Column: Matheny (maybe) throws his team under the bus and how to steal more bases

Over the past few seasons, Mike Matheny has made it a point to talk about wanting to be more aggressive on the basepaths. Each spring, the Cardinals steal a bunch of bases (they stole 28 bases last spring over a month of play) and every season they continue to be near the bottom (they stole 35 bases over six months of the season). That’s a stark contrast to be sure, but when asked about it this weekend, Matheny gave us an interesting answer that worries me just a little.

“I think everybody in this room would be completely shocked and surprised to know how many times we had the green light in the last several years. More often than not … I’ll tell you that.”

Guys, it’s not my fault, he’s telling us. I’ve been giving them the green light. He goes on.

“Part of it is the mindset. Yeah, there are some physical skills that we need to improve on, but it is just part of the mentality and part of the messaging that we take a lot of pride in as a staff. But also, the players have to buy in. We can tell them until we’re blue in the face that, ‘Hey, you guys have speed, athleticism. We should be taking first to third. We should be taking that extra base. We should be tagging up from first base on a deep fly ball.’ Those sorts of things we can tell them all day long, but until they get that drive in their own mind, I think you’re going to get less of a production.”

This left me scratching my head.

On one hand, you can definitely make the argument that he’s just talking in general about getting players to buy into your managerial philosophy. On the other hand, there’s definitely the feeling that he might have just thrown his team under the bus. Look guys, I want to steal more bases. I give these guys the green light to steal almost all the time, but they just won’t do it.

Now, setting aside the implications if he was actually throwing his team under the bus since I’m sure he’d disagree with me, let’s focus on the premise.

When I think about the Cardinals’ baserunning last season, a lack of aggression is not how I would describe it. If there is a fine line between being aggressive and being a nincompoop (TOOTBLAN reference for the uninitiated), I’d say that the team leaned much more to nincompoop than aggressive. How many times did baserunners get thrown out trying to go for the extra base? How many times did we see Chris Maloney wave a runner home only to see them thrown out by five feet?

Aggression doesn’t seem to be the problem.

A big picture question is that if Matheny wants the team to feel free to steal bases and take the extra base why aren’t they? Why aren’t the players buying into the concept of creating havoc on the bases? It seems like an easy buy in to me. I feel like it should be relatively easy to convince someone that stealing bases and taking the extra base create problems for defenses and can benefit you greatly. So maybe it’s not the message. Maybe it’s a lack of confidence.

Which would explain why the Cardinals run wild in a month of spring training (stealing 28 bases in a month), but only steal roughly the same number of bases over a six month season (stealing 35 bases). It’s much easier to risk stealing a base in spring training when the games don’t count than it is during the season.

I think the obvious question then is, if this is a part of the game that the Cardinals want to improve in, why haven’t the Cardinals taken steps to be proactive about helping players become more confident on the bases?

Vince Coleman, who played for the Cardinals from 1985 to 1990 and led the league in stolen bases all six seasons, talked to the Cardinals’ organization before the 2015 season about creating a baserunning instructor position inside the organization for him. At the time, the Cardinals decided against it and Coleman would go on to join the Chicago White Sox as a baserunning coach. The Cardinals still today do not have a dedicated baserunning instructor in their system.

Logic would dictate if you want players to be better baserunners, it would start with coaching. You want hitters to improve at hitting? You give them hitting coaches. You want pitchers to improve at pitching? You give them pitching coaches. You want defenders to improve at defending? You give them defensive position coaches. So why no baserunning coach?

Now, that’s not to say that coaching baserunning doesn’t fall into someone’s job description as both Willie McGee and Kerry Robinson both do some level of it, but McGee works only part time and it’s not the same as having someone whose sole job is to focus on helping guys improve on the bases.

Coleman talks about how he feels that stealing bases is a lost art in today’s game and I completely agree with him.

More than ever played are better trained than they were 30 years ago, so you can’t tell me that they’re simply slower than they were 30 years ago when guys like Coleman and Rickey Henderson were stealing 100+ bases a year. The league has fast guys who are capable of putting up those kind of numbers and it’s more than organizations not wanting to risk it.

Whenever I think about fast guys who can’t steal bases my mind goes to Peter Bourjos. Bourjos, to me, was always the perfect image of a guy who had always been so fast that he never had to learn how to actually steal bases. So he seems completely awkward when he does it to the point it looks like he’s going to miss second base completely most of the time. A little instruction and perhaps Bourjos could be that kind of baserunner who could steal 100 bases.

This isn’t something they’re instilling in the minor leagues either. Charlie Tilson, who is now also with the White Sox, played for Springfield in 2015 and led the Texas League with 46 stolen bases. In 2016, Springfield only had 57 stolen bases, down from 114 the year before with Tilson on the roster. So either players have great speed and know how to use it, or they don’t.

So the answer for the Cardinals perhaps isn’t so much to simply be more aggressive or steal more often, but to be smarter and to train for it. Not everyone is capable of understanding the mechanics of opportunities to take the extra base or seeing that tell in a pitcher’s mechanics that gives them a bigger window to steal a base on their own. For many it requires consistent teaching and coaching and work.

The organization says that they want to be “more athletic” and add speed this season. That requires taking the time to work with the players so that they understand those things. It’s more than telling players they should steal; it requires empowering those who can steal bases to steal those bases (Kolten Wong was 7-for-7 last year stealing bases).

The Cardinals struggled defensively last season and the organization took steps to shore it up. They promoted Mike Shildt to be Quality Control Coach and shortstop Aledmys Diaz will go work one-on-one with Jose Oquendo for two weeks before spring training begins.

If Matheny is serious about being better on the bases, the team will need to work on it.

And if the organization is serious about their efforts to become more athletic and be able to use it to their advantage, they’d be wise to focus on coaching baserunning as those players are developed through the system.