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The Mike Shildt Era Officially Begins

The Cardinals made an utterly unsurprising, if perhaps earlier than expected, move yesterday. They weren’t going to leave things up in the air any longer.

Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

I went to see The Happytime Murders yesterday evening. I hadn’t really read any of the reviews or press ahead of time; I just saw a trailer for Muppets in a film noir and thought, hey, that looks alright. So I checked out the reviews after seeing the movie, and it’s getting absolutely eviscerated. Like, to a degree I don’t know I’ve seen a movie be hated in quite awhile. Which is surprising to me, because I thought it was really funny. It’s not great cinema, but I laughed through most of the movie. It’s really strange; normally I’m overly picky about movies and television, but in this case it seems like everyone in the world thinks it was incredibly dumb and an affront to the medium of film, while I think it was pretty dumb but also really funny. Not sure what else to say about that.

Then again, I pull up the flag designing sketch from Mr. Show at least once a month just to laugh at David Cross yelling the milk, milk, lemonade rhyme at the US flag and Tom Kenny’s Abraham Lincoln, which blows Daniel Day Lewis’s right out of the water. So I may just have bad taste in comedy. Entirely possible.

Anyway, on to your regularly scheduled column.

I think we all pretty much knew this was coming; it was more a matter of when than if, given the way the club has been playing, and the universal love and admiration expressed by Cardinal players for the man with the interim tag.

Yesterday afternoon, the Cardinals officially announced that said tag had been removed, taking Shildt from Mr. Interim Manager to Mr. Manager, although we just say Manager. It wasn’t surprising to see Shildt get the full-time job; when you take over a sinking ship and somehow get it back into the regatta half an hour later, you probably seem to very much be the best man for the job of captaining said ship going forward.

I will admit, though, that the timing surprised me. I really thought the Cardinals would wait for the offseason, go through all the interviews, run the whole dog and pony show, and then decide the in-house guy was the best option all along. By doing this now, the Cards’ front office is sticking it’s collective neck out in a big way, should things not work out over the long haul. If it had been up to me, I would have waited and at least brought in other candidates to see what kinds of visions I might have heard from other people not already steeped in cardinal red.

It’s funny; just yesterday afternoon Joe Sheehan published an installment of his newsletter entirely focused on the Cardinals, Mike Shildt, and what had changed for El Birdos since earlier in the season. Joe’s conclusion was essentially that nothing has really changed, it’s almost entirely luck, and the Cardinals are likely going to end up right back where they’ve been since 2012 if they were to keep Shildt on as the permanent manager. I don’t think it was even four hours later that the Cards held their press conference.

Sheehan himself has been very skeptical of Shildt, which I find interesting. I’m honestly not sure I understand who is actually a good manager according to the hardcore saber crowd these days; Bud Black used to have a very good reputation, but seems to have seen his saber star fade the past few years. Joe Maddon was the darling of the movement in Tampa, but doesn’t really appear innovative at all in Chicago beyond circuses and the like. I suppose A.J. Hinch is still well thought of, and of course Gabe Kapler for being so radical right out of the gate, but if you actually watch an Astros or Phillies game it’s not clear those managers are doing anything all that different from anyone else these days. So Joe Sheehan casting shade on the man the Cards handed the reigns to after showing Mike Matheny the door mostly causes me to sort of shrug. I really do wonder: who exactly do we think was going to be the really great choice?

And I like Joe. I’m a multi-year subscriber to his newsletter. But in this case, I think he’s dead wrong about Shildt. You can talk about the turnaround being luck, and I will freely admit there’s a lot of luck involved with the pitching staff, particularly the bullpen, preventing runs at the level they have recently. That’s going to turn before long, and the Cards are going to need to find some more strikeout punch for the late innings before Dakota Hudson reveals himself to secretly be Matt Bowman on stilts wearing a bigger jersey. So I can certainly see where the Cards have gotten lucky in this recent run.

However, I watch this team play an inordinate amount of baseball, and the club we’ve seen since virtually the moment Shildt took over, even when things haven’t worked out every single night, is almost a completely different animal from what we saw the first half of the season. This is a team that has 100% bought in to the message of the new manager, who are totally on the same page for the first time in a long time. The offense has been a revelation, which could be a credit to the new hitting coaches as much as the new manager, but I’m basically at the point right now where I’m not sure you could have paid me to say I think anything should have been changed. (Well, except the whole Yadi batting second thing, which, yeah, needs to change. But that’s small potatoes, really.)

