Why you should care

St. Louis’ recent success has turned heads around the league, and its methods may soon be replicated. 

If Daniel Poncedeleon is nervous as he takes the mound, he’s doing a hell of a job hiding it. His St. Louis Cardinals are visiting the Reds in Cincinnati on a cloudy July day, and the pitcher is making his Major League Baseball debut. Unbelievably, he throws a no-hitter through seven innings.

A host of factors converged to make this start possible for Poncedeleon. For one, he can credit his remarkable recovery from a brain surgery only 14 months prior, after he took a line drive to the head. There’s also the fact that the day before this game, Poncedeleon wasn’t even on the Cardinals roster. The morning before his start, team manager Mike Shildt called Poncedeleon up from the minors — something experts say Shildt’s predecessor, Mike Matheny, never would have done. Then again, since Matheny was let go by the organization a week before this game, the Cardinals have been doing a lot of things differently. The Cardinals currently control the second wild-card spot in the National League. On the day Shildt took over Matheny’s skipper duties, however, St. Louis was barely a .500 team. But the Cardinals have pulled off a dramatic turnaround — and their tactics are now set to reverberate throughout MLB.

It would be easy to attribute the transformation in the Cardinals’ fortunes to Shildt’s influence, but experts say it’s a combination of factors that spawned this success: a youth movement in the bullpen, a reshuffled outfield and an overall deeper embrace of analytics.

We’ve got kind of a new look down in the bullpen.

Miles Mikolas, Cardinals pitcher

“I felt like there were places in that bullpen we could internally address,” John Mozeliak, the team’s president of baseball operations, said on a Fox Sports broadcast in late July. “When you make a managerial change, you try to give Mike Shildt his best opportunities and tools to work with.”

So what changes did Shildt bring? Veterans Greg Holland, Tyler Lyons, Sam Tuivailala and Brett Cecil were out. Up-and-comers Poncedeleon, Dakota Hudson, Tyler Webb and Luke Weaver were in. The former group had an average age of 30. The latter group? Twenty-five.

“We’ve got kind of a new look down in the bullpen, and those guys came up six-guns a-shootin’,” says Miles Mikolas, one of the Cardinals’ starting pitchers. “When I’m out there, if I go six or seven innings I know that when they hand the ball off to that bullpen, the game’s not gonna get tight.”

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Baseball is a sport that begs to be quantified, and the Cardinals’ turnaround is deliciously quantifiable. Their bullpen went from baseball’s fourth worst in July to its fourth best in August — but the group is struggling through some growing pains this month. Not since 2011 has a team experienced such a dramatic shift in fortunes this late. That year — wouldn’t you know it — the Cardinals surged from 10.5 games out of the wild-card race in August to win the World Series.

In the first half of the current season under Matheny, the Cardinals attempted 55 stolen bases and succeeded only 33 times. Since the All-Star Game in July, the Cardinals have had 30 successful steals from 40 attempts. That’s an increase in success rate from 60 to 75 percent.

Why the sudden jump in baserunning efficiency? MLB analyst Mike Petriello suggests it could correlate to the fact that given the outfield shuffle, more guys are attempting steals. Certainly, the Cards’ decision to promote outfielder Harrison Bader after trading Tommy Pham is crucial. And it’s the use of analytics post-Matheny that made the Cardinals pull the trigger on promoting younger stars like Bader. “He has top running speed,” Petriello says of Bader, who leads the team with 15 steals. “He’s a top-five fastest player in the game.”

Like many analysts, Petriello isn’t convinced the Cardinals’ remarkable resurgence can be credited entirely to Shildt. “In this case, just not having Mike Matheny around has probably been an improvement for them,” muses Petriello. Matheny’s lawyers and representatives have not responded to requests from OZY for comments. The Cardinals’ decision to part ways with Matheny — a former Cardinals catcher — in favor of someone with managing experience (Shildt managed in the minors) could now emerge a key takeaway for the rest of the league, say experts.

In Washington, Dave Martinez has no managing experience. The New York Mets likewise gave Mickey Callaway his first skipper post this year. It’s the same with Alex Cora in Boston. While the latter team is a playoff lock, the other two will be on the outside looking in this year. That’s been a rising trend in baseball — but teams may be ready to take a breather on unproven skippers. “Maybe we do need to start hiring guys who have actually done this job before,” says Petriello.

Of course, in other ways, the Cardinals have been the ones playing catch-up when it comes to MLB trends. Under their previous management, they were hesitant to give young players opportunities — surprising, considering the strength of their farm system with players such as Bader, Poncedeleon and outfielder Tyler O’Neill waiting in the wings. St. Louis’ drastic improvement after making over its roster with younger, better players will send a signal to other MLB teams with aging rosters — such as the Toronto Blue Jays (average age of 30.3) — to give the youth movement a chance.

None of these personnel moves would have been possible for the Cardinals without their remarkably deep farm system — one that seems to always have pro-ready talent on tap. And that, above all, is the biggest lesson for other teams in the league: Baseball is getting younger across the board, so your farm system better be ready to produce.

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