Let me start off by saying that I think the decision by the St. Louis Cardinals to relieve manager Mike Shildt of his duties was a very stupid one. Shildt was not a perfect manager–he lacked what I would consider an optimally quick hook when it came to pulling starting pitchers–but he was undeniably successful–his .559 winning percentage was higher than the marks of his predecessors, Tony La Russa and Mike Matheny, and in each of his three full seasons as manager of the Cardinals, he reached the postseason. And in his partial season, he took a team which was one game over .500 in mid-July to 14 games over .500 by season’s end.
That said, a manager’s winning percentage is not a great indicator of his management skill. I criticized Mike Matheny constantly throughout most of his tenure as Cardinals manager, including throughout his four consecutive postseason appearance run to begin his managerial career. Shildt, imperfect as he may have been tactically, brought a level of modernity to the team’s tactics that Matheny lacked. Unlike Matheny, who inherited a defending World Series champion, Shildt inherited a team one game above .500 who had missed the postseason in two consecutive seasons before that, and he ended up with better results.
But maybe there is something I’m not seeing regarding Shildt, some sort of managerial qualm that goes beyond the knee-jerk “the manager’s an idiot when the team screws up” reactions of our collective uncles. I am willing to concede that this is possible. I do know that Shildt is as emblematic of the Cardinals’ organization as anyone at the coaching level–he has been with the Cardinals organization for nearly two decades; as much as Mike Matheny’s playing career figured in to how fans perceived him when he was hired, he had not been a continuous employee of the Cardinals. Shildt was a true lifer.
That the biggest story in North American professional sports over the last few days has been the Las Vegas Raiders’ firing of head coach Jon Gruden over decidedly off-the-field issues, there was a temptation in the immediate aftermath of Shildt’s firing to assume that the reasoning behind it was something more nefarious than losing a walk-off playoff game to a 106-win team. But president of baseball operations John Mozeliak was unflinching in the post-firing press conference: this was a move about differing baseball philosophy.
What is curious then is that John Mozeliak should, in theory, see as eye-to-eye on a baseball level with Mike Shildt as anybody. This is hardly even a high compliment towards Shildt, given the criticisms levied towards the front office over the last several years. Obviously, I don’t expect Mozeliak to fire himself, but I would expect, if he is going to voluntarily put an organization which prides itself on its stability on particularly shaky ground, it is because he truly believes that a radical change must occur.
But when the initial burst of potential candidates for the job arrived not long after Shildt’s dismissal, the list was predictable. Stubby Clapp, the Cardinals’ first-base coach, former AAA manager, and former Cardinals player most known for, um, being named “Stubby Clapp”, is arguably the favorite. Oliver Marmol, the Cardinals’ bench coach, also figures to be a candidate, despite being younger than two players under contract with the Cardinals for the 2022 season. A few fans threw out “Yadier Molina–Player/Manager”, something which makes absolutely no sense to me and I choose to interpret as mostly kidding, but then again, very little about the Cardinals’ new-found managerial search makes much sense to me.
Setting aside Molina, Clapp and Marmol are not unqualified for the job of Major League Baseball manager. Each has over a decade of managing and coaching experience, and each certainly has a deeper résumé than did Mike Matheny when he was hired to be Cardinals manager. In a world where instead of being fired, Mike Shildt resigned because he wanted to spend more time with his family, taking a look at the strongest internal options of an organization that hasn’t had a losing season in fourteen years would make a ton of sense. But for an organization which has explicitly called this a baseball move, what reason does anybody have to believe that the best way to shake up an organization that seemingly needs a shakeup is by hiring a candidate cut from the exact same cloth as Mike Shildt?
Of course, as somebody who thought Mike Shildt was doing a pretty good job as manager of the Cardinals, I’m not inclined to get too fussy about the potential hiring of a Mike Shildt clone. But what was the purpose of firing Mike Shildt? Is the entire purpose to find a more docile version of Shildt? If Shildt was such a baseball disaster that he warrants being fired despite three consecutive postseason appearances, does that not suggest pervasive organizational rot within the organization which produced Shildt? What on Earth is going on here?
Each of the last three full-time Cardinals managers–Joe Torre, Tony La Russa, and Mike Matheny–eventually managed elsewhere, and given Shildt’s track record, I have no concerns whatsoever that he is going to land on his feet, possibly with a MLB job next year. I wish I could feel such confidence in where the Cardinals will land.