Ask Bernie: Management Motive For Signing Pujols, Shildt’s Broken Heart, And Hitting At Busch Stadium.

Time for another session of Ask Bernie!

You’ve been very vocal in calling out the front-office when their moves contradict their own stated goal of “winning at all costs”. I’m puzzled that you don’t see the Albert move in the same way.

Excited to have Albert back, but … isn’t it clear this is a move by the front office to bolster ticket sales, merchandise sales, and attendance?

Which is fine. It is a business, after all. But, if the club is all-out committed to winning, wouldn’t that roster spot be better utilized as a developmental position for one of the team’s high-potential prospects, rather than taken up by an aged superstar with limited opportunities to contribute (i.e.DH against lefties?)

— Michael B.

First of all, I don’t believe Cardinals ownership-management is committed to winning at all costs. Along those lines, It was obvious to me that this team had no intentions – none – to spend big money on a DH for 2022. Why? It’s against their philosophy. Now, I could have written 25 columns screaming at the Cardinals to sign Kyle Schwarber – but I had as much of a chance of being signed by the Cardinals as Schwarbs did … so why would I go off on a series of irrelevant tantrums?

As I noted many times in recent months (before Pujols) they planned to use the DH spot as a way to get at-bats for young hitters. Young hitters that they’re developing and been touting and are excited by. (Juan Yepez, Nolan Gorman, etc.) As I wrote several times, I was good with that plan. I liked it. And that’s why I wrote a column a while back saying it didn’t make sense to sign Pujols – because the Cardinals wanted to go another way, with their own guys. I was good with it for many of the reasons you expressed in your note: “Wouldn’t that roster spot be better utilized as a developmental position for one of the team’s high-potential prospects, rather than taken up by an aged superstar with limited opportunities to contribute.”

Yes. When an organization develops talented young hitters, they have to play. But I disagree with you on the notion that a roster spot should be utilized as a “developmental” position. No, sorry, that’s what the minors are for. And what if the young hitters aren’t quite ready? Did you see any of the spring training games?

Yepez was jumpy in spring training and didn’t appear ready for a prominent role – at least not early in the season. And he looked shaky at first base. Embarrassing even. The nerves got to him, and he was getting worse … not better. By his own admission Gorman had a terrible spring and realized it was best to get plenty of at bats at Memphis to get him straightened out. So it made sense for the team to have Yepez and Gorman get going at Triple A, and be ready to go later in the season if needed.

Had the Cardinals pushed Yepez and/or Gorman onto the opening-month roster and set them up for failure, I can only imagine the reaction from fans. WHY DIDN’T YOU SIGN PUJOLS. (Actually, it would have been more about signing Schwarber. Which again, never was gonna happen. Especially to a four-year, $80 million contract. And why would a DH want to play half his games at Busch Stadium, which frustrates hitters? If they’re playing for the next contract, Busch is one of the worst places to try and pile up stats.)

Anyway, The front office already had signed Corey Dickerson as lefthanded-swinging DH and reserve outfielder. Pujols was out there and wanted to play. He had very good numbers and credibility against lefty pitchers. What’s wrong with a .603 slugging percentage and .939 OPS? That was Pujols vs. lefties last season. In 2019, he slugged .515 with a .830 OPS against LH. What’s wrong with that? Nothing. He can do damage against lefties, and that provides value. There’s nothing wrong with having an unofficial platoon at DH for one season. One.

The Cardinals were caught in between – the kids weren’t as far along as they hoped. And so Plan B made sense. My concern isn’t about Yepez and Gorman being bypassed for now. My concern is that Oli Marmol will give Pujols way too many at-bats against RH pitching. And Albert has been awful against righthanders. He hasn’t had an above–average performance vs. righties since 2016.

If the Cardinals can’t or won’t use Pujols properly, then I’ll be hollering about it. Because from a baseball standpoint, that’s the only way this can work. If they repeatedly place him against RHP and watch him struggle, then I’d have to say that management’s motives were more about $$$ than baseball.

We’ll see.

As you wrote: Isn’t it clear this is a move by the front office to bolster ticket sales, merchandise sales, and attendance?

Of course. That’s part of it. I’ve hit on that point, more than a few times. But I’m befuddled by folks that frame this as strictly a financial-business-profit decision. That seems awfully short-sighted to me. And here’s what confuses me: Why can’t the reason for signing Pujols be about baseball and business? Why does it have to be one or the other? These things aren’t mutually exclusive. Pujols can mash lefties – which helps the team. Pujols can create excitement and get the fans fired up and be good for ticket sales and merchandise. If he hits lefties, and he makes fans happy, and he energizes Busch Stadium, and he does it for one season with Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina – I’m sorry, I’m not sure what the problem is.

If Pujols is a bust, then the Cardinals made a mistake from a baseball standpoint, and criticism will follow. But they came into this confident in his ability to hit lefties, and the numbers backed that up. So they’re hoping for a win-win scenario.

Thank you. I appreciate your note and glad you asked me about this so I could clear the air. Enjoy the season.

