On Sunday afternoon, in the waning moments of the St. Louis Cardinals’ 8-2 victory over the Kansas City Royals to complete a sweep of their intrastate rivals, Cardinals reliever Tyler Webb hit Royals right fielder Jorge Bonifacio with a pitch on a 1-2 count with two outs, both of which came via Webb strikeouts. It was the first pitch Tyler Webb threw which came particularly close to hitting a Royals batter, and the pitch itself, though obviously not a good one, did not appear to be deliberate headhunting. But the cumulative effect of the four previous batters–all Cardinals–who were hit earlier in the game appeared to take effect, and Webb was ejected from the game.
It was probably an overly aggressive call by the home plate umpire, but ultimately, it was an inconsequential one. The Cardinals held a 8-2 lead with one out to go and one runner on base–the game was never in doubt. Tyler Webb, although he has been effective in his limited action with St. Louis, is a 28 year-old non-prospect with poor MLB statistics (a 5.49 ERA and a 5.45 FIP in 19 2/3 innings, somehow with four different teams) who will probably quietly disappear from the team’s radar once some of the team’s more acclaimed pitchers return from the Disabled List.
But despite the relative lack of stakes, Cardinals interim manager Mike Shildt quickly emerged from his perch to express his extreme displeasure with the call. Shildt’s face grew animated, he spouted a few four-letter words, and while he was not ejected, it was not due to lack of trying. Maybe the other umpires thought Shildt had a point.
Shildt’s histrionics were not about overturning any calls on the field, nor even the ejection itself. They weren’t about giving the team a competitive advantage to win a game that, according to Baseball Reference’s Win Probability model, the Cardinals had a 100% chance of winning already. They weren’t even necessarily about endearing himself to Tyler Webb–this may have been an effect of it, but from a long and even short-term competitive standpoint, this isn’t going to matter much. They were to send a message to the Cardinals’ players, fans, and anybody watching at Kauffman Stadium or at home–Mike Shildt is somebody who stands up for his players.
Since the Cardinals dismissed manager Mike Matheny following a listless 8-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds at Busch Stadium on July 14, the Cardinals under Mike Shildt have a 18-9 record. To declare the Cardinals’ shift from an 82-win pace under Matheny to a 108-win pace under Shildt as definitive proof that Mike Shildt is worth 26 more wins to the Cardinals than Matheny was is obviously extreme. And those who criticized Mike Matheny during his tenure largely had to do so despite very good team results, so to go from saying the Cardinals are winning despite Mike Matheny to saying the Cardinals are winning because of Mike Shildt is a bit hypocritical. But the presence of demonstrable improvement by win-loss record is an important part of Mike Shildt’s trial run as Cardinals manager. It would be difficult to convince most fans that a manager who led a team to fall apart down the stretch is a good manager, even if the collapse were unrelated to the manager himself. Luckily, for Shildt, it doesn’t appear that this is going to be a problem.
Mike Matheny was frequently criticized for his poor in-game tactics, and the most commonly cited of his shortcomings was his bullpen maneuvering. Unlike his propensity for bunting, which eased up substantially over the years, Matheny’s reliance on specific names rather than the actual best options never really stopped. In his final game as Cardinals manager, Mike Matheny opted for Greg Holland, at the time sporting a 7.99 ERA despite the Established Closer sheen, in a competitive game which became noncompetitive quickly. It was hardly his most egregious example of bullpen usage, but it was a poetic note on which to end his Cardinals tenure.
In the weeks since Shildt took over as manager, the Cardinals have completely revamped their bullpen and suddenly, it has become the strength that many anticipated it would be to start the season. Since Shildt became manager, he has relied on three relievers who received very little attention to begin the season: expected spare part Bud Norris, surprise bullpen inclusion Jordan Hicks, and AAA reliever Mike Mayers. The next-most used pitcher in terms of games pitched is Dakota Hudson, a 23 year-old rookie who made his MLB debut on July 28.
Mike Shildt has occasionally found himself in tricky situations where he must weigh sentiment against proper, by-the-book management. When Matt Carpenter was having a legendary afternoon at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs in just Shildt’s third game as manager, in which Carpenter was 5-for-5 with three home runs and two doubles, Shildt removed Carpenter from the game, a blowout, with a doubleheader looming the next day. Daniel Poncedeleon, in his MLB debut, pitched seven innings of no-hit ball, but rather than push the envelope on a rookie with 116 pitches, Shildt summoned the bullpen. Erring on the side of feel-good stories to appease player ego (and fans) may seem like the hallmark of a good player’s manager, but a great player’s manager has the persuasive ability and people skills to ensure his players that he has their best interest in mind. The results of these players pulled with history on the line–Poncedeleon has a 2.35 ERA since that night and Carpenter has been a video game desperately in need of moving up a level or three–suggest that Shildt did not lose the clubhouse by making what could have been unpopular moves.
Praise of Mike Matheny usually centered around his people skills, but all indications are that the Cardinals haven’t lost a step in team morale since Matheny was fired. Winning is the best known cure for clubhouse blues, and sure, it takes extraordinary circumstances for players to openly speak out against their current manager, but Shildt seems to have rallied the clubhouse. Ryan Sherriff offered effusive praise of Shildt on Twitter on Sunday (yes, he misspelled Shildt’s last name, but that seems to be a common issue among many in St. Louis over the last month), and sentiments expressed by the team’s MLB leaders suggest a very happy group.
Two weeks ago, Alex Crisafulli ran down the case for Joe Girardi as the next Cardinals manager, and I agree with his overall points–notions that Girardi is Mike Matheny Version 2.0 are greatly exaggerated, and I believe that in a vacuum, he is a fine candidate for a MLB manager position. Girardi would be a tactical improvement over Mike Matheny, but would he be over Mike Shildt? There isn’t much evidence to suggest he would be. And with Girardi, players would be introduced to a whole new leader–things might go well, but that can’t be assured. With Mike Shildt, we’ve seen the results, and they’ve been overwhelmingly positive.
Today marks one month to the day since Mike Shildt’s first game, and in the first month of the Mike Shildt era, it would be hard to ask for much more. He has consistently made the correct decisions, and even when his moves have been questionable, he has offered reasoned explanations for his strategies. Despite his previous lack of MLB managerial experience, Shildt has demonstrated that his background as a coach and as a manager in the minor leagues qualify him to manage at the highest level of baseball in the world.
He has already passed the audition. Mike Shildt should be the full-time manager of the St. Louis Cardinals.