Cardinals fire Mike Matheny in bid to save their season

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The St. Louis Cardinals thrive on continuity. Bill DeWitt Jr. has owned the team since March 1996, and he basically has had two managers and two general managers. Tony La Russa was hired in 1996, and Mike Matheny replaced him in 2012. Walt Jocketty ran the front office from 1995 through the 2007 season, when John Mozeliak replaced him. Under DeWitt's ownership, the Cardinals have won 10 division titles and made the postseason 13 times, winning the World Series in 2006 and 2011.

So when the Cardinals make a change, it's not due to a lack of patience or on the whims of an impetuous owner. The firing of Mike Matheny and hitting coaches John Mabry and Bill Mueller after an 8-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on Saturday is a last resort, a signal that a lackluster 47-46 record -- on the heels of missing the playoffs two seasons in a row for the first time since 2007-08 -- isn't going to cut it in an organization that has viewed a playoff spot as a birthright over the past two decades.

Matheny was canned even though he has never had a losing record in his six-plus seasons as manager; he finishes his Cardinals tenure with a 591-474 record. Still, the consensus opinion is that the Cardinals have underachieved the past few seasons, that they've been an odd mix of talent that hasn't come together, with failures in the bullpen and on defense -- two areas Matheny has been widely criticized for failing to improve or properly address -- undermining the rest of the team.

Firing a manager with a winning record during the season is rare for any team. The last time it happened was in 2008, when the Milwaukee Brewers fired Ned Yost during a late-season slump (only to recover and make the playoffs).

The Cardinals had pulled into a tie for the second wild card on June 26. But they have lost 10 of 15 since then to fall four games behind the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers for the second wild card and 7.5 games behind the Chicago Cubs in the National League Central.

A couple of recent issues flared that might have exacerbated the change. During a radio interview, Mozeliak criticized outfielder Dexter Fowler -- who is struggling with a batting average below .200 -- by questioning his effort and energy level. While Mozeliak shouldn't have publicly called out a player, a perceived lack of effort is usually viewed as something a manager needs to deal with internally.

Then reports surfaced from The Athletic's Mark Saxon that veteran reliever Bud Norris had been "mercilessly riding" rookie reliever Jordan Hicks. While the rookie later downplayed the relationship, telling Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that, "Bud is not bad at all. He's getting on me because he wants me to be a better player," Matheny's earlier defense of Norris rang a little hollow: "Bud's going to continue to do what he thinks is right as a veteran, so you respect that."

Of course, those stories look worse when a team is struggling. The Cardinals are tied for sixth in the NL at 4.38 runs per game, but some of the expected big hitters have struggled, as offseason trade acquisition Marcell Ozuna is hitting .268/.309/.386 and Tommy Pham has plunged down to a .238/.322/.392 line, while Fowler sits at .169/.267/.281. The bullpen is 24th in the majors with a 4.52 ERA and 28th in win probability added.

The Cardinals also lead the majors with 75 errors. While we know errors are hardly the best way to measure defense, kicking the ball around on a regular basis certainly doesn't look good, and the Cardinals have allowed 39 unearned runs. The defensive metrics indicate the Cardinals aren't a bad defensive team -- they rank 11th in the majors in defensive runs saved -- but I go on St. Louis radio on a regular basis, and I know smart people watching the Cardinals on a regular basis view the defense as a problem.

Are these things Matheny's fault? Obviously, most of the fault rests on the players, but based on a broad assessment of critiques I notice on Twitter, few fan bases are as hard on their manager as Cardinals fans are on Matheny. Maybe that's just a reflection of the high expectations Cardinals fans have for their team, but the fans are watching every game and get a pretty good feel for the in-game decisions the manager is making. At the same time, few things make a manager look worse than a struggling bullpen, whether or not he's making the right move. Still, Matheny's handling of the bullpen has been an ongoing area of criticism for several years.

It's also possible that the Cardinals just aren't as good as everyone expected. The preseason projections at FanGraphs had the Cardinals going 87-75, with 62 percent odds of making the playoffs -- that is, a good team, but not a lock to make the postseason. Those odds at a playoff berth are now down to 21 percent and falling rapidly. Time for a change.

Will this fix the Cardinals? Probably not, but it feels like a move that had to be made. Matheny certainly isn't somebody I would label as a high-energy manager, and maybe that's what the Cardinals need right now. Maybe some new blood will help; maybe interim manager Mike Shildt, the bench coach, will prove a better communicator and get more out of Fowler and Kolten Wong. Mostly, however, Ozuna has to start hitting. Pham has to start hitting. The bullpen has to do better. The Cardinals haven't missed the playoffs in three straight seasons since 1997 to 1999. For the Cardinals, losing is not an option.