THE REDBIRD REVIEW

Not that he’ll receive much credit from the hostile precincts of the fan base, but I have no issues with the way manager Oli Marmol is running the Cardinals in 2024. I wasn’t a fan of his work in 2023 and repeatedly expressed that, but I genuinely believe he’s  doing a good job in 2024, especially after the team’s hideous start to the season. Because that kind of stumble — a 15-24 record — can set off the pressure that smothers a younger manager. A weak manager won’t hold up, and probably will make the situation worse.

I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind on Marmol. Such an effort would be futile, a waste of time, and a lost cause. Keeping an open mind doesn’t happen much in Grievance America. Haters are gonna hate.

That said, I know a lot of reasonable people who don’t care for Marmol, and I believe they’re sincere in their views. I have no beef with them.

I try to base my opinion on factors that a manager can control. He doesn’t set the roster. He doesn’t establish a payroll limit. He doesn’t make the offseason personnel changes. He doesn’t go to the plate and take every at-bat for the players. He doesn’t throw pitches for his pitchers. He isn’t a trainer or a doctor and can’t do much about injuries. He did not forfeit on the responsibility of making sure this team had a legitimate fifth starter in the wings, ready to go. The front office has to come through. And when the front office doesn’t come through, that doesn’t mean the manager is horrible. The athletes must perform, and that’s their obligation to the team and the fans.

Some of this stuff is pretty damn simple.

In the first month of the season the Cardinals had a terrible offense. Just brutal. Was it because of the manager? Heck, no. The Cardinals struggled because most of the guys who were being paid to produce and hit up to standard failed to do so. What, do you think Marmol was ordering the hitters to go make outs? Was he poisoning the dugout water supply? Did Marmoil go to Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado and tell them to go ahead and just enter an age-related decline and fall apart?

The Cardinals have one of the better offenses in the majors in May. They’re in the top five among the 30 teams in batting average, onbase percentage and OPS. They are eighth in slugging percentage, and tied for 11th in homers.

In March-April the Cardinals were 26th in the majors with an wRC+ that put them 13 percent below league average offensively. This month they are No. 3 overall with a wRC+ that makes them 14 percent above league average offensively.

So why the positive change? Did Marmol suddenly become a smarter manager and morph into the greatest hitting coach of all time to transform the team? No. And that’s the point. He isn’t a genius because the Cardinals came alive offensively in May, and he wasn’t a failure because they went bust offensively in March-April.

Was Marmol to blame for the shoddy, horrendous composition of the team’s starting rotation in 2023? Absolutely not. That was on the front office and an aging starting pitcher (Adam Wainwright) who suddenly began pitching like a 71-year old man. Marmol was given three free-agent starters last offseason. And Sonny Gray, Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn have done well. The rotation is better. It’s made a difference. And it has improved because the front office secured more talent to fill a barren rotation. But there is still a shortage of starting-pitching depth … which, as you know, isn’t Marmol’s fault.

I like to look at the factors that can be shaped by a manager’s influence. And I think Marmol has done well in these areas.

1. Did Marmol lose the clubhouse when the Cardinals were flopping at 15-24, nine games under .500, after losing on May 11?  No. Obviously not. The players like and respect Marmol. He kept the calm. He challenged them, but didn’t stage a grandstanding act. Marmol repeatedly sought to reinforce their confidence by stressing that an offensive breakout was inevitable. And he was correct. He did not panic. But he is willing to fight for the players, and they appreciate him for it. (And by the way: I like it when managers get after umpires.)

“These are the players we’re going to win with,” Marmol said after a rotten 5-1 loss to the White Sox in early May. “We have to get them going.”

It was around this time that I noticed how fans respond to Marmol. When he encouraged patience, he was too soft! He wasn’t holding the players accountable! But when he put a straightforward message out there – the hitters have to do better, it’s as simple as that – he was accused of throwing his players under the train. Either way, he got roasted.

Anyway  … there was a constant emphasis put on taking better at-bats, especially on two-strike counts. In March-April the Cardinals ranked 26th in the majors with a .146 batting average on two-strike counts. This month they lead the majors with a .208 average with two strikes. And the team slugging percentage with two-strikes increased by 81 points from the first month to the second month. The hitters are ultimately responsible. But a manager can help by stressing the right things.

2. A manager fills out the lineup sheet. And Marmol made changes to try and jump-start hitters. He moved Goldschmidt down in the lineup for a while, and Goldy seemed to get going. In 35 plate appearances batting fifth, Goldschmidt hit .344 with a .900 OPS. With Goldschmidt doing better, Marmol moved him up in the lineup and relocated Arenado to the fifth spot. ‘Nado hit a two-run homer in his second game as the No. 5 hitter. Marmol put Lars Nootbaar in the No. 2 slot paid off because of the player’s high walk rate and power capability. During the team’s 12-3 run Nootbaar batted .311 with a .937 OPS and helped create runs. Marmol could have tried these things sooner, but so many guys were going bad in the first month, he could have picked names out of a hat to set the lineup.

