Congratulations and good luck to Oliver Marmol.
He has the job. He’ll be managing the Cardinals.
Here are 10 things that can or will help him:
1) Marmol needs more good players, and that’s on president of baseball ops John Mozeliak and the St. Louis front office. Former manager Mike Shildt did well to win 90 games last season despite the limitations of his bench, shaky rotation depth, and stressed bullpen. Gaps that already were there before the team went to spring training weren’t addressed until much later in the season. I’m confident Shildt would have won more games if he had a capable, MLB-proven fourth outfielder in the early part of the season to provide injury insurance.
And I still believe Cardinals management should have gotten out of its comfort zone and pushed it by securing starting pitching in early June. That would have helped mitigate a 13-22 record from the start of June through July 4. The rotation ERA was 5.23 over the 35 games, and the Cardinals spent weeks trying to climb out of the gutter. The September charge to a wild-card spot was an outstanding run of baseball, but by then it was too late to catch the first-place Brewers in the NL Central.
2) Will the front office match Marmol’s high standards? That’s a key question for 2022. And a key component of the front-office trustworthiness. If Mozeliak and associates leave their rookie 35-year-old manager shorthanded, the neglect will be a travesty — and only intensify criticisms over the organization’s commitment to building a roster that’s more capable of making a deeper postseason run.
We liked the way Marmol threw down during his Monday video conference. “Expectations for this organization has always been the same — to win a World Series,” he said. “At the end of the day, a championship is the goal, and anything less than that is a disappointment.”
Admittedly, I’d be surprised if the laid-back operational style continues in the planning for 2022. This isn’t just about Marmol. Franchise legends Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright will be competing in their final MLB season. (At least we think so.) Third baseman Nolan Arenado can opt out after the ‘22 season. Arenado and first baseman Paul Goldschmidt will be a year older, and the Cardinals can’t waste their near-peak portion of their careers. And if you want fans to fill Busch Stadium next season, add some extra motivation by building up this roster. But if the owners and players squabble through the fall and winter and reach an impasse in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, then all bets are off.
3) Marmol must help himself. What do I mean by that? Well, he’s got to play his best players instead of playing favorites. His predecessor started Edmundo Sosa at shortstop only twice in the first 40 games and lost the bet on Paul DeJong. Jake Woodford absolutely should have been utilized as a starting pitcher much earlier than September. Woodford made only three starts all season before the final month, and had a 3.09 ERA in five September starts. Just two examples. At least Marmol won’t have to deal with an awkward Matt Carpenter situation in 2022.
Here’s one thing that must be changed going forward: the Cardinals ranked 27th in the majors with a .313 leadoff onbase percentage. That was the fourth-lowest OBP by the top spot in the Cardinals lineup over the last 20 seasons. For perspective, the overall onbase percentage at the No. 1 spot across the majors was .332 last season. Tommy Edman does a lot of things well, but he’s inadequate at the task of getting on base at a respectable rate when batting leadoff. In 752 MLB plate appearances at leadoff since coming to the big leagues in 2019, Edman has a .312 OBP. MLB’s overall onbase percentage at leadoff is .334 since the start of the 2019 season.
In his MLB career, Edman is nine percent below league average offensively when batting leadoff, and 13 percent above average when hitting elsewhere in the lineup. That’s based on park-and-league adjusted runs created. If you want a more conventional stat: Edman has a .695 OPS as a leadoff man in his career and his OPS is about a 100 points higher (.769) when he bats at the other lineup spots.
One more thing: more platoons.
4) It’s imperative for Marmol to treat his coaches with respect. That’s the only way to maintain loyalty, because loyalty must be in place at both ends of the relationship. Marmol is an intelligent and observant man. He’ll learn from what he saw as Shildt’s bench coach. And he definitely knows that it isn’t a good idea to alienate coaches and pick fights with the front office. That’s how you get sacked.
5) This goes without saying, but the key veterans are important. Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado support Marmol, and obviously he must keep it that way. But there’s a fine line. You can’t go too far in appeasing them at the expense of winning … or at the expense of other players that are competing just as hard for you. I don’t think that will be difficult; all four of those dudes are high-character individuals. But this applies to anyone.
6) Marmol will face a challenge when the Cardinals begin promoting prospects to the big club, and we can expect the procession to begin in 2022. The kids will have to play. That will require creativity and diplomacy — with some veterans probably having to share more playing time than they expect.
Marmol can’t repeat some of the notable mistakes we’ve seen in the past. Examples: Mike Matheny repeatedly burying Kolten Wong, Tommy Pham and Randal Grichuk on the bench. Shildt giving only 15 plate appearances to outfielder Randy Arozarena in Sept. 2019 — even though all three starting outfielders were batting below .200 for the month. And I’ve already mentioned Sosa and Woodford. And there are other examples.
7) Defuse the Jeff Albert situation, ASAP. This fits under the umbrella of “Coach Your Coaches.” During Monday’s video conference, Marmol said his hitting philosophies are in line with the philosophies espoused by Albert, the team’s lead batting instructor. But Marmol also offered a subtle comment — mentioning the need to improve communication. That’s important. To me, that’s always been the only real problem with Albert — his messaging. If players aren’t understanding the message or absorbing the message — the message is meaningless. And if Albert is doing a good job, then the public needs to hear about that too. If Albert is a problem, then the young manager must deal with it. This War On Albert can’t go on; it’s disruptive and distracting.
Oh, by the way: the Cardinals need to draw more walks next season.
