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Why the Cardinals fired Mike Matheny

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Mike Matheny’s late night firing by the St. Louis Cardinals came as a major surprise. Even those who watch the team closely were shocked by the move. Indeed, just 15 minutes before Matheny was fired, St. Louis writer and radio host Bernie Miklasz — an excellent source for what’s going on with the Cards — tweeted that, if the Cardinals did make a move to shake the team up, it’d be by dumping a coach and that Matheny would most likely be dealt with after the season ended. His subsequent shock that Matheny was, indeed, given his walking papers was mirrored by many who know the Cardinals well.

Yet, as soon as the move happened, most Cardinals observers’ reaction was, basically, “OK, that’s understandable.” The act and timing of Matheny being fired was rather startling, but the need for him to go seems, in the immediate aftermath, to make all the sense in the world. For a number of reasons.

The big picture reason is pretty straightforward: the Cardinals are playing some seriously bad baseball. At the moment they are 47-46, seven and a half games out of first place in the NL Central and four back — with several teams ahead of them — for the second Wild Card. As it stands, they are poised to miss the playoffs for the third year in a row, which has not happened to the Cardinals this century. The last time that happened was between 1997-99, early in Tony La Russa’s tenure. After that they were playing October baseball in 12 of the next 16 seasons, winning the World Series twice. Simply put, there are high expectations in St. Louis, and Matheny’s Cardinals were not meeting them.

That above-.500 record is masking far worse play of late. The club started off 20-12 and has gone 27-34 since. They’ve dropped two of three against the woeful Royals, two of three against the Marlins and three of four to the Twins. Eight of their early season wins came against the Reds when Cincinnati was playing the worst baseball of any club in the majors this year. Friday night and last night, however, they were basically humiliated by that Reds team at home in Busch Stadium, losing 9-1 and 8-2, respectively, while making a ton of mistakes, both mental and otherwise, and while playing profoundly uninspired baseball. The Cardinals blog Viva El Birdos’ recap of last night’s game said the club simply gave up, and called the performance the team’s “nadir” of 2018. That was written before Matheny was fired, by the way. Yes, the Cardinals have been losing, but more significant than the losing has been the ugly, lethargic and uninspired manner in which the Cardinals have lost and the fact that they have lost so many times to teams they should be beating.

So, fine, the team is losing. But players play the game, not managers, right? Can we not look at the team’s stat lines and find underachieving players for whom Matheny, like so many other fired managers, is taking the fall? Can we not say that if  Tommy Pham, Dexter Fowler, Marcel Ozuna and Kolten Wong were all hitting better that Matheny would be spending the All-Star break consulting with the front office regarding what the team needs at the trade deadline to make a playoff push as opposed to going fishing?

Not in this case. Yes, a lot of players are underachieving, but the front office is clearly blaming Matheny and his motivational tactics — or the lack thereof — for that. And for good reason.

Last week there was a story in The Athletic detailing the harsh manner in which veteran reliever Bud Norris was treating young reliever Jordan Hicks, “badgering” Hicks, and treating him “mercilessly.” Matheny gave several quotes in the article clearly showing that he approved, calling it “old school” and lamenting the alleged lack of toughness in today’s game and, by implication, in today’s players. Norris’ treatment of Hicks was couched as a veteran motivating a rookie, but as I noted in my post responding to that, if one read between the lines it came off as intimidation, not mentoring, and Matheny’s approval of it was appalling. I was not alone in that assessment and, indeed, at some point after it was published, the headline of The Athletic story was changed to refer to Norris and Matheny’s old school approach as “divisive.”

Bernie Miklaz tweeted overnight that the front office was less-than-pleased with how Matheny came off in that story, reflecting a larger disconnect between his approach on the one hand and what both management and players want on the other:

It was already widely reported that Matheny and outfielder Dexter Fowler have not been on speaking terms for some time, but it would not be at all shocking if, in the coming days, we learned that Matheny had lost far many more members of the clubhouse than just Fowler.

Such a dynamic, by the way, does not just cost managers of losing teams their jobs. Just ask Joe Girardi, who the Yankees declined to retain after last season despite coming within a game of the World Series. The sense was that, like Matheny, the younger players on the club were not responding to his old school style. Given how much more important younger players are in today’s game than they used to be, that’s simply not a tenable position for a manager to be in. It’s also, by the way, why the inevitable, immediate calls for Joe Girardi to get the Cardinals job seem rather silly.

