Later tonight, the Cardinals start a very, very important 5 game series against the Cubs over the next four days. Soon after they will play three other games against the Cubs before the trading deadline. These eight games will determine 2018 for the Cardinals. You know this already. Ben talked about this yesterday and it’s really hard to understate how important the next eight games against the Cubs are.
Over the next 68 games, Mike Shildt will be on an audition to lose the interim label and just be called the manager. Those eight games will largely dictate how we should judge him for the rest of the year. The Cardinals perform well during those eight games record-wise, then he’ll probably be given a roster with every capability of winning. If they perform poorly in those eight games, they will probably go in selling mode and judging him by record will be slightly unfair.
Barring an unmitigated disaster in the standings, he will probably not be judged by how well the Cardinals do on the field though. There’s too many things that could happen between now and October to just look at his record. Players could get hurt or traded, or maybe there’s a mandate from the front office to play somebody to see what they got no matter the results (such as Tyler O’Neill or Dexter Fowler). Besides, call me optimistic, but I would be very surprised if the Cards had a worse record in the 2nd half than the 1st half. I would have had this opinion with Mike Matheny at the helm too. If they do have a worse record, I strongly suspect it’s because the Cards became sellers, which wouldn’t be a reflection on Shildt anyway.
So if you can’t simply look at record, what can we look for? I’m going to assume he’s at least solid at the off-field stuff we do not see. The Cardinals know better than I do about the things we do not see and if he’s bad at it, he won’t be coming back for 2019. But he’s been in the organization since before John Mozeliak was the general manager and managed eight years in the minors at various levels. He appears to have run up the Cardinals coaching ladder despite seeming not to know how to wear a hat that fits. So I will assume Mozeliak at least believes in his ability to manage a clubhouse, treat the young players, and deal with the shifting morale that can happen over a long season.
Tactically speaking, I will be watching what he does closely. I’m very curious what life after Matheny is going to be like. He’s supposed to be new school, but I’ve heard that before with Matheny, so I’m wondering how legitimate that reputation is. Lineups will be interesting maybe, but the effect a lineup can have over a full season is not all that much. We really could use every single advantage we can, but lineups will not be my main concern with Shildt.
If Shildt proves he can manage a bullpen effectively, that’s pretty much all I need. Seriously, there aren’t that many things a manager does that can impact a game that much. Matheny was not very good at this part of managing. On his first game, Shildt did a great job managing the bullpen, though the degree of difficulty was easier. He brought John Gant in before Miles Mikolas could pitch the 5th and get the win, allowed Gant to throw four innings, and then had Hicks throw the 9th.
I could quibble with a more ideal arrangement. Hicks threw 24 pitches on Saturday and I’d rather we not use him on Sunday. I think Gant could have pitched the 9th too. But it’s hard to not use Hicks if he’s deemed available, and the All-Star break was the very next day, so I can’t really push for that point too hard.
The most important thing I will be looking for with his bullpen management is how he brings relievers in according to the leverage of the situation. I will not pretend he is likely to bring in Bud Norris in the 5th with the bases loaded and a one-run lead at stake. I don’t expect him to be doing that. That would be so far from the norm of what managers currently do that it would be unfair to expect him to do that.
I could think of examples for what would be an ideal use of picking relievers for the right leverage spots, but these situations are too game and context-dependent, such as how recently the relievers pitch, how long the starter went, etc. Speaking of, I will also be looking to see if he leaves his starters in too long or takes them out at just the right time. I don’t even have a quibble with his first game. Mikolas came out after four innings, right when he should have. It’s possible he would have came back out for the 5th if his spot in the lineup didn’t come up, but it’s hard to say. You could fairly easily justify that too, seeing as Mikolas mostly just committed errors himself which led to the runs and didn’t actually pitch badly. But four innings was the safe choice either way.
Last point about bullpen management: I’m not actually sure the Cubs series is a good example of how he’ll manage a bullpen. He has five games in four days, including a doubleheader on Saturday, so he’s going to have to be more strategic with how he deploys his relievers than simply using the best ones available. He’s pretty much getting thrown in the fire with the hardest possible situation with bullpen management. If he comes out alive of this series without making any bad moves, he’s probably going to be good at this.
One simple thing that I didn’t know some managers had an issue with is pinch-hitting. Greg Garcia is one of my favorite Cardinals. I love that he’s managed to make himself an effective bench player with walking essentially being his own elite skill. He’s a player that usually washes out in the minors, but Garcia has managed to stick around somehow. But he shouldn’t be the first pinch-hitter off the bench. He’s been the first pinch-hitter off the bench essentially no matter what the rest of the bench looked like most of this year. Tyler O’Neill on the bench to provide you with power? Jose Martinez not starting today? Tommy Pham has the day off? Jedd Gyorko isn’t starting? For a while this year, it literally did not matter, Greg Garcia was the PH first. In the only pinch-hit situation he encountered on Sunday, he pinch-hit with Martinez with men on 2nd and 3rd. So far, so good on that front as well.
I know it’s weird to say we should only judge Shildt by his bullpen management, but one of the benefits of having a team full of average players is that the lineup really doesn’t matter. Make sure you get Matt Carpenter at the top of the lineup, and whenever Martinez starts, he goes somewhere in the top four as well. Kolten Wong has been on an upswing but he should probably still bat at the bottom of the lineup. Those are about the only certainties in my opinion. The rest is too bunched together to matter at all. Giving Yadier Molina more rest would theoretically be a priority but as long as Francisco Pena is the backup, I won’t be loud about it.
So good luck Mike Shildt. I hope you can come out of this Cards-Cubs rivalry intact with more than a few more wins under your belt. I mostly hope you do a good job and that the players help you look good. Because a manager can do everything right, but the players still need to play well. Please be good at bullpen management.