Growing Pains: A Look At A Rookie Manager Making Rookie Mistakes
When the Cardinals elected to hire Mike Matheny as the man to replace Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa™ last winter, we knew there would be moments when Matheny would screw up. It happens. We watched a decorated celebrity manager like TLR fumble during Game Five of the World Series after 37 years of managing experience, so we shouldn’t expect a rookie manager to somehow do better than that.
But, after three months, we still see Matheny making certain mistakes repeatedly to the same effect. For instance, Matheny has an unquenchable (and unrequited) love of the BUNT. Matheny would call for a bunt during a rain delay. He doesn’t pass the ketchup, he bunts it down the table at you. He named his second son Bunt. HE LOVES THE BUNT.
And that’s fine; the bunt is a wonderful tactical play WHEN USED CORRECTLY. Matheny has rightfully received increasing heat about his overuse of the play, particularly after a botched safety squeeze on June 17 against Kansas City. Fans erupted on Twitter after the play, complaining about how Matheny shouldn’t have used the bunting play with runners at second and third and nobody out. They have a point.
However, that play pales in comparison to Matheny’s contemptible use of a bunt in the first inning of last night’s game against the Marlins. Rafael Furcal led off the first with a double. There he was, standing on second with nobody out, and Jon Jay (batting .324) coming up next. So of course Matheny orders Jay to BUNT. Having Jay bunt in this situation says two incorrect things:
1. Jon Jay sucks and cannot be trusted to swing away.
2. This team is is so bad that it is basically playing from behind in the first inning of a scoreless game.
Matheny’s ploy to bunt a runner further into scoring position backfired again, as Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran – now at a disadvantage with the free out – popped out and struck out. Another bunt, another failure.
But Matheny wasn’t done screwing with the outcome of the game. In the bottom of the sixth, the Cardinals managed to parlay two singles and a force out into a one out situation with runners on first and third. Jake Westbrook strode to the plate as 46,000 fans grumbled in confusion. He’s letting Westbrook hit for himself? Sure, Westbrook had doubled earlier in the game, but that is the baseball equivalent of the boys in One Direction developing an erection for a girl. It doesn’t happen often and should not be counted on ever happening again.
And, of course, Westbrook grounded into a double play, effectively ruining our best chance (until the ninth) of gaining a safe lead.
Last night also revealed Matheny’s less-than-stellar use of the bullpen. With bullpen management, any successful manager can only put pitchers in a position to succeed. The manager doesn’t throw the pitches, of course, but he does decide what pitcher to use in a situation that best utilizes the skills of that pitcher.
Did Matheny do that in the case of Maikel Cleto? Matheny brought Cleto into the game in the top of the eighth to face the Marlins’ biggest three bats: Carlos Lee (R), Logan Morrison (L), and Justin Ruggiano (R). Cleto has a combined ERA of 5.00, but his splits are interesting. Cleto has faced more left-handers than right-handers this season (an anomaly); lefties are batting .280 against Cleto, but righties are batting a whopping .417. Even though Cleto has been more effective against lefties, Cleto has given up three times as many homers to lefties than righties.
So it wasn’t much of a surprise when Morrison – the Marlins’ third-best power threat – hit a home run off of Cleto for the eventual game winner. It was yet another moment when Matheny trusted his player before trusted statistical reason, and it failed.
I’m certainly not advocating that we get rid of Matheny like so many Cardinal fans have been demanding recently. Matheny is a solid manager who has obviously gained the respect of his players and coaches.
However, he seems slow about accepting the proof presented to him by failed plays that lead to losses. If the Cardinals are going to contend for another World Series – a goal they are built to accomplish – then Matheny needs to learn these painful-but-obvious lessons much faster and with much more consistency.