Does Mike Matheny Hate Stolen Bases?

I’m already tired of hearing everyone’s hot take on how Matheny is going to halt the Royals from stealing bases. I’m not sure they are wrong but the analysis, if there is any, is suspect. Most talking heads point to his Cardinals being second to last in stolen bases during his tenure (2012 to all of 2018). The Cardinals weren’t exactly full of speedsters during that time. Here are their top-10 hitters ranked by plate appearances.

Most Plate Appearance by a Cardinal (2012 to 2018)
Matt Carpenter 4807 25 17
Yadier Molina 4676 45 21
Matt Holliday 3176 18 8
Kolten Wong 2836 83 23
Jon Jay 2346 41 24
Allen Craig 1694 10 2
Jhonny Peralta 1639 4 6
Matt Adams 1599 4 4
Paul DeJong 1597 11 6
David Freese 1451 5 5

Talk about “Wheelz”. Of these 10, Yadier Molina was second in steals. A catcher is second. This group would have problems stealing candy for a blind lady.

It’s time to dig a little deeper.

First, Matheny’s teams need to be compared to the league numbers. Sure the cardinals steals slowly declined but so did the overall league’s total (1261 in 2012 to 832 in 2018). I created a couple of stolen base rates of stolen bases (and attempts) per plate appearance and the total of walks, hit-by-pitches, and singles. Here is how the Cardinals compared to the league while Matheny was was manager including 2011 and 2019 to so the change from him arriving and leaving.

Matheny’s Cardinals were more likely to attempt a stolen base more from 2011 to 2012. And the rate dropped from 2018 to 2019. From just this graph, the Royals may steal more bases, not fewer. But I can dig a little deeper.

Team composition can change over time so it’s not exactly apples-to-apples comparing back-to-back seasons. Instead, I compared how any hitter did in the four stats from a season without Matheny to one with him and vice versa. These hitters include the bookend managerial seasons and anyone not on the Cardinals before or after a season he managed but on it in an adjacent season. In all, it was 75 player-matched season and here are the results weighted by the harmonic mean of their plate appearances (i.e. those who played more get more weighting).

Note: To group Matheny’s overall effect “2018 to 2019” and “Matheny to Others”  with the other two groups, I had their signs reversed from the actual results. For example, the stolen base numbers for the Cardinals from 2018 to 2019 dropped, so Matheny’s effect is positive.

Mike Matheny’s Influence on Cardinals Stolen Base Rate
2011 to 2012 0.7% 0.8% 2.5% 2.5%
2018 to 2019 1.0% 0.9% 3.8% 3.7%
Matheny to Others 0.4% 0.6% 1.4% 2.1%
Others to Matheny 0.2% 0.1% 5.2% 4.9%
Overall Matheny Effect 0.5% 0.6% 0.5% 2.2%

Again, nothing points to Matheny hating stolen bases but I’d love to the narrative to continue. If anything, he may give Adalberto Mondesi a stronger green light. Making the assumption that the above increase in stolen bases happens to Mondesi and he gets 500 PA, he’ll see about a 2 SB increase (47.2 SB to 49.8 SB) in his stolen bases per PA. It’s not a ton, but it’s not the huge drop everyone is predicting.

For the love of my fantasy teams, please let the “Mike Matheny Hates Stolen Bases” narrative continue. I can always use some cheap buys.

Jeff, one of the authors of the fantasy baseball guide,The Process, writes for RotoGraphs, The Hardball Times, Rotowire, Baseball America, and BaseballHQ. He has been nominated for two SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis and won it in 2013 in tandem with Bill Petti. He has won four FSWA Awards including on for his Mining the News series. He's won Tout Wars three times, LABR twice, and got his first NFBC Main Event win in 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwzimmerman.

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4 years ago

If a manager as old school as he is hated SB, that would really surprise me