When the Cardinals sent a group email notice to the media on Thursday afternoon with an invitation to join a 1:45 p.m. Zoom conference, I anticipated the announcement of a contract extension for manager Mike Shildt.
And why not? Three full seasons as manager, three consecutive postseasons, the 2019 National League Manager of the Year award. A .559 regular-season winning percentage that put him above Tony La Russa, Whitey Herzog, Red Schoendienst and Mike Matheny.
In fact, Shildt’s winning percentage was the best by a Cardinals manager since Johnny Keane’s .560 rate from 1961 through 1964. By all accounts Shildt was respected and liked by his players. And he’d done a first-rate job of restoring the team’s previously high standards for defense, baserunning, situational awareness, and all-around fundamentals.
Late in the season, Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. praised the work of Shildt and his coaches during an interview on my KFNS radio show.
Recent media reports pointed to the likelihood of an imminent contract boost for Shildt.
Thursday’s video conference flipped the script.
And flipped many minds.
Shildt was fired. Removed from office because of “philosophical differences” with John Mozeliak and the baseball operations department — and, by strong extension, Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr.
The baseball bosses were insistent: their decision had nothing to do with winning percentage, Shildt’s successful trend line, or his managerial acumen. And keep in mind that Mozeliak hired Shildt as a scout, and promoted him on his coaching/managing rise through the St. Louis system. Shildt had no bigger advocate than John Mozeliak. Shildt was Mo’s guy.
The Cardinals fired Shildt, anyway. There were widening cracks in the team’s forward-leaning outlook that could not be bridged.
“In today’s baseball world, business has gotten more and more complicated,” DeWitt explained on the Zoom call. “You can see the growth in baseball operations staffs, so there’s more to it than an element or two on the field. One thing you want to make sure is everybody’s on the same page. That’s pretty critical or you’re going to kind of stumble along the way. That was kind of the discussion that we had.”
DeWitt also said this: “This is based on differences between Mo and his group and the manager. It didn’t have anything to do with this year. I value continuity, but I value continuity if we are continuing to head in the right direction.”
Repeatedly pestered to elaborate and explain the specifics of this great philosophical divide, Mozeliak refused to budge. He wouldn’t divulge the details that led to the unexpected breaking point.
“This is not a reflection simply on wins and losses,” Mozeliak said. “It’s not simply a question of, were you happy with how the game was managed. It really was more at a higher level of where we saw the team going where we wanted it to go.”
The pinpoint reasons behind the change will become clearer at some point. But in the early aftermath media speculation is centered on Shildt and hitting coach Jeff Albert. Did Shildt want him out? Did management take a stand and reject Shildt’s demand? I don’t know the full extent of the tension, if any. But it’s there.
Mozeliak and DeWitt have remained firm in their support of Albert — and Shildt knows that. That could have bothered him. In a strange way Shildt may have viewed Albert as a threat. Every manager I’ve known is insecure, some terribly so.
As recently as Oct. 3, The Athletic’s Katie Woo wrote a detailed and informative piece about how the Cardinals’ offense was sparked by a recommitment to Albert’s hitting philosophy. The late-season explosiveness of Paul Goldschmidt, Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson and Harrison Bader were among the examples cited by Woo.
I know this much: Goldschmidt likes and respects Albert. So does Nolan Arenado, and the younger hitters. Mozeliak and DeWitt and others in the front office are thrilled (as they should be) by the booming offense in the minors — the kids that embrace the modernized, technology-aided Albert approach and are heading toward the big leagues ahead of schedule.
Was Shildt entrenched and intractable in his position? Until the former manager, or Mozeliak or DeWitt are willing to speak candidly, we’re left to offer theories.
Was there more to it than that? Yes, I think so. A lot more. Surprisingly so.
When asked about the rumored Shildt-Albert schism, Mozeliak said it wasn’t the “sole reason” for the breakup.
Though Mozeliak and DeWitt denied the existence of contract-extension talks with Shildt, it’s a matter of semantics. The subject can be broached in a non-official way. But these negotiations never got going. Put it this way: I don’t think Mozeliak and DeWitt would be happy if an overture was made — only to have Shildt hesitate. Did Shildt overplay his hand?
