Well, it’s official: Mike Shildt and the St. Louis Cardinals are now going steady. And while I understand the worry from some... did we just blurt out I love you on the first date? It’s important to remember this is the culmination of 15+ years in the organization and not just the last month.
When the Cardinals Brass announced the hiring of Interim Shildt on July 14, they insisted that the team which was bobbing just above .500 was still a contender, and I can’t be the only one who thought that was nonsense.
Yes, replacing Matheny was a big step in the right direction. But surely the problems in the Cardinals organization ran much deeper... didn’t they?
Well, maybe they didn’t. And Mike Shildt’s greatest contribution might be letting the talent throughout the organization to shine through in the major league product.
The most obvious place that’s happening is with hitting coaches Mark Budaska and George Greer. Here’s a partial list of the statistics where the team has improved since they came aboard: AVG, OBP, SLG, wRC+, BB%, K%. These aren’t two outsiders who were brought in to completely remake the offense. These are two guys with years of experience within the Cardinals system.
We learned during the offseason that Jose Oquendo - one of the most revered coaches in the organization - had left his post because he felt his input was not being utilized. After being coaxed back this season, Oquendo last week threw his full support behind Shildt.
“He’s legit,” Oquendo said. “The staff and everybody are pulling together, on the same page. We are giving our opinions. He’s listening.”
The trust goes both ways. Shildt said he gives Oquendo autonomy to make his own decisions because “he’s earned it.”
As Bernie noted in his Redbird Reset this week, the Cardinals baserunning has improved in a number of key areas. This has not been about simply being more or less “aggressive,” as Matheny would often frame it. Instead, the team looks to be smarter on the bases. That’s got to be a credit to the organization’s advance scouting.
I’ve been surprised how often the team has put runners in motion under Shildt, or taken an aggressive turn from 1st-to-3rd, but even more surprised at how often it has worked. That’s not Shildt just licking his finger, sticking it in the air and deciding the time is right. That’s the result of excellent data and competent decision making all down the line.
Lastly and perhaps most importantly of all, Shildt’s leadership is showing us again just how incredible the Cardinals player development system is. We spent the entire offseason arguing about who they needed to acquire, and now the team is firing on all cylinders almost exclusively from talent that was already in the system.
Okay, short deviation here: Is any minor league system as consistently underrated as the Cardinals? MLB Pipeline had Harrison Bader ranked 90th coming into this season, and he’s going to lead all rookies in WAR. Last season, Paul DeJong was unranked and finished 2nd in Rookie of the Year. If you extrapolate Tyler O’Neill’s numbers out over 600 PAs, he’s on pace to be a 6 WAR player.
Anyway... my point is that the Cardinals organization is doing an excellent job of acquiring and developing these guys, and now we can see that because they are being given the chance to succeed at the major league level.
Perhaps no player encompasses a variety of these factors more than Kolten Wong. Here we have a very talented player, an elite defender, who has sometimes struggled to be consistent at the plate. Under Shildt’s leadership, Wong has found a more consistent approach at the plate that is suited to his skills and he has been put on the field regularly to provide excellent defensive value. Contrast that with Matheny’s approach, which frequently benched him for long stretches and even played him in the outfield (the OUTFIELD!).
The Cardinals organization went through a makeover in the mid 2000s with the hiring of Jeff Luhnow, the promotion of John Mozeliak, etc., which made it probably the most analytically sophisticated in baseball. Since then, the organization has suffered tremendous brain drain as many of those folks have moved on to other teams.
The coaching staff traces a proud legacy back to George Kissell and Red Schoendienst (among others). But they are both gone.
Did the Cardinals analytics edge end when Jeff Luhnow left in 2012? Was their proud coaching tradition more of a museum piece than a viable, working piece of player development? These are questions I have been wondering the past couple years. I am not wondering anymore.
We were all aware of many of Matheny’s limitations as an on-field manager. What’s becoming more clear is that his greatest deficiency was serving as a choke point for the truly excellent work being done at every other level of the organization.
In just about every interview, Mike Shildt has expressed his reverence for Kissell and noted one of the legendary coach’s primary maxims: Are you an organizational man? In other words, are you willing to put your own ego and career advancement aside and let the organization shine.
That is exactly what Mike Shildt has done for the past month and a half as Interim Cardinals manager, and what he has done for the past 15 years at every level of the organization. I can’t imagine a better hire.