Managing the St. Louis Cardinals has, historically, come with a high degree of job security. Only two men — Matheny and La Russa — have held the job over the past 23 seasons. That job security, however, is a function of winning, and Mike Matheny simply is not winning. While that could be overlooked for a time — just as the front office has, for years, overlooked Matheny’s more venial sins, such as his often poor bullpen management and his less-than-stellar tactical moves — it couldn’t be overlooked when the losing was ugly and when he was losing the clubhouse.

Those things, for any manager, are . . . Cardinal sins.

This Day in Transaction History: The Kirk Nieuwenhuis orbit

Kirk Nieuwenhuis
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Outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis had, on the surface, a forgettable 2015 season. Taking most of his cuts with the Mets, he finished the year with a .645 OPS over 141 plate appearances. Two things stood out during that campaign, though: he had an out-of-nowhere power surge in one game, and he started and ended the year with the Mets but sandwiched a stint with the Angels in there.

After striking out in a pinch-hit at-bat in the 10th inning of a May 18 game against the Cardinals, Nieuwenhuis owned a .257 OPS across 40 trips to the plate. Unsurprisingly, the Mets designated him for assignment. A little more than a week later, the Mets found a home for him, sending him to the Angels in exchange for cash considerations.

Nieuwenhuis would spend roughly two weeks with the Angels, batting .136 in 22 at-bats. The Angels designated him for assignment on June 10. And wouldn’t you know it, the Mets claimed Nieuwenhuis off waivers from the Angels several days later. The Mets had him report to Triple-A Las Vegas, spending about a month there before returning to the majors.

Nieuwenhuis had a great first game back, starting in left field. He drew two walks and hit a double in a 3-0 win over the Giants. He would go hitless in his next five plate appearances, spanning four games. On July 12, something magical happened. To date, Nieuwenhuis had zero home runs. Something got into his bat in this afternoon game at home against the D-Backs. He drilled a solo shot to the opposite field off of Rubby De La Rosa in the second inning, opening the scoring. In the third, with a runner on first base and the Mets leading 2-1, Nieuwenhuis swatted a De La Rosa fastball out to left-center field for his second homer of the day. Nieuwenhuis made it three, leading off the fifth against reliever Randall Delgado, this time pulling a breaking ball down the left field line.

Nieuwenhuis became, at the time, the 10th Met to have a three-homer game. As Gary Cohen noted in the below clip, he became the first to do it at home. Somehow, the first nine Mets — Jim Hickman, Dave Kingman, Claudell Washington, Darryl Strawberry, Gary Carter, Edgardo Alfonzo, José Reyes, Carlos Beltrán, and Ike Davis — all did it on the road. In the time since, Lucas Duda, Yoenis Céspedes (twice), and Robinson Canó have had three-homer games. Duda and Canó’s were at home.

In one afternoon, Nieuwenhuis went from zero to three homers on the season and raised his OPS 190 points. Later that month, he would bang out a four-hit, four-RBI game in a blowout of the Dodgers. It was only the second time in his career he had a four-hit game, and the third time he had a four-RBI game. However, after the game against the Dodgers, Nieuwenhuis would slump, batting .194 through the end of the season, spanning 41 plate appearances. He’d add one more homer to his ledger, a pinch-hit, go-ahead solo shot on September 8 against Nationals closer Jonathan Papelbon.

Nieuwenhuis went to the Brewers for the 2016 season, getting semi-regular playing time. He racked up 18 doubles and 13 homers with 44 RBI over 125 games, but finished with a subpar .709 OPS. In 2017, Nieuwenhuis got off to an abysmal start, holding a .473 OPS on April 20. The Brewers placed him on waivers, but he went unclaimed, so he ended up accepting an assignment to Triple-A Colorado Springs. He made it back to the majors just one more time on July 29, providing a pinch-hit single. That was the last time he played in the majors. Nieuwenhuis inked a minor league deal with the Mariners for the 2018 season, then played for the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League. He retired last July. Nieuwenhuis will always have July 12, 2015, though.