It’s been four years since the Royals graced the postseason, but coming off back-to-back 100-loss seasons, it feels like much longer. Sometimes, you probably have to slap yourself across the face (not recommended!) and ask yourself if it really happened. The Big Blue Machine was like a Saturn V, where we could see the stages, hoped like hell everything would work and then, once it did, stood by to witness it burn up on re-entry. There may be something to standing on the sidelines and not stress-watching baseball in October—your fingernails probably thank you—but watching as an impassioned observer just isn’t as fun. I mean, it’s probably not fun being a Nationals fan this time of year, but at least they have a chance. That’s worth something.
That said, one of the best things about the St. Louis being in the postseason (or depending on your feelings toward provel, the color red and arch-like structures, the only best thing) is that it’s become open season relive the disastrous end of Mike Matheny’s tenure as manager of the Cardinals. Matheny is currently in the Royals front office as a Special Advisor of Player Development—a position Ned Yost held for a year-plus before he returned to the dugout. This is the first time the Cardinals have been in the postseason since they ran into an ascendant Chicago club in 2015, and for many Cardinal-watchers, things are a whole lot better with Matheny out of the dugout. The latest missive that claimed things are much better in Cardinal Nation with Matheny out of the picture came from Forbes over the weekend.
Ryan Davis writes:
“Mike Shildt, who took over for Matheny in the middle of the 2018 season, has gone 132-99 in the regular season and brings a more modern approach to managing the game. While Matheny brought a mechanical aspect to handling players and a gut-only theology on game management, Shildt has built a strong relationship with his players and embraces analytics as a useful tool.”
There are currently seven managerial openings: Angels, Cubs, Giants, Mets, Padres, Pirates, and Royals. There will be some competition for some of the more sought-after possibilities. Joe Maddon will predicably get a ton of run in a few of the jobs. Joe Girardi will attract plenty of interest. Royals quality control coach Pedro Grifol, while not the same kind of name as those two, had previously interviewed in Baltimore and Detroit last year and has been linked to the opening in San Francisco. There are openings and there are names suitable to fill those openings.
The delightful part of this managerial musical chairs is that it’s not unlike the pursuit of big name free agents. You know, where such-and-such team signs so-and-so’s friend/cousin/life coach so that puts this particular club at the front of the pack for his services. Or this player once dated a woman whose brother went to a nearby community college, so he is familiar with the area making him a natural fit for Team X. This conjecture isn’t much different from throwing darts blindfolded after drinking a few Boulevards. Throw enough at the board and eventually something has to stick.
That’s a way of saying it takes a little work to separate the fact from fiction. Maddon is, of course, a front-runner in Anaheim. Connect the dots. He has a long-term history in the organization and the Angels fired Ausmus after Maddon became available. This is just basic High School Relationships. Maddon has already sent the note that says “Do you like me?” and the Angels already returned it with “YES” circled.
That’s kind of what makes the Matheny-to-KC rumors so frightening. The Royals took this path once before. He has major league managing experience, which is important considering the Trey Hillman debacle from almost 10 years ago. He also has a postseason track record, while not a prerequisite, it can’t hurt in the eyes of a front office hopeful The Process 2.0 can somehow accelerate. Matheny is also a man of deep faith who describes himself as “very religious” and says “God (is) an ever-present guide,” which certainly counts for something in the Kansas City front office. In his role as Special Assistant, it has given him an opportunity to evaluate the organization and become familiar with it, something Yost underscored as invaluable as he moved back into the manager’s office. Check, check, check annnnnnd check.
But here’s the deal, the groundswell of negativity toward even the possibility of Matheny taking over as manager is building. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Drop Matheny’s name on Twitter and you’re met with several “Oh my god, I hope not” or “Anyone but Matheny” replies. Casual acquaintances are asking me who I think the next manager will be and will insert a “as long as it isn’t Mike Matheny” into the conversation. His exit from St. Louis was messy, his relationship with many of the players, including the leaders of the team, frayed. The consensus is that his success in St. Louis was a carryover from the LaRussa years and once his thumbprint was firmly on the organization, the lean years arrived. His reputation is not positive at this point.
