From the desk of Joe Sheehan. Joe Sheehan (@joe_sheehan) writes for Sports Illustrated and publishes the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter.
The Cardinals held on to beat the Cubs last night 5-4, avoiding a sweep at the hands of their historical rivals and moving back to .500 for the season. The Cards broke through in the ninth on a two-out, two-run single by Yadier Molina, notable because hitting — or not — with runners in scoring position has been a running theme for the 2013-14 Cardinals. The ’13 team won 97 games and reached the World Series in no small part because they had one of the greatest clutch seasons in recorded history, batting .330/.402/.463 with RISP. No other NL team batted higher than .271 in those situations! It was a clearly unsustainable performance that, nevertheless, helped power a divisional title.
The 2014 team has seen the flip side of that. After last night, it’s batting .227/.295/.341 with RISP. Allen Craig, clutch monster, is hitting .200 in the split, while new pickup Jhonny Peralta is at .115. These numbers don’t mean any more than the 2013 ones do, of course; batting with runners in scoring position isn’t a skill over and above “batting”, but when a team is hitting .330 with runners in scoring position, the narrative becomes that they’re the exception. The 2013 Cardinals were not; the performance was valuable, but it didn’t reflect any breaking of the code any more than the 2012 Orioles or 2007 Diamondbacks did.
What is frustrating is the Cardinals’ seeming inability to process this. Despite being one of the strongest organizations in baseball, despite clearly having the most talent in the division and arguably the league, despite a three-year run that has seen them win a World Series, go up 3-1 in the NLCS and then go back to the World Series, the Cardinals have acted, to start 2014, as if everyone’s job is on the line. The amount of base-level panic driving wholly indefensible personnel management calls into question everything I said a year ago about Mike Matheny’s growth as a manager.
The Cardinals spent the offseason fixing the problems that helped derail their postseason run. They added a major-league shortstop in Peralta and a major-league center fielder in Peter Bourjos. They shuffled their infielders to create room for prospect Kolten Wong at second base — moving one of the five best players in the league last year to do so. They had, by all accounts, as strong an offseason as any team in the game, and even that didn’t entirely get at just how good their 2014 team looked to be, with Oscar Taveras and Steven Piscotty on the way, with Carlos Martinez set to be a starter again. Yet between the start of the season and today, the Cardinals have run away from their offseason plan so far and so fast it’s almost hard to remember what it was. Wong is already back in the minors, after batting .225/.276/.268 in 76 plate app…wait, what?
It’s actually worse than that. Wong started 12 of the first 13 games of the season, batting second against righties and eighth against lefties. At this point, about two weeks in, Wong was batting .255/.327/.319 with five strikeouts in 52 PA, a 5/4 K/UIBB and three steals without being caught. His slash line wasn’t much to look at, but both his BA and OBP were above the NL average for all hitters, much less all second basemen, and his management of the strike zone was just fine. There’s no question that Wong was at least an average player in the NL at this point, and I’d argue he was above average.
Which is exactly the point at which Matheny seemed to alight upon him as a problem. Mark Ellis came off the DL on April 15 and started that night against Brewers righty Marco Estrada. Wong started on the 16th (0-3) and 17th (2-6), but sat the 18th against Gio Gonzalez; now he was in a strict platoon with Ellis, which meant he was coming out of games even when he started. When Wong got back into the lineup, he was batting seventh and eighth. Wong went 0-for-3 on the 19th and was on the bench on the 20th against Stephen Strasburg — the second time in six games he’d been benched against a right-hander. Remember, we are less than a week removed from Wong being a plus contributor; now, he can’t even get into the lineup.
Wong started three more times, going 2-for-11, and was sent to the minors on April 28. The ESPN story lede refers to Wong as “struggling,” but the evidence for that is scant. When Wong was a regular, he was playing well. Once Wong’s playing time became erratic — through no fault of his own — he didn’t play well, but that period of “not playing well” featured a grand total of 24 PA over ten days in which Wong started just six games, never more than two in a row. If you wanted to cause a rookie to fail, playing Wong the way Matheny did over Wong’s final two weeks on the roster is pretty much how you would do it. Matheny did a poor job of evaluating Wong’s actual performance, then doubled down on that evaluation by taking a young player and making him guess as to whether he’d be playing on any given day.
