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Should the Cardinals Extend Mike Shildt?

Manager Mike Shildt has one more season on his contract but the club is already talking extension. Should they do it?

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Way back in college when I was taking a communications class I remember my professor – some grad assistant – saying “never apologize at the beginning” of your speech or article.

It’s the only thing I listened to in that class.

But here I am communicating publicly and I’m about to break that rule.

Sorry. I have really terrible internet here while on the river fishing. I have plenty of time to write a piece but I’m having a lot of trouble getting the statistics and information I need. The result will probably be some half-remembered stats that will lead to some pretty subjective conclusions.

So, before you open your browser to send me that email with the “facts” – which will happen anyway because it does every time I write about touchy subjects – remember that I warned you in advance and already asked for some grace.

The Cardinals are considering an extension for Mike Shildt.

They should probably do it.

(See, that’s the part where some of you will stop reading and start composing your treatise against me.)

First, some details. If I understand the situation correctly – from my very faulty memory – Mike Shildt has a contract that keeps him in place through the 2022 season. I’m less confident in this, but I believe that contract was earned after the 2020 season – a season where Shildt and his crew led the Cards through ridiculously tough circumstances to a playoff berth.

I don’t know the contract details for the rest of his core staff – hitting coach Jeff Albert, pitching coach Mike Maddux, and bench coach Oliver Marmol – but they’re pretty much up for review every season.

And during the season. Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch recently reported that the Cardinals’ front office considered changes in the coaching staff during the season but decided to stick with what they had.

That decision was rewarded.

After their early season whole-pitching staff walk-a-thon, followed by a summer snooze from the offense, Maddux and Albert’s crew came to life for the home stretch and set the franchise record for consecutive wins.

Do you know what doesn’t happen to coaches who lead their team to franchise records for consecutive wins?

They don’t get fired.

It goes beyond one magical September run. Shildt took over for Mike Matheny during the 2018 season. Almost immediately a lackadaisical and leaderless Cards team got things figured out and went on a torrid run. They finished that season with a (come on internet, you can do it…) .594 win% over Shildt’s 69 games.

That allowed Shildt to drop the “interim” from his title and take the big chair for himself.

I think fans still feel some residual disappointment about the 2019 season, Shildt’s first full year as a manager. The team hovered around the .500 mark through the All-Star game before putting together a nice second half.

That team won the NL Central. They reached the NLCS.

Stumbling pitifully against the Nationals in that postseason series has probably colored that season as less than it was. The further we get away from it, the more I consider that season a relative high point. And the start of something noteworthy.

2020 was a lost season. Still, despite playing 58 games in what seemed like 3 weeks, the Cards earned a playoff appearance – even without the help of the expanded postseason. I said all offseason that a 30-28 finish to that ridiculous season under the most extreme of circumstances was a huge accomplishment. Shildt should have gotten stronger consideration for Manager of the Year.

Seriously, he and Maddux were impressive in their management of the pitching staff in 2020, using a handful of minor league starters in multi-inning outings to stretch out a pitching staff pushed to its limit.

Then we have the 2021 season. I’m not at all surprised that the front office spent some time mid-season evaluating the coaching staff to see if a change might be necessary. I did not think that Shildt’s job was in jeopardy but certainly Jeff Albert was on the hot seat.

Maddux probably deserved more scrutiny than Albert. Yes, the offense as a whole was struggling but much of that centered around the margins of the roster: Justin Williams and the other reserve outfielders, a mid-30s, thoroughly “decline-phase” Matt Carpenter. Paul DeJong was really struggling through some BABIP-related issues (that weren’t just bad luck.) But the non-injured core of the lineup – Nolan Arenado, Tyler O’Neill, Tommy Edman, Dylan Carlson, and Yadier Molina – were doing about what the team expected. Goldschmidt took a while for his batted ball data to show up in results, but you would have to be out of your mind to claim that Albert should be canned because of how Paul Goldschmidt has hit over his tenure in St. Louis.

Maddux, though? Players who should have been performing pretty well were not. The walks piled up to record-setting numbers and in such a universal way that it was hard to point fingers at the players alone. The situation forced Mozeliak to scour the waiver wire for anyone who could throw a strike and eventually the trade market for veteran arms he could throw into an ever-increasing innings shortfall.

That settled down, too, and Maddux’s pitching staff, revamped that it was, started to resemble its old “FIP-beating” self down the stretch. A world-class defense didn’t hurt.

Yes, it took a miraculous streak – an “outlier”; an extended run of “unsustainable performance” – to put the Cards securely into the Wild Card. But they were playing so well that if the season had gone on another two weeks, the Brewers probably needed to be concerned.