8) Marmol must stay true to himself. Honestly I don’t believe this will be a problem for him — but you never know. And I’ve been wrong about people many times. But through my many years of doing this job, I’ve seen too many coaches and managers change — and not for the good — after experiencing some success. It goes to their head. They begin to believe that they’re masters of the universe, or something. And their players and others notice the difference.
This also applies to the inevitable times of struggle and failure. When a team gets kicked around and starts to lose games, I’ve seen football coaches and baseball managers isolate themselves and turn paranoid. It’s self-destructive behavior. Dick Vermeil and Tony La Russa and Craig Berube may have changed strategies, or altered the roster in a way that would make the team more aligned with the preferred strategy.
But whether they were winning or losing, all three remained true to themselves. It’s OK to be grumpy when you lose; just don’t lapse into paranoia, start blaming others or losing your sense of self — the values that put you in this job. La Russa is absolutely the most consistent guy I’ve ever covered in this regard, and I covered him for 16 years. TLR was always cognizant of the need to make adjustments to become a better manager — including player relations — but it didn’t change his core beliefs. Not for one day. And he didn’t have two faces. Didn’t put on the nice-guy act for the media and fans. He played it straight, unafraid to be himself. And people respected him for that.
Here are some words for any manager to live by. The speaker is Braves manager Brian Snitker, age 66. But his credo should apply to any manager of any age. In reflecting on his long journey through the minors and his late arrival in the big leagues, this is what “Snit” told Sports Illustrated:
“The truth is all I’ve ever wanted to hear and haven’t,” Snitker said. “I’ve been shoved aside probably more than the player I’m talking to and I’ve never been told the truth, and I had to learn to deal with it. So I just tell them the truth.”
9) Marmol must live up to his vow to collaborate with other departments. He should be the leader in this movement to set the example. This should be one of the easier — and stimulating — parts of his job. The Cardinals haven’t had full collaboration between the manager and other wings of the baseball operation since the start of the big analytics wave. And it shouldn’t be so difficult. One issue: when there’s a disagreement, Marmol has to find the right way to push back when warranted. But he has to do it without going overboard and damaging working relationships. As long as he isn’t power tripping, he’ll be fine. And I trust that he’s learned from miscalculations made by other managers.
Here’s how it’s worked in St. Louis after La Russa left town: The manager insists that all he cares about is winning, and wants all the help he can get from the co-workers upstairs. He’s fired up. Bring him the information! Except … he doesn’t really want that; what he wants above all else is to protect his turf, and remind everyone that he doesn’t need all this stinkin’ help because he knows what he’s doing. As soon as a suggestion or recommendation — not an order — is made, he resents the intrusion; to him this becomes personal rather than professional. And his ego kicks in and takes control of his attitude. In other words: self-defeating.
The media narrative on this is paint-by-numbers stuff so far: the big, bad baseball operation is portrayed as a power-mad, strong-arm unit that forces managers to follow orders shaped by analytics material.
Um, no. It hasn’t been like that. But why blame a front office for giving the manager the extra tools to work with, and making a case for adopting their recommendations? And what would you do if the manager regularly dismissed the data that’s presented to him? It’s supposed to be a give-and-take — and at times the manager has to give. And at times the front office has to ease up. Both parts have to identify better ways of doing things in order to win more ballgames.
Teamwork is a positive.
Here’s the best description of the manager-analytics relationship I’ve seen to date. And it comes, again, from Snitker. He isn’t a 35-year-old manager; he’s got 31 years on Marmol. But Snitker’s mind remains open.
“I think it’s been instrumental in a lot of our success,” said Snitker, who had guided the Braves to four straight NL East titles. “Players love the information. Analytics is information. You pick and choose what you want to use. Players learn what they need for their individual cases. There’s a lot out there. I think you’ve got to learn not to drink from a firehose with it, or you can get overwhelmed. But its good stuff.”
In Marmol, I believe the Cardinals have a manager who understands what this is all about. He won’t just talk about the value of collaboration; he’ll play a major role in making it happen. The Cardinals won’t have to “force” Marmol into utilizing data that can give him a tactical edge. Why? Because he’s already there. He gets it. But he’s also smart enough to know what will work, what is realistic, and what makes sense to pass on to players without creating a hullabaloo.
Marmol knows that this team will be getting younger soon enough. This isn’t some cataclysmic event. My goodness, it’s 2021. This stuff has been around for a long time. There is nothing to fear. It is not 1964, but everything will be OK. Marmol will bring that vibe to the clubhouse.
10) Marmol can’t get pulled into any stupid junk about his young age. To the contrary, he should embrace his age. Tony La Russa became a big-league manager at age 34. TLR used his youth to his advantage, because older managers are generous about offering guidance to younger managers. La Russa would seek out Sparky Anderson, Earl Weaver, Billy Martin. He’d ask them how they handled certain situations. He tapped into their experience and wisdom. It helped him learn more about clubhouse dynamics, dealing with umpires, finding a way to get through to problem players, and understanding subtle but important points about setting a lineup, or how to make the most out of a pitching staff. The older managers liked helping the young dude. They were flattered by La Russa’s respect for them.
I’m pulling for Marmol. And now it’s up to Marmol to prove he’s was worthy of the opportunity, and that he will turn his natural leadership and baseball acumen into more wins for the Cardinals. There are many challenges, but he’s inherited a winning program. And now it comes down to merging his potential and his talent. And yes, he’ll need help from the front office. Including an upgrade in personnel.
Thanks for reading …
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* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.
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.