By Kevin Reynolds (@deckacards)
Tony La Russa was known for running a rigorous spring training camp during his tenure as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. Praised for his ability to efficiently and effectively prepare players for the start of the regular season, La Russa’s Redbirds broke camp hard and fast and relied on an often-used bench to spell players mid-season. Mike Matheny, on the other hand, has opted for a more restful approach to spring, attempting to bank innings and at-bats to, conceivably, save players for a post-season push.
So far, the numbers have been strikingly different.
In 2011, Tony La Russa’s spring roster logged 68 at-bats from Jon Jay, 68 from Colby Rasmus, 64 from Allen Craig, and 63 from Ryan Theriot. Of the remaining hitters in camp, eight recorded between 51 and 59 at-bats, all of which would find themselves on the major-league roster. Mike Matheny’s hitters, on the other hand, broke camp in 2017 with just six hitters logging more than 50 at-bats. Two of those in the top five – Harrison Bader (52) and Paul DeJong (51) – were never in contention for an Opening Day roster spot. And no hitter recorded more at-bats than Randal Grichuk‘s 55.
Every other hitter that broke camp on the major-league roster did so with fewer than 40 – and some even less than 30 – spring at-bats. That group includes two hitters in Jhonny Peralta (46) and Jedd Gyorko (47) that were supposedly battling for the starting third base job.
But even those totals were somewhat inflated by the World Baseball Classic (WBC) and the subsequent extended spring training dates.
In 2016 – the season infamous for Matheny’s significant change in camp structure aimed at saving players from eventual late-season fatigue – the at-bat totals were even more constricted.
Only Stephen Piscotty (51) and Jedd Gyorko (51) broke 50 at-bats in spring training, while eight players slated for an Opening Day roster spot logged between 46 and 48 at-bats. Two members of the 25 men to hold a roster spot in April logged 34 and 36 at-bats, and four hitters recorded fewer than 30.
Compare those 2016 numbers with the at-bats totals from La Russa’s 2010 squad.
Skip Schumaker and David Freese – 77 and 75 at-bats, respectively. Five hitters logged between 60 and 66 at-bats. Colby Rasmus – 58 at-bats. And veteran Albert Pujols, who could “fall out of bed in the morning and hit” – 49 at-bats.
That 2010 team opened the season with a 15-and-8 April record. His 2011 roster – the eventual World Series Champions – finished 16-and-11 through April 30th.
Mike Matheny’s 2016 team, however, finished the first month of the season with a 12-and-12 record after starting the year 1-and-3 through the season’s first four games. That team missed the postseason for the first time in years.
His 2017 club is currently 1-and-3 through it’s first four games, 2-and-4 with two shutouts against the hapless Reds through it’s first six. That’s at least a game off the pace set by a club that finished April at .500 and failed to secure even a Wild Card spot.
Look, I’m sure Matheny remembers how a monotonous, physically demanding spring training schedule can wear on a player just eleven years removed from his days in shin guards and morning workouts. And it must be tempting to run a more forgiving camp now that he’s in the big office.
But let’s be honest – running for Class President on a platform centered around free ice cream and less homework sounds great too, until you hit 30 and realize you’re overweight and unprepared for a grossly competitive job market.
Mike believes putting together a less-demanding camp schedule can prepare his players just as well as his predecessor did, but the difference is clear.
La Russa’s grinding teams started the year in mid-season form and broke camp ready to play, a state consistent with a philosophy Tony was fond of sharing while Cardinals manager.
April and May are a great time to rack up wins while other teams are trying to figure out what they have.
Mike Matheny’s clubs are stuck trying to figure out what they have, a losing position created by Mike’s unwillingness to properly prepare his hitters to start the season.
As a result, Matheny’s Cardinals are once again strapped with an offense that just looks flat.
Kevin Reynolds has covered the Cardinals for About.com, Yahoo! Sports, and various other entities. He’s been writing and podcasting about the Cardinals since 2004 at Stl Cards ‘N Stuff. Follow him and chat baseball on Twitter (@deckacards), and check him out on Facebook.