Not unlike Yadier Molina, Brian McCann is going to sneak into Hall of Fame consideration once he retires. I don’t think he’s going to make it–he has a weaker narrative case than Molina by a fair amount, and this is particularly advantageous when it comes to cases that are less than extremely obvious when looking at career statistics. But he has had a very nice career. He is also now old enough to be elected president and not a particularly good hitter.
As you may have heard, if you read the title of this post, Brian McCann had an 89 wRC+ this season, which means he was a below-average hitter. He was also below-average last season. While McCann was once a fairly lethal hitter, he has spent the last half-dozen years as a shell of his former self and also, and I cannot stress this enough, the slowest player in Major League Baseball. As much as St. Louis Cardinals fans like to mock Yadier Molina’s lack of speed, and as much as Albert Pujols’s rapid decline on the bases became a source of curiosity across baseball, McCann was the slowest player in the sport by maximum sprint speed among players given at least ten opportunities to prove their wheels. In 2018, he was second to Pujols. In 2017, he was third-slowest. In 2016, he was the fourth-slowest. In 2015, he was fifth-slowest. That’s as far back as Statcast data goes, so if it turns out he had blazing speed before that, I apologize. The point is, based on his 2019 form, anything hit on the infield would assuredly be handled quickly by the infield defense the Cardinals were implementing in the ninth inning of last night’s NLDS game.
By far the biggest problem with the Cardinals in Game 3 of the National League Division Series was their complete lack of offense. For the second game in a row, the offense failed to produce–only Marcell Ozuna could, on the whole, be considered better than a complete embarrassment. But despite this, the Cardinals found themselves in a position to steal Game 3 despite a masterful performance from Braves starter Mike Soroka. Adam Wainwright put forth the idealized version of the wily, soft-tossing veteran stage of his career, striking out eight in 7 2/3 innings and shutting out the Braves. The Cardinals almost parlayed this into a 2-1 lead in a series during which they still had a Jack Flaherty start awaiting.
But then, Josh Donaldson led off the top of the ninth inning with a double. It’s unfortunate, but Donaldson is very good–not much you can do to avoid being punished by him (besides signing him yourselves). Once Billy Hamilton came in to pinch-run, things felt tense, but the Cardinals were still nearly two-to-one favorites to emerge victorious. And then the next two batters struck out and while Billy Hamilton snuck his way over to third base, things looked reasonably good for the Cardinals. Particularly as the next batter, Brian McCann, had an 89 wRC+ this season and is the slowest runner in the sport. But the Cardinals decided that instead of facing Brian McCann, who in addition to his comprehensive season struggles at the plate was 0-for-3 on the day, they would put the go-ahead run on first base in order to pitch to Dansby Swanson, who:
- Had a higher wRC+ on the season that Brian McCann
- Had already reached base twice earlier in the day
- Was getting the added benefit of batting with two runners on base rather than just one
Swanson doubled, scoring Hamilton. Adam Duvall singled, scoring Rafael Ortega (pinch-running for McCann, because obviousness) and Swanson and giving the Braves a two-run lead that they would not relinquish.
The truth is that while I disagreed with intentionally walking McCann in the moment, it was no worse than the fourth-worst managerial decision in what turned out to be a brutal night for Mike Shildt. That Carlos Martinez evidently co-signed on the decision to walk McCann doesn’t excuse Shildt–it is, after all, his obligation to make the correct decision–but it does suggest more confidence in facing Swanson, who yesterday notwithstanding is not exactly Freddie Freeman.
The worst move that Shildt made was a move that didn’t actually cost the Cardinals anything–sticking with Adam Wainwright in the eighth inning following a Dansby Swanson single…and then following a Ronald Acuna Jr. walk…and then finally pulling the plug after Wainwright walked Ozzie Albies. Everything worked out fine that inning–Andrew Miller retired Freddie Freeman and the Braves stranded the bases loaded. This epitomizes the bad process/good result managerial decision, and while the moves are unrelated, it felt like karmic retribution that things went out of control in the top of the ninth.
At the end of the day, while Carlos Martinez didn’t pitch well and Mike Shildt didn’t manage well, the Cardinals offense shoulders more of the blame for yesterday’s calamity than anything else. But there’s something particularly frustrating when, upon seeing Shildt’s first time managing in the postseason, he’s coming up short. Prior to Carlos Martinez’s near-blowup in Game 1, he allowed the pitcher to bat for himself with two runners in scoring position in the top of the ninth. In Game 2, Jack Flaherty’s pitch count ran all the way up to 117, with the game nearly getting out of hand in the seventh. And in Game 3, this. It seems impossible that Mike Shildt would be outmanaged in a series where the other team consciously held back its best starter to start less than two games because of half-season home/road splits, but that seems to be what is happening.
None of this is enough to make me completely give up on Mike Shildt. It’s easy to get nostalgic about Tony LaRussa, since our last memory of LaRussa is winning a World Series, but he would make baffling decisions in the postseason too (Skip Schumaker batted second a lot in 2011). But last night was the most confoundingly managed Cardinals playoff game since Game 5 of the 2014 NLCS, a game where I yelled at my television for Mike Matheny to be fired. I’m not advocating that for Shildt, but the fact that I’m even putting them in the same sentence is more than a bit worrying.
And for what it’s worth, this series is absolutely not over. Anybody who claims this series is over is a charlatan who should not be trusted. The Braves have the “momentum”, just like the Cardinals had the momentum after winning a dramatic Game 1 and with Jack Flaherty on the mound for Game 2. This is my roundabout way of saying that momentum on a game-to-game basis is a storytelling device, not a thing that actually exists. And I would give the Cardinals a better than 50% chance of winning Game 4 and a better than 50% chance of winning Game 5. But the combined odds of winning both and thus the series is well under 50%. And if the Cardinals lose this series, it’s going to be hard to get past how much they let Game 3 get away from them.