I have baseball to talk about. However, it is cold here, and utterly silent outside my home. Thus, you will have to listen to a short story first. This is the way things work sometimes.
It was early 2003, maybe February. Maybe late January. Valentine’s Day had not yet come, because that year was the first time I ever tried to make chocolate-covered strawberries, and they were a goopy failure. I was a fairly accomplished cook at 22, but not well versed in candy making and the way chocolate has to be handled, so the chocolate on my strawberries did not harden up properly. Rather, I ended up with something closer to cold chocolate syrup covered strawberries to offer to my mother and my girlfriend. Given that I was making strawberries because I was too broke to buy anything for Valentine’s, the failure of my attempt represented one of those comically sad trips close to the edge of one’s self worth, and I may or may not have cried, very quietly, in the kitchen of our shitty one-bedroom apartment at Brazilia over my gloopy, weeping strawberries. It’s funny how close a person can come to falling apart for the smallest reason. I had to cry quietly, of course, because anything else would have woken up the girlfriend, and the only thing worse than offering failed confections is being caught sobbing over failed confections.
This is not, however, a story about strawberries. Rather, I remember that time, and it was after the moment I’m talking about, if only by a few weeks.
So late January, I’m almost sure now. I was driving to Columbia to visit my friends Luke and Travis, both of whom were attending the University of Missouri at the time. They were rooming together, which made it convenient to visit; every couple of months I would make the trek to the middle of the state and stay a night. We would get pizza from Shakespeare’s, something cheap and alcoholic, and play video games all night. It was the sort of extended adolescence college is so good at creating, and I could indulge in it for a day or two before going back to my life of a soul-crushing job and a disintegrating relationship and a rathole apartment and a cat that wouldn’t stop peeing on the carpet right next to where the litter box was.
This particular trip, my girlfriend jumped me in the shower and declared we were going to have sex so that I wouldn’t cheat on her while I was in a college town surrounded by hundreds of sexy college girls. My initial thought was that she didn’t understand my libido at all if she thought that having sex once in the morning was going to keep me from being interested for a full 36-48 hours or however long, but I was wise enough to keep my mouth shut on the topic. Our sex life had become dysfunctional, barely extant, and I had no real idea how to handle it. At that age the physical and emotional dynamics of a relationship aren’t always firmly linked in one’s mind, and the understanding we weren’t sleeping together because we didn’t want to be together anymore was about two steps beyond either of our emotional intelligences. So I kept quiet and took full advantage of her ploy, and that sentence seems sadder to me now than it probably should.
I don’t know if you’ve ever made the trip from St. Louis to Columbia, but if you haven’t I would describe it primarily as empty. It’s only about two and a half hours, but it feels longer. It’s all highway, primarily interstate 70, and while it is admittedly less empty now, fifteen years ago there was an enormous amount of nothing to look at making the trip.
At the time I owned a Pontiac Sunfire, the first brand new car I had ever bought. The payments came to just over $191.00 a month, and that was about the highest amount I could bear. It got good gas mileage, it was a very pretty dark green, and it had a CD player. In other words, it was a fantastic car.
I had a new record to listen to. It was The Disintegration Loops, an ambient/experimental album by William Basinski. I was heavily into ambient music at the time, and had been a big fan since discovering Aphex Twin for the first time back in 1995. I got a copy of Nine Inch Nails’ Further Down the Spiral for my fifteenth birthday, and there were two tracks listed as, “created by the Aphex Twin”. One in particular, called At the Heart of It All, captured my attention completely for weeks. So I went searching, found this mysterious artist, and fell down a rabbit hole, hard. I fell in love with The Orb, was on the Skint Records mailing list, made a mix tape full of crazy obscure jungle and breakbeat stuff for my close friend and always-sort-of-crush Amanda when she told me how much she liked some of the stuff on the soundtrack to the Val Kilmer film The Saint. It was very much a teenage music nerd boy flex, trying to impress a girl I had grown up with by throwing a Wagon Christ track on a cassette.
Anyway, if you’ve never heard the Disintegration Loops, I’m not surprised. It’s a fascinating piece of music, though, and a sort of amazing story in terms of the circumstances of its creation. Look it up if you’re interested. There were actually four records in the series, but the one I’m talking about is the first one. It consists of a short, few second long muzak sample, played over and over for an hour as the tape itself literally falls apart. It was, in the dead of winter 2003, one of my favourite things in the world.
I put it on somewhere West of Foristell, probably around Warrenton, because in my mind that’s where the drive to Columbia really starts. Up until that point you’ve mostly still been in St. Louis, with every exit featuring multiple businesses, restaurants and gas stations and the like. Once you pass the old outlet mall in Warrenton, though — which at that time was just the outlet mall in Warrenton — you begin to really move into the big empty, and things are just different. So I decided I would listen to this meditative, extraordinarily tragic piece of music as I flew across the plains from one life to another. On one trip to Columbia I listened to nothing but Pulp records and showed up there ready to put on a velvet suit jacket and go try to pick up journalism majors utilising what I believed to be a profoundly sexy ennui. This time I decided to listen to a piece of music disintegrate and think about everything in life falling apart.
