Cardinals Generate More Questions Than Answers With Shildt’s Departure

Last Thursday, the entirety of the baseball world was focused on one thing and one thing only: Game 5 of the National League Division Series between the Dodgers and the Giants, the most anticipated contest of the year. But that afternoon, the Cardinals created an unexpected distraction by announcing the firing of manager Mike Shildt, the man who led them on a historic winning streak as part of a second-half surge that took St. Louis from a game under .500 on August 8 (the day their FanGraphs Playoff Odds bottomed out) to the National League Wild Card game. The Cardinals ultimately lost that game to the Dodgers, marking the end of their season and the last game in Shildt’s tenure with the team.

St. Louis’ President of Baseball Operations, John Mozeliak, spoke briefly with the press following the announcement, citing vague “philosophical differences” and admitting that Shildt was as shocked as those on the outside by the decision. Shildt offered little more during an even briefer set of remarks on Monday during which he took no questions, admitting that there were differences but choosing not to go into detail; his decision not to air his (or the team’s) dirty laundry is understandable, as he instantly became a legitimate candidate for any and all of the league’s current managerial openings. 

So what’s behind the separation between the two parties? The Athletic’s Katie Woo noted some midseason stress over the team’s poor performance and uninspiring trade deadline, as well as some in-season clashes concerning analytics. Shildt admitted to some of that being true but also talked about it not being the “entire picture.” In other words: All we have are guesses and theories.

The biggest questions now revolve around the timing of the news, with any follow-up queries stemming from their answers. Six days prior to the firing, Shildt participated in a postseason meeting with key members of the front office and his coaching staff. This is standard practice across all organizations, and while there is certainly discussion of the season that just came to an end, for the most part, these are forward-looking meetings to talk about offseason plans and what’s needed to prepare for the next campaign.

Did the St. Louis brass knows at the time of that meeting that they planned on parting ways with their skipper? If so, why did they have Shildt participate as opposed to delaying the meeting for a week? What could have possibly happened in that meeting or the six days that followed it to precipitate this move? Was Shildt overly forceful about wanting to do something (or not do something) that ran contrary to the wishes of the front office? Perhaps more surprising is that Shildt is apparently the only member of the 2021 major league coaching staff to incur the ire of the front office. Was he the only person with a significant enough disconnect from the front office to merit a change? If such a disconnect existed, wouldn’t that also suggest a disconnect with his staff? The manager leaving while his coaches stay on is nearly unprecedented in today’s game. In her piece on Shildt’s comments, Woo notes that per several sources “there was growing controversy between Shildt and his coaching staff over his leadership tactics and communication, something that potentially came to light during the organization’s annual end-of-year all-staff meeting held on Oct. 8.” In his remarks, Shildt denied those allegations, stating they had “no merit.”

Then there is the timing of the announcement itself. In order to announce the firing on Thursday, the club needed to request permission from Major League Baseball, as detailed by Chelsea Janes of The Washington Post. Having to make such a request is normal during the postseason, as the head office wants to make sure no story detracts from October, though permission is usually granted. The urgency may seem striking, but without the permission, it would have taken nearly a week for a clear day on the schedule in order to make the announcement, and that time would both cut into the Cardinals’ manager search and be a disservice to Shildt, who can now speak to other clubs about their openings. Still, the timing added to the sense that this was a sudden decision, even if there were in-season aspects to the relationship that created questions for the Cardinals’ leadership group.

What of the small details we do know? We know Shildt wasn’t happy with what the Cardinals did at the trade deadline, but that’s standard operating procedure; every manager wants more good players and is never fully satisfied with their roster. What about the analytics clash? Did something happen late in the year to send a strong message to the front office that the situation was untenable? It’s hard to argue with a 17-game winning streak, and there were no clear missteps in the Wild Card loss to the Dodgers. Pulling Adam Wainwright the inning after he took an at-bat isn’t a great look, but it didn’t cost the team any runs. The Cardinals’ top two set-up arms — Luis García and Giovanny Gallegos — combined for eight outs, they found a pocket for T.J. McFarland, and they handed closer Alex Reyes the ninth, which ended on his fourth pitch to Chris Taylor. The result wasn’t great, but the process seems sound, unless St. Louis suggested something out of the ordinary to Shildt before the game, which would be a strange time to swerve in a new direction after a season that was very much by the book in terms of pitcher usage.

The decision to part ways with a manager under contract happens at the highest level, and it’s quite possible, if not downright probable, that there are people in senior positions within the St. Louis front office who still don’t know the exact reasons for Shildt’s firing and probably never will. The Cardinals did give us some tea leaves to read in the days leading up to the announcement, though, and they at least provide us with a base from which to ask the right questions, albeit ones that most likely will never be fully answered.





Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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