Although I gave glowing reviews to Mike Shildt’s first foray into Major League managing, the weekend series against the Chicago Cubs exposed the new St. Louis Cardinals manager as susceptible to the managerial shortcomings which are common, even in the hyper-intellectual environment of 2018 Major League Baseball.
Which isn’t to say that I think Mike Shildt did poorly, in the larger sense–I believe he made some suboptimal moves with his bullpen and that he made an unnecessary double switch or two, but that tends to happen with even the best tactical managers. I haven’t given up on Mike Shildt, and neither should you.
But perhaps the most discussed managerial move of the weekend for the new Cardinals skipper is one where the conversation isn’t about whether what Mike Shildt did was optimal but whether it was sufficiently fun. It is a debate far removed from the managerial arguments to which we grew accustomed under Mike Matheny, asking whether or not (usually not) the move he made was mathematically cogent. The question here isn’t if Mike Shildt makes concessions to analytics; it’s whether he makes concessions to entertainment.
On Friday, Matt Carpenter, already in the midst of an incredible hot streak which took him from a sub-Replacement Level April to an MVP candidate by the All-Star Break, had one of the great games in St. Louis Cardinals history. To lead off the game, Carpenter hit a massive home run to right field. In the top of the second, Carpenter hit his second home run of the game, this time with Tommy Pham on deck. In the fourth, Carpenter doubled, and later in the inning, doubled once again, driving in Pham for the second time in three innings (and three at-bats). By the sixth inning, the Cardinals held a 12-1 lead, essentially a lock, but Carpenter did not let off the accelerator, clearing the right field wall with his third home run of the game to drive in Dexter Fowler, Jack Flaherty, and himself. It was 15-1. The game was, for all intents and purposes, over.
When Mike Shildt elected to remove Matt Carpenter from Friday’s game during the next half-inning, he did so at little sacrifice to the Cardinals’ chances of winning that day’s game. Nor did the move to replace Carpenter at first base with Yadier Molina, with Francisco Pena taking Molina’s familiar position behind the plate. Greg Garcia entered to play shortstop, Harrison Bader entered to play left field, and what difference did it really make? In terms of that game–none. The team’s Win Probability stood at 100% for the next 3 1/2 innings. But what Matt Carpenter’s departure did do was remove the element of intrigue for fans. His absence destroyed the potential for future joy in the game.
At sixteen total bases, Matt Carpenter became just the 23rd MLB player to do so in a game, and just the 12th to do so in five or fewer plate appearances. Only one other Cardinal, Mark Whiten, reached this mark, and Carpenter had a chance (with favorable wind conditions, at that) to tie Whiten’s record for most home runs in a single game with the St. Louis Cardinals. With that home run, Carpenter would also break Shawn Green’s single-game MLB record for total bases in a game (Green had 19 in his four home run game in 2002). In a game in which both teams were rather transparently just killing time (following Carpenter’s third home run, Joe Maddon deployed infielder Tommy La Stella to finish out the sixth inning), there was a chance for drama. And Shildt ended it.
By the book, this was the smart move. Yes, Matt Carpenter had three days off from Monday through Wednesday of the week and was probably not exhausted (despite his history of extreme fatigue), but with a doubleheader looming the next day against their heated division rivals, and with this particular contest extremely in hand, it made sense. It just made me stop caring about the game and possibly deprived those watching of a historic baseball moment.
Originally, this moment was to be the focus of this entire post, but on Monday night, once again, Mike Shildt was forced to make another decision which prioritized winning over a thrilling memory. Daniel Poncedeleon made his MLB debut. Poncedeleon, a 26 year-old non-prospect who 14 months ago faced a very serious head injury after being hit by a comebacker off the bat of then-Iowa Cub Victor Caratini, went seven innings. He hardly looked dominant, but he pitched fairly well. He struck out three batters and walked three. And he allowed zero hits.
Poncedeleon was not great–nobody who watched the game or examined his pitching line beyond simple hits and runs would argue that he was. But in his Major League debut, he was making a run at a no-hitter. But Daniel Poncedeleon stood at 116 pitches through seven innings–best case scenario, he would almost certainly wander into the 130s or 140s by the end of the ninth–and his spot in the batting order was coming up to start the eighth inning. For Mike Shildt, it didn’t appear to be much of a decision. Harrison Bader entered the game as a pinch-hitter. Poncedeleon’s game was over.
Bader didn’t get a hit, but evaluating the move through that result is a bit unfair–Bader gave more of an effort to extend the team’s 1-0 lead than Poncedeleon, a nonfactor at the plate, would have been. And this allowed the Cardinals to avoid pushing somebody further than he realistically should go in his MLB debut. While Jordan Hicks lost the combined no-hitter in the eighth inning, he kept the lead through to the ninth.
Bud Norris complicated retrospective analysis of this move in the ninth inning by pitching terribly, surrendering a game-tying home run with two outs, loading the bases, and then allowing a walk-off single that would’ve scored two runs if such a thing were possible. The proverbial death by a thousand paper cuts meant a gut-wrenching loss for the Cardinals, perhaps the most gut-wrenching of the season for the Cardinals. Perhaps the only thing more upsetting than the loss was remembering how many contenders for this title there have been so far this season.
But unlike the Matt Carpenter substitution, a more dubious move, this one was the correct move. It spits in the face of short-term fun, but it also comes with far more danger. Pitchers are far more susceptible to injuries under normal circumstances than batters, and far more when they are on the verge of 120+ pitches. Matt Carpenter could have literally remained in the dugout with the Cardinals playing with eight total defensive players and they would still be heavy favorites; while running the bases, a disproportionately dangerous part of the game, he could have jogged, or perhaps pulled a 1988 World Series Kirk Gibson level of plate approach.
The most important difference, however, is game situation. Both Mike Shildt moves were made with wins in mind–pulling Carpenter, the wins on Saturday (with the thought being that a rested Matt Carpenter improves those odds), pulling Poncedeleon, the win on Monday (with the thought being that using Bader to pinch-hit and the team’s top two relievers in the eighth and ninth inning meant better odds than using Poncedeleon at least until his no-hitter ended). But in the former, it’s less direct. Again, Mike Shildt made the “right” decision, but there were better odds of a Matt Carpenter four home run game than there were odds of a Daniel Poncedeleon no-no. And while there have been hundreds of no-hitters in baseball history, including three this season, there have been only eighteen four home-run games. It’s a less famous feat, yes, but it’s less famous because it feels so unfathomable. We see a no-hitter coming once a pitcher emerges from his first inning without allowing a hit; a four home-run game seems impossible until the third is hit.
In short, I wish Matt Carpenter had stayed in the game on Friday, but I begrudgingly accept Mike Shildt’s decision, and believe that it is a good sign of a larger analytical trend in his management. Additionally, I agree with the decision to pull Daniel Poncedeleon, despite Bud Norris’s catatstrophic ninth (though, I guess if I had to pick one of them to blow a game…). After six-plus years of hating nearly every decision Mike Matheny made, I may have eclipsed “decisions I thought were good” in the first seven games.