ST. LOUIS -- Mike Matheny is only 43 years old, but he looks to me like what a manager is supposed to look like. Intense but not scary, stoic but not removed, a contemporary of his players but still respected … Matheny is a manager the way you'd sculpt one, if you were the sort of strange person who sculpted managers. He has the jaw of a man who is constantly thinking. He always appears in charge -- like everything is under control.
None of that stuff probably should matter when it comes to the X's and O's of managing a baseball team, but it does anyway. From the day the Cardinals hired Mike Matheny to replace Tony LaRussa, this is the word everyone uses to describe Matheny: Respect. His players respect him. He has a presence. When Matheny talks, people listen. You never hear anonymous sniping about Matheny; I've never once seen a player publicly question him. All the Cardinals say they love playing for him.
This is a larger part of the job than people like you and me give it credit for. We spend most of the time watching baseball games first-, second- and eighth-guessing the manager -- and why wouldn't we? I know I can't hit a 95-mile-per-hour fastball (or probably a 59 mph one), but I can fill out a batting order, and I can call for a pinch-hitter. Shoot, I was doing that in Strat-o-Matic when I was eight. The simplicity of the action makes it seem like anyone can do it. But not anyone can. Strategy and tactics aren't the whole job; managers are managers, and they have to be able to manage people. Their employees have to want to work for them. Bosses have to make sure their orders are understood. The public face of the organization has to make it clear that he is in charge.
There's so much more to being a manager than just calling for a reliever. You must be a credible leader of men. Thus, Matheny. He is excellent at that part of the job.
But in October, nobody cares about that part of the job. There is some debate about this, but I feel pretty comfortable saying Mike Matheny bungled Game 4 of the World Series.
There were many reasons the Cardinals lost. They left a ton of runners on the bases, including an awful Jon Jay at-bat in the eighth inning. They never took advantage of a clearly pained Clay Buchholz barely touching 90 mph. They had a runner picked off first base in the ninth inning, with one of the best power hitters in postseason history at the plate. But Matheny was the main one. Matheny was the biggest reason.
It was all about that sixth inning. The game was tied 1-1 going into the inning, and Lance Lynn, like Joe Kelly the night before, was starting to see his early dominance fade. That said, he came into the inning having only given up two hits, both to David Ortiz, who is 8-for-11 in this series because he's playing RBI Baseball, apparently. Lynn got the first two hitters before Dustin Pedroia singled. Ortiz came to the plate again. Ortiz is hitting so well right now that his walking to the plate can make a manager a bit crazed.
Matheny had two options here: stick with Lynn, or bring in Randy Choate, who was ready in the bullpen. A matchup like this is the reason you have Choate on the roster, but you could make an argument, still, for keeping Lynn in. He hadn't thrown that many pitches, and he'd settled back into a groove -- and, hey, Ortiz can't get a hit every time, can he? Lynn throws hard and was confident. Maybe he could sneak a few past Ortiz. So Matheny kept Lynn in … and then, bizarrely, had Lynn throw four pitches so far out of the strike zone that Yadier Molina had to lunge for a couple. Clearly, Lynn and Matheny wanted no part of Ortiz. Now, if you aren't going to give Ortiz anything to hit, one might argue that you'd be better off having Choate throw four breaking balls off the plate, to see if Ortiz chases any of them. But whatever.
Now you have Jonny Gomes, a guy who strikes out a ton. This is the way baseball is now, by the way: a game of the strikeout. Scoring is down the past few years for several reasons, but more than anything else, it's because of the strikeout. As an example, the Cardinals have one of the best contact rates in the majors; one of the main reasons they've had such luck hitting with runners in scoring position is because they hit the ball. The Cardinals are 26th in the majors in strikeouts this year. They're a contact team. On that high-contact team, Matt Holliday was eighth in strikeouts with 86. Those 86 strikeouts would have led the 1982 Cardinals. Baseball's strikeout rate is now 7.55 K's per nine innings, the highest in baseball history. Just nine years ago, it was 6.55. This is the direction baseball is going.
So if Gomes -- who strikes out in almost a third of his plate appearance, an astronomical number even in this era -- is up, you need a strikeout pitcher to face him. A strikeout is the most desirable out, because nothing bad can happen on a strikeout; any batted ball is an invitation for a fielder to boot it, or for it to sneak in a hole, or whatever. You need an out; a strikeout is the best way to get one. And fortunately for the Cardinals, they have a ton of strikeout pitchers; there are eight on the postseason roster who have a strikeout rate higher than the 7.55 average. At that particular moment, five of them were available in the bullpen, and another one was already on the mound.