I’ve ripped Marmol for resting Masyn Winn – too often? – but Winn does cope with back stiffness that requires maintenance days. I have no problem admitting when I’m wrong. Given the way Winn plays the game, I’ve come around on this. I’d rather see the manager keep Winn fresh and healthy.

That said, Marmol didn’t have Winn in Friday’s starting lineup for Friday’s game at Philadelphia. Wait. The team was off yesterday. So why rest Winn now, especially after Lars Nootbaar (oblique, IL) and Brendan Donovan were unavailable for the series opener. Marmol is doing many things right this season — but this isn’t one of them. Not having Winn in Friday’s lineup was silly. But again … every manager makes these head-scratching decisions. That’s why they exist. To give us content (smiles.)  And this is nothing new. It didn’t start with TikTok.

As for the getaway-day lineups … they annoy me, yes. But a manager named Tony La Russa did the same thing … and with TLR I went from being flabbergasted by his lineup choices for a final game of a series to understanding why he did it. And as time went on it made more sense to me.

3. A manager decides on playing time. After Winn batted .172 in his late-season debut in 2023, fans and media questioned Masyn Winn’s readiness for the majors and suggested he might be better off with more development time in the minors. I ran that by Marmol last offseason and he was absolutely empathic about Winn’s role. The manager made it clear to me: Winn was his starting shortstop, period. He praised Winn’s exceptional talent, mental toughness, and advanced baseball intelligence. He was convinced of Winn’s imminent success. I don’t have to tell anyone about Winn’s performance in 2024.

Marmol has gone has stayed the course by going with his best hitters on a regular basis. And the hitters came around. Marmol has always believed in Alec Burleson, and that faith is paying off. Burleson has just about reached the “lineup fixture” stage, and that makes sense. Marmol has gone with Mike Siani because of the player’s defensive brilliance in center field, and it was the right call. More on this later.

The St. Louis organization drafted and developed a younger cast of position players: Burleson, Winn, Nootbaar, Brendan Donovan, Nolan Gorman and Ivan Herrera. They are here, and they have to play, because you ain’t going to replace them all, every time there’s a slump. What would you like Marmol to do? This is the group that he’s been given by the front office. And he likes those players. He should be playing them.

Do you want to rip the decision to bring in backup shortstop Brandon Crawford? Go for it. There are no objections from me. But because of Tommy Edman’s wrist surgery and absence and the way the situation was mishandled by the player and the front office, the Cardinals didn’t have a second shortstop to utilize for Winn’s days off. Marmol doesn’t set the roster, but he wasn’t opposed to the Crawford move. So I suppose you can go nuts over that. I see it as a relatively minor thing … but definitely annoying. I’ve never understood crushing managers for the minor mistakes, because they all make them.

4. Marmol learned from 2023. He’s fixed the defense. And that has provided much better support for the pitching staff. Last season, I used probably thousands of words to criticize Marmol for the team’s defensive deterioration. I think he made a big mistake by letting things slide, and a lot of that had to do with lineup choices and trying to get platoon-split advantages even if it meant sticking a couple of bad fielders out there too often. That said, there was nothing he could really do about Jordan Walker in right field, and the inexperienced Walker didn’t improve until he put in substantial time with coach Willie McGee and instructor Jose Oquendo.

(And then Walker forgot how to hit. I refuse to pin that on the manager, which is nothing more than the usual cop-out, scapegoating nonsense. The player must be receptive to the idea of adjusting and adapting to become better.)

Anyway, as of Friday morning the Cardinals were 11th in the majors and 4th in the NL with 13 defensive runs saved. They’re No. 1 in baseball in the double-play metrics. Their range rate is No. 2. Their defensive efficiency rating has improved by 18 percent from last season. The Cardinals rank fourth in the majors in runs saved (10) by defensive positioning – and that positioning is directed by the dugout staff.

This crisper defense isn’t just a random trend. It was planned. This was one of the main reasons why Marmol was so resolute in his insistence to go with Winn at shortstop – no matter how much the rookie hit – or did not hit. This is why Marmol, with a short-handed outfield, installed Siani in center. And Siani has five defensive runs saved in 2024. He’s one of the best defenders out there among MLB outfielders.

Gorman has improved defensively at second base. He’s a “plus” defender now based on defensive runs saved. The same goes for Burleson; he has improved defensively at the corner outfield spots, especially in right field. There’s been a turnstile in the St. Louis outfield because of injuries to Edman, Nootbaar, Dylan Carlson, etc. But Marmol has made the best of it.

According to the defensive runs saved ratings by Sports Info Solutions, the Cardinals’ worst fielder so far this season is Arenado at third base. He’s a minus 6 in defensive runs saved. I guess that’s Marmol’s fault? Sadly, there are probably some loons out there who would in fact blame Marmol for Arenado’s erosion defensively. The manager remains committed to his team’s defense. And I’m sure his pitchers appreciate it.