Now to be fair, I think we have to acknowledge that Shildt himself got pretty lucky in at least one important way: injury luck. Usually when we talk about a club having good injury luck, we mean that they’ve avoided injuries at a very high rate, and haven’t been having to fill in the roster piecemeal to make up for the players who are injures. In the case of the Cardinals, though, we’re talking about something a little different.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the fact that Dexter Fowler getting injured almost certainly made the club immediately better than it was before. At the very start of his tenure, Shildt played Fowler heavily, trying extremely hard to get Dex moving in the right direction. I have no idea if Shildt believed Fowler was his best option or not though I have my suspicions. I think it’s fairly clear that the front office placed a high priority on trying to recover some value for the veteran outfielder in order to try and move him. The Cardinal front office is not stupid; they know as well as any of us that something has to give when it comes to Fowler being on the 2019 club. It was desperately important Shildt play Fowler as much as possible to try and see if an airing-out of the clubhouse could lead to even a temporary boost for Dexter and rebuild some kind of trade value that amounts to more than just releasing him for basically nothing.

The fact Fowler broke his foot when he did opened up Shildt and the club to play their best players in the outfield on a given night, and that really can’t be overstated as a driver of this recent run of success. Harrison Bader looks like one of the best defensive outfielders in the game today, full stop, while Tyler O’Neill has been worth over a win in less than 100 plate appearances. It maybe hasn’t looked all that pretty yet with O’Neill, as he still looks like a lot of players do in their first run at the big leagues, trying to impress in every at-bat to the point he’s pressing and extending his strike zone, but he’s still running a 130 OPS+, homering at something like a 40 HR/season pace, and has made multiple four- and five-star catches in the outfield.

None of that happens if there isn’t an injury in the outfield. And while Marcell Ozuna was nowhere near the kind of millstone for the club this year that Fowler was, I would argue you’ve lost absolutely nothing in going from Ozuna to Jose Martinez. The defense is worse, but the offense is better, and the whole probably works out roughly the same.

So yes, the Mike Shildt era got off to a better start than it probably would have otherwise, because one of the biggest drags on the team’s production this year got hurt. I don’t like saying it that way; I try to never celebrate a player getting hurt, and it pisses me off when I see that sort of garbage floating around this site and elsewhere. One does not celebrate the misery of another, the inability to perform one’s job, as well as physical pain, just because you’re frustrated watching them go 0-for-4. But I really can’t come up with any other way of looking at it. Between Fowler’s sudden departure from the lineup, the ghost of Tommy Pham heading to Tampa, and Greg Holland just going away, the story of the Mike Shildt era was, at the beginning, as much addition by subtraction as it was anything else.

I’m sure there will be dark days ahead, at some point. Every team goes through ups and downs, even when that team is the Cardinals, born in the purple, er, red, and given to occasional delusions of grandeur. (Of course, most of the time those aren’t delusions, just grandeur, but a certain sort of stubbornness is impossible to deny in this organisation all the same.) There will be days when Mike Shildt pulls the wrong lever in the bullpen, or a hit and run fails, or some other such thing, and the Cardinals will lose because of it.

For now, though, the Cards have their man for the foreseeable future, and it’s hard to see where much turnover needs to take place on the coaching staff in the near term. Mike Maddux seems to have been elevated by the move away from Matheny, Jose Oquendo was a big part of Shildt being made so soon, I believe, the hitting coaches have seemingly orchestrated a dramatic turnaround to the offense, and I really have no clue what some of those other coaches even do. I could see George Greer perhaps preferring to go back to instructional work, rather than the constant grind of being on the road at his age (he’s 71), but I don’t pretend to have any kind of inside knowledge there. If Greer does, in fact, go back to his previous post, Carlos Beltran would seem to be an ideal candidate to me for the second hitting coach spot. Mark Budaska, I would argue, is essentially non-negotiable at this point, if only because we’ve been a Buddha short since Seung-Hwan Oh left town.

The real question, long term, is how we will view the Mike Matheny era in the coming years. The Cardinals did, after all, have a ton of success under Matheny, despite his seeming best efforts to sabotage the club in various ways. He inherited a championship-level club, reaped the benefits of a top farm system in the game, and gradually went all Howard Hughes-y by the end, isolating himself from all the safeguards put in place to try and help him succeed. Still, it’s hard to argue that the organisation made the wrong call at the time he was hired; for the direction in which baseball appeared headed at the time, Matheny seemed to be a perfectly fine choice.

So now we have another perfectly fine choice for manager in place, even if it’s a little surprising how soon the front office decided this perfectly fine choice is perfectly. Then again, it’s important to always remember that Shildt didn’t just show up this summer, or when he was promoted to the big league staff; the Cardinal organisation has been grooming him for a position like this for a dozen years at this point. If anyone should know if Mike Shildt is perfectly fine, it would seem to be the St. Louis Cardinals.

And yes, that is an appeal to authority, and no, I don’t care. I look from the outside, and I see a guy who has turned around this club completely, in ways that are impossible to really quantify. I have basically no choice but to believe that this is the unknowable something or other the Cards have been trying to cultivate with Shildt over all these years.

Let’s just hope they’re more right this time than they were the last.