GAME THEORY

October 12, 2015

What makes a good manager? On-field moves are only part of it. Mike Matheny gets criticized for his strategy, but he has a better record than any other active skipper—and his Cardinals will tell you that's no accident

THE BEST baseball managers are like magicians—the trick is truly accomplished only when its mechanics are so well-hidden that the audience begins to wonder if there was ever any trick at all. Strategic decisions should be adroit yet seem obvious in retrospect; matters of player effort and team chemistry, however messy, should be resolved in-house. And as another regular season reached its end with the injury-ravaged Cardinals proudly atop a division deeper than it has been in ages, manager Mike Matheny and his manueverings have again eluded mass notice.

Matheny likes it that way. As a player he would never turn on the hotel-room television, afraid he might hear about himself (or not) and let it change the way he did things. When a reporter popped into his office in late September to ask the 45-year-old Matheny to talk about how he got here, he politely declined. "His preference is a lower profile [rather] than a higher profile," says John Mozeliak, St. Louis's general manager. "I think he'd prefer you say something bad than something good."

But he has a .579 win percentage in his four seasons, good for 13th all-time (minimum 315 games) and best among active managers. What bad is there to say?

Granted, Matheny's tactics have occasioned some head-scratching in the playoffs, for which his record is a less sparkling 20--19. In Game 5 of the 2014 NLCS, with the score tied in the ninth in San Francisco, he brought in a starter who hadn't pitched in nearly a month. While the Cardinals' closer and several setup men remained in the pen, Travis Ishikawa hit a three-run homer off Michael Wacha that ended the series. (Some Cardinals fans called it "Mathenaging.") At times Matheny has also seemed too fond of certain veterans. In the first half of 2014, for instance, he stuck with struggling Mark Ellis and Allen Craig over promising rookies Kolten Wong and Oscar Taveras.

But Taveras's sad story—while driving drunk in the Dominican Republic last October, he crashed, killing himself and his girlfriend—also testifies to what Matheny can do so well. During the 2014 season he had clearly been disappointed in Taveras and his conditioning. But he offered a sincere, heartbroken statement before heading to the funeral, "We loved Oscar, and he loved us," he said. "That's where Mike's at his strongest points," Mozeliak says, "in times of distress."

Do the moves make the manager? Mozeliak thinks in-game responsibilities are about 25% of a manager's job; the rest, he says, may go unnoticed but matters more. Tony La Russa, the Hall of Famer who led the Cards for 16 seasons before Matheny, says that "to be really good you have to be a solid decision-maker. If your team doesn't play with effort, though, you're a total failure."

As the playoffs begin and anxious Missourians stock up on Rolaids, Matheny and his most visible decisions will face their annual scrutiny. But his players respect him and play hard for him, and that counts for something too, even if it's hard to measure. First baseman Brandon Moss arrived via trade from the Indians on July 30, having hit .165 over the previous month. "I couldn't have been in a worse slump," Moss says. "He was there, telling me he was in my corner, showing he had belief in me." Says outfielder Peter Bourjos, "Every day you look forward to coming to the field to play for him because he's such a good guy."

In an alternate universe, one that Matheny nearly entered, his season would have ended weeks ago. Before he got the Cardinals' job, Matheny's greatest impact on the coaching world came by way of a 2,556-word letter he wrote in 2009 to a group of parents in the St. Louis area who wanted him to manage their boys. On its way to virality it was dubbed the Matheny Manifesto.

He wrote with the zealous maxims of a debate club president, condemning parents who indulged their own worst competitive tendencies, and vowed that his team would play the game the right way. (Perhaps this sounds familiar to weary Cardinals detractors.) The league would teach the boys to become better men, using Christianity as its underpinning.

One representative passage reads, "The boys will be required to show up ready to play every time they come to the field. That means shirts tucked in, hats on straight, and no pants drooping to their knees. There is never an excuse for lack of hustle on a baseball field. From the first step outside the dugout they will hustle." Matheny says the letter went over "like a lead balloon" when he read it aloud to the parents. One by one, though, many of them bought in, and a small league took shape. The Louisville Slugger Warriors are still going.

