I’ll be honest: when the St. Louis Cardinals named Mike Shildt interim manager following Mike Matheny’s firing in July, I didn’t really give much thought to the long-term implications of the move.
I figured that Shildt would get the team to the end of the season with no playoffs, Bill DeWitt would thank him for his troubles, and he would either be reassigned within the organization or picked up by another team.
Instead, Shildt’s 38 games as interim manager saw the team go 26-12 and charge back into the playoff race, and the Cardinals’ front office rewarded Shildt by giving him a new contract and promoting him to full-time manager.
While it’s a little surprising that the Cardinals chose to promote Shildt now instead of at the end of the season, the team’s performance under Shildt speaks for itself. Fans and local writers seemed both unsurprised and pretty supportive of the move, but the national reaction to the hiring, however, was more mixed. In particular, this tweet from The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal stood out to me:
#STLCards clearly different and better under Shildt, but team still could have waited until season’s end before awarding him the three-year extension first reported by @dgoold and @BNightengale. We’re talking about a 38-game sample; Shildt has yet to experience real adversity.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) August 28, 2018
The general consensus on the national landscape seemed to be that the Cardinals are pulling the trigger too soon by removing Shildt’s interim tag now instead of at least taking the time to interview other candidates. But are they?
I wanted to take a look at a few of the risks surrounding Shildt’s hiring to see if it’s as much of a gamble as some are making it out to be.
Red Flag #1: The Cardinals are making a decision based on a small sample size
Because Shildt isn’t a household name on the national baseball landscape like Joe Girardi, it seems as though many national writers only know of Shildt from his still-brief stint as Cardinal-in-chief. Joe Sheehan compared the Cardinals to a recently-single person who gets married after only three dates. But Mike Shildt’s work with the St. Louis Cardinals goes far beyond this past month-and-a-half.
Shildt has been a coach in the Cardinals organization since 2004, and has managed at every level of their minor league system, where he gained a sterling reputation for player development. He’s known many of the Cardinals’ young players longer than Mike Matheny has. When the Cardinals shuffled their coaching staff midway through 2017, Shildt was brought up from Memphis as the new third base coach, and was added to the staff again as a bench coach the following offseason once Jose Oquendo returned to his old post.
The point here is that it’s not like the Cardinals pulled some random fan out of the stands, handed them the keys to the team, and fell head over heels after that fan had a good month. The organization obviously thinks very highly of Shildt (Oquendo even gave Shildt his full endorsement when the club approached Oquendo about the job), and views his time as manager as a reaffirmation of what they already knew.
Red Flag #2: Shildt has yet to face “real adversity” as a Major League manager.
While it’s true that the Cardinals had a historically great August under Mike Shildt, it’s easy to forget that at the time of Shildt’s hiring, the Cardinals were a living version of the “This is Fine” dog.
They were 47-46 and had only a 21% chance of making the playoffs, according to Fangraphs. The club was still dealing with the fallout from two PR disasters in the Dexter Fowler story and the Bud Norris-Jordan Hicks story. The players clearly weren’t having fun on the field, and the team as a whole almost looked as though they had thrown in the towel on 2018.
It also isn’t as if things turned around immediately once Shildt took over. The Cardinals actually lost his first two full series as manager, including a five-game set to the Cubs at Wrigley. Not long after that, the team sold at the trade deadline, sending fan favorite Tommy Pham to the Tampa Bay Rays for a suboptimal return package. He’s also lost Dexter Fowler (fractured foot) for the season, as well as Kolten Wong, Marcell Ozuna and Carlos Martinez for extended periods of time.
Shildt took over a team that was on the brink of collapse, and one could argue that the collapse had already begun. The fact that they’re even in playoff position at this point speaks volumes about Shildt’s ability to manage at this level and lead a team through treacherous waters.
Red Flag #3: Shildt’s early success isn’t sustainable over a full season
Breaking news: the Cardinals aren’t going to play at a 112-win pace for an entire year. It’s certainly possible that Shildt ends up fizzling out. That’s also a risk any organization in any industry makes when they hire someone.
With a full month of baseball left to play, the Cardinals could very well have a bad September and miss the playoffs. But when you consider the circumstances that Shildt inherited, making the playoffs from that point in the season was always going to be an uphill climb. If the Cardinals do end up missing the postseason, it will likely be because of the hole that Mike Matheny put them in early on, not because of Shildt.
It’s also worth noting that Shildt’s new contract only runs through the end of the 2020 season. If it does turn out that the hire was a mistake, the Cardinals should be able to get out of it pretty easily.
Red Flag #4: Shildt was hired by the same front office that hired Mike Matheny and extended him twice
To an extent, this is a valid concern. Yes, the Mike Matheny era was a mistake that went on for far too long, but this is also only the second time that the John Mozeliak-led front office has had to hire a new manager, which is pretty rare in today’s game. It’s not entirely fair to judge Mozeliak’s ability to find good coaches based on one bad hire in more than a decade of work.
And if you look past the Matheny era, the second-biggest mistake this front office has made is probably….not signing Max Scherzer? The Brett Cecil contract? For all of John Mozeliak’s flaws, he hasn’t really made a ton of backbreaking moves.
To me, the rewards of hiring Shildt now greatly outweigh the risks. Sure, there are benefits to a nationwide managerial search, but had the Cardinals waited until the offseason to name their next manager, that would’ve left open the possibility of Shildt getting hired by another team. If the Cardinals are this confident in Shildt as their next manager, why not walk down to the clubhouse and sign him before someone else can?
At this point, it’s still impossible to determine how much of the Cardinals’ turnaround can be credited directly to Shildt, and it may be a while before we find out the answer. But the Cardinals feel like they’ve seen enough from Shildt to know that they’ve found their guy, and they have a lot more than 38 games to back that up.