That seems to be the case — on multiple fronts.
One, there was haggling over personnel. Two, did all of the coaches back Shildt? I’m not sure. I don’t think I buy this notion of a united staff. Did Shildt treat his coaches with respect at all times? He would say yes. But it’s interesting how Mozeliak said, on the Zoom, that he wants all of the coaches to return next season. We’ll see how many choose to stay on if given the opportunity.
This bodes well for Oliver Marmol, the early frontrunner for the job.
I won’t be surprised (at all) if the front office goes with a revised and more aggressive pitching model, similar to what we’ve seen in Tampa Bay and other like-minded organizations that are quite successful. I expect the Cardinals to go much deeper in their commitment to analytics — a DeWitt passion, and for many years. And the next manager will have to be fully on board.
A nicer way of saying “A falling out.”
I think it’s very important to recognize some other things here:
1) For the umpteenth time: Mozeliak doesn’t work in isolation, independent of DeWitt. They work together. They are a team, a partnership. DeWitt is involved in every decision — and in the process that leads to those decisions. DeWitt is 100 percent committed to Mozeliak. They share the same baseball beliefs, from the drafting and development to the roster construction. I’m not saying you all should approve; it’s fine to criticize. I do it myself. But it is important to understand the power structure, and the DeWitt-Mozeliak axis.
And if you want to holler about Mozeliak, you can do that. But you’re also failing to understand how this organization works. It’s Bill & Mo. It isn’t Mozeliak calling DeWitt out of the blue, saying, “hey, I’m firing the manager today.” DeWitt is a hands-on owner that was born into a baseball family. If you want to know if he has any idea of what he’s doing in the middle of the baseball operation, I’d suggest that you look at his 26 years as chairman.
2) Shildt is a good man, and a good manager. And if he took a stand on principle in opposition to management’s planning, or if he didn’t want to sell himself short in contract talks, then we should admire him for that. Having said that, Shildt doesn’t own or run the club. His opinion matters, but only to a point. DeWitt and Mozeliak do not require Shildt’s permission to move ahead with baseball planning. Bosses make the big decisions and have the final say. The employee can go along and make the best of it, or start looking for another gig. Sorry, but it’s the cold truth.
3) Question for media that keep talking about Shildt’s record … a good record for sure … but what about DeWitt’s record as owner? Does that count? What about Mozeliak’s record since 2008? Should we mention that? Or was Shildt the franchise keeper? Under DeWitt the Cardinals have a history of winning that few MLB teams can come close to matching. It’s a terrific record compiled through a quarter-century of major-league baseball.
My goodness, after La Russa departed this team won with Mike Matheny, and it won with Mike Shildt. And the two skippers had a better regular-season winning percentage than La Russa as STL manager. Do you think that says anything about the quality of the ownership-management?
4) Mozeliak and DeWitt did themselves no favors with such a clumsy, awkward, truth-avoiding Zoom session. If you fire a winning manager — one that you have consistently supported publicly — then your fan base deserves a more candid and substantive explanation for the ouster. If this was strictly about baseball, then why duck the questions? You’ve made a baseball decision. Get into it. Open up.
5) Ease up on all this talk about the Cardinals’ tradition of continuity. Since La Russa retired after the 2011 season, the Cardinals have the third-best winning percentage in baseball (.556), topped by only the Dodgers (.596) and Yankees (.556.) And over the last 10 seasons, only the Dodgers have qualified for the postseason more times (nine) than the Cardinals (seven) and Yankees (seven.)
Despite the obvious prosperity over the last 10 years, DeWitt and Mozeliak have fired two managers. Matheny was sacked right before the All-Star break in 2018 and replaced by Shildt, and now Shildt is gone. The next manager will be their third in 11 seasons — not exactly Walter Alston managing the Dodgers for 23 straight seasons. Or TLR managing the Cardinals for 16 years.