5. Marmol has done an exceptional job of running the bullpen. And yes, managers have considerable value in that area. Here’s a little secret: I have an easy way of separating the people who know what they’re talking about from the folks who have no clue what they’re talking about. And it has to do with the bullpen. The people who are absolutely clueless go around yapping about how bad Marmol is at the task of handling a bullpen.

This season the Cardinals are 17-2 when they have a lead after six innings, 24-1 with a lead through seven innings, and 25-0 when having the lead through the eighth inning. These are excellent numbers.

The Cardinals bullpen ranks eighth in MLB in bullpen Win Probability Added. They have MLB’s No. 1 save rate at 80 percent. They are third for most holds. In high-leverage situations the Cardinals have the ninth best ERA in the majors and are fourth in the NL.

Ryan Helsley leads the majors with 18 saves and has only one blown save. JoJo Romero leads MLB with 18 holds, and Andrew Kittredge is third with 15.

Marmol was given a more capable bullpen for 2024, but he knows what to do with it. The facts on this are indisputable. One of the most interesting parts of Marmol’s bullpen strategy is the way he’s cultivating additional sources for dependable late-inning relief. Marmol has turned to John King, Kyle Leahy and Ryan Fernandez to expand their roles instead of burning out Helsley, Kittredge and Romero.

This is helpful for another reason: this month the Cardinals rank 29th in the majors with 125 and ⅓ innings from starting pitchers. Rain delays were part of the problem; several starts were cut short by wet-weather issues. But the Cardinals have found ways to cover all of the extra innings asked of their bullpen. Marmol has been on top of it.

6. The Cardinals are much sharper in the fundamentals this season. And Marmol was determined to get it done after a sloppy 2023. The Cardinals are No. 2 in the majors for extra-bases taken on the basepaths. They are ranked sixth in the majors and fourth in the NL in baserunning runs above average. Statcast has the Cardinals as MLB’s 10th-best baserunning team. The Cardinals have increased their productive outs percentage by 6% from last year. They’ve scored 48 runs on ground-ball outs, which ranks 14th in the majors. Last season they were 27th in getting runners in on ground balls.

Here’s a stat that means something. It is a reflection on the Cardinals having a smart approach based on the situation. It goes deeper than just hitting with runners in scoring position. OK, here you go: this season the Cardinals lead MLB with a .317 batting average in high-leverage situations. And they’re fifth overall with 67 RBIs in high-leverage at bats. I was surprised by that information. To me, it points to something important: this has become a smarter baseball team.

The Cardinals were in a crisis mode after losing at Milwaukee on May 11. At that point they had a .385 winning percentage on the season that ranked 13th in the National League, and the screams to fire Marmol were louder and more intense.

Even now – as the Cardinals have the NL’s best record since May 12, and are 12-6 since losing Willson Contreras on May 7 – I’ve seen blogs listing candidates to replace Marmol. There’s no cure for this type of rabies.

It’s funny. We pile on Marmol when the team loses … everything is his fault. But when the Cardinals turn things around and start winning? Crickets. Not a word about the manager’s role in keeping things steady during turbulent times, or the way he’s tightened the defense and the baserunning or reordered the bullpen for added security. The hypocrisy is awesome.

The Cardinals are getting better. They had a minus 27 run differential in March-April. They have a more reasonable minus 8 run differential in May. And in their current 12-3 stretch, their run differential is a plus 17. They’re moving in the right direction.

I don’t know if the Cardinals will continue to do that. The challenges remain. There’s another Lars Nootbaar injury and more roster distress. Andre Pallante made an impressive bid to be the team’s fifth starter, but they’ll need him to do that over and over again. The starting-pitching depth is still a huge concern.

I’m sure we’ll have reasons to criticize Marmol going forward. And that’s appropriate when the criticism is warranted. I do it myself. But I’m also cognizant of his effectiveness in multiple sectors of this team. And even though it’s an ancient concept, I try to be fair.

Can the Cardinals win a series from the mighty Phillies in Philadelphia? The Phillies are 22-8 at home this season and have two of their three best starting pitchers lined up. I look forward to watching it. I think the Redbirds will lose two out of three, but play ball.

And if the Redbirds do have a bad weekend against the best team in the majors, I’m sure we’ll be treated to more commentaries about the 68 candidates to replace Marmol – and the 1,500 hypothetical trades the front office must work on immediately to begin the franchise rebuild.

Thanks for reading and have a swell weekend.

I don’t know about y’all, but my plans are to spend some time outside after the sun goes down, howling at the moon.

–Bernie

A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. Friday. Stream live or access the podcast on 590thefan.com or the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.

Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz and on Threads @miklaszb

For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via 590thefan.com or through your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.

Stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Baseball Prospectus, Sports Info Solutions, Spotrac and Cot’s Contracts unless otherwise noted.

Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

For the last 36 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.