Matheny chose none of them: He brought in Seth Maness. As I wrote on Twitter at the time, this move made no sense. The one advantage of keeping Lynn in to pitch to Ortiz was that he was getting everyone else out. One can argue whether or not Lynn should have been kept in, but it's impossible -- well, difficult, anyway -- to argue that Maness was the right call. Maness has been struggling this postseason, but more to the point, bringing him in essentially guaranteed contact. Maness is a groundball specialist -- he typically is used as Matheny's double-play good-luck charm -- with the lowest K/9 on the roster at 5.1. He is exactly the wrong person to bring in to face a hitter who strikes out a lot, when you desperately need a strikeout.
So why did Matheny make this move? Here, here we hit the source of Cardinals fans' agita with Matheny since his hiring. Matheny, a manager serving a front office that's among the most advanced in the game, trusted his eyes. He has seen Maness get out of jams before, so he wanted Maness to do it again. "He's been able to get the big out when we needed it," Matheny said postgame. "We wanted to give him a shot."
Now, this is a common phrase for Matheny: "We wanted to give him a shot." Matheny is a man who trusts his players, who allows them to work their way out of funks, who gives them every opportunity to succeed, even as they continue to fail. (Matheny kept Edward Mujica as his closer for more than a full week after it was obvious Mujica was tired and fading, because Matheny had seen him do it before. He kept "giving him a shot.") Now, this is a terrific attribute in a manager -- a manager of people. Players love a manager who trusts them, who isn't breathing down their necks, who doesn't make them feel like they're one mistake away from the bread line. And they should! Who wouldn't want to work for a manager who trusts you implicitly?
But this isn't Little League, and this isn't some software company in a corporate complex somewhere. This is the World Series. The time to "give someone a shot" is spring training, or maybe May. It's another reason Matheny is always so slow to pull starting pitchers, which almost cost him Game 3; as a player himself, so recently, he remembers how players like to be treated. But sometimes, you have to trust the process. Sometimes, you have to be the bad guy. Matheny couldn't have known that Maness would give up a home run to Gomes, the crucial three-run blast from which the Cardinals never recovered. But he did know that Gomes was a lot more likely to hit the ball off Maness than anyone else in his bullpen. You don't want Gomes to hit the ball. Bad things happen when people hit the ball.
Mike Matheny has improved as a manager since his rookie season. He bunts a lot less, he's willing to be unconventional -- moving slow-footed Matt Carpenter to the leadoff spot early in the year kickstarted the Cardinals' season -- and he's been judicious and prudent in picking his spots for small-ball tactics like the hit-and-run and double steal. (He called a perfect one in Game 3.) He also has had a trust in young players that LaRussa never had; his willingness to prefer talent over experience in the lineup and bullpen is probably one of the reasons he got the job in the first place. I have no doubt he's going to be a solid Major League manager for a long time.
But he is still learning. This is what Cardinals fans were concerned about when Matheny was hired. He's growing into becoming a better manager … but the Cardinals are trying to win a World Series today -- like, this second. This isn't a learn-on-the-job job; let the Cubs or the Astros hire somebody like that. There's little room for error for a contending team like the Cardinals, and none in the World Series. Mistakes like Matheny's cannot happen in the World Series. The Cardinals were facing a plainly damaged pitcher on Sunday night, with a chance to take a 3-1 lead, with their ace on the mound poised to clinch a title at home on Monday night. It was all there for them. But with one wrong move, and one high sinker, and one bat-on-ball contact, it all went away. Now the series is tied. Now we're going to back to Boston.
Mike Matheny didn't back down from his mistake. "[Maness] is a guy that we go to, to get us out of tough spots whenever we're in question," Matheny said. "We'll use him again in that situation." Maybe Matheny means that. Maybe he's just protecting his player -- being that leader of men. Maybe he learned a lesson on Sunday night; maybe he didn't. But the real question is whether or not someone should be learning lessons in Game 4 of the World Series in the first place. Mike Matheny is going to be a well-rounded, top-tier manager in the big leagues someday. But the Cardinals need him to be one right now.