At one point Wednesday, during yet another pregame interview session dissecting the St. Louis Nine, Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said to a group of writers: “I really believe you guys get more excited about our lineup than we do. Our guys just want to be in it.”
With fans and media, there’s a disproportionate amount of emphasis and analysis put on a club’s lineup, compared to other aspects of managing, such as, say, shifting or fielder positioning. This is because the lineup can be directly challenged – “You should’ve gone with Player A instead of Player B” – whereas some other managerial decisions involve a preponderance of data.
Still, the lineup matters quite a bit. And it was reassuring, even if for a night, to see Kolten Wong not at the bottom of it.
“It’s definitely cool to hit second,” Wong said before Wednesday’s game at Busch Stadium. “It’s been a minute since I’ve been at the top of the lineup.”
Wong entered Wednesday with four starts in the leadoff spot and one fifth – the rest were 6-9. In the month of August, Wong’s batting average is .347 with a .429 on-base percentage and a .469 slugging percentage. And since the All-Star break, his .438 on-base percentage ranks fourth in the National League.
If the Cardinals’ offense was robust, it’s a luxury to have an impact bat low in the lineup. But when much of your offense has been a bust, it was curious that Wong remained so low for so long.
“It’s going to be fun hitting second,” Wong said, “to be there and be able to get more at-bats and be in a situation where I can use my baseball IQ to get into scoring position, work the pitcher if I have to.”
In his first at-bat Wednesday, he drilled a ball 100 miles per hour up the gut of the Brewers’ infield for a single. He reached base a second time with a walk.
Wong did acknowledge what the skipper had said – this lineup move was more because Tommy Edman was getting a day off. The switch-hitting infielder Edman has the Cards enamored. They’ll even play him in the outfield over top outfield prospects. Edman has some speed, a great glove, the ability to hit in intense situations … but also an OPS of .715. An OPS+ of 86, below the league average of 100.
But with Edman, it’s almost as if there are two debates – should he start and where should he hit. Shildt has made it clear, telling reporters recently in Cincinnati that Edman is a Cards’ “regular.” But does he deserve all these at-bats in the top-two spots in the lineup?
What else does Wong have to show? For the season he has a .760 OPS and a 101 OPS+. He steals bases. He’s unafraid to bunt. But he’ll likely be lower in the lineup in the games against Colorado. And while the Cards are still in the division hunt, it’s pretty clear that their offense has many issues.
“For me, it’s just not trying to do too much (at the plate),” said Wong, who is also of the top fielding second basemen in the game. “I’ve always had tendencies where I wanted to try and hit a home run or drive the ball all the time. Now I’m just taking what the pitcher – and what the team – is giving me. If they’re giving me a bunt, I’m going to take the bunt. If they’re pitching me away, I’m going to hit the ball away. Not trying to do things where I’m trying to get on ESPN – trying to do things to help my team win.”
There is an aspect to managing that baseball stathead and computers can’t compete with – and that’s the manager knowing his personnel, knowing how they’re wired, knowing how to maximize. Some people could make an argument that Shildt is actually managing Wong pretty well, because he’s getting a lot out of his player offensively in the spot he’s putting the player in. Just like some ballplayers say there’s more pressure pitching the ninth inning than the seventh, some would say there’s more pressure hitting leadoff than eighth.
“He was doing some good things down there, creating some opportunities for the bottom of the lineup,” Shildt said. “You know, I mean, the bottom of the lineup is important, too. I get the (strategy of the) extra at-bat for the guy (higher in the lineup), but when he’s at the bottom, he’s turning it over, he’s getting on in front of the pitchers, he has the ability to be selective. He can do different things – he can run, and I’ve always liked speed at the bottom, a guy who can take a bag. That’s not to say guys at the bottom can’t do damage, but they’re typically not doing as much damage as the guys in the middle of your lineup.
“It creates some opportunity. He’s got the skill set to be able to do that. People may not recognize or see the value in it, but it