In the National League Division Series, St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt, a manager I generally consider to be above-average and would certainly at the least include on my NL Manager of the Year ballot, made at least one managerial decision that I considered to be indefensibly poor in each game of the series. Here is a brief rundown; I certainly missed some:
- In Game 1, Shildt elected, with two runners in scoring position and two outs in the top of the ninth inning, to let Carlos Martinez bat for himself. As the Cardinals had a four-run lead, the odds were good that this decision wouldn’t impact the Cardinals, but that Martinez allowed three runs in his second inning of work demonstrates the importance of piling on runs as long as you possibly can.
- In Game 2, with the team’s least pronounced ground ball pitcher, Jack Flaherty, on the mound, the Cardinals opted not to include Matt Carpenter in the lineup against a righty pitcher. The team proceeded to score zero runs and Carpenter never got into the game.
- In the same game, Jack Flaherty threw 117 pitches and was up against the ropes when he surrendered a back-breaking two run home run to Adam Duvall. Ultimately, this wasn’t a difference-maker, but Flaherty was either overextended or Shildt was trying to conserve a bullpen that was about to get the day off.
- In Game 3, Adam Wainwright was kept in the game through 7 2/3 innings, throwing a jarring 120 pitches. It took until the veteran walked the bases loaded before Shildt called on Andrew Miller, who mercifully was able to preserve the Cardinals lead.
- In the ninth inning, following two Carlos Martinez strikeouts, Mike Shildt opted to walk Brian McCann, bad hitter, and put the go-ahead run on first base (McCann was replaced by Rafael Ortega) in favor of pitching to Dansby Swanson, a better and hotter hitter. Swanson doubled home the tying run, and then after Martinez was left in to face Adam Duvall, two more runs scored on a single. And then Martinez continued to pitch, walking Ronald Acuna Jr. before mercifully inducing the inning’s third out.
- Remember how in Game 2, the Cardinals prioritized infield defense for the team’s lowest volume ground ball pitcher? They did the exact opposite this time, giving Matt Carpenter the start at the hot corner for the league’s most extreme ground ball pitcher, Dakota Hudson.
- Hudson pitched mostly well in the first four innings of Game 4, allowing just one run. But for the third consecutive game, Mike Shildt stuck with his starting pitcher too long. He allowed a Dansby Swanson double, Swanson scored after Matt Carpenter booted a ground ball, and then Hudson remained to face Acuna and Ozzie Albies. After Albies allowed a three run home run to give the Braves the lead, Hudson was finally removed for Tyler Webb.
- For the top of the ninth, with the heart of the order approaching, the Cardinals opted not to stick with the pitcher who had just struck out the side, Ryan Helsley, and gave the ball to Carlos Martinez, who was promptly booed by many in attendance. While Martinez was put in a position to fail, he allowed just one hit and generally pitched well, but as the team opted for starter-on-his-throw-day Miles Mikolas in the tenth, I still question the decision from a process standpoint.
- After Dexter Fowler walked to lead off Game 5, Kolten Wong sacrifice bunted Fowler over to second base. Although this put a runner in scoring position, it also donated an out to the Braves and the Cardinals’ win probability declined by 2%—not a massive drop but a drop nonetheless.
- In the top of the sixth, with Jack Flaherty closing in on 100 pitches and the Cardinals’ Win Probability, per Baseball Reference, at 100% (it first hit 100% in the fourth inning, hit it again for good in the fifth inning, and reached 98% in the top of the first inning), batted for himself. Normally, this wouldn’t be a huge deal—after all, the Cardinals were up by 12 runs and nobody was on base. But in the previous inning, Flaherty had hit Braves star Ronald Acuna Jr., with whom there had been earlier friction, with a pitch. Whether it was intentional or not (I *think* it wasn’t, but it’s hard to say for sure), the odds that the nothing-to-lose Braves would throw at a defenseless Flaherty were certainly higher than the odds the Braves would make a comeback.
Of these moves, none has received less prolonged scrutiny than the Kolten Wong bunt. It’s pretty easy to figure out why: by the time the Cardinals recorded their second out of the inning, they were leading 9-0. It received scrutiny in the moment, but if you gave me a chance to go back in time and let Wong swing away, I wouldn’t, even though I know the process is sound. Why risk it?
