The St. Louis Cardinals might have a new manager, pitching coach and offensive stars, but their results have been the same as the 2011 team during its run to the World Series championship. The games have also been less stressful to watch, thanks in part to new manager Mike Matheny.
The Cardinals started the 2012 season with two of the cleanest wins a baseball team can have, especially to begin a season. They beat the Miami Marlins 4-1 Wednesday before traveling to Milwaukee and beating the Brewers 11-5 Friday.
Sure, they got beat in starting pitcher Adam Wainwright’s return Saturday to the tune of a 6-0 shutout, but Brewers starter Zack Greinke pitched a brilliant game. He was also the third elite pitcher the Cardinals had faced in as many days.
Overall, the Cardinals have shown early signs that they will play a much cleaner game than they did while Tony La Russa was the manager. It’s foolish to say La Russa’s teams didn’t play good baseball. His team’s won a lot of baseball games, but they also maintained an edge to their game that was never completely comfortable to watch. They could certainly come back after falling behind several runs early in a game, but just as well could let a similar lead disappear.
A good bullpen is certainly a major factor in how those situations play out, but La Russa’s heavy use of his bullpen played a role. His theory of using several relievers in one game was meant to keep them available night after night without wearing down one particular pitcher. But, that always left opportunities for one of those pitchers to have an off-night and blow the game.
Although it’s very early, Matheny hasn’t shown any tendencies to take a lot of risks. His decisions have been calculated, and have not tipped the game for or against his team. Those moments where his decision wins or loses a game will surely come, but his approach is a smart one for a new manager with an experienced team.
Matheny’s has also made judicial use of his bullpen. It helps when his starters pitch deep into ballgames, but he has not made pitching changes just for the sake of making pitching changes. Matheny has a good understanding of the rhythm of a baseball game, and has shown a more gentle touch than La Russa.
Matheny is no teddy bear, by any means. He will fight with his team to the death just as La Russa would have, but Matheny will likely trust his gut instinct rather than what the numbers say in the matchup book.
That will be a stark change for Cardinals fans who have grown to fear a righty-lefty matchup simply because the pitcher and hitter don’t have the same dominant hand. The hand a pitcher throws with is sometimes less important than how the pitcher is throwing that day.
Even if a pitcher, particularly a reliever, was cruising along, La Russa would yank him simply to play the matchup game. Matheny appears to be more likely to let a pitcher who is dominating go ahead and work a full inning regardless of who comes up next in the order. This certainly won’t always be the case, but it will be nice to watch a game that doesn’t include at least six pitching changes every night.
Also, the team’s baserunning has been much better. Former first baseman Albert Pujols was often more of a factor in this problem than La Russa. Pujols was a very aggressive baserunner, but he would also run himself into an out because of that aggressiveness.
The 2012 Cardinals might not be the most explosive team in Major League Baseball, but if the first week is any indication, this should be a very fundamentally sound team that could win a lot of baseball games.
Having a manager who fosters that type of a team will certainly help.