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Saturday SOC: Philosophical Differences, Consistency, and Cohesion

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A stream-of-consciousness look at Mike Shildt’s dismissal, the front office’s operating philosophy, and how the organization is changing. (But into what?)

New York Mets v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Mike Shildt is out as the Cardinals manager.

By now I’m not breaking that news to you. The news has been everywhere: Facebook, Twitter, the Post-Dispatch, the “internet”, MLB Network, talk radio. That guy on the bus this morning wouldn’t shut up about it. Your best friend from third grade messaged you about it. Even your mom called you to talk about it.

With all this talk, you would think there would be more answers. There aren’t. While wild speculations abound, it’s pretty clear that no one really knows why this happened.

I watched the Zoom press conference. You should, too. (And you can do so right here.) My first reaction is that it is obvious that the Cardinals did not want to give the press, and by extension bloggers like me and readers like you, any real, tangible something to pin this on.

Except… “philosophical differences”.

Philosophical differences. That’s why the Cardinals fired their manager, who had some relatively noteworthy accomplishments over the last three years, all things considered. VEB’s John LaRue details a lot of that here, with his usual level of thoroughness.

What does that mean, “philosophical differences”?

As a student of philosophy myself, I assume that Mozeliak was referring to the ancient debate that has raged between the classical Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle and their understanding of heroism, virtue, and the ideal self.

The elder philosopher, Plato, was a bit of a narcissist. He argued that the political leaders of the age needed to be virtuous, wise, and highly educated – i.e. himself! Only the “philosopher-king”, in his wisdom and justice, was capable of leading the city-state to become a good society, determining on behalf of the mass populace what is right and excellent. Such guardian-leaders should, of course, reproduce – literally! – insuring a continuing line of righteous leaders for the republic.

Aristotle – Plato’s student – was, at times, a pessimistic sort for a guy who devoted his life to the pursuit of philosophical happiness. He defined the concept of the tragic hero: an individual whose greatness was thwarted neither by vice nor virtue but errors in judgment. By devoting oneself to education and life experience, the individual could achieve the telos (end) of happiness by making better decisions.

How’s that for some stream of consciousness?

Anyway, if I lost you somewhere (and I’m sure I did), in the grand acropolis that is the Cardinals organization, Mozeliak is Plato’s philosopher-king, who certainly believes he knows the right and good path for the local baseball team.

Shildt, unfortunately, is Aristotle’s hero, who – while being a virtuous and good person – made some kind of terrible error in judgment to bring tragedy upon himself.

Philosophical differences.

You’re only getting content like this at Viva El Birdos, folks. For better or worse.

That’s the crux of what happened, though, isn’t it? We don’t know the circumstances, the why’s and how’s, but it seems that Mozeliak believed he and Shildt were on the same page concerning some kind of future-oriented organizational “philosophy”. That’s why Shildt was hired, after all. He was raised and trained in the “Cardinal Way”, a student of both George Kissel and Tony LaRussa. But one who, unlike Mike Matheny, was (theoretically) capable of uniting traditional managerisms – I can invent my own words in a stream of consciousness piece – with the more modern analytics the front office wanted to pursue.

Maybe that was the case in 2019 and 2020. However, events throughout the 2021 season revealed fractures in that relationship. By the end-of-season evaluating and planning meetings, those fractures were stressed in such an extreme way that it pushed Bill DeWitt and Mozeliak to take “shocking” and decisive action to end a relationship that was decades in length.

As Shildt painfully re-discovered this past week, the St. Louis Cardinals are John Mozeliak’s team. Maybe Mike Shildt overestimated the authority and influence he had over organizational direction. Maybe Shildt underestimated the significance of the differences he had with the front office brass.

Either way, Mozeliak is still in charge (as sage pontiff or deplorable tyrant, depending on your viewpoint) and Shildt will probably soon be the manager of the Orioles.

What’s shocking about this, for me, is that it seems so out of character for the Cardinals. This is a team that prides itself on continuity.

Back in the Matheny era, that was the argument. They hired from within. They promoted from within. They applied their core concepts and values throughout their organization – from draft and development up through the major leagues.

Continuity of staff allowed for the cohesion of the message.

The Cardinals were designed to be one continuous, cohesive operation, adopting and embodying the same core principles of hitting, pitching, defense and baserunning, whether it was Jose Oquendo with the rookies in extended spring training or Jeff Albert working with veteran players in the state-of-the-art hitting lab.

When something disrupted that continuity, like a manager who wouldn’t implement the views of the analytics department or infighting between players and coaches, the debate began: which did Mozeliak and DeWitt value more? Continuity? Or cohesion?

Mike Matheny hung on to his job longer than many thought he should because, for a time, the organization’s answer to that question was “continuity”. I’ve long said that Matheny’s problem as a manager was that he was hired with the expectation that he would be a learner. What he didn’t know about being a major league manager, he could learn through dedication and hard work. What he needed to know to be the manager of the Cardinals, the Cardinals themselves could provide, because of the cohesiveness of their organizational philosophy.