6) DeWitt and Mozeliak obviously believe that the organizational baseball infrastructure is strong, sustainable and not dependent on a particular manager. They may be right. They may be delusional. They may be wrong.
If you judge the operating principle by the results, DeWitt-Mozeliak appear to be correct. The Cardinals have competed in 15 of the last 22 postseasons, and have the best regular-season winning percentage in the NL over that time. Since Mozeliak became GM in 2008, the Cardinals rank third in MLB winning percentage and have made the postseason nine times in 14 years. The Cards have employed three managers over that time.
7) If you’re still confused by Shildt’s termination based on philosophical differences — well, with all due respect, you shouldn’t be. A similar firing went down immediately after the 2007 season. A year after the Cardinals had won the 2006 World Series, DeWitt drove himself to the home of Walt Jocketty and fired the GM. And this isn’t a shot at Shildt, but by comparison, Jocketty was a helluva lot more successful and important to this franchise.
Jocketty hired La Russa as manager. He signed, acquired or drafted the likes of Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Mark McGwire, Darryl Kile, Chris Carpenter, Jason Isringhausen and many other notables. Jocketty constructed teams that appeared on the postseason stage six times in eight seasons between 2000 and 2007 — twice winning 100+ games, capturing two NL pennants and pulling in another World Series trophy.
Jocketty bristled after DeWitt recruited an executive from the financial world, Jeff Luhnow, in the early aughts to oversee a new system for scouting, drafting and player development. This was DeWitt’s personal initiative; he strongly believed the Cardinals needed to become more self-sufficient and payroll efficient by developing their own players, and supplementing the younger core with select free agents or trade pieces. And he was absolutely right. DeWitt’s vision was the genesis for that successful, sustainable model.
Jocketty resented his reduced authority after the Luhnow hiring. Jocketty still had plenty of power; he just didn’t have all of it. The friction became intolerable to DeWitt, and he fired Jocketty without hesitation.
Wait a minute …
DeWitt purged a successful GM because the GM wouldn’t go along with the forward-thinking plan? That’s basically happened again — only this time it’s the manager, Shildt, who got booted. And this time around Mozeliak had a seat of power, which wasn’t the case at the time of Jocketty’s exit.
Those of us who vividly recall the circumstances of Jocketty’s ouster aren’t nearly as jolted by Shildt’s firing. If you want to understand this move, you can’t be oblivious to the Jocketty history lesson. Don’t mess with Bill.
8) OK, but what about Mozeliak’s mistakes? Bad contracts. Wasting too much money on expensive bullpen flops. Misplaced loyalty to aging veterans that became liabilities. Trading away outfielder Randy Arozarena. Shouldn’t Mozeliak be held accountable? He put together the rosters. Why jettison Shildt?
A) First of all, this is a separate issue and therefore irrelevant. Shildt was fired because he refused to sign off on something that obviously was important to Mozeliak and DeWitt. Mozeliak and DeWitt don’t have a “philosophical difference.” They have a philosophical bond.
B) Yes, Mozeliak should be held accountable. Talk to DeWitt about that. But considering that they’re firmly aligned in the decision-making process and the direction of the club … and acknowledging all of the trips to the postseason … and thinking about all of the money that Mozeliak has helped make for the DeWitt family … I doubt that DeWitt will be firing Mozeliak. By firing Mozeliak, DeWitt would be firing himself. Not literally, of course. But again — they work as a team.
C) Yes, Mozeliak put together the rosters. Some are flawed rosters. But he assembled rosters that have made the Cardinals a postseason team in eight of the last 11 seasons. I’ve criticized the front office all season for not taking a proactive approach to adding roster depth before the 2021 season — and for taking too much time to repair a starting rotation broken by injuries in June.
But impactful additions were made later, and turned out better than any optimist would have anticipated, and the Cardinals made a late charge to win 90 games and get into the wild-card game.
And if we’re talking about the ‘21 roster put together by Mozeliak, it’s fair to mention Goldschmidt, Arenado, Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson, Harrison Bader, Edmundo Sosa, Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright and a bunch of other dudes who led the September uprising.