This is probably reading in too much, but I think it’s instructive than after walking four times in those first two weeks, Wong didn’t draw another walk after that first benching on the 15th. His P/PA dropped from 3.96 to 3.63, which probably undersells the change in Wong: he saw eight pitches in three PAs on the 19th, eight pitches in three PAs on the 24th, the kinds of games he just wasn’t having those first two weeks. Wong is actually better off in Memphis, playing every day, than he would have been in St. Louis being subjected to Matheny’s whims and desperately trying to get his job back.
If this were an isolated case, perhaps you could argue I’m being too strident in my tone. However, while all this was going on with Wong, Matheny was doing the exact same thing to Peter Bourjos. Like Wong, Bourjos started the season playing just about every day, but a bit more erratically. In fact, Bourjos’ longest streak of consecutive starts is just four. Bourjos isn’t a rookie, like Wong is, but his history matters here. For the past two years, Bourjos has been subjected to the whims of Mike Scioscia and the limits of his own body in trying to get in and stay in the lineup. Despite being an excellent defensive center fielder who can steal bases and hit enough to support those skills, Bourjos found himself the odd man out in Orange County when Mike Trout came on the scene. The hope was that loosened from erratic playing time at the hands of Scioscia, Bourjos could get back to being the star he was in 2011, when he hit .271/.327/.438 at 24. Even if he didn’t hit that well, his defense would be a huge upgrade over the wanderings of Jon Jay.
Bourjos had a very bad week to start the year: 0-for-14 with a walk. He started four of six games. Jay is still in the room, and as much as Jay is a fourth outfielder who isn’t a very good center fielder — y’all did watch the 2013 postseason, right? — it was unrealistic to think that Matheny would just bury him. Bourjos finally got on the board in the second week of the season, starting four straight games from the seventh through the 11th and six of eight through the 15th. At that point, Bourjos had started 10 of 14 games; he was hitting just .222/.282/.361, which is a below-average line, but Bourjos with below-average batting stats is still an acceptable player because of his defense in center field. That line is also not meaningful — it’s 39 plate appearances. If you take nothing away from this piece, take this: you can’t tell anything about a player in 39 plate appearances.
Based on those 39 plate appearances, Matheny took Bourjos’ job away. Bourjos has four starts since April 15th, none since April 26th. The Cardinals called up Randal Grichuk, who came over in the same trade Bourjos did, and he’s gotten two starts in center field over the last week. This is the kind of decision-making the Cardinals are doing right now, playing Randal Grichuk, who had a .306 OBP in the Texas League last year, over Peter Bourjos because one of them had a high batting average in April (Grichuk hit .310 in 94 PA at Memphis) and the other didn’t. It’s a travesty that belies everything we know about the modern Cardinals.
What I don’t understand is the urgency. If you rank MLB managers by “likelihood of being fired in 2014,” Matheny is going to be down at the bottom with John Farrell and Joe Maddon. A similar security envelops the front office. There is no baseball reason, no job-security reason, no organizational reason to panic after two weeks of baseball in April. Yet Matheny dumped two starters before Patriots Day. No, let me rephrase: Matheny dumped two new-guy starters before Patriots Day. See, Allen Craig was playing worse than both Wong and Bourjos were when they were benched — .133/.184/.133, with poor outfield defense — and was never challenged. Matt Holliday was at .214/.327/.310, also not helping in the field, through April 12. Heck, Mark Ellis has played considerably worse since coming back than even Wong did while he was here: .205/.273/.231. Matheny seems to have one set of standards for some players and a second set for others.
Look, I’m not the soft-factors guy. The stathead position, more or less, is that baseball players will play to the level of their skills over time, with extremely wide short-term variances. This means that you don’t mess around with guys who have a very good or very bad two weeks, three weeks, a month. Sometimes, a skill set changes; in the vast majority of cases in which a skill-set change is asserted, however, it turns out to just have been the best or worst couple weeks of a guy’s year. If you’re going to argue that the men on the ground have an edge on statheads because of the soft factors, though, then you have to criticize them doubly when they get that part wrong. I don’t expect Mike Matheny to use RE charts from “The Book” to make decisions; I do expect him to manage people, and what he’s done so far this year is manage his people poorly. You can’t bury a rookie two weeks into the season because his batting average isn’t high. You can’t take a player who’s spent two years not knowing whether he was going to play or not and make him start guessing again in April. You can’t use two weeks of plate appearances to make decisions on anyone. Matheny has been the worst manager of any good team in baseball so far this season.
I have my first feature in Sports Illustrated this week, a piece on the surge in strikeouts. Pick up the May 5 edition, with Johnny Manziel on the cover, for more.
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