I was still somewhere short of Kingdom City when I had what I can only describe as a complete breakdown. It was not as bad as the week-long episode I had around Christmas of 1989, when I was just nine years old and suddenly, for the first time in my life, a big round number was coming up on the calendar. Nonetheless, it was not pleasant. I pulled off the highway somewhere in the middle of nowhere, found a church parking lot, and ran wind sprints back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. I have no idea how long I was there, and it’s sort of amazing the police were not called. Then again, that part of the world is, at times, profoundly empty; it’s entirely possible that no one even noticed there was a car parked at the Baptist church with some kid running nearby.
Eventually I got tired, and decided I was too sweaty to get back in the car as I was. I changed into one of the shirts I had packed, and laid the wet one over the passenger seat. I drove on with the passenger window cranked down about halfway — yes, cranked; this was still the days of manual windows, kids, at least in my market segment — and managed to dry out the shirt by the time I reached Columbia. I called my girlfriend on my old Nokia cell phone as I pulled into Luke and Travis’s apartment complex and told her I loved her, and yes, we were probably going out and no, I wouldn’t cheat on her. I did not mention running in a church parking lot. It was the sort of thing no one would really understand, I don’t think.
There is no point to this story, not really. The other day I was watching a YouTube video that mentioned The Disintegration Loops. Here it is, if you’re curious. I bought the whole four album set of the loops on vinyl a few years ago when they reissued the thing, but honestly barely listened to it. I probably bought it mostly out of a sense of duty as a mostly-former music nerd. But since the video brought up the piece, I’ve actually gone back and listened multiple times, and it brought back that trip in 2003 when my life was falling apart and I was running from a failing relationship and I had to literally run from my own brain, even if I then had to turn around and run right back, because it was not that large a parking lot. I had not thought about it in years, had largely put it away and semi-forgotten about it. Have you ever stopped to think about how many things you don’t think about?
Now for some baseball, with my apologies. As I said, though, it is cold and silent here, and so you get what my mind dredges up.
Mike Shildt won the National League Manager of the Year award. I would imagine most of you have hear this already, unless you have been living under some sort of rock. Which doesn’t really sound all that bad most days lately, and if you were, in fact, living under a rock and only just now came out for some news, well, I’m sorry. Things are much worse now, I can almost guarantee.
But anyway, ol’ Shildty has been awarded the top honour for managers in major league baseball, and I’m happy about it. Maybe that sounds trite to say; of course a Cardinal fan would be happy that the Cardinals’ manager just won an award. But I’m happy for both Mike Shildt, whose lifer status both in baseball and the Cardinals franchise is impossible to deny at this point, and for the organisation, who finally received some real positive reinforcement for what was, I have no doubt, a difficult decision to make last year. The Redbirds held on to Mike Matheny for so long, denying over and over that things weren’t working out, that it began to feel both like a bad relationship in which one party simply couldn’t see how bad their partner was for them, and also like one of those specific bad relationships that just never really ends.
Bill DeWitt and his franchise value continuity as much as any organisation in the game, sometimes to a damaging degree, and walking away from a bad decision has proven over the last few years to be a very tough thing for the Cards to do. It’s nice to see the organisation go outside their comfort zone and actually get rewarded for it, rather than punished with a season that falls short of expectations in some way.
You try to go big in trading for a Marlins outfielder, and it turns out you get the one who neither turns into the best player in the National League nor puts up a four and a half win season in New York. (To be fair, the Giancarlo Stanton situation in the Bronx is significantly less rosy at this moment, but you still saw basically what you were hoping for from him in his first season there.) You go even bigger the next year and trade for a run-producing metronome from Arizona, only to watch him put up the worst offensive season of his career, earlier than you might have expected him to start falling off. Deciding between two high-end lefty relievers? You take the one without the recent history of major injuries, and the other one puts up a sub-2.00 ERA. As frustrating as the Cardinals can be sometimes with not stepping outside the confines of their typical operating zone, whenever they have done so recently it’s mostly blown up in their faces. Hard to argue they need to go bigger when the big bets keep coming up snake eyes.
So in making the move from Mike Matheny to Mike Shildt, the Cardinals were pushing well outside their comfort zone. The move really should have been made much sooner, but like a lot of bad relationships it’s remarkable just what a person will adjust to in order to avoid plowing up a field they’ve spent however many years cultivating. And in Shildt’s first full season as manager, not only did the Cardinals make it back to the postseason, I think one could argue they made it back there in large part specifically because of the things Mike Shildt brought to the table.