The Cardinals sold Matheny’s brand of leadership, but as Bernie Miklasz wrote for The Athletic, it was “more marketing than substance.” Matheny lost the clubhouse based on what was perceived as a double-standard in how he treated veterans and the younger players. Miklasz notes that Matheny is “an insecure man” who played favorites based on who complimented him the most.
He was a bad fit for a team with young players. Uh-oh. Remember how patient Yost was with The Process generation? How he wouldn’t pull Alcides Escobar for a pinch hitter because he didn’t want to “get in his dome?” How he expressed confidence practically all the time, much to the dismay of those who watched the games? It sounds like Matheny was the polar opposite in St. Louis, routinely pulling young players from the lineup when they struggled and keeping them off balance by his lack of communication about their status.
Then there is the whole old-school versus new-school bullshit that went on in the Cardinals clubhouse where Bud Norris basically bullied rookie Jordan Hicks in 2018. Matheny, according to a report in The Athletic, was fine with that, basically calling today’s players “soft.” Witness:
“I think the game has progressively gotten a little softer,” Matheny said. “Man, it had some teeth not that long ago.”
Hicks, the hardest throwing right-handed pitcher in baseball, isn’t a fan of the treatment. Asked if he thinks it will one day pay dividends in his career, he said, “I have no idea. No comment.”
Matheny, for some reason, gave Norris leadership over the bullpen that included reporting to management when pitchers weren’t “living up to standards.” In some cases, Matheny fined players based on reports from Norris. Norris, it was noted, was not the most popular man in the Cardinals’ clubhouse. Crazy.
Based on the recent revelations by Danny Duffy about his difficulty adjusting to the big league clubhouse in large part to a handful of veterans who made his life miserable, it seems like turning over the managerial role to a man who basically was ok with something similar in St. Louis reeks of tone-deafness.
Would Matheny consider a player like Duffy, who had difficulty with anxiety, to be “soft?” Does Matheny still think it’s OK for a veteran player to ride a newcomer to the point where he breaks? If we’ve learned anything from the Yost era in Kansas City, it is that clubhouse culture absolutely matters. For the Royals to bring in someone like Matheny, who was so abysmal at creating anything resembling a positive clubhouse culture would be a massive setback for this organization. Duffy was rightly lauded for shining a light on mental illness and how it’s perceived in sports. Would Matheny find Duffy talking about his struggles courageous?
Oh, yeah. There’s also the tactical stuff. The bizarre bullpen moves, the baserunning gaffes, the outright hostility to advanced analytics. There isn’t going to be a manager who makes a perfect decision every time, but there is enough in the file to question if Matheny learned anything in his tenure as manager. It sounds like he was making the same mistakes with his pitchers in 2018 as he made as a rookie in 2012. The bigger red flag is what was perceived as lip-service to analytics. Again, from The Athletic:
“The verdict on Matheny being hired, in part, because he said he would embrace advanced analytics: This is laughable. He never made an effort to do so. 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. Ridiculous.”
It seems for every managerial hiring action there is a reaction. Tony Pena took showers in his uniform and was replaced by the perpetually dour Buddy Bell. Trey Hillman rode a unicycle around the warning track and called team meetings at home plate to prove some sort of point during spring training. You can imagine how that went. He was replaced by Yost who fostered respect and community in the clubhouse. And now the rumblings are building that the Royals are looking at someone who would be a disaster in nearly every facet of the game.
There’s talk of the Royals taking their time with the managerial hiring process. The timing in the change in ownership isn’t ideal here. But with so many openings, the Royals really can’t afford to wait. And the fear is, the longer the process takes, the more likely the next manager is Matheny. Mainly because of convenience. And also because he would be the last candidate standing.
Hiring Matheny would be a critical blunder as the Royals are about to embark on the most crucial time of The Process 2.0.