With Saturday’s news that the St. Louis Cardinals had fired manager Mike Matheny, most of the attention, unsurprisingly, was on Matheny himself. Matheny, after all, had been the face of the St. Louis Cardinals organization for 6 1/2 seasons as manager and for five seasons as a player in the early 2000s. It was natural to carve out retrospectives, be they sentimental or apoplectic.
But the end of the Mike Matheny era in St. Louis did not mean the end of the Cardinals, and the next afternoon, the Cardinals played against the Cincinnati Reds in a bid to avoid a sweep heading into the All-Star Break. And they won! And like that, Mike Shildt won his first career game as a Major League manager.
Shildt, alternatively known as Mike Schildt to a shockingly high number of Cardinals fans in the early days of his tenure as Cardinals manager, was named interim manager and by all accounts will likely remain in that position through the end of the 2018 season. Maintaining an in-house option as manager in the middle of July makes sense–why risk potentially interrupting order in the clubhouse, and why rush into the decision for who should be the next full-time Cardinals manager? Several names have already been proposed as candidates, ranging from experienced managers (Joe Girardi and Dusty Baker) to coaches with Cardinals ties (Mark McGwire, Bengie Molina) to out-of-the-box hires who lack any MLB coaching experience but could be impressive gambles (Carlos Beltran; even Yadier Molina has floated the idea of being a player-manager).
But ultimately, if one were to list the favorites for the next full-time Cardinals manager, no candidate would be as likely to take the job as Mike Shildt. That the front office decided to give the reigns to Shildt over long-time Cardinals coach (and former Cardinals player) Jose Oquendo suggests a belief that Shildt has real potential to become the long-term solution if he passes an audition period with the Cardinals.
Shildt is not an especially glamorous candidate–he never played professional baseball, much less Major League Baseball, and his managerial experience is limited to the minor leagues. He does, however, have a far more illustrious managerial resume than Mike Matheny did before he was hired as Cardinals manager. While names like Joe Girardi’s have been cited as representing the opposite of the Mike Matheny wave of managerial hires–inexperienced, recently-retired ex-jocks–the unconventional part of the Matheny hire wasn’t so much that he hadn’t been a MLB manager, but rather that he hadn’t coached or managed in professional baseball at all.
Aside from his lack of MLB player pedigree (a factor which hasn’t kept Joe Maddon from great esteem in the managerial ranks), Mike Shildt fits a fairly conventional bill for a first-time manager. He has managed in the minor leagues, he has coached in the big leagues, and while he seems considerably older than Mike Matheny, at 49, he is a perfectly reasonable age to be launching a long-ish career as a MLB manager.
I have zero questions about whether Mike Shildt is qualified to be the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals–he is. But so are a laundry list of other candidates. My question is whether Mike Shildt would be a good manager.
Sunday was the first game I’ve watched Mike Shildt manage on any level, and it was the first game Mike Shildt managed for the St. Louis Cardinals. The circumstances behind the game were somewhat unusual, as the proximity to the three-day All-Star Game break surely informed the tactical decision-making of the day, but several of Shildt’s moves were good signs of things to come from a manager that has been described as very open to sabermetrically-inclined ideas (which sounds great, but this was also used to describe Mike Matheny at the beginning of his managerial career).
In his first game, Mike Shildt made the following Very Good Moves. I will be, for the sake of my own inability to remember things, consult the list used by FanGraphs writer (and my former boss) Craig Edwards, evaluating the long-term implications of these moves.
- Takes Bader out of game even though he says he is okay: I am very excited about this sign. Harrison Bader, who has spent the season clamoring for more playing time (and largely getting it, as all three of the team’s regular starting outfielders have gone through extended struggles), came up limping while trying to round first base on what would normally have been an extra-base hit. While Bader (a player who had incentive to present himself as gritty) said he could still play, Shildt opted for Tommy Pham, who despite his recent struggles probably isn’t much worse than a healthy, much less a hobbled, Harrison Bader, anyway. The problem with deferring to players is that players are going to be inherently biased to their own self-preservation, and unless a player is a bona fide star, he’s going to want to play whenever possible. Mike Shildt presumably knows what Harrison Bader is (good, but not better in diminished form than Tommy Pham) by now.
- Removes Miles Mikolas without win eligibility: This is a move which is helped by the timing of the game. John Gant was available to pitch multiple innings because of the upcoming break, and had he not been, Shildt might not remove Mikolas, particularly given the lack of bullpen options available (despite the relative blowout that came on Saturday, Mike Matheny opted to play all of the hits with inefficient bullpen management during his finale). That, in this high-leverage situation, Shildt opted for his best available bench bat (Jose Martinez) to pinch-hit for Mikolas is a very good sign. It was a good move, but long-term, this is more of a to-be-determined situation.
- Uses middle reliever for multiple innings in relatively close game: See #2, for the most part. It is hard to know what Shildt would do if he had a full bullpen at his disposal. And perhaps if he did, steering away from John Gant (and instead going for a lower-end reliever, rather than a top reliever, would be the sensible move).
- Save chance to Hicks: Normally, I would oppose this move, as a three-run lead is fairly safe. But, for the third straight point, in this particular case, it is fine. With a normal bullpen, and a game coming in the next three days, Jordan Hicks is a suboptimal pick to close out the game, but the move works based on the point in the season at which it occurred.
At this point, I am cautiously optimistic on Mike Shildt. I am trying to remain reasonable about his moves on Sunday–because of circumstances, I am not willing to declare that he proved himself as a statistically-inclined fan darling, but he did show promise. And if he can continue to show reasonable tactical wherewithal while also proving himself to be a player’s manager (and reviews to this point are largely positive), that Mike Shildt is less famous than Joe Girardi should not be a deterrent in hiring Shildt to be the full-time manager of the St. Louis Cardinals.