At first glance, the St. Louis Cardinals’ season turned around on July 14 when they fired manager Mike Matheny and replaced him with bench coach Mike Shildt. It’s an easy story to tell. Given the focus on the manager, especially a polarizing one like Matheny, the simple act of making a change can be labeled as the flashpoint. Firing the manager won’t make a bad team good, but it can make an underachieving team achieve. There’s certainly no defending Matheny, whose fate was sealed not just by the team’s lackluster play, but by the bursting into the open of clubhouse fissures and a veteran-rookie caste system that he not only failed to corral, but tacitly encouraged.
It never looks good for the former manager when, after his dismissal, the team behaves as if it was released from a Soviet gulag. This will undoubtedly affect Matheny if he tries to get another managing job. With his current perception throughout baseball, his best route is to be a bench coach or front office assistant and just be present if the club’s current manager is fired and he’s the guy standing there to take over on an interim basis.
That aside, the Cardinals’ jump to the second-best record in the National League goes beyond a managerial change. Often, such a change is cosmetic and/or a capitulation – and with the Cardinals, assessing their subsequent moves after pulling the trapdoor on Matheny, it might have been a bit of both.
As watered down as it is, there must have been a certain amount of “maybe this’ll light a spark” thought process in the Cardinals front office. Clearing some unproductive and problematic players truly ignited it. This is not to downplay the searing hot streak that has pushed Matt Carpenter to the top of Most Valuable Player contention, but that alone would not have carried the club to where it is now.
After firing Matheny and installing the steady Shildt, the following also happened to benefit them:
- Dexter Fowler fractured his foot.
Fowler and the organization have been at odds all season. The hatred between player and manager was palpable. As much as teams say salary and contract have no bearing on lineup decisions, a .576 OPS and an embarrassing 58 OPS+ are sufficient to bench any player. When adding the implications of Fowler’s lackadaisical play, he should not have been playing. What reason other than salary can be used to justify Fowler’s continued presence in the lineup before he got hurt?
An unproductive player whose presence in the lineup is based on nothing more than salary and status sends a ripple through the clubhouse that a merit-based strategy comes in second to other factors. A steadier lineup configuration with Carpenter moving to first base, Jed Gyorko installed at third, and Jose Martinez moving shifted to right field not only removed the stigma of ancillary factors holding sway, it made the team better simply by Fowler’s absence.
- Tommy Pham was traded.
Pham was largely justified in his anger at the organization. The chip on his shoulder was legitimate. The club keeping him in the minors far longer than it should have and failing to give him a chance until it had no other choice has cost him several years of his prime and a significant amount of money. That lingering rage, though, is something that can permeate a clubhouse and stoke tensions even if it is kept at a low simmer. It’s a sigh of relief when the multiple tensions of managerial missteps and failure to lead; a player who was getting by on minimal effort and shielded by a contract; and a player who was perpetually pissed off are all out of the picture.
With Pham gone, Harrison Bader was installed in center field. He’s a better defender than Pham and it also let them make the previously listed lineup maneuvers sans Fowler.
- The pitching was reconfigured.
Greg Holland was a disastrous late-spring training signing. He walked as many batters as he struck out and never seemed to overcome the missed time in the spring. That he has pitched well since joining the Washington Nationals makes it appear that his problems were, partially, atmospheric.
Dumping the manager is an easy sacrifice, especially when the team is underachieving and the manager is generally perceived to have the job because of looking the part rather than tactical acumen. What appears more likely is that the attitude change and using different players was as, if not more, important than the act of firing Matheny even if firing Matheny is the easy story to write about the Cardinals’ turnaround.