Who is responsible for the complete reversal of fortune for the St. Louis Cardinals?
Is it interim manager Mike Shildt, who found the on switch for a 50-50 team? Is it Mike Matheny, who stood in the way of a club that had more talent than it showed? Is it Matt Carpenter, who was a zero for the first six weeks of the season and the hero of a team that’s needed a star ever since?
If you ask me, the biggest single name in the St. Louis turnaround is Branch Rickey.
What? How can a guy who was last associated with the Redbirds more than half a century ago take credit for what’s happening with the team today? It’s simple. When the Cardinals had no other moves to make to fire up an underachieving team, they dusted off the Branch Rickey playbook called “Addition by Subtraction.”
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That’s when a team that isn’t performing betters itself less by adding a player who is a top performer than by getting rid of guys that are holding it back. And it wasn’t just one guy who was holding the team back — it was several.
Matheny was the prime suspect when St. Louis fans were looking for someone to blame. Not only did he have a reputation for rubbing players the wrong way, Matheny put the Cardinals offense in a box by deploying unsuccessful lineups and constantly toying with the moving pieces — which also hurt the defense because he would play guys in positions they couldn’t field to get their bat into the game. He was unimaginative in the style of play his team used, refusing to dust off the hit-and-run or hitting behind the runner in favor of waiting around for home runs to be hit.
Shildt was able to free things up for the batsmen by getting the runners moving on the bases. He gave the batting order some consistency and helped players develop roles. It’s easier to succeed when you know what is expected of you and can focus on executing your job description. Players like him and can talk to him. It seems the cloud over this club has finally broken up.
The bullpen is another major factor in the turnaround. It was so bad that the team basically cleaned house, figuring anyone would be better than what they had in the relief corps. And the front office wasn’t wrong. The team was instantly better when Greg Holland was given his walking papers. It didn’t hurt when Brett Cecil was sent to the disabled list. It was good for the team both in the short haul and the long run to give Class AAA star Dakota Hudson a chance to get his feet wet in the major leagues pitching in relief. He’s risen to the occasion, being nothing short of spectacular.
That was the easy list. But some of the other subtractions have helped a lot, too.
Tommy Pham was supposed to be a major cog of this team. He turned out to be a major disappointment, following up his breakout season with a dud that saw him spend much of the year as a nearly automatic out. There was little fire in his game all season long. But there was a lot of fire in his fit throwing in the spring when he groused over the fact that Paul DeJong got a long-term contract while he didn’t. It’s not good to be the fly in the ointment when you’re performance doesn’t justify your baggage. The departure of Pham gave Harrison Bader a chance to play every day and the results have been excellent. Since the trade deadline, Bader is a .325 hitter with two home runs and three stolen bases. He’s also a much better outfielder than Pham in the categories of range, throwing and baseball smarts. Pham was a hot head who tried to do too much sometimes because of the chip on his shoulder. Bader is a much cooler customer.
Dexter Fowler wasn’t sent away. But it is no coincidence that the team is playing its best baseball of the year when Fowler is out of the lineup on the disabled list. It’s hard to overcome a .170 hitter in your lineup when that guy plays lousy defense, too. Fowler’s injury made room for Tyler O’Neill to play everyday, even though the latter quickly went on the disabled list, himself. But, the result of the second injury is that Jose Martinez has found regular playing time in right field to keep his hot bat in games.
Will the Cardinals have enough talent to find their way back into the playoff picture? That remains to be seen. However, there is a chance now where there was none before. And that’s all fans could ask for at this point.