Column: It’s time to finish the job

The Cardinals lost yet another winnable series this weekend, this time against the Chicago Cubs who have now entered a tie for first place in the division. The Cardinals have gone 4-6 since on a 10 game road trip since the All Star Break. Winning just four games despite leading in 9 of the 10 games.

Through the road trip, they have demonstrated every conceivable way you can lose a game. Sloppy play, defensive miscues, lack of fundamentals, bullpen struggles, bad luck, and on and on.

But that doesn’t change the fact that these games were winnable.

The sloppy play, poor defense, and lack of fundamentals has been a constant issue over the past couple seasons. When we discuss them, I always think back to a UCB Podcast episode last summer where Kevin Reynolds asked me how many games I felt the Cardinals had given away to that point in the season. I suggested you could make the case that the number was in the double digits.

At the time that would have put the Cardinals neck-and-neck with the Cubs for first place in the division and that would have completely changed the narrative for the season. But even when the season came to a close, all it would have taken was for them to have held onto two of those games to secure a Wild Card spot.

The bottom line is that the Cardinals beat themselves last season. This wasn’t a situation where the team was just outmatched in every aspect of the game on the field. They just kept finding ways to beat themselves. With failures in the fundamentals of the game that the franchise has historically been lauded for.

The front office noticed it and everyone from Bill DeWitt Jr on down gave us the standard lip service about cleaning up the play on the field over the winter. Mike Matheny spoke at Winter Warm Up about how they were going to focus on it in Spring Training. The organization went as far to create a new position, Quality Control Coach, to help the team sort through the issues.

But six months later and those same issues are still costing this team victories on a regular basis.

The latest example came last week when Trevor Rosenthal failed to cover on a ball hit towards first base. By the time he realized what had happened and reacted to it, it was too late and Jose Reyes beat the play out and the Mets scored to win the game in a walk off.

I suggested that everyone should be on the field the next morning for pitcher’s fielding practice. If they want to play like Little Leaguers, they can be treated like Little Leaguers.

Back on June 9th, the Cardinals made some changes on the coaching staff, headlined by the reassignment of third base coach Chris Maloney. Since then, the Cardinals are 21-19 and still find themselves exactly where they were 40 games ago. In fourth place, 4.5 games out. And that’s with five wins against the Phillies and there are no games against them remaining.

It’s been a quarter of a season since those changes were made and the rest of the NL Central has given the Cardinals every opportunity make a move in the division, but their own sloppy play has prevented that from happening. It’s time to finish the job that John Mozeliak began on June 9th.

Let’s look at the facts in evidence. The Cardinals have struggled with sloppy play and bad fundamentals over the past two years, but this has really just been a culmination of the degradation in it over the last several years. As Jose Ortiz suggested when he wrote about it, note that “The Cardinal Way” was lost on Mike Matheny’s watch.

With the priority that Matheny told us that he was going to make improving fundamentals this spring and the complete lack of improvement that has been made in that direction suggests one of two things.

First, Matheny hasn’t actually tried to correct the issue. This could be for multiple reasons ranging from he doesn’t see it as an issue or he doesn’t know how.

Second, he has made an effort to correct it and the players haven’t. Those reasons would be that the message is either not sticking with them or they are willfully ignoring it.

Either is a sign of trouble in an organization. Both are indications that it’s time to move on and put a new voice in the manager’s office.

I’ve spoken a few times over the past couple years of how it seems that communication is one of Matheny’s biggest issues. Not just, “Hey, you good to go today?” but actually communicating his approach and philosophy to players so that they don’t just understand it, but buy in.

We saw that with Randal Grichuk last winter who was not told that the organization wanted to replace him in center field. We saw that this spring when he said that Kolten Wong and Jedd Gyorko were going to start the season out in a platoon after the organization had told Wong he was going to start.

And back at Winter Warm Up, Matheny spoke about solving some of those fundamental problems and aggressiveness on the base paths and he spoke about the difficulty of getting players to buy into his message. That was a big red flag to me. It felt like he was throwing his team under the bus.

