Mike Shildt has managed the Cardinals for two-plus seasons, compiling a .561 winning percentage since replacing Mike Matheny a game before the All-Star break in 2018.
The Cardinals are among the most historically prestigious franchises in MLB history. And that makes this one of the most prominent managing jobs in the majors. It is a job that comes with formidable expectations, pressure, and the experience of co-existing with the spirits of the pennant winners and world champions.
Hall of Famers, legends and World Series winners have occupied the manager’s office in St. Louis, a list that includes Branch Rickey, Rogers Hornsby, Frankie Frisch, Gabby Street, Billy Southworth, Eddie Dyer, Johnny Keane, Red Schoendienst, Whitey Herzog, Joe Torre and Tony La Russa. The job has been held by popular former Cardinals players, men such as Marty Marion, Ken Boyer and Mike Matheny.
How is Shildty doing?
Very well, I’d say.
I didn’t say “perfect.” Look, managers exist to be scrutinized and criticized by fans and media. That’s nothing new. The tradition is rather old, actually. The sport of second-guessing managers and getting red-faced about their perceived strategic blunders is also part of the game. And the gig. This has been going on since the advent of baseball, and Shildt is smart enough to understand this custom.
Here’s why I believe Shildt has been the right man for the Cardinals:
1–In mid-July 2018 Shildt inherited a fundamentally flawed team with an increasingly fractious clubhouse environment. At the time of the change, the Cardinals were 47-46 that season under Mike Matheny. They had lost 18 of his final 29 games. Shildt led the Cardinals to a 41-28 record the rest of the way.
2–In 2019 Shildt’s Cardinals went 91-71 and won the team’s first NL Central title since 2015. (Also: their first postseason appearance since ‘15.) The Redbirds went 33-16 in their final 49 regular-season games.
3–The Cardinals upset Atlanta in the 2019 NLDS, only to dry up offensively in Washington’s four-game NLCS sweep. But that triumph over Atlanta was the Cards’ first postseason-series win since 2014.
4–Shildt was voted 2019 National League Manager of the Year. The first Cards manager to win it since La Russa in 2002.
5–As records go, the Cardinals’ 30-28 mark in 2020 was nothing special. But that team’s mental toughness and competitive drive was absolutely special. After a sweeping Covid-19 outbreak and ensuing two-week quarantine that easily could have destroyed their season, Shildt’s determined Cards pushed through an intense schedule that included 11 doubleheaders. The team wasn’t close to being healthy in a baseball sense, and at one point fell to 22-24. But an 8-4 closing stretch got them into the expanded playoff format. I’ll always have considerable respect for the 2020 team, which refused to succumb to illness, injuries, a brutal schedule and a below-average record late in the season. The Cardinals were defeated by a superior San Diego team in the playoffs. But all in all, they made the best of an awful set of circumstances.
6--To summarize: tied for most wins in the NL in 2018 from the time he took over for Matheny … two “full” seasons, two postseasons, a division title, a postseason-series victory, Manager of the Year and managing a ‘20 team hit hard by the pandemic.
7–Shildt got the Cardinals into the playoffs for two consecutive years despite being dragged down by an offense that ranked 23rd in runs, 23rd in OPS and 27th in slugging percentage over 2019-2020 combined. He’s resourceful. If you struggle to score runs, the clearest path to success is preventing runs. And Shildt’s emphasis on defense provided strong support for the pitching staff. The Cardinals ranked fourth in the majors in run prevention during 2019-2020 combined.
8–To expand a bit: Shildt and his coaches have done an outstanding job of cleaning up the defense, sharpening the baserunning, and effectively utilizing advanced metrics without going haywire with the data. In 2019 the Cardinals led the majors with 73 Defensive Runs Saved. In 2020, they were 4th in the majors with 36 DRS.
9–As for the baserunning, the Cardinals had a “net gain” of 82 bases over the past two seasons — one of the best rates in the majors. Over Matheny’s final five (full) seasons as manager, the Cardinals didn’t have a net gain on the basepaths. They had a net minus — as in a minus 118 on the bases in the five seasons.
10–Shildt has adept communication skills with his players. And a good relationship with his players. And that’s important. This was an issue before Shildt took over.
11–Shildt has a .561 regular-season winning percentage as Cards manager. It’s a small sample of 289 games. But for what it’s worth, that .561 compares favorably (so far) to the most notable STL managers over the last several decades: Matheny (.555), La Russa (.544), Torre (.498), Herzog (.530) and Schoendienst (.522.) I’m not saying Shildt rates ahead of them in any type of historical ranking; just pointing out that he’s off to a good start.
12–Yes, the Cardinals offense has wheezed under Shildt. But is it the manager or the personnel? The Cardinals have been transitioning. They’ve been holding a multi-season tryout camp in the outfield. (And the tryouts continue in 2020.) The team has been bogged down by some bad contracts. Shildt doesn’t set the roster. He doesn’t make trades or sign free agents. And already in 2020 we’re seeing the Cards patching their pitching staff.
13–As last season showed, Shildt is an effective crisis manager. He doesn’t get rattled. Keeps calm. Thinks his way through the problems. And is secure in his own skin, which makes him comfortable in reaching out to smart people for advice and consultation.
Yes, I do have a few concerns about Shildt:
- Will he play his best lineup or stick with slumping veterans based on contract commitments? I thought this was a problem for Shildt early on — but he’s gotten better about redistributing at[-bats based on merit.
- The Matt Carpenter situation will present a challenge — and that is true whether Carpenter has a hot bat or a cold one. Getting a hot-bat Carpenter a lot of swings is easier than finding ABs for a cold-hitting MC. But this isn’t a straight-up lineup call involving only one guy (Carpenter.) There will be lots of moving parts. All season.
- I liked the Jeff Albert hiring and praised it at the time. But the results have been discouraging for the hitting coach, and this was Shildt’s hire.
- The Happy Talk can be a little annoying…but his positivity works well with the players. They love the guy and want to play for him. And that’s all that matters.
- Shildt has a terrific relationship with John Mozeliak and the front office. But does Shildt challenge his bosses? Pushing the bosses is healthy.
- The 2021 season figures to be chaotic for most pitching staffs including the Cardinals. I think Shildt has done a solid job of handling pitchers; over the last two seasons combined the Cardinals rank 5th in the majors with a 3.85 ERA. But sorting out the right innings-load levels for pitchers will likely be a tricky puzzle all season. And all managers, including Shildt, will be put to the test.
Thanks for reading.
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