The war of attrition that is the regular baseball season will always test the plans of spring. Slumps, hot streaks and injuries will force managers and fan bases to consider and reconsider lineup constructions and pitching rotations.
Usually at about this point of the season (roughly the one-fourth mark) managers of teams who aren’t clicking on all cylinders will start getting pressure to make adjustments. This is one of the annual tests of managerial patience. In general, the patient manager will be rewarded – but history must prove him right.
In Mike Shildt’s case – navigating through his first season at the Cardinal helm and with his team fighting through a 2-9 stretch – the advice has been plenty and loud. Drop Matt Carpenter from the leadoff spot – or from the lineup entirely. Drop everyone but Miles Mikolas and Adam Wainwright from the rotation. Release Luke Gregerson and Dominic Leone – it comes with the territory.
Fans, by nature, have short memories and shorter attention spans. On the other hand, sometimes the spring plan is bad and needs to be adjusted. The manager’s art is to know when to stay the course and when to say “we were wrong.”
Forty-one games into the 2019 season, we have seen some of both from Shildt and the Cardinal management.
As far as the patient Mike Shildt, we have seen him stand by his starting rotation through its rough start. Through this point, he remains doggedly committed to all of them.
The top four spots in his lineup have also gotten the full benefit of the doubt. Of these top four, only Paul DeJong (who has hit third in 38 of the first 41 games) has answered the faith of his manager with an outstanding start. As to the rest, well, Mike continues to believe that better days are coming.
Carpenter has fought through a season-long slump, but has still been the leadoff hitter in 37 of the first 41 games. Paul Goldschmidt has hit second 40 times already. Paul hit more than a few home runs early, but then went through an extended dry spell where he contributed little. His resurgence in the recent Pirate series might suggest the beginning of a hot streak from Goldschmidt.
Marcell Ozuna has been written into the fourth slot 39 times so far. He had a torrid couple of weeks toward the end of April, but has tailed off since then. As with the others, though, Marcell maintains Shildt’s complete confidence.
In all of this, I would have expected nothing less from Mike. Mike believes in all of these players, and belief is the managerial bottom line.
At the same time, other spring plans have already been discarded.
The first to bite the dust was the “closer-by-committee” plan. There were supposed to be three primaries at the back of the bullpen – any one of which might get the save opportunity on any given night.
But Alex Reyes and Andrew Miller both began the season in uneven fashion, and Jordan Hicks – who many might not have felt was ready to be “the man” – stepped into the void and hasn’t looked back. There hasn’t been “closer-by-committee” talk since the first week of the season.
The other major policy change occurred 14 games into the season when centerfielder Harrison Bader went out for a few games with a right hamstring pull. The very mild injury opened an opportunity for Jose Martinez, and he has made it impossible for Mike to return him to the bench.
For the moment, the starting outfield consists of Ozuna, Dexter Fowler and Martinez, with Bader as fourth outfielder. This, though, will be a developing story. The Cards are 12-7 (.632), although they score just 4.63 runs per game when Bader starts. With Martinez in the lineup, St Louis is 16-12 (.571), scoring 5.14 runs per game. They are 20-19 in Ozuna’s 39 starts – scoring just 4.87 runs per game. St Louis is 15-15 with Fowler in the lineup, although the 5.17 runs per game they score when he is in there is the highest of any of the outfielders.
The outfield picture – trust me – isn’t settled by a long shot. This and other lineup shuffling will be something to keep an eye on as the season unfolds.
There is still – of course – a long way to go and a lot of baseball to be played. More injuries will alter the landscape. At some point some struggling players may be re-fitted. But in the ups and downs of the early season, we’ve been given some idea of who Mike Shildt is – some insight into his patience and loyalty.
The rest of the season, now, will have to prove him right.