As usual, your most recent column on Mike Shildt’s firing was excellent. But don’t you think his USA Today interview seriously hurts his prospects of being an MLB manager? He was fired in October, but the storyline six months on hasn’t changed; it’s still about his broken heart, dying in a Cardinal uniform, etc., etc. By continuing to make such public statements he’s risking that he will be seen only as the aggrieved former Cardinal manager. Why would a team consider him when the predominant question will be whether his “broken heart” has healed sufficiently to fully commit it to their club? Why would a team consider someone who continually says such things about what is normal in their sport, if not life in general? He seems like a good, honest man, but he’s not helping his cause right now.

— John E.

I agree with you. I have no enthusiasm for kicking Shildt while he’s down, but I don’t think he helped himself with the tone and specifics of that interview. He went too hard in playing the victim card, and was all but begging for sympathy. It was uncomfortable to read. It was a little to close to the word “unhinged” for me. Another time, soon after the firing, Shildt attributed his dismissal to God having a plan for him. I respect the man’s faith, but in putting it on God he’s also removing himself from responsibility and accountability in his firing.

Managers get fired all the time. Successful managers. Future Hall of Fame managers. Popular managers. The Yankees fired Casey Stengel. The Reds fired Sparky Anderson. The Royals fired Whitey Herzog. The Mets fired Davey Johnson. My childhood team, the Orioles, fired manager Hank Bauer a year and a half after his 1966 Orioles shocked the baseball world by sweeping the Dodgers in the World Series. The Cubs essentially fired Joe Maddon but chose to frame it in a different way.

Baseball people respect Shildt and think he’s good at managing. He doesn’t need to make a play for sympathy, and he doesn’t have to convince them that he’s a victim. He just needs to stay busy within the game (which he’s doing) and show strength in the aftermath of his firing. (Needs to do a lot of work on that part.) Better managers than Shildt have been fired. As you said, he has to get over it. Projecting weakness will not help him. If I’m a GM and I’m reading those quotes, I’d wonder about his state of mind. I’d imagine teams would be reluctant to hire a manager who appears to be so fragile.

Shildt has to be careful for another reason: St. Louis ownership and management haven’t said a negative word about him to the media. None of his former coaches have said a negative word about him to the media. Believe it or not, they’d all like to see him land another job and they don’t want to do anything that would hurt his chances. But in trying to make the Cardinals look bad in his woe-is-me narrative, he’s all but inviting his former employers to play some hardball. He doesn’t want that. But I don’t think they’d do that anyway.

When I was fired by 101 ESPN, I never fussed about it publicly, I said positive things about my former bosses in an interview with STLtoday, and I thanked them for giving me the opportunity to do a job I loved. I knew I would get another chance at another place, so why throw bombs? I was hurting, absolutely. But this happened during a pandemic, and the corporation was slashing salaries to lower costs, and I was making very good money. So … bye-bye. But brooding and crying about it wasn’t going to help me. So I emotionally moved on. This is important: I also used some time off to reflect on how I could have done a better job of conducting myself at work during those times when I felt stressed or frustrated. I let too many things bother me, trigger me. I took those self-improvement notes to my next job, and I make sure to stay consistent and not allow certain situations to set me off. I’m succeeding. The changes were good for me. Again, thanks for your note.

I see you reference the Cards need to improve their hitting at home. And I get what you’re saying. But it seems the opposing team’s hitting has to play into that analysis?

If the Cards hit/slug at x% less due to the park but the other teams have the same penalty, then isn’t it a wash? Now, if they are underperforming even with the park penalty then yeah.

– Steve L.

Great question. And yes, for sure, Busch Stadium is a friend to Cardinal pitchers. Last season the Cardinals offense performed 10 percent better than the visiting-team offense at Busch Stadium. That’s based on wRC+, or park-and-league adjusted runs created. The earned-run averages were virtually the same at Busch: 3.68 for the Cardinals, 3.66 for the visitors. And the Cardinals did have a higher slugging percentage at home compared to the visiting teams. But it wasn’t a large enough difference to give a meaningful advantage to the Cardinals.

But …

Because of your question, I wanted to look at the road games from a different angle. At Busch Stadium, the Cardinals and their opponents had similar pitching performances in 2021. But there was a wider gap away from Busch Stadium. When on the road, the Cardinals slugged .436 (5th in MLB) with a .752 OPS (also 5th.) And the home teams combined for a 4.62 ERA when the Cardinals came to town. Meanwhile, the visiting Cardinals pitchers were better than the home-team pitchers in 2021. The Cards had a 4.32 road ERA and limited home teams to a .392 slug and .728 OPS. That OPS would have been lower, but as we know the Cardinals walked too many batters last season and that led to a .336 onbase percentage for home teams vs. STL pitching.

Busch Stadium helps pitchers. But it’s interesting to me that Cardinal pitchers did a better job on the road than the home-team pitchers did when the teams went head to head. Or maybe it was just more difficult for pitchers to suppress the St. Louis offense when the Cardinals got out of Busch.

Slugging percentage is the most notable area. In 2021 the Cardinals slugged 51 points higher on the road than at home. But their opponents didn’t gain as much in slugging – 35 points – when leaving Busch Stadium and facing the Cardinals in their own ballparks. But Busch was on the extreme side in 2021, and the trend may not hold in 2022. Again: excellent question.

That’s all for this session, but you can help fill the hopper for the next time around.

You can hit me with questions at [email protected]

Have a nice weekend!

–Bernie

Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.

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