Mike Matheny Is Unpopular Because He’s Not a Good Manager

It’s hard to be all that disappointed by news you knew was coming. I never doubted for a second that the Cardinals were committed to moving forward with Mike Matheny as manager, so I barely reacted to Thursday’s announcement that he’d agreed to a contract extension that will keep him in the dugout through the 2020 season. I suppose I could muster up some indignation that the club wasn’t even willing to apply a bit of pressure to improve by sticking to a shorter-term deal, but it doesn’t seem worth it.

Still, after a frustrating and at times downright miserable season, many fans who had perhaps held out hope that a change might be made reacted to the news with dismay. In spite of a five-year tenure that has included four straight postseason appearances, three straight NL Central titles, and a trip to the 2013 World Series, a sizable portion of the Cardinal faithful are convinced that Matheny is the wrong guy for the job. Why is that, I wonder?

The Post-Dispatch crew has a theory. “It seems,” wrote Ben Frederickson on Friday, “that Matheny has at times hurt his public perception by resisting/avoiding/dismissing opportunities to explain his decision-making and strategy.” If he were simply willing to be more open about his tactics to “a fan base that follows games closely,” Frederickson suggests, his reputation would improve.

Ben Hochman echoed this line of thinking in a column on Saturday:

Mike Matheny’s contract was extended this week to 2020, and the hope is Mike will be more forthcoming on particular stances — actually explaining managerial moves to the public — and, as general manager John Mozeliak shared, “I always joke with Mike: ‘Smiling is OK. It’s not a bad thing.’” …

[T]his is partly why his extension wasn’t so well-received — because he’s received as someone stubborn and occasionally out-of-touch. …

A human, honest Matheny would increase his likability — and, frankly, give us a better understanding of why he makes controversial moves.

Interesting theory, guys! I have a different one, though, and it goes like this: fans dislike Mike Matheny because Mike Matheny is not a good manager.

If you’re someone who reads even a little about the Cardinals from non-local sources, you know that outside of St. Louis, the idea that Matheny is not a good manager is treated as axiomatic, a given, something akin to the transitive property or the gravitational constant. You read about his “colossal failure of managerial judgment, an utter lack of killer instinct” at Baseball Prospectus. You read a post headlined “Mike Matheny, still a bad tactical manager” at ESPN’s SweetSpot blog. You read Joe Sheehan, who once wrote in his newsletter that he applies a two-game “Matheny penalty” to his yearly win projections for the Cardinals.

In what ways is Matheny not a good manager? Here are several of the most common complaints lodged against him:

  • Abysmal bullpen management. “If I had to demonstrate to someone what Mike Matheny’s bullpen usage is like,” ESPN’s Dan Szymborski once tweeted, “I’d drop 500 spiders into a kindergarten class.” The numbers back him up. A 2015 analysis by Ben Lindbergh ranked Matheny dead last among MLB managers according to bullpen efficiency metric BMAR. While single-season BMAR scores from 2016 rated Matheny near the middle of the pack, a new metric developed by Rob Arthur and Rian Watt, Weighted Reliever Management (wRM), again ranked him dead last.
  • Poor tactical decisions in general. From sacrifice bunts to intentional walks, from double switches to baserunning strategy, from leaving starters in too long to starting a center fielder who literally cannot throw the ball to the infield, hardly a series goes by without a costly, avoidable mistake on Matheny’s part. You can’t hand-wave this away as typical second-guessing when it’s so constant and unanimous, from fans and experts alike.
  • Consistent misuse of whatever kind of roster John Mozeliak builds for him. Viva El Birdos’ Craig Edwards has written the definitive piece on this, which you should read in full. When Matheny is given a roster with stability, he runs his players into the ground; when he’s given a roster with flexibility, he has no idea how to use it. It’s a cycle that shows every sign of repeating itself in 2017 and ad infinitum.
  • Patterns of favoritism, double standards, and blind loyalty to veterans and incumbents. While the Lennie-esque death-hug that Matheny gave Allen Craig in 2014 still stands as the worst example of this, things haven’t markedly improved in the years since. How many high-leverage appearances did Trevor Rosenthal and Jonathan Broxton make in 2016 after it was clear they weren’t right? How long did it take to get Matt Holliday out of the third spot in the order or Aledmys Díaz out of the eighth? How many games did Kolten Wong sit on the bench while the defense suffered? On Matheny’s Cardinals, no advanced stat or metric is more predictive of the amount of opportunity you’re given to succeed than whether you’re a Mike Guy™ or not.
  • Leadership skills that aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Bernie Miklasz, one of the few local voices willing to bluntly criticize Matheny, has been on this kick lately. Not long after the season ended, he described the manager as a leader who is “convinced that everything he does is right…and makes sure to surround himself with people who are unfailingly quick to reinforce that belief.” Last week, when it was reported that bench coach David Bell is on a shortlist of managerial candidates for the D-backs, Miklasz offered this: “Multiple sources have told me that Bell was excellent at finessing Matheny to encourage tactical decisions in a way that wouldn’t upset the manager’s overly sensitive nature.”

As you can see, some of the criticism of Matheny is backed up by hard quantitative evidence, and some of it is more subjective and speculative. In some ways he is demonstrably worse than the average manager, while in others he may not be. Maybe the above complaints, and any others fans have directed at Matheny over the years, are in fact baseless and easily disproven. Maybe Mike Matheny is a great manager and all criticism of him is petulant bullshit.

I don’t claim to know for sure. What I do know is that if I felt it was my role to provide baseball analysis to my readers and not reputation-management advice to the people I cover, I’d want to actually engage with that criticism.

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