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Poor On-Field Decisions, Clubhouse Issues Led Cardinals to Change Course From Mike Matheny

In moving on from manager Mike Matheny, the Cardinals made a move that wasn't completely unexpected, but signaled that the team is no longer staying the course.

The day after the Chicago Cubs won the 2016 World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals sent out a press release. Manager Mike Matheny had agreed to a three-year contract extension, keeping him in town through 2020.

The Cardinals had just missed the postseason for the first time in six years and the division’s landscape was shifting under their feet. In 2015, Chicago had kicked St. Louis out of the playoffs to make it through the postseason’s first round for the first time in more than a decade; now, a year later, they were celebrating a championship while their long-time rivals were sitting at home. The Cardinals, however, didn’t read this situation as a catalyst for change. Rather, they intended to stay the course, and they announced as much by extending their manager.

Matheny, obviously, will not have the chance to finish out that extension. He was fired after Saturday’s 8-2 loss to Cincinnati, marking the franchise’s first in-season managerial change in two decades. The Cardinals sat at just one game over .500, and barring a remarkable second-half performance, they’ll likely miss the playoffs for a third straight year—an indignity that the team hasn’t had to suffer since 1997-99.

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Perhaps Saturday night’s firing should have been expected, and not only because the team is in danger of missing the postseason once again. The last few weeks have brought several reports that can be read most charitably as unflattering to the manager and most critically as signs that he’s losing the clubhouse. First, there was the news of Matheny’s breakdown in communication with outfielder Dexter Fowler. Then, The Athletic published a report on veteran Bud Norris “mercilessly riding” rookie Jordan Hicks. When asked if he thought that the youngster might eventually appreciate the harsh treatment from his teammate, Matheny replied, “Probably not. But Bud’s going to continue to do what he thinks is right as a veteran, so you respect that.” A few decades ago, that answer would have been completely unremarkable from a manager—but not so much anymore, not in a game that banned rookie bullying and hazing in its most recent collective bargaining agreement.  

Yet, even with those recent reports and the team’s current third-place standing, Matheny’s dismissal did feel surprising. The Cardinals’ front office and ownership had repeatedly demonstrated their loyalty to him, perhaps to a fault. They’d stuck with him through singular high-profile errors in judgment—most notably the decision to let Michael Wacha pitch for the first time in weeks in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 2014 NLCS—and through long-term issues in roster management. After the 2013 season, Baseball Prospectus noted that  Matheny’s eight main position players had accounted for three-fourths of the team’s total plate appearances, the highest such number seen in years from any team in the National League. A statistic like that can signal a club’s good health and stability, but it can also point to a lack of strategy: a manager who isn’t interested in playing the match-up game or working platoons. At any rate, it’ll eventually result in wearing players down, and the team’s front office deliberately set out to add some depth in the years to come. Matheny responded to that by engaging in near-constant lineup changes, which necessitated repeated back-and-forth trips to the minors for key young players such as Kolten Wong and Randal Grichuk. “I’m wondering if we created too much roster flexibility,” John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, said in a 2016 interview. It was a perplexing comment, given that roster flexibility should be only a good thing—but the way that it’s managed can certainly be a bad one. To that point, Matheny didn’t use any one lineup of position players more than five times over the course of the entire season. Still, a few months later, the club stood by him and made the decision to extend his contract.

Earlier this season, Matheny became the fourth skipper to reach the 1,000-game milestone for the Cardinals, joining icons Tony La Russa, Whitey Herzog and Red Schoendienst. He’s had winning records in each of his six full seasons (along with a winning record in his partial seventh season, if only barely) and made four trips to the postseason. On paper, it’s undoubtedly an impressive record. And yet he’s been chased by fan frustration for years now, and it doesn’t seem ridiculous to wonder how much of his winning record has come despite his on-field decisions, rather than because of them. His bullpen management has consistently been poor, with an insistence on leaving his starters in long enough to pick up a win and a reluctance to use his best relievers in high-leverage spots; last year, he ranked dead-last among active managers in the reliever management metric that’s now hosted at Baseball Prospectus. This year hasn’t been much better—St. Louis’s rotation has thrown more pitches per start than any National League club other than Washington. Matheny’s also been resistant to embrace defensive shifts, even calling for the league to ban the technique. The Cardinals currently rank 23rd in baseball in their frequency of using infield shifts or other strategic alignments, according to Baseball Savant. There is, of course, far more to managing than on-field tactics. But the recent reports don’t seem to indicate that he’s done much to establish a stellar clubhouse environment lately, either. Combine that with Matheny’s lack of tactical genius, and the team’s decision to cut him loose looks clear.

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Mike Shildt, who formerly served as bench coach, has taken over as interim manager. The Cardinals are currently in third place, as they have been for most of the season now, and they sit four games out of a crowded wild card race. It certainly isn’t impossible for them to contend in the second half, but it’ll be an uphill battle. Firing Matheny, though, made at least one thing clear: The Cardinals aren’t content to stay the course, not any longer.