To be fair, Shildt needs work on his in-game management. Some of the moves people don’t like I’m willing to overlook, because managers always have more information than the public, in terms of how a player is feeling at the moment, who has had a good BP and who hasn’t lately, that sort of thing. But particularly when it came to the postseason this year, I think we saw some of Shildt’s bad habits exposed. Riding Adam Wainwright into the eighth inning stands out as a particularly bad decision. Pushing starters too far in general, in fact, was something Shildt did at times during the season and was very guilty of in the playoffs. Bullpen decisions are a little murkier, I think, and while Shildt was far less wedded to reliever roles than his predecessor, it was still clear that the man in the dugout wants, perhaps needs, the security blanket of a designated closer. Then again, that seems to be a mental crutch for nearly all managers, and so I will not excoriate one in particular for what is such a widespread vice.
In the end, though, I think it’s relatively easy to see the positive impact Shildt made on the 2019 Cardinals, and the areas where he excelled were the really big things for a coaching staff, which paradoxically were the little things for a baseball team.
In 2018, the Cardinals were the most error-prone team in baseball. They were not, it should be said, the worst defensive team in baseball, but they were the most error-prone. And while errors are not the best way to measure the overall defensive quality of a ballclub — we have far, far more accurate measures than that now — they are one of the most obvious areas to clean up when it comes to the coaching and instruction of a team. Obviously, physical errors are always going to happen, but I would argue the Cardinals of the late Matheny era were less impacted by purely physical errors than they were mental errors leading to physical mistakes. The club looked unprepared many days, and while that’s just subjective enough I’m a little uncomfortable using the word unprepared, I don’t think I’m wrong. The Cards committed the third-most fielding errors and second-most throwing errors in baseball in 2018. There were too many errors of every sort, not just one variety or another.
In 2019, the Cardinals were, with largely the same cast of characters, the least error-prone team in baseball. There was one notable exception, obviously, in the person of Paul Goldschmidt, and it’s possible that Goldy’s steady hand at first base prevented more errors than we can easily capture. (The Cards in 2019 were credited with 26 scoops against 22 in 2018, but I have very little idea how good that stat actually is.) However, there were also far fewer outfield throws going to the wrong base in 2019. There were fewer poor decisions made in when to throw and when to hold the ball. The team gained far more runs via the shift this year than in the past. Everything about the Cardinals in 2019 pointed to a smart, dedicated group of players who put effort into the defensive component of the game. (Well, almost everything; Jose Martinez did play, and was bad in the field. There’s only so much that coaching and dedication can do.)
Everything I just said about the Cardinals defensively this past season goes double for the baserunning. The Cards of 2019 were not, it should be said, an especially fast club. Tommy Edman is fast, yes, and Kolten Wong is always a very good baserunner. But the Redbirds were not running out multiple Billys Hamilton in 2019, yet they managed to be one of the very best baserunning clubs in the game. Second best, in fact, behind only the Diamondbacks, and that’s with Harrison Bader, one of the club’s fastest runners, having an uncharacteristically bad season on the bases. (Admittedly, it’s a bit of a concern that the fastest guy on the team was a negative on the bases this season, but hopefully that’s a blip on the radar.)
In 2017, the final full season of Mike Matheny’s tenure, the Cardinals ranked 15th in baseball with +2.0 runs in baserunning value. In 2019, they were second with 14.4 runs of positive value added. In the 2018 season, which saw Matheny and Shildt each take part of the season at the helm, we have a slightly more mixed bag. Through the 14th of July, the date Matheny was fired, the Cards were having a pretty solid season on the bases, with a +4.3 rating, eighth-best in baseball. From the 15th of July through the end of the season, the Cardinals were number one in the game, with 8.6 runs of value added. Admittedly, runs on the bases are not the most efficient way to create runs; there just aren’t enough opportunities and the margins are too small. But from 2017 to 2019, you’re talking about over a win’s worth of run value added entirely from what happened on the bases. And situationally, I think we all understand that those runs can have a greater impact on a team’s real-world record than its hypothetical, run-differential-driven record.
Overall, as much as there are things about Mike Shildt’s management that I think still need work, the fact is he turned two of the real weaknesses of recent Cardinal teams into two of this year’s greatest strengths. The Manager of the Year award is always heavily narrative driven, and there was no one with a stronger narrative behind him than the guy bringing his once-proud franchise back to the promised land of October baseball. Craig Counsell may have dealt with more injuries, and he certainly wouldn’t have been a terrible choice. Brian Snitker had a very good team, and did some very smart things. But in the end, I like that the guy who ultimately won the award is the guy who did all the things you want your manager, and by extension your coaching staff, to do. The Cardinals were not the most talented team in baseball in 2019, but you could easily argue no other club played more of an airtight game than they did. And that, more than anything else, is the sign of a manager doing the very best job he can.