comfortable in Cardinal Nation.
All that has changed with new manager Mike Matheny.
Already, only 11 games into the season, this 2012 team has done what even the miraculous 2011 squad could not do…use the same starting lineup five times. The most TLR used the same lineup in 162 games last year? Four.
Tony preferred to script out pitching changes and match-ups ahead of time. He became infamous for changing pitchers multiple times in one inning, often controlling match-ups from hitter to hitter. Matheny, on the other hand, seems comfortable observing and evaluating a pitcher’s effectiveness on the mound and making decisions on the fly. Where Tony used relievers for brief cameos – one or two hitters, an inning at most – Matheny has grown fond of extending effective pitchers as far as two innings per appearance (*gasp*).
The list of comparisons could go on and on, but let’s just stick to what’s relevant…what have we learned to date about Mike Matheny the manager? It’s still too early to draw definitive conclusions about anything – Matheny included – but the least we can do is identify a few emerging habits, patterns, and preferences. So let’s get into what we’ve noticed here at Cards ‘N Stuff…quick hits style:
1. He likes to stick with what works. You give Mike Matheny an offensive lineup throwing up wins and racking up more than 10 hits a game, and he’ll wash, rinse, repeat all season long. You give him a reliever throwing strikes, getting outs, and mystifying hitters with his stuff, and he’ll slap ‘im on the butt, look him in the eyes, and say, “Good job. Now go do it again.”
2. He prefers to engage the on-going game in front of him. While prepared, Matheny does not seem interested in trusting the outcome of the game solely to theories and stats developed and studied before the first pitch is thrown. This could be the most visible presence of his catching background influencing his managing career.
3. He wants to be cautious with his players, but he’ll listen to them, too. This is perhaps the one that most concerns me. Mike likes to listen to his veteran players regarding injuries and aches and pains…but I haven’t seen a vet yet that didn’t want to play. Regardless, the rookie manager seems to place a lot of weight on his player’s opinions…but that won’t stop him from being cautious with them.
4. He’s not opposed to being pre-emptive. In last night’s game, many of us were shocked when Kyle Lohse was pulled from the game after dominating the game with 90 pitches to that point. But it made sense to Matheny. To the veteran catcher, he saw a pitcher early in the season, effective so far…but preparing to take his fourth tour through the Reds’ lineup. He decided to make a preventative move and pull the starter rather than wait for a rally to get started.
5. Like his predecessor, he prefers power in the two hole. One of Tony’s favorite lineup tendencies was to stick a dangerous bat in the two hole…one that knew what to do with the increased number of fastball strikes he would see ahead of the number three hitter. So far, Carlos Beltran has been that hitter most days.
6. He likes an aggressive running game…but not a reckless one. Fans got excited when they saw Matheny running his players in Spring Training in nearly every opportunity. Now, the regular season has started and we’re seeing a bit of an increase in stolen base attempts and base running aggressiveness…but not, as of yet, a significant one. It seems Matheny wants to take advantage of opportunities presented to him to run the basepaths…but he won’t force it.
7. In a pinch – at least so far – he sides with talent, stuff, and player over match-ups. We’ve seen Matheny go lefty on lefty out of his ‘pen…and we’ve seen Shane Robinson come in to face a lefty in a key pinch-hit at-bat. But we’ve also seen Scrabble throw to multiple right-handed hitters when his stuff is tight and effective…and just last night, we watched Matt Carpenter – a lefty – hit with the game on the line against a lefty relief pitcher (and yes, Robinson was available).
8. Mike likes to let his players play the game. It’s a shame Scott Rolen demanded an early exit from St. Louis because TLR was obsessed with getting involved. Matheny is just the type manager Scott would love to play for. After watching Tony religiously sub out David Freese for Daniel Descalso last season late in the game, it’s almost odd to see Freese play a full nine innings in 2012. Actually, it’s odd to see all of the position players play a full nine…unless a hitting match-up demands a change late in the game. Matheny seems to prefer letting his starting eight play the game and finish it out.
9. He’s not afraid to pick and choose his own favorites. As a new manager with a championship team, it would have been real easy for Mike to start the season with a preference for Tony’s favorites out of the ‘pen. Instead, we’ve seen him rejuvenate Mitchell Boggs and carve out a significant number of appearances for Marte. It seems Matheny sides with his own convictions over those of others.
10. He’s not out to change the game of baseball as we know it…at least not yet. Matheny clearly prefers hitting the pitcher ninth. But then, we haven’t exactly seen his offense struggle yet, either. He likes his best hitter in the three hole, but again…let’s see what happens if Holliday’s struggles continue for another week or two. So far, Matheny prefers to operate within certain “tried and true” baseball theories.
Alright…that’ll do. We could keep going, but I think at some point we would just be making things up. Yes, Matheny has made statements about including advanced statistics and theories in a more significant way – and there has been some small evidence of that such as pitching effective relievers for two innings – but it’s too early to tell if we’ll see much more. So for now, let’s just say that Matheny is still learning what type of manager he will be…and so are we.
P.S. I nod in the general direction of Jenifer Langosch’s work at stlcardinals.com. Some of the facts above were pulled from her stories.