Early feedback on Matheny

There is a famous line in the film A League of Their Own where Tom Hank’s character says, “Crying… Are you crying? There’s no crying in baseball.” I have always remembered that line. For some reason, a slight variation of that popped into my head when I read yesterday’s Post-Dispatch article about Mike Matheny. “Sleeping…Are you sleeping? There’s no sleeping in baseball”.

Matheny was too excited to sleep before his first Grapefruit League game as a manager. He decided to pop out of bed at 3 am and was at the park a little after 4 that morning. It reminded me the St. Louis Cardinals went from the game’s most experienced manager to its least within a few weeks of winning the 2011 World Series. While it is too early for any kind of “spring training report card”, I do want to make some early observations regarding the Matheny era, and pose some questions as to what Cardinal fans should keep on their radar early in the season. After all, a two-year contract does not leave a lot of time for learning on the job.

I have generally had good feelings about the Matheny hire. Mozeliak had been grooming him for the position, and Mozeliak certainly has earned the benefit of the doubt on big decisions like this. Matheny seems to be doing all the right things early on in the job; consulting the right people, reaching out to the players, reaching out to former (and estranged) Cardinal legends. He has provided a smiling face to the media, which is certainly a welcome change.

He faces a lot of challenges as well. As previously alluded to, he does not have a lot of time to earn his stripes – losing will not be tolerated with the Cardinals 2012 roster. If the team is hovering around .500 at the All-Star break, you can bet there will be some fans calling for his job. Despite losing Albert Pujols, Dave Duncan, and Tony LaRussa, the general consensus in Cardinal Nation is that the 2012 team is better on paper than the championship 2011 team due to the addition of Carlos Beltran and the return of Adam Wainwright. There is a lot of pressure on Matheny.

Something I have encouraged people to keep a close eye on is the Cardinals first twenty-seven games of the 2012 season. After Opening Day with the Marlins, the Cardinals play twenty-six consecutive games against the NL Central (ranked the worst division in baseball). The schedule is kind to Matheny this season, as interleague play pits the Cardinals against the second weakest division in baseball, the AL Central. While that seems to be an advantage, I put a lot of importance on the early games for so many reasons, not the least of which is Matheny setting the tone for his managerial reign.

Here are a few early observations.

1. Matheny runs a tight ship. The practice schedule runs on airport time. Matheny does not round to the nearest five minutes. If you are a pitcher you better be ready for you session to start at 9:38 am, because that is when the skip has it scheduled.

2. Matheny puts emphasis on player development in spring training. Look at the number of at-bats and innings pitched already for the younger prospects in the first two games of the spring. More than that, I was intrigued at how Matheny worked the prospects into the hitting and pitching groups during the first two weeks of spring training. LaRussa seemed to have a more “show me what you can do” approach in spring training, where he got his key guys a lot of reps and let everyone else try to earn a shot. Matheny is putting a bigger emphasis on the organization’s responsibility to develop the next wave of players that can contribute at the major-league level. Could you imagine LaRussa putting Tyrell Jenkins in Chris Carpenter‘s throwing group on the first day of camp?

3. Matheny is a “hands-on” manager. LaRussa would typically watch Grapefruit League games from just outside the dugout. Matheny is inside the dugout, working and instructing the team. Matheny is out on the field throwing batting practice.

Some intriguing questions to be answered.

1. Game management

How will he use his bullpen when the games really count? What kind of pitch count will the starters be on? Will he bunt and steal? I hear mixed reports. On the one hand, I see where he is working with the team on better base running and stealing, and that he wants to better utilize the bunt and hit-and-run. On the other hand, I hear how he is going to use advanced metrics much more than LaRussa did. In Sabermetricville, bunting is a crime unlike any other….never, never, never give up outs. How will Matheny manage moving runners over in traditional sacrifice situations.

2. Handling veteran players

This, in my opinion, is his greatest challenge as a manager. He is not only managing a lot of guys close to his own age, he is managing some former teammates as well. Will he command the respect of the clubhouse or be a “player’s manager”? Is it possible for him to be both in his first year? Will the veterans show him the same level of respect they showed LaRussa. It is hard to move from a friend and a peer to a boss.

Yadier Molina‘s quote yesterday about Matheny getting to the park so early, was very interesting to me. He said, “It’s OK if he gets a little nervous. I get nervous, too, every time”. I certainly could be reading too much into that, but that is not a comment I would make about or to my boss. Again, I know it is a stretch to read anything into that one comment, but it got me thinking about the relationship between Matheny and the veteran players. If they ever get the sense that Matheny is just Mozeliak’s puppet, he could have a very hard time keeping control of the clubhouse.

With all of that being said, I do expect Matheny to be successful. I want him to be successful. He is a great baseball mind, a hard worker, a man of great integrity, and someone that cares deeply about carrying on the Cardinal Way. He seems to have enough fortitude to handle criticism and the constant questions regarding his experience.

Watching the first two games of spring did cause me to think a lot about the new manager and his role. It really sunk in that someone new is calling the shots from the dugout, and we do not quite have a blueprint for their game management style. While there is uncertainty still in so many areas, one thing is for sure…Matheny is not sleeping on the job.

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