The way I see it, Mike Matheny should be a shoo-in for Manager of the Year honors in the National League. Hands down, no doubt about it, signed, sealed, delivered.
Not gonna happen, I fear. At least not easily – and with just as many pitfalls as those encountered by Matheny’s St. Louis Cardinals en route to the best record in baseball.
National recognition for Matheny’s accomplishments remain a work in progress for baseball’s version of flyover country, the East Coast baseball writer establishment in thrall with the cult phenomenon that is Joe Maddon and the goat-cursed Chicago Cubs, or those same big-city scribes enamored of the late-season surge by Terry Collins and the previously downtrodden New York Mets.
Add in the sage, steady skippering by the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Clint Hurdle, and the NL manager award – which should be Matheny’s, by every measure – is very much in question as the 2016 baseball season reaches its final month of regular-season play.
But I ask: Who has done more – with more adversity, and more distractions – than Matheny?
He’s been without the ace of his pitching staff for all but one month this season. His lineup has been without its No. 3 hitter for most of the year. His cleanup hitter has been absent for almost all of the year. He lost what the team thought would be its most dependable and most-used setup man. He’s been without his regular center fielder for a good chunk of the season. He waited patiently for the team’s most important off-season acquisition to overcome a slow start. And he witnessed the linchpin of his offensive attack deal with the worst slump of his career.
With the dust settling, the Cardinals entered Labor Day weekend with the best record in baseball, a position they’ve held most of the season. Put it this way: If the Cardinals do no more than play .500 baseball the rest of the season, Matheny will have his first 100-win season.
Even with all that, earning the NL Manager award will prove to be a dogfight for Matheny, who by rights should have won that recognition already – only to barely get a sniff from voters in 2012, when his stewardship led the Cardinals to 88 wins and a berth in the National League Championship Series.
Let’s see if we can recall: Who had departed that club? Oh, only the manager with the most wins in Cardinals history, and third most for any manager anywhere (Tony La Russa); the man widely regarded as the best pitching coach in the game (Dave Duncan), and a player by the name of Albert Pujols. You may have heard of him.
After that rookie year – Matheny’s first as a manager this side of youth baseball, very much a learn-on-the-job proposition – the Cardinals won 97 and 90 wins the next two seasons, have been to two more NLCS and a World Series, and are all but assured of home-field advantage in the NL playoffs this year.
Matheny, mind you, has not been perfect this season. Unwisely, with the quad injuries to Matt Adams and Matt Holliday, the manager put undue pressure on the third Matt (Carpenter) – moving his bat out of the leadoff spot and closer to the middle of the batting order.
That bat withered: Carpenter hit just. 225 with his name written on the No. 2 line on the lineup card, and he batted just .190 in June and .224 in July. Restored by Matheny to the leadoff spot last month, Carpenter has since shown signs of his old self. Oh, and there’s this: He leads the team with 20 homers and 69 RBIs.
Still, that’s the point: Matheny has shown a nuanced, less-in-lockstep approach than his early work as manager: Witness the Carpenter moves in the batting order this year, and the fact that Jason Heyward has hit in every spot in the lineup except ninth as Matheny tried to get him going. There’s been a nearly constant shuffling of the lineup and a parade of relievers (count ’em: 14) trying to get the game to closer Trevor Rosenthal – even as Matheny and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist tried to fill the role vacated by injuries to ace Adam Wainwright and setup men Jordan Walden and Matt Belisle.
All in all, it’s been Matheny’s best year in the corner of the dugout, surmounting more challenges than any of those faced by his competitors for top honors as NL skipper.
Full disclosure here: I’ve got a vote in the National League Manager of the Year balloting, one of 30 Baseball Writers Association of America members across the country with that vote. And I covered Matheny when he was the Cardinals catcher from 2000 through 2004. Smartest guy in the room, I’m not afraid to say.
Those same smarts have been on display the last four years, with Matheny’s go-about-my-business approach translating to the players in the clubhouse.
Granted, Manager of the Year recognition isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a lifetime achievement award. But it would be one measure of the sure and steady hand Matheny has brought to the job the last four years.
Which is exactly what hurts Matheny here: He too often is regarded solely as the benefactor of the Cardinals’ tradition of success, instead of being one of the principal causes for it.
Hey, the Cardinals always win, right? Hey, maybe Matheny’s a big reason for that.
Joe Ostermeier is chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America and has written about the Cardinals for the News-Democrat since 1985. He can be reached at 618-239-2512 or at email@example.com Follow him on Twitter: @JoeOstermeier.
A stellar start
Mike Matheny, who managed his 620th game Friday night, is 361-259 as Cardinals manager, a winning percentage of .582.
How did the Hall of Fame managers who preceded him do in that same stretch at the start of their careers?
Tony La Russa: 317-303 (.511) Chicago White Sox, 1979-83
Joe Torre: 250-370 (.403) New York Mets, 1977-81
Whitey Herzog: 329-291 (.531) Texas Rangers, California Angels and Kansas City Royals, 1973-78