Earlier in the season we took a look at the 10 things we’ve learned about Matheny so far (or, at least at that point in the season). If you haven’t read that post, CLICK HERE to check it out. Now, however, the question must be asked, “What must Matheny do to correct this team’s heading as he nears the season’s mid-way point?” Below, we take a look at the 5 Things Mike Matheny Must Address to help his team recover from such a horrific stretch.
5. Lineup temptations and myths. Matheny has made a critical error in constructing recent lineups. Yadier Molina is not – nor has he ever been – a number three hitter. His effectiveness wanes the further up the order he moves. This is well-known to many of us who care to look. And yet Matheny has given in to the temptation that Molina’s gaudy offensive numbers provide and placed him in the three hole when Holliday suffered from back spasms. It shows a lack of statistical discipline and even a bit of wishful thinking. Bottom line: Matheny must accept statistical realities at the appropriate times and construct lineups accordingly.
4. Bullpen misuse. We’ve seen Matheny make questionable moves and non-moves with his pen. The results have been…damaging. Rzepcynski, after being over-exposed to RH hitters, has fallen victim to bad habits, disorientation, and perhaps even fatigue. Jason Motte has been allowed to over-use his fastball, to the point that opposing hitters are able to sit and wait for straight heat and nothing else. It makes scoring against him in the ninth simply a matter of timing. And Matheny’s belief in Mitchell Boggs, despite overwhelming evidence arguing against his inconsistencies, has made Boggs’ appearances in the 8th a flip of the coin. Combine all of that with a severe lack of roles and lack of basic bullpen strategy – at least one with clarity – and Matheny is clearly in a position to learn. The question is…what has he learned so far?
3. Perception. This one is a two-parter. The first is the players’ perception of their struggles. The team gives the impression that these difficulties mean more about them and their capabilities than they really do. After such a horrific stretch, even the World Champions would begin to doubt themselves. Matheny has been working hard – meetings, talking through the media, etc. – to neutralize that effect, but he’s not getting through to them. There are far too many heads hanging in the dugout during close games. It’s clear the team’s perception of themselves and these struggles is in trouble. Of course, the second part could help improve their perception – Matheny must begin to, in a word, overreact. I read a quote from Berkman the other day that stated one of Matheny’s strengths was in knowing that a four or five game losing streak is only a blip on the radar of a 162 game MLB season. That may well be true…but what’s happening right now with this team is not just a losing streak – it’s a battle for identity. It’s a gut check. This team has been knocked down repeatedly, and it’s time for them to answer the bell. To see this stretch of games as anything other than a clear threat to this team’s very identity is to risk falling into such a deep hole in the division that the return of Carpenter and Berkman will be too little, too late to make a difference. Matheny must immediately and aggressively shift both his own perception and the perception of his team if he is to help them persevere.
2. Discipline and focus. One benefit to TLR’s intense approach to a baseball team…the players were so intently focused on making plays and getting the job done that they seemed to have no energy or time to waste on feeling nervous or hesitant. They focused on the play at hand, the next pitch, and the next at-bat. This team, however, seems to be succumbing to the pressure of an extended losing streak. They’re playing skittish…scared…afraid to lose. Instead of being steady and decisive, they’re hesitant and cautious. It’s making them sloppy, and they’re playing distracted. It’s time for Matheny to ratchet up the intensity – not because demanding players play better will help them…well…play better, but rather because by taking the responsibility of playing better from them and placing it square on his own shoulders, he could actually use a sort of distraction in order to help the team focus. It’s time to snap the whip a bit.
1. Morale. I recently noticed a report that suggested the tactical minds of old school baseball men are being gradually replaced with “leaders of men” – baseball managers who are capable of getting the entire team to “pull in the same direction.” Perhaps the greatest example of that shift took place during this past off-season when Tony La Russa retired and Mike Matheny was hired to take his place. Despite their recent struggles, one thing has been clear – this Cardinals team has been, in fact, pulling in the same direction. Unfortunately, they’ve recently gotten turned around and find themselves pulling strongly in the wrong direction.
Tony’s style certainly differed from Matheny’s. While Matheny is valued for his ability to lead the team in pulling together towards a common goal, Tony seemed to use his tactical mind, competitive drive, and intense loyalty to push the team in the desired direction. When the team struggled, Tony was at his best. He tinkered with lineups, pushed his players, and found new ways to maximize any tactical advantage he might possess. Most assumed his greatest contribution in this area was in getting the most out of his roster…but what if there was something more?
When Tony’s teams struggled, he didn’t publicly demand players play better. He didn’t acknowledge the “blip” on the season and wait for things to turn around. And he didn’t use the opportunity to engage in relationship building. Instead, he took the situation by the horns and scuffled right along with his players. He took ownership of the team’s difficulties, and he showed that ownership in how he used every opportunity to tinker and “get involved.” In other words…he got his hands dirty.
And he left “morale” up to his veteran leaders. Players like Pujols and Carpenter, Schumaker and Molina, and more recently, Berkman and Wainwright. Together, these players led this team in pulling together. They set the tone, provided perspective, and showed this team the way.
In short, Tony didn’t help his teams learn how to pull in the same direction…he pushed them – sometimes violently – and he expected his veterans to handle the pulling part. Matheny must figure this out. He has multiple players willing and able to lead. David Freese. Yadier Molina. Matt Holliday. Carlos Beltran. Rafael Furcal. Even Allen Craig and multiple members of the pitching staff. They’ve been leaders in the past, and if they haven’t, they’ve been blessed with the chance to watch men like Carpenter and Berkman do it before them.
This team may be without key members – members that keep them afloat and moving forward in tough times – but move forward they must do. And Mike Matheny cannot do it all alone. In fact, he must get out of the way and allow others to figure out how to do it themselves if this team is going to “figure it out.”
This team has heart and character. It is not devoid of leadership. Matheny must learn to push them into new territory and let the players themselves learn how to pull.