Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak has a favorite line about insanity.
You know the one; it’s defined by doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. The approach rarely succeeds and creates much scar tissue even when it does. Sometimes the Cardinals forget.
Nothing makes the Cardinals tie on a bib and eat bad result after bad result like continued attempts to justify a significant contract that is aging poorly.
Combine payroll politics with the burning desire to be right about a player they committed to, and the Cardinals could go toe-to-toe with human hot dog vacuum Joey Chestnut in a contest of stomaching pain.
The Cardinals’ continued doubling down on shortstop Paul DeJong in hopes he could salvage his extension and stop a seasons-long skid at the plate has proven that, yes, sometimes production can indeed be wrestled back from the jaws of insanity. But DeJong’s role also changed greatly during his decline. He was benched and turned into a reserve before his recovery and rise. Most Cardinals fans are happy to see DeJong succeeding again. I don’t think many Cardinals fans are mad that he is, but you better believe that some worry every time so much time spent rationalizing bad results pays off for a front office that can resist pulling certain Band-Aids off until they dissolve entirely.
The Steven Matz saga is nearing this point. It’s hard to see this Matz mess getting cleaned up as nicely as DeJong’s detour. At least not without some sort of audible. The Cardinals, at least for now, seem willing with Matz to keep trying the same thing while expecting different results. But the results are largely similar, and they are hurting the team, and an alteration to the plan could perhaps instead create positives for all parties.
Happy talk about Matz “finding momentum” before this road trip derailed Wednesday in Cincinnati, where his four-inning, six-run shelling by the Reds cost the Cardinals a chance to keep their series winning streak alive. They had to settle for a four-game split instead. Miles Mikolas saved the day Thursday, along with the bullpen.
Matz has no wins and a 5.72 ERA this season. He’s allowed a National League-worst 68 hits. This is not some new and unfortunate phenomenon. Since the Cardinals handed him a four-year, $44 million contract entering the 2022 season, his 5.71 ERA as a starter is the ninth-highest among MLB starters who have pitched at least 90 innings. For perspective, Madison Bumgarner, who recently got paid nearly $35 million by the Diamondbacks to stop pitching for them, had a 5.39 ERA during that same span.
We’re not talking about small sample size stuff here. Not anymore. Matz, who was limited last season with knee and shoulder problems, has been healthy so far this season. He’s now made 20 starts for the Cardinals since he joined the team. He had 29 with the Blue Jays in 2021, during the career-best performance that convinced the Cardinals he could be a strong supplemental piece to their rotations. Instead, Matz has been quick to get derailed, like he was with the Mets, and even more unreliable than he was in New York.
None of the southpaw’s 10 starts this season have completed six innings. Five have included four or more earned runs allowed. Matz turns 32 years old next week. This is his ninth season in the majors. A growing pains situation, this is not.
The Cardinals have remained murky about what’s next for Matz. Why? What’s most confusing about not being clear and concise about his most recent start being his last start, at least for a good long while, is that Matz has been and could perhaps again be an effective reliever for the Cardinals. Last season, he had a 1.69 ERA in five appearances out of the bullpen after he returned from injury. His strikeout percentage, which peaked at a career-high 26.1% last season, could perhaps be regained and weaponized if he benefits from a more limited, concise role, where velocity grows and adrenaline can run unchecked.
Recasting Matz as a reliever for the remainder of this season would not be raising a white flag on his contract. It would not mean the situation could not be revisited next spring. It would be an attempt to get a more realistic value from his deal. It would turn the page toward finding what other answers do or don’t exist for a rotation that was built with way too much hope in mind.
If Matz could go the Drew VerHagen route and transition from unreliable starter to reliable reliever, what is left on his contract would be a mostly fair price for that role. If he can’t, well, then the contract is a flop. But isn’t continuing to trot Matz out there as a starter proving that, too?
The Cardinals are 2-8 in games he starts this season. He has not pitched seven innings in a single Cardinals start in 20 tries between this season and last. He has two quality starts — at least six innings pitched and three or fewer earned runs allowed — since signing his contract. Both came last May, more than a calendar year ago.
The Cardinals have another left-handed starter in 23-year-old Matthew Liberatore. He has earned the chance to prove he is ready, or not. Whether he is or isn’t, the Cardinals still need help from outside if this rotation is going to do more than turn what should be series wins into splits or worse. Continuing to do the same thing over and over again with Matz doesn’t change any of those realities. And it could be costing the Cardinals a reliever who could legitimately help.