Last week the Royals hired former Cardinals manager Mike Matheny to be a special advisor, to serve in “several aspects of the baseball operations department, including scouting and player development.” Royals beat writer Jeffrey Flanagan warns fans not to jump to conclusions, but with Ned Yost on a one-year contract, it is reasonable for many to expect Matheny to be the manager-in-waiting, as Yost was when he was hired as a special advisor to the Royals in 2010.
Mike Matheny served as Cardinals manager for six and a half seasons, winning 55.6% of his games. His teams won 90+ games three times, including a 100-win season in 2015, and he won a pennant in his second season in 2013, losing to the Red Sox in the World Series in six games. On the surface, this is a very impressive resume that Royals fans should be excited about adding to the organization.
Yet the reaction to the Matheny hiring was met with derision by many Royals fans, and pity by many Cardinals fans. Why is that?
For starters, the impressive win total covers up the fact that he inherited a very good team. Matheny took over after Tony LaRussa retired following the Cardinals championship season in 2011, with much of the core of that team intact. To his credit, Matheny did not mess that chemistry up, making the playoffs in each of his first four seasons, averaging nearly 94 wins per-season over that time.
But the team was far less impressive the next two seasons, averaging 84.5 wins, underperforming their pythagorean expectation, and missing the playoffs. This past season, Matheny’s club was barely above .500 at 47-46 before he was fired.
It is not just wins and losses that drew the ire of Cardinals fans, however. Matheny has been sharply criticized as a tactician. While this is not uncommon from any fanbase, Craig Edwards at Viva el Birdos has specifically highlighted Matheny’s rigidity to bullpen roles, using “pitcher wins” and “saves” as factors in decisions, using small sample sizes to inform lineup decisions, and wearing down his bullpen among his many criticisms of the skipper. Matheny ranked dead last among all active managers in Baseball Prospectus’ Reliever Management metric.
Matheny also never embraced analytics, which should be concerning for an organization that needs to stay ahead of the curve to compete with teams with greater resources. According to Bernie Miklasz of The Athletic:
Even after Mozeliak brought in pitching coach Mike Maddux this season to be a positive influence in getting Matheny to rethink his outdated philosophies on pitching, Matheny refused to change. The Cardinals were way behind the industry curve in deploying defensive shifts. Matheny didn’t like them, but more than that, he succumbed to the wishes of veteran pitchers who didn’t want to work with the shift set up behind them.
Perhaps most concerning about Matheny, however, is how his management of the Cardinals clubhouse devolved into a train wreck. Say what you will about Ned Yost, the tactician, but no one doubts that Yost has been a superb leader of that Royals clubhouse. Players are bought-in, know their roles, know their manager trusts them, and mentorship by older players is done in a constructive manner.
This is in sharp contrast to how Matheny’s clubhouses were portrayed in St. Louis. His clubhouse was described as having tension, with “raw” conversations about how to make it a better atmosphere. Players privately complained of double standards for veteran players. Matheny was accused of letting his veterans talk him out of things, even if it meant undermining his own coaches. Miklasz recounts how veterans had Matheny cancel fielding drills scheduled by coach Jose Oquendo, and that Oquendo grew so disillusioned he quit the Major League staff to go work with minor leaguers.
Matheny was accused of sticking with veterans too long, while having impatience with younger players, potentially undercutting their development. Once outfielder Tommy Pham was traded to the Rays, he went public with his criticisms about how the Cardinals played him. Second baseman Kolten Wong was known for having a an up and down relationship with Matheny. One Cardinals executive told Miklasz, “Why do we always have to send our young players to the minors to get back on track? Why can’t we get them back on track up here?” For a Royals club looking to rely on younger, homegrown players, this could be a disaster.
Even as he may have trusted veterans more, Matheny even seemed to alienate many of them with his old school ways and lack of communication. He notably clashed with struggling free agent outfielder Dexter Fowler with the two reportedly not speaking to each other for months. He even managed to irk All-Star catcher Yadier Molina. Again, Miklasz:
Matheny hasn’t had a happy team for a long time, and he lost player loyalty along the way for a number of reasons, including his double standards in how he treated players, his aloofness with some players, and showing no interest in forming relationships with players that aren’t the yes-sir, no-sir type of personalities including Fowler, his uptight demeanor, and steady drumbeat of tactical blunders that left players rolling their eyes.
The last straw seemed to be an article by beat writer Mark Saxon in The Athletic highlighting Matheny’s old school ways. In the piece, Matheny laments that the game has gotten progressively softer, and Saxon profiles how veteran reliever Bud Norris mentored rookie reliever Jordan Hicks.
The 33-year-old Norris has been mercilessly riding 21-year old rookie Jordan Hicks since spring training, reminding him to be at meetings on time and publicly calling him out when he is lagging in any of the details a visitor might not notice, but other players do. Perhaps Hicks will one day appreciate the treatment?
“Probably not,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny admitted with a chuckle. “But Bud’s going to continue to do what he thinks is right as a veteran, so you respect that.”
Veterans mentoring rookies is a tradition that goes back decades, but this seems a far cry from James Shields teaching pitchers new grips or Raul Ibanez giving inspirational speeches. Cardinals management was not happy about those comments. Three days after the article was published, Matheny was fired.
That (3/3) whenever Matheny gets on the soapbox with old-school preaching that’s a huge turnoff to young players, it reinforced team’s rep as uptight, stressed, humorless and not a fun place to play.— Bernie Miklasz (@miklasz) July 15, 2018
The Royals have long worshipped at the altar of old school baseball, so it is easy to see why Matheny’s philosophies appeal to them. Perhaps Matheny learned from his tenure in St. Louis and will run a better clubhouse when he gets another chance to run a team. And perhaps Flanny is right, and all this talk of Matheny being the next Royals skipper is premature.
But there is a reason why bringing up the name “Mike Matheny” will bring up cackles of laughter from Cardinals fans, despite the pennant, despite all the wins. There are reasons to be concerned about bringing Matheny into this organization, especially if he ever leads this team.