Earlier this year, with the help of author Jerry B. Jenkins, Matheny turned the Manifesto into a short book of the same name, which functions primarily as a meditation on the purpose and state of youth sports but smuggles in bits of autobiography here and there.

Matheny's upbringing and baseball career explain the kind of manager he has become. His father worked construction; once, when Mike and two of his three brothers got into trouble, Jerry Matheny brought home a dump truck's worth of dirt and made the boys spend two days moving it to the backyard with shovels and a wheelbarrow. When they finished, he made them move it back.

Mike became one of the best-regarded catcher prospects in the state. He spurned the minors (the Blue Jays drafted him in the 31st round in 1988) for the University of Michigan. The Brewers took him in the eighth round in '91.

As a pro he did everything but hit. (In fact his career OPS+, or on-base plus slugging adjusted for park and era, is the second-worst for live-ball era catchers with at least 3,000 plate appearances.) He fielded his position well, handled pitchers wisely and was sturdy as a beam. Once, while hitting in Milwaukee, he took a 90-mph fastball to the face. He stayed standing, took a step or two and then calmly spat out what must have been half a pint of blood as though it were tobacco juice. He insisted on playing the next day.

But whatever his other strengths, a player who hit like Matheny needed more organizational buy-in than most. The Brewers and the Blue Jays nontendered him in consecutive off-seasons, but before 2000 he found a perfect match in La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan's Cardinals. "Dunc and I always valued the outstanding defensive catcher who cared about handling your pitching," La Russa says. "If he went 0 for 4 but we had a shutout, we'd be thrilled."

In a game that first year, with the Cardinals ahead of Milwaukee 1--0 and men on first and second, La Russa asked Matheny to lay down a sacrifice bunt to set up Rick Ankiel, then a 20-year-old pitcher with a great swing. Matheny did his job, the runners advanced—and Ankiel hit a three-run homer. La Russa recalls that after the win, some veteran players stormed into his office to berate him for embarrassing Matheny. La Russa told them they should first ask Matheny if he had indeed been embarrassed. He said he hadn't minded. "He had that sort of strategic mind—and he inspired that kind of loyalty," La Russa says.

Matheny won three Gold Gloves in St. Louis. But by the end of 2004, with Yadier Molina ready to start—"the Prodigy," La Russa calls him—the 34-year-old Matheny and the Cardinals knew they were headed for a split. Postconcussion symptoms (he has said he suffered as many as 25 in his career) forced Matheny's retirement in 2006 after a season and a half with the Giants.

Matheny's fourth year has been his most challenging and his best. Ace Adam Wainwright and star leftfielder Matt Holliday each missed more than half of the season. Matt Adams and Mark Reynolds combined to turn first base into a black hole. The team's front office was implicated in a database-hacking scandal. And unlike in 2014, the Cardinals had two worthy opponents chasing them: the deep Pirates and the upstart Cubs.

In mid-September, in a series at Wrigley, the Cardinals and the Cubs traded beanballs—seven hit batters in three games. Joe Maddon called the Cards "vigilantes" and said, "I never read that book the Cardinals have written about how to play baseball.... I don't give a crap about that book."

Matheny declined to return fire. And the day after Chicago pitchers hit three St. Louis batters, the Cardinals began a five-game winning streak. A week later they would take two of three in Pittsburgh to clinch a third straight division crown. Matheny started earning some buzz for Manager of the Year, an award the cognoscenti had figured was destined for Maddon's trophy case.

In spite of their league-leading win total, the Cardinals enter the playoffs short of favorite status. Molina has an injured thumb, starter Carlos Martinez is out, and Wainwright will pitch only in relief. But, man, if they pulled off a championship? What a trick it would be.

PHOTOPhotograph by Cole Burston Toronto Star/Getty Images PHOTODILIP VISHWANAT/GETTY IMAGESCHAIN OF COMMAND Matheny thrived with the defense-first Cardinals under La Russa (below), then gave way when Molina (above) was ready to start.
PHOTOJASEN VINLOVE/USA TODAY SPORTS[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)