The late night games in Los Angeles make it difficult for this old body to watch very much and get up and write a post the next morning, so we’ll probably recap the LA series tomorrow or Friday. However, with the Cardinals moving into the first wild card position and within 2.5 games of the division lead, the moment needed to be noted. One of the major reasons that we have this moment to note is because of the managerial change on July 14. At that moment, nobody expected even an interesting second half, much less a playoff run. Now the Cardinals, at least per Fangraphs’ playoff odds, are more likely than not to be playing in October.
Which is why Mike Shildt is worthy of being named manager of the year.
If you are a Cardinal fan, you probably aren’t scoffing at this idea. Shildt has been on the job just over a month but in that time has fashioned a 22-11 record and led the Cards on this run up the standings. We’ll break it down anyway, though, because it would be silly for me to have a post that didn’t run close to 1000 words.
Let’s get this out of the way first–Brian Snitker is going to win the award and, in truth, that’s probably the right call. Writers love to recognize the manager of a team that wasn’t expected to win and did, which definitely describes Atlanta. Many folks thought that they would be better but that they were about a year away from really contending. Instead, they stand two games ahead of Philadelphia (another surprising team and Gabe Kapler is likely to receive votes as well) and it would be very surprising if they aren’t in October. Given that he led his team all year long to such heights, it’s completely reasonable for him to win the award.
However, Shildt is the most stark case of the difference a manager can make that we’ve seen in quite some time. The Reds did play somewhat better after Brian Price was relieved of his duties and Jim Riggleman took over, but they never moved out of last place. The Nationals have proven that just because you bring in a new face doesn’t mean that you’ll get a bump, otherwise Davey Martinez would be planning for his first-round series instead of wondering if he’ll have a second year.
It’s true that the Cardinals shuffled some players after Shildt’s arrival and the revamped bullpen is a big key to this, but we also know that the front office wouldn’t have felt comfortable making those moves under Mike Matheny. Greg Holland was a guy he wanted on his team and John Mozeliak was unlikely to have removed Holland under Matheny’s watch. Given Matheny’s issues with bullpen management, the club probably would not have wanted to give him great tools, only to see them wasted.
Besides the bullpen, though, this is basically the same team that Matheny had (save the trade of Tommy Pham and the injury to Dexter Fowler, which granted are pretty big moves) but it looks completely different. We’ve had back-to-back days with plays of the year out of Kolten Wong, plays that I’m not sure he has the confidence to make a few months ago. We’ve seen the defense tighten up significantly. We’ve seen very few outs on the basepaths even while more runners are being put in motion. We’re seeing a spirit and fire even when down early in the game that makes you believe they’ll rally rather than a lifeless slog through the remaining frames. We’re seeing two-strike hitting and two-out rallies on a scale that we haven’t seen in years.
Nobody thought this when Shildt took over. I think a lot of people expected a boost, maybe something more than a game over .500. But this? This excitement, this enjoyable baseball? This run that has people around the league starting to talk about #CardinalDevilMagic again? Nobody saw this. I know that Mozeliak said at the time of the change that they thought they had a chance this year, but I don’t think even they thought we’d see .667 baseball for the next month.
We’ve seen cases where a rookie gets called up late in the year and at least is a serious contender for Rookie of the Year. Gregg Jefferies got ROY votes in two years, as he was so good when he came up in 1988 even though he didn’t reach the rookie threshold. There’s often talk about whether a pitcher that was traded to a different league at the deadline could win Cy Young in that new league or a batter get MVP votes with a really good couple of months. It doesn’t happen often, but it is often enough that suggesting Shildt should get credit for this turnaround with some postseason hardware isn’t out of the question.
So often it is difficult to know what a manager does. Are they winning because they have good players? Well, yes, but would someone else win with the same players? That’s what we don’t usually know. Would the Braves be doing as well with someone other than Snitker? Braves fans would make a case that they wouldn’t be and they know their team more than I, but we are guessing. This is one of the rare times that we know how directly how much a manager has had on their team and it’s been remarkably positive.
I don’t expect the Cardinal skipper to get the award. Even though I titled the post the way that I did, I’m pretty sure the fact that Snitker has been doing this all year should get him the title. Mike Shildt is worthy of being MOY though and he should be on the short list. Even that is a remarkable accomplishment and Shildt would probably be fine with missing out on a plaque if it meant playing some extra games in October. However, if you wanted to give the award to the manager who made the most impact, not the manager that surprised you the most, Mike Shildt would be your National League Manager of the Year.