The Cardinals may wait until the end of the season and let Matheny go as John Mozeliak has talked about not liking to fire guys in the middle of the season. He’s talked about how players don’t like to feel like they got someone fired.

But this team still has a chance. It’s time to finish the job and send that warning shot at the clubhouse. They need to feel like they got someone fired. Matheny has been given his opportunity to turn this club around and they are as bad as ever.

Mozeliak talked this weekend about being unhappy with the attitude and culture around the club. The quickest fix for that is to remove the guy who is paid to set that tone.

Cardinals shake things up

Returning home on a seven game losing streak, the St. Louis Cardinals announced changes to the coaching staff today.

First, third base coach Chris Maloney will be reassigned in the organization, replacing him will be Mike Shildt. Shildt has most recently been the Quality Control Coach with the big league squad. He joined the Cardinals’ organization in 2004 as an area scout and part-time coach. He managed Single-A Johnson City from 2007 to 2011, winning back-to-back titles in 2010 and 2011, and Double-A Springfield from 2011 to 2016 before joining the big league coaching staff this season.

Second, assistant hitting coach Bill Mueller has been away from the club and will now formally be placed on a leave of absence. Replacing him will be Mark Budaska, who had been the hitting coach at Triple-A Memphis. He joined the Cardinals’ organization as a hitting coach at Memphis in 2008.

Third, Ron “Pop” Warner will also join the big league club as an additional infield coach, assisting Oliver Marmol in that role. Warner joined the Cardinals in 2000 throwing batting practice for the big league club before becoming a minor league coach in 2001. He got his first managerial job in 2004 and has managed at all levels of the minors in his career.

And fourth, in a roster move, the Cardinals have activated second baseman Kolten Wong from the disabled list and designed infielder Jhonny Peralta for assignment.

The moves may not represent the overhaul that many fans, including myself, have been clamoring for and hoping for when the press conference was announced, but it is a good first step.

“You cannot blow the whole thing up, but we had to do something different,” said Cardinals’ GM John Mozeliak as he began explaining the changes.

The first move, relieving Chris Maloney of his third base coaching duties, was one that I felt needed to be made over the winter. Maloney was a quick promotion into the role when Jose Oquendo was unable to return to the job, but through the course of the season was sending too many players to outs. He had not adjusted through the course of the season as I expected him to.

And those problems continued into this season, exemplified on the losing streak by his sending Paul DeJong to get easily thrown out twice at home.

I’m hopeful that that will help cure some of the base running woes and giving outs away at the plate, but the Cardinals still have a problem with the offense.

They struggle to score runs and while the Cardinals have found some success offensively, most notably in 2013 and then again last year, the Cardinals finished 24th in runs scored in 2014 and 2015 and currently stand 24th again this year as well. However, John Mabry still has his job.

Having Budaska up as an additional, and perhaps different, voice could be beneficial to the club’s hitters. As Mozeliak said, “I don’t look at him as the bat whisperer or something, but I look at as someone that has a way of doing this that might not necessarily be identical to how John Mabry might.”

Time will tell, but one can imagine that if this move does help the offense, do you need to consider replacing Mabry over the offseason?

Mozeliak discussed during the press conference that his time frame for judging these changes will be four to six weeks, and at that point if the Cardinals are still floundering, further changes may be made to the team’s coaching staff. Perhaps the hitting coach? Perhaps a change atop the top step of the dugout?

For Matheny, the moves give him yet another experienced voice in the clubhouse with the addition of Pop Warner to the staff. He now has Warner, Shildt, Marmol, and Bell who all have minor league managerial experience that he could lean on for advice if he wants it. Inexperience should no longer be an excuse for him.

I’ve argued that his message is having trouble getting through to the players, which is the primary reason I feel like the organization should move on, but he will need to get everyone on board and pulling the same direction to turn this season around.

The Cardinals play the Phillies this weekend to put this new coaching staff to it’s first test, but their real first test will come on Tuesday as they face off against the NL Central leading Milwaukee Brewers.

Regardless of whether or not I feel like the moves were enough, I do hope that these are the moves that help the Cardinals turn their season around. But if not, it sounds like Mozeliak knows what his next steps are, because his seat may be getting hot as well.

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.