The Cardinals’ Mike Shildt Is A Worthy, Deserving Choice for NL Manager Of The Year

Mike Shildt is a finalist for NL Manager of the Year. He’s worthy of the award. He deserves the award. Good managers can make a difference, and that certainly was the case for Shildt and the 2019 Cardinals.

With all due respect to other NL finalists Craig Counsell (Milwaukee) and Brian Snitker (Atlanta), Shildt’s work was the most impactful. Shildt made more of a difference. He elevated his team by upgrading fixable internal components.

Keep in mind that the voting was done before the start of the postseason, and playoff results are irrelevant. So Shildt’s victory over Snitker’s Braves is no factor with the voters. The ballots were submitted by the time the Cardinals and Braves began competing in their NL division series.

Why is Shildt the right choice?

Well, many reasons:

• Shildt guided the Cardinals to 91 wins, their most since 2015. And that’s impressive for a team limited by a clogged payroll that complicated the manager’s lineup-pitching choices

He led the Cardinals back into the playoffs after a three-season absence. And I think that counts for a lot. Had the Cardinals missed the playoffs in 2019, it would have been the franchise’s longest postseason drought since the stretch of 1988 through 1995.

In Shildt’s first full season, the ‘19 Cardinals won the NL Central division for the first time since ‘15. That’s kind of a big deal; after all the Cardinals had become chew toys for the Cubs and/or Brewers over three seasons (2016-18)

Shildt’s strong emphasis on defense was largely responsible for a substantial improvement in a problematic, embarrassing area. Sloppy, careless defense had undermined the Cardinals for several seasons. In Mike Matheny’s final two full seasons as manager, the Cardinals averaged 17.6 defensive runs saved.  In Shildt’s first full season, the Cards were third in the majors with 95 defensive runs saved.

Shildt modernized the Cardinals by implementing defensive shifts and to great benefit. Matheny despised the use of shifts, and his disdain was reflected in the numbers. In Matheny’s final three full seasons as manager the Cardinals saved only three total runs via the shift, or one run per year. In 2019 the Cardinals ranked third in the NL and fourth in the majors with 30 runs saved on shifts.

The Cardinals committed the fewest errors in the majors in 2019 … after committing the most errors in the majors in 2018.  From worst to first. And Shildt played a major role in the transformation.

Shildt’s initiative to prioritize defense turned into a tremendous asset to the pitching staff. The ‘19 Cardinals ranked fifth in the majors in run prevention, allowing 4.09 runs per game, which includes unearned runs. Their runs-allowed average was second best, to the Dodgers, in the NL. The Cardinals’ stringent run prevention was the No. 1 reason for their rise to 91 wins, and the return to the postseason. There is no question about that.

The Cardinals were a horrendous base-running team before Shildt cleaned up the mess. In Matheny’s final five full seasons as manager the Cardinals were a minus 118 in net base-running gain according to Bill James Online. In Shildt’s first full season the 2019 Cardinals had a net base-running gain of plus 77. Huge difference. The Cardinals also tied for the NL lead with 116 stolen bases and set a single-season franchise record with an 80 percent success rate on steal attempts.

The Cardinals were an offensively challenged group in 2019. But Shildt helped construct some runs by having his team push on the bases. He made effective use of run-and-hit plays. No reasonably informed person can accuse the Cardinals of playing station-to-station baseball in 2019. The Cards were not stand-around team. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Cardinals ranked fifth in the majors and No. 2 in the NL for the number of swings (308) with runners in motion. This team lacked power; Shildt did a good job in trying to overcome a glaring weakness.

Shildt’s adept bullpen handling was an important part of a more consistent, reliable performance from the relievers. The 2019 Cardinals led the NL in save percentage (71.2%), were essentially tied for first in bullpen FIP (4.01 ERA) and ranked fourth in Win Probability Added.

• For whatever it’s worth — and I believe it had value — Shildt’s player relations and communication skills fostered renewed harmony in the clubhouse.

I don’t know if Shildt will win the award. I don’t claim to know, let alone understand, the voters’ thinking. I don’t know how many voters did extensive homework before casting ballots.

And I’m not saying that Shildty was perfect.

Um, that’s because no manager is.

And Shildt — like every manager in baseball history — can irritate fans and media with some of his ways, some of his decisions. But the usual nitpicking of strategy and lineup choices were minor concerns when measured against Shildt’s overall value and influence as manager.

In his final 231 games as the St. Louis manager, Matheny had a winning percentage of .510.

In his 231 games as the Cards’ manager, Shildt has a winning percentage of .571.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie