By Kevin Reynolds (@deckacards)
Mike Matheny wants his players to be aggressive.
Make something happen. Put the opposition in a position that forces them to execute perfectly. Create game-winning moments by selectively pushing the envelope and counting on things to go awry.
So far, the Cardinals are aggressively blowing it.
Matt Carpenter, attempting to needlessly stretch a double into a triple with no outs when one run would make all the difference, is thrown out with ease at third. Tommy Pham is cut down trying to steal second in the bottom of the twelfth with the score tied, two outs, and the Cardinals hottest hitter – Jedd Gyorko – at the plate.
Yadier Molina is picked off after leaving too early for his own “sneaky” steal attempt that snuck up on no one. He’s caught stealing again just two games later in another ill-advised attempt against Kershaw, eliminating a valuable and rare base runner against the game’s stingiest pitcher in a one-run game. The gaffe ended the inning with Aledmys Diaz standing in the box.
And that’s just the base running mistakes, because they stand out. There’s also the disconnect between the front office and the manager.
John Mozeliak has repeatedly leaned on “clean baseball” as the key to St. Louis victories. When the team plays error-free baseball, they win. His position makes sense for a general manager. He’s essentially saying, “Let the roster I put together play, and it will win games. There’s no need to try and out-play the roster.”
But Matheny has a different view.
Perhaps because he’s a manager, he tends to see all opposition as competing on more or less equal footing once they step on the field. They’re talented, we’re talented…now let’s play. From that perspective, winning is closely connected to the extra effort your team can inject into a game. It’s not necessarily the talent or make-up of your 25-man roster that makes a difference in season-long win totals. It’s about what those 25 players do differently during the game that creates opportunities for the team to win.
Grind. Compete. Play a hard nine.
Those are the precepts of a Matheny-led team. To win, you make plays, generate runs, create opportunities, and force the other team to beat you by making tough plays. Mozeliak, however, pursues wins through roster construction. Bring together the most productive 25-man roster combination within reach of your resources.
The two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Not usually.
Ideally, the carefully constructed profile of the best 25-man roster takes into account the habits, skills, and personality of the manager that will lead them. In turn, the manager maximizes the roster he’s given and adds the aggressive and extraordinary plays to the mix for that extra two, three, or more wins in a season.
That’s how it’s supposed to work. Two approaches working together to produce the most optimal results.
But every once in a while, the two are at odds.
Mozeliak is preaching clean, talented execution. Matheny is stressing aggressiveness and high-risk plays. The result is a talented roster good enough to win X amount of games but foolhardy enough to lose a handful of them. That’s significant math when divisions and postseason berths are often determined by single game deficits.
The problem is simple. Matheny is preaching aggressiveness but is failing to specify when to be aggressive. When does a player push it, make something happen, and when does he simply let the roster play?
The fact that Matt Carpenter still stands by his decision to try for third base on a double is further proof that the message is muddled.
Mozeliak believes clean baseball with the roster he’s assembled wins games. Matheny agrees but wants his players to be aggressive enough to maximize their potential.
That’s a great message. Now, he just needs to be hard enough – La Russa like? – to specify what that means and directly rebuke players who misunderstand the message.
Be aggressive, but be smart. And when you lack one of those two, the manager is going to hold you accountable. Because above all, the front office demands clean baseball from the roster it’s assembled, and that’s enough to win ballgames.
Until that message is clearly and specifically driven home – instilled in the players on the field – the Cardinals will continue to muck it all up.
Time for Mike Matheny to be the bad guy – the heavy – and come down hard on players, even the best ones, who fail to grasp the message correctly.
Because what we have here is a failure to communicate, and that’s messin’ up the Cardinals’ mojo.
(Oh…and another thought…I told you this was a stretch that would brutally test the Cardinals…)
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.