That was fine for a while because the team was winning. When that stopped and Matheny’s faults were increasingly exposed by the weaker talent on the roster, it was still preferable to continue with him at the helm. Surely the cohesiveness of the organizational model would win him over, eventually.

It didn’t.

The manager, you see, sits at the point where the different branches of the organization come together. It is at the manager where analytics and scouting, the front office (personnel management), the coaches and instructors, and the players on the field all intersect. Or don’t intersect, if the manager doesn’t use the players, analytics, or coaches in the intended and designed fashion.

The Major League manager is the place where organizational values and concepts manifest most importantly: the actual play on the field.

When a cohesion of voices could not move the manager to act the way the organization desired, continuity became a false value. So, Matheny was fired.

And they tried again; this time with a manager – Mike Shildt – who was well steeped in the Cardinals’ Way and could still provide the continuity the organization coveted.

Continuity. Cohesion.

I’m not sure I would consider those philosophical values in their traditional understanding but within the context of the Cardinals organization? They’re virtually sacred.

So, when Shildt somehow threatened organizational cohesion – I still don’t know how – the continuity didn’t matter. The Cardinals had already learned that lesson.

While Matheny got some time in the name of consistency, Shildt didn’t. The front office acted swiftly, shockingly.

And cited “philosophical differences”.

What now? Well, if I’m barking anywhere near the right tree in the forest here, we can start to guess where the Cardinals are going to go next. Shildt provided continuity but not cohesion with the overall organization philosophy – whatever that happens to be now.

If you pushed me, I would probably say that what changed was not Mike Shildt. I think he’s pretty much the same guy he’s been, the same guy the organization trained him to be.

I think that it’s the Cardinals’ organization that has changed. Mozeliak alluded to this in his Zoom press conference.

Over the last few seasons, the Cardinals organization has become less and less the disciples of George Kissel and more and more the admirers of the best parts of other orgs. Like the Rays. Certainly the Dodgers, though they’re in a different tax bracket. Houston, minus the trash cans. Maybe even teams like the Indians or Twins.

Their recent hiring trends that way. Jeff Albert is indicative of this approach. So is Randy Flores and his new, more aggressive draft philosophy. Mike Maddux is more tech-savvy than you might think. Two of those three are relative outsiders who were brought in to install new concepts that the organization admired but had not successfully implemented through internal means. The other one is an organizational insider who has successfully implemented a dramatic change in his department, presumably with the full support of the front office and ownership.

And the manager?

He (or she… doesn’t have to be a dude) sits in that critical intersection. Mozeliak might be the organization’s philosopher-king, but it’s the next Shildt who actually brings the organization’s values to life. The front office will hire someone that they believe will be able to successfully enact their organizational philosophy with the players on the field.

Does continuity matter anymore?

Only so much as the play on the field continues to represent the level of cohesion the organization desires.

That’s a long way of saying that I don’t expect the Cards to roll with internal candidates just because they’re familiar with the way the organization operates – like Stubby Clapp. Nor do I expect them to jump to external candidates who are steeped in the “Cardinals Way” – like Skip Schumaker.

No, they’re going to find someone who can consistently represent and implement this new philosophy of Cardinals baseball, whatever that happens to be. It would be nice if that person came from within because continuity is still something they value highly. But cohesion matters more.

Who is that person? I don’t have any idea. I just don’t know enough about 1) what philosophical direction the front office wants to go in and 2) how well the likely candidates fit that philosophical direction that I don’t know enough about.

I know Skip Schumaker as a scrappy outfielder turned second baseman who likes to fiddle with his batting gloves. I don’t know how he feels about things like “openers”, piggy-back starters, OAA, wxBACON, or non-traditional bullpen alignments.

Gut feeling? Oliver Marmol might be that guy within the org. Outside? Don’t rule out former Padres manager Jayce Tingler. (Who you can see here talking about analytics.)

I hope more information comes out in the next few days. I’m very curious about what aspects of Mike Shildt’s managerial approach and philosophy of baseball operations ran so counter to Mozeliak’s vision of the club’s future. I’m not sure we’ll ever get a clear picture of why Shildt was fired but I do expect to get a clearer picture of the front office’s desired philosophy.

If it’s more Dodgers and Rays and Houston, I welcome it.

Then again, for the Cardinals to be more like those teams they’ll need more than a new manager. It will require not only massive changes in roster usage but massive changes in roster construction. I’m not sure that’s in the Cards.

And we’re right back to where we started. Continuity. Cohesion. Organizational philosophy. It’s up to John Mozeliak to not only find the right manager to continue to build a cohesive organizational philosophy but to provide that manager with the right assets to execute that philosophy.

Otherwise, it will be Bill DeWitt who needs to evaluate the benefit of continuity in the front office.