This is hardly an enthusiastic defense of Shildt, but this is the way most of us process these moves. By the end of his Cardinals tenure, Mike Matheny was deeply unpopular as Cardinals manager among fans, but he was no worse of a manager than in 2015, when the team won 100 games, appeared in their fourth consecutive postseason under Matheny’s management, and he was generally popular with most fans. Matheny would do dumb things as the manager of ultra-successful teams, but he had the success. And Shildt had a 12 run victory.
On Friday night, the Cardinals lost an excruciating Game 1 of the NLCS against the Washington Nationals. It was excruciating because Miles Mikolas pitched very well and the offense provided him next to no support. It took until Jose Martinez’s pinch-hitting appearance in the bottom of the eighth against the Nationals, though in their defense, the Nationals have an impossibly difficult top three in their rotation to face and a 7+ inning no-hit bid comes with the territory (I assume it was Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, or Patrick Corbin pitching; being dominated by somebody else would’ve been EMBARRASSING).
The Cardinals entered the bottom of the ninth inning trailing by two runs and with Kolten Wong leading off against lefty reliever Sean Doolittle. And that is when Wong did something he had done the game prior—he attempted a bunt. Unlike his Game 5 of the NLDS bunt, there was no runner on base. Unlike his Game 5 of the NLDS bunt, this wasn’t followed by a ten run inning. And unlike his Game 5 of the NLDS bunt, this was a defensible decision. It just so happened to come under circumstances where most of us weren’t exactly clamoring to heap praise on the Cardinals’ offense.
Bunting, particularly sacrifice bunting, has fallen dramatically out of fashion in the modern, sabermetrically inclined era. The reasons for this are pretty direct—bunts generally decrease the run expectancy for a team in a given inning. When Wong bunted in Game 5 to advance Dexter Fowler, it did increase the odds that the Cardinals would score a run: it just didn’t do so by enough to justify the dramatic decrease in the odds that the Cardinals would score MORE THAN one run (yes, this is very funny in retrospect, knowing what we know now). Unless the batter is a truly woeful hitter (usually the pitcher), swinging away is usually the right decision.
Sabermetrically, bunting for a hit is a bit more complicated. On one hand, the intended goal is certainly a positive (technically, the optimal outcome of a sacrifice bunt is beating it out for a single, but that’s not really the intent, per se). On the other hand, the upside is limited, because a double or better is probably out of the question. In 2019, non-pitchers batters had a startlingly high .484 batting average on bunts, though their isolated power measured out to .003, as of the 364 hits, just two were doubles and none were triples or home runs.
In the case of Kolten Wong, there are three significant extenuating factors to keep in mind. One is that Wong is perhaps the Major League Baseball player best equipped to attempt to bunt for a hit. His 11 hits on bunts led the sport in 2019, and his batting average on bunts was .611. Two works against the strategy: Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon is among the sport’s best fielders at the hot corner. The bunt, as it turns out, was fielded by Doolittle, but the threat of Rendon reduced the value of a hard-left bunt.
Number three is a major point to consider: How much more valuable would, say, an extra base hit be than a Kolten Wong bunt single? And the answer is not that much. Sure, you eliminate a potential double play ball, but Wong’s run didn’t matter as much as the run following his. Had the Cardinals been trailing by one instead of two, the Cardinals would be eliminating the possibility of Wong tying the game. But in this case, a bunt single would be pretty close to the most valuable thing Wong could do. And he came close enough to achieving this feat that it merited a replay review. Wong’s attempt was…not terrible, though certainly not his finest. But the idea was strategically sound, whether Mike Shildt explicitly called for it or he simply promoted a bunting culture that gave Wong the idea to attempt it.
For over a century, bunting was viewed as a way to be a good teammate. Even the phrase itself, “sacrifice bunt”, sounds regal and chivalric in a way. And those who cared more about results than optics from their team understandably rejected the premise that bunting was a good idea. But this isn’t that. Using a fast player with crafty bat skills who is at a platoon disadvantage to try to get on base in a situation where an extra base hit matters little on a day where the offense is generating little else is the exact right time to try a bunt. Blaming Shildt is silly, though probably no more silly than crediting him for the team’s NLDS victory. It is, fairly or not, a results-based business, even if the results have little to do with those being credited or blamed.