Fluky streaks aside, Mike Shildt’s Cardinals did win those games. If they won more than they should have in September, they probably lost more than they should have in May - July. So, in some ways, the Cards played a bit over their heads but, in the end, it probably somewhat evens out.

Then there are projections to consider. Here my sketchy internet is going to fail me, but I’m pretty sure that ZiPS had the Cardinals pegged for around 85 wins after the Arenado acquisition. Maybe a win or two on either side. I know that ever-pessimistic PECOTA believed the Cards were going to be a sub-.500 team. Even at their lowest moments, when this team could not do anything well, they were outperforming PECOTA’s pace. I had major problems with STEAMER and their handling of projections post-2020, but I think they were in the 79-82 win range as well.

Shildt’s Cardinals have consistently outperformed expectations. By a lot. This season alone, their 90-win finish is at worst 5 games above projections and at best around 12.

That’s a huge point in Shildt’s favor. It’s very difficult to argue that the manager is losing games when that manager’s club is consistently outperforming well-respected projection systems by 5-10 wins a season.

Yeah, I know many of you will argue, “but his bullpen usage!” Or “his lineup decisions!” Maybe even “his use of veterans!” Or “the way he handles young players!” The takes about Shildt are as many as there are VEB commentators and Twitter handles.

Does Shildt have some issues he needs to work through and work on?

Absolutely he does.

But it could be worse.

That’s ultimately where I land. It really could be worse. We, as Cards fans, should know this. Because Shildt is managing here in baseball heaven because, for a time, it truly was worse.

The Cardinals have made the postseason three seasons in a row. Those three playoff appearances have come in years where respected projection systems believed the club wasn’t going to be very good.

How significant are those three consecutive playoff seasons?

I have to do this from memory – internet is officially dead for me – but the Cards made the postseason from 2000-2002. Three straight seasons. 2003 they were outside looking in. Then there was ’04-’06. Another three years followed by a stretch of disappointment.

The Cards then had their impressive run of 5 straight appearances from 2011-2015, where not even Matheny could keep the talent out of the postseason. Then three straight seasons of rebuilding/retooling.

Three straight years of the postseason with very positive odds of that continuing is about as good as it gets, even in St Louis.

Now that run from 2011-2015 is proof that “they made the postseason” is not the best argument for keeping a manager around. More than a few fans and broadcasters made that same point for years with Matheny.

But, again, Shildt’s not Matheny. And while I personally would like to have a manager that didn’t bunt as often or load the bases as often and was a bit quicker on lineup changes, a lot of those things are largely cosmetic. We make a big deal out of a bunch of little things game in and game out, but a manager simply doesn’t shift the standings all that much.

What Shildt has shown an ability to do is adapt creatively to challenging situations – like in 2020.

And learn from his mistakes – like with the mid-July team meeting that Tommy Edman revealed publicly.

And consistently prepare his team to perform at their peak down the stretch – as he’s done every season of his managerial career.

Most of the rest of the problems are fixable or are roster related. It’s amazing how much better Shildt is at managing a rested, competent bullpen and how bad he is at managing a gassed, terrible bullpen.

Some of you will disagree with that assessment. That’s ok. I don’t have internet access so you can go yell at the clouds if you want to, I won’t be around to hear it.

Should the Cardinals extend Mike Shildt? Sure. Tack a year onto his existing deal. Maybe two. I’m fine with it. I’d be fine if they didn’t, too.

The bottom line is that I think the club can win with him at the helm. The players like playing for him. He’s never had a particularly great roster. I kind of what to see what he can do with one.

He might have that next season. I think there’s a chance the 2022 team could be the best the Cardinals have fielded in half a decade. Some things are going to have to get worked out – like the pending labor war – but with a ton of money to spend, some legitimately exciting young talent coming forward, and elite talent on the roster already, the potential for 95-100 wins is there.

I’m not convinced that Shildt is the guy to get that kind of production out of a team. But I’m pretty confident he’s not going to do anything to mess it up. I’ll take that for now.

Plus, I think the team is poised to start adding to their staff. I’ve written before about how I would like to see the Cards coaching staff expanded with multiple types of voices and approaches in both the pitching and hitting. Like, for example, the addition of Ryan Ludwick – not replacing an existing coach but just coming on the staff as another voice. I hope the same thing happens on the pitching side. Shildt seems open to bringing talented voices on to his staff and letting them do their thing without much interference. That’s a good thing! I would rather have that consistency and build on that than changing things and risk it taking a few seasons for the players to get comfortable with new voices.

Ok, that’s it for me. Back to fishing! Disagree? I’m sure you do. Let me (not me, I’m fishing) know in the comments!