D) Mozeliak traded Arozarena. Part of the reason: Shildt didn’t play Arozarena late in the 2019 season, despite all three starting outfielders batting under .200 in September. The Cardinals never got an extended look at a player who put up outstanding numbers in his brief time as a Redbird.
E) Bad contracts? Absolutely. But earlier in the piece I told you how the Cardinals had the No. 3 overall regular-season record in MLB since La Russa’s retirement. The Dodgers and Yankees and No. 1 and No. 2.
Total cost of 40-man payrolls from 2012 through 2021:
Dodgers: $2.4 billion.
Yankees: $2.2 billion.
Cardinals: $1.6 billion.
The contract mistakes were irritating and limited other possibilities of upgrading the team. But considering that the Cardinals have spent $800 million less than the Dodgers and $600 million less than the Yankees over the last 10 seasons, I’m thinking Mozeliak issued a few contracts that worked out well for the franchise.
9) The sacking of Shildt will only reinforce the growing sentiment of what ownership-management seeks in a manager: a puppet who will do as told. And if he won’t follow orders, he’s kicked out. Shildt was slapped with the “puppet” designation by a percentage of Cardinal fans as soon as he moved into the manager’s office. And now that he’s out because of a disagreement, it just adds gusto to the Puppet Theory.
9a) And unless the Cardinals bring in an older manager with gravitas who will run the ballclub with an independent streak — and they won’t — the “puppet” narrative will strengthen and live on.
The point has some merit but is kinda dumb. The role of the manager has changed substantially over the last 15 years or so.
We had a fresh example on Thursday night. For NLDS Game 5 at San Francisco, the Dodgers opted to go with an “opener,” reliever Corey Knebel, to pitch the first inning. LA used another reliever for the second inning. Then the Dodgers inserted the expected starter, 20-game winner Julio Urias, at the start of the third inning. It may be unusual, but baseball has been trending in this direction. And this approach will become more prevalent.
It was a group decision that included multiple members of the Dodgers’ baseball operation. Manager Dave Roberts said he had only one vote, and he fully endorsed the “opener” plan. The Dodgers consulted with players to see if the clubhouse had any objections. None were voiced; Max Scherzer and other prominent veterans were openly enthusiastic about the plan.
Does that make Roberts a puppet?
No, it makes him a baseball manager in 2021. He gets it. Dodgers 2, Giants 1. And it’s onto the NLCS for Los Angeles.
The days of the superpower manager are over. And that includes Tony La Russa, who took a more diplomatic approach with the White Sox.
10) By shooing Shildt away, DeWitt and Mozeliak have put themselves under a brighter, harsher light. Their model has worked for a long time. But even the finest thoroughbreds needs a competent, capable jockey. (Randomness: don’t get me started on Ron Franklin and Spectacular Bid.) And if the jocks screw up the next managerial hire, the future choice of direction may not matter as much. If the jockey can’t steer the horse in the right direction, the horse will likely finish out of the money.
I have no problem with a younger manager who is schooled in analytics and has enthusiasm for forward-thinking baseball strategies that create an advantage instead of being attached to the dusty, moldy stuff that puts the team at a disadvantage. The Cardinals’ roster will be a lot younger soon. But the sharp aptitude, easy communication skills and confident leadership must be there.
Thursday night, a friend noted Shildt’s deep roots in the Cardinals’ organization and the baseball education Shildt received from the iconic George Kissell. In the baseball sense, Shildt was born and raised a Cardinal. And he learned as a Cardinal, and taught as a Cardinal. Now he’s out, let go with a year left on his contract.
I was asked: does this mean the “Cardinal Way” is over?
No, I don’t think it’s over. It needs constant attention and maintenance. And like everything else in the world, the Cardinal Way — which is about baseball — has evolved. Just as baseball as a sport has evolved. But this was never about one way, and one way only. DeWitt cherishes the history of this franchise. A combination of the Cardinal Way and the more modern version — DeWitt’s way of running the franchise — has served the Cardinals well.
Thanks for reading …
And have a great weekend.
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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