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Can the Cardinals keep pace with modern trends in game management?

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If the Cardinals can make it back to the playoffs, will they be able to match the strategy of MLB’s top clubs?

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MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve been watching the playoffs, it would be hard to argue with the conclusion: Baseball looks different. “Bullpenning” - while it’s been rising in popularity over recent years - has never been more prevalent. Teams are equally aggressive with their lineup changes, milking every matchup to squeeze out even a tiny bit more advantage.

Are the Cardinals ready for this?

I was watching Game 7 of the Dodgers/Brewers series when Site Manager Emeritus Ben Humphrey asked, “can you even imagine Mike Matheny trying to manage like this?” I chuckled, but it’s a legitimate question.

Matheny was fond of playing chess, but modern teams are playing four-dimensional chess, and this year’s playoff teams are playing five-dimensional chess with the ghost of Earl Weaver.

Granted, Matheny is gone. And as I noted soon after Mike Shildt was hired, one of Shildt’s greatest contributions may be simply opening the flow of communication from the front office down to the field level. But how good are the Cardinals analytics when it comes to game management?

Because brother, game management is the brave new world of analytics. Back in your Moneyball days of yore, analytics were focused primarily on player valuation and acquisitions. Phillip Seymour Hoffman still got to make the lineup decisions.

But today’s manager - while still calling the shots on the field - is expected to synthesize all kinds of data from the quants upstairs as he makes those decisions. Don’t believe me? Just look at this week’s managerial hires. Brad Ausmus says “embracing analytics will be key.” David Bell wants to align the Reds organization, from the front office to the field.

Those aren’t quotes I pulled out from paragraph five, friends. Those are the HEADLINES of both articles.

What does more analytically-driven game management look like? Jay Jaffe over at Fangraphs broke down some of the ways it was driving moves in the Brewers/Dodgers series.

On the Brewers side, it was fairly obvious that Craig Counsell had gone beyond “bullpenning” to a higher plane where starters and relievers were all just, like, pitchers, man. Consider, among many possible examples, the fact that Wade Miley put up the longest, best and most traditional start, then came back a couple games later as the most opener of openers, facing only a single batter.

And yes, to some degree, Counsell’s management was a playoff thing... but of course, he did pull a similar move against Matt Carpenter and the Cardinals on Sept. 24, when he not only started a lefty just to face Matt Carpenter, but made sure the Redbirds best hitter faced a different pitcher every time he came to the plate.

That’s some pretty advanced game strategy, right there. That’s a plan, coming from data upstairs and flowing through the club levels and concourse all the way into the dugout. That’s a plan that says “here’s how we keep this team’s best hitter from beating us.”

The Dodgers were less aggressive in terms of bullpenning, though that’s not surprising from a team that has Clayton Kershaws and such. But as Jaffe notes, the Dodgers made substantial mid-game lineup moves, almost like line changes, to maximize platoon advantages, optimal defensive alignments, etc.

The 2018 Dodgers are, in fact, the most fluid in terms of position changes in baseball history. But as Ben Lindbergh also notes in that piece, this is a trend that is at its highest in history throughout the league, and accelerating rapidly. This, like bullpenning, is simply the way baseball is going.

I’m sure Cardinals fans noticed how often David Freese was in a game and then suddenly not in a game. But I want to focus in on one move from Game 7. Joc Pederson started the game in LF for the Dodgers and batted leadoff, facing righty starter Jhoulys Chacin.

Now first off, why bat Joc Pederson leadoff? His .321 OBP doesn’t exactly scream leadoff man. One big reason is that Pederson has some of the most egregious splits in baseball. This season, he posted a 139 wRC+ against righties and a 38 wRC+ against lefties. That line against lefties is simply unplayable.

So with a right hander starting the game, by batting Pederson leadoff you get him the most at-bats possible where you know he will be facing a righty. Of course, how many of those there will be will be determined by the Brewers.

After just two innings, Counsell brought in Josh Hader to start the 3rd inning, with Pederson due up first. Dave Roberts countered by pulling Pederson and bringing in Kike Hernandez, shifting Chris Taylor out to left field in the process.

On the broadcast, Joe Buck and John Smoltz were apoplectic. How could you pull Pederson so early in the game? Per the rules of baseball, he wasn’t going to be able to come back in.

But with Pederson not able to hit lefties at all, and Hader perhaps the most dominant lefty in the game, sending him to the plate was about as close as you get (outside of a Lance Lynn at-bat) to an automatic out. And with Hader likely to go two or even three innings, leaving Pederson in would likely sacrifice two at-bats. As a matter of fact, the last hitter that Hader would face would be Hernandez for a 2nd time, in what was Pederson’s spot.

Now, Hernandez is no great shakes as a hitter. He would eventually go 1-4 with 3 Ks in the game. But it was clearly the better play, percentage-wise, to have him in that spot for the rest of the game rather than Pederson. And just like playing blackjack or poker, playing those percentages right - while it won’t work every single time and the wild hunch will sometimes pay off - will yield the best results over time.

My question is, are the Cardinals ready to translate that kind of data analysis into on-field strategy?

This is an organization that spent the majority of the last seven years with Mike Matheny calling the shots on the field. He was a man who believed in playing the “hot hand,” in starting backup infielders who happened to have gone 3-5 against the day’s starter, who tried to leave starters in the game to earn the pitching win, who went back to faltering relievers again and again because they had earned their role or in search of double-play magic...

It’s possible all of that vanished with Matheny, and I certainly hope that it did. But the bottom line is, we just don’t know. Early returns on Shildt were good, but far from conclusive. He certainly showed more of a willingness to give a starter the quick hook. His in-game lineup machinations more often brought the best pinch hitter to the plate or managed a late-inning defensive switch when advantageous. But we haven’t seen the creativity demonstrated by teams like the Brewers or the Rays.

Some of that is clearly roster based. As Bernie Miklasz noted at The Athletic, the Cardinals lag behind the playoff teams in talent in a number of ways. Whereas the Dodgers and the Brewers have benches that are stacked with talent and platoon possibilities (particularly post All-Star break), the Cardinals bench carries too many warm bodies like Greg Garcia and Francisco Pena. And the bullpen was an unmitigated disaster, from the early season ‘pen stacked with washout free agents, to the infusion of young talent who ran out of gas down the stretch. There were not always great moves to be made.

But if the Cardinals bolster their talent, will they be able to implement the kind of game management that the top teams are using to capitalize on it?