Spring is here, and though the baseball season is fast approaching, we’ve been inundated with various versions of the “_______________ is in the best shape of his life” stories. You’ve seen them:
“Tommy Pham has been working out all offseason and has dropped his body fat to -3%”
“Adam Wainwright looks like he’s 10 years younger and just hit 90 on the radar!”
“Dexter Fowler’s is ready to be the best defensive right fielder in baseball! Jason Heyward, he’s coming for you.”
Even the dreaded Cubbies have gotten in on the act with their “Kyle Schwarber has dropped 100 pounds and is headed for a 50 SB season.” “He’ll probably be a Gold Glove left fielder!” As an aside, the way in which Cubs’ fans talk about Schwarber makes you wonder how many Schwarber family members actually live in Wrigleyville. Here’s a video showing Cubs’ fans’ reaction to his injury in 2016.
Well, Mike Matheny is also in the best shape of his life. This post is meant to play “Devil’s Advocate” to all the “Matheny should be fired” tweets that have filled the Twittersphere this offseason. (God knows, I’ll tweet something similar to that probably 50 times between now and when the team’s season ends so we may as well start the season with a positive attitude.)
Matheny has never been better equipped to have a good season than he is right now. Over the offseason, the front office made several changes specifically designed to help Matheny be a better manager. Matheny has been criticized by Cardinals’ fans and the St. Louis media for several things throughout his tenure — and rightly so. His handling of the bullpen has been questionable, at best, and he has too often left starters in far too long which has led to the starter losing the game before the pen can even be summoned. He has become over-reliant on specific relievers that he trusts (ahem…Matt Bowman) while he becomes unwilling to risk going to others he’s less certain of. He has been over-reliant on “proven veterans” while leaving younger, often better players (like Tommy Pham) sitting on the bench or playing in Memphis. At times, John Mozeliak had to send younger guys like Pham, Randall Grichuk, and Kolten Wong to the minors just to get them some playing time because Mike Matheny refused to play them.
The front office didn’t exactly buy Matheny a copy of “Managing for Dummies” and quiz him on it over the offseason (or maybe they did; I don’t really know) but they did give him a front office version of Spark Notes to help him get better at the stuff that he needs to improve on. Step 1 was replacing his pitching coach (Derek Lilliquist) with a new one — pitching guru Mike Maddux. The important quote from Mozeliak in the article discussing the fact that Lilliquist wouldn’t return to the Cardinals is this one: “Mozeliak said that they want to rethink the strategy of pitching use and have a pitching coach that is open to the data available and some modern views of how pitchers should be deployed.” That tells me the front office wants to modernize the team’s use of data on their pitchers, their pitch selection, and how their pitchers are deployed. The article from Jenifer Langosch about the hiring of Maddux had the following to say in explaining the change:
Before he started interviewing candidates for the open position, Mozeliak stressed that he was seeking a pitching coach willing to utilize advanced metrics, as well as the ability to “understand modern strategy, modern analytics and how we can leverage that to optimize our staff.”
The intent was to bring in someone who could have a louder voice alongside Matheny, who will be returning for his seventh season as manager. Maddux’s experience and coaching resume offers that sort of instant credibility.
“A louder voice alongside Matheny”…to me, this means that Maddux will have more of a say in pitching changes — when they should occur and which pitchers should be used — than Lilliquist did. Matheny has to recognize that the hiring of such a well-respected pitching coach wrests some control from Matheny.
Two other additions to the coaching staff should help give Matheny the tools he needs to be as successful as he can be. GM John Mozeliak specifically went to Florida to encourage fan and player favorite Jose Oquendo to return to the staff as 3rd base coach. Most everyone recognizes that the team was better fundamentally and defensively when Oquendo was manning the 3rd base coaching box and, since he’s often been mentioned as a potential manager, Matheny has to feel a little pressure from the front office to get things right.
While the change that brought Oquendo back to the team also brought in Willie McGee to the coaching staff, the other truly noteworthy change to the staff was moving Mike Shildt to the bench coach’s role. Shildt is basically the team’s data guy who’ll help Matheny with defensive shifting and in making other baseball decisions during the game. He was management’s addition to the coaching staff a couple of years ago and is being moved into this position by the front office to insure that Matheny hears the voice of the front office during the game.
The front office elected not to replace batting coach and Matheny buddy John Mabry but the other changes in the coaching staff have to send a message to both Matheny and Mabry that the offense needs to improve in 2018. For one thing, Matheny surely knows by now that Pham needs to be in the lineup every day and in center field. Mozeliak went to Las Vegas over the winter to meet with Dexter Fowler to talk to him about playing right field rather than center. There’s another decision taken out of Matheny’s hands.
With the addition of Marcell Ozuna, the emergence of Pham, and the movement of Fowler to right, the outfield is a lot more settled than it was at this time last season. Wong showed last season that he was a solid, league-average second baseman and one who can be in the lineup against lefties, if necessary. Shildt is on staff to help Matheny figure out when and how to deploy Matt Carpenter so that Jose Martinez gets maximum PA’s and Maddux is on staff to help Matheny with the pitching changes. Oquendo is there to help the team with defense and fundamentals and McGee is around to help improve the team’s base running. So Matheny has never had as many good tools at his disposal to help him make good decisions during the course of the season. Now it’s incumbent on him to utilize those tools to help get all those Cardinals’ fans off his back.
But who am I trying to fool? I’m going to go nuts the first time he insists on leaving Michael Wacha in to face the top of the Cubs’ order for the 3rd time in a tie game.
Thanks for reading.
I wanted to add something to my post from yesterday where I advocated for using Jose Martinez to be a major part of the team’s infield during 2018. In it, I essentially made the argument (without supporting it) that the ZIPS and Steamer projections for Martinez are selling him short. I felt that needed to be explained.
Back in September, Dave Cameron — then of Fangraphs; now of the San Diego Padres — came to this conclusion about Martinez. He said:
“But if I’m John Mozeliak, I’d probably just keep Martinez and make him my everyday first baseman next year.”
It was this article that really got me starting thinking about Martinez because he referenced a lot of the same sorts of things I mentioned in my post yesterday — that his exit velocity was among the highest in the league, that his xwOBA was 5th highest in baseball, and that — in contrast to what we normally think about these “fluke” type seasons — Martinez was probably actually unlucky in 2017.
About a week ago, Zach Gifford over at Birds on the Black, authored an article entitled, “Tempering Expectations about Marcel Ozuna.” The main idea of the article was that, if Cards’ fans were expecting Ozuna to have a season similar to 2017 or that his career might be on upward trajectory, they might be bitterly disappointed if he actually turns out to be worse. His xwOBA in 2017 was about 26 points lower than his actual wOBA and that he was only 70th in baseball in barrels, according to Baseball Savant. These numbers indicate that Ozuna was very lucky in 2017 and might not be able to repeat it in 2018. The difference, however, is that the ZIPS and Steamer projections both seem to account for that luck — though Steamer is much more bullish on Ozuna than ZIPS.
The projections for Martinez, on the other hand, don’t really appear to factor in Martinez’s unluckiness in their projections. Truthfully, it’s probably much more likely that Martinez has much less of a track record even than Ozuna and so projecting him is much more difficult than projecting Ozuna is. Still, Martinez was a .379 wOBA guy last year when unlucky and he’s projected for around .336 by Steamer and .331 by ZIPS. Xstats does have him projected for a .370 wOBA in 2018.
So, yeah, I think the projections are selling him short and, if so, he’s going to be a really good hitter for the team in 2018 and should be getting a lot more playing time. If he can put up the kind of batting line he did last year — which, to me, isn’t unreasonable considering the fact that he was so unlucky last season — and the team gives him around 500 PA’s by using Matt Carpenter or Jedd Gyorko as the super-sub, he could add another 1 to 1.5 wins to the team’s total. ZIPS has Martinez pegged for 1.1 WAR in 2018 in just 399 PA’s. Give him another 100 PA’s and another 30-40 points of wOBA and he’s now probably a 2.5 WAR player. The team — now projected for 88 wins by Fangraphs — then becomes an 89 or 90 win team and probably 1 player away from being a strong contender for the division title.
Ultimately, it wouldn’t surprise me 1 bit if:
- Martinez is the team’s leader in wOBA in 2018 AND
- Martinez has more WAR than any of the other Cardinal infielders
But to do those things, Matheny is going to have to write his name in the lineup card regularly.
I’m not a guy who routinely bad-mouths the projections. The people who put those together are much smarter than I am and those projections do a much better job projecting player performance than I ever could. I’m not going to quibble with the projections for Ozuna, Paul DeJong, or any other Cardinal player but I think they’re awfully light on Martinez.
Thanks for reading.
A few days ago, I had this interaction with @GirschMo on Twitter:
It was a flippant, offhand remark I made without thinking but I still think I was right. Let’s see.
So, Moustakas had a lower K rate and a higher ISO in 2017 but Martinez was pretty clearly the better hitter with the caveat that it came in just 307 plate appearances. Still, Martinez had never done this before. Players have fluky seasons all the time. He won’t be able to repeat it. This was probably one of those Bo Hart sort of experiences that Cards’ players have every now and then, right? Maybe not.
Here’s some other data for Martinez in 2017, courtesy of Baseball Savant.
|Player||xwOBA||xwOBA – wOBA||Avg Exit Velo||Avg Launch Angle|
So, as far as the predictive stats go, aside from Moustakas being more likely to hit homers (and popups) than Martinez, Martinez shows all the characteristics of being a better hitter than Moustakas going forward. He hits the ball harder and it was actually Moustakas who was relatively lucky in 2017. If anything, Martinez was relatively unlucky as shown by the fact that his actual wOBA was .025 lower than his xwOBA. In fact, only 4 hitters in the game had a higher xwOBA than Martinez in 2017 — Aaron Judge, Joey Votto, Mike Trout, and J.D. Martinez. That’s pretty good company.
But it’s probably a fluke, right? I mean, he only had 307 PA’s last season and both ZIPS and Steamer take a relatively conservative approach when projecting Martinez for 2018. (ZIPS has him projected for a .331 wOBA and a 104 wRC+ and Steamer has him projected for a .336 wOBA and a 107 wRC+.) Actually, though it was in very few PA’s, his xwOBA in 2016 was .426. The point is that every available indicator tells us that this guy can really hit.
Of course, there are other things to consider. Moustakas can play 3B which would make Jedd Gyorko available for super-sub duty and would also add the left-handed hitter that the team seems to think is necessary. Martinez is limited to corner OF and 1B and isn’t very good at either. On the other hand, Fangraphs projected Moustakas would receive a 5 year, $95 million contract this offseason and MLB Trade Rumors projected him for 5 years and $85 million. Martinez has 5 more years of team control and will make the major league minimum this year. Now, considering the way the market has played out so far this offseason, the fact that the Cards might even be involved in any discussion for Moustakas means he’s going to get less than $85 million but I don’t really see the point even if we’re talking something like 3 years and $50 million.
I get that Moustakas makes the Cardinals somewhat more versatile this year and beyond by offering the lineup another left-handed hitter and allowing Gyorko to be the super-sub. I also get that Matt Carpenter isn’t a very good fielder and probably belongs at 1B, but I feel pretty confident saying that Martinez is a considerably better hitter than Moustakas. If the team wants to use Gyorko as the super-sub, they should just move Carpenter back to 3B and install Martinez at 1B. When they want to sit Martinez, Carp goes to 1B and Gyorko to 3B. The team would be better off spending that Moustakas money on the rotation where there is a more obvious hole.
Get rid of Martinez so that we can pay Moustakas $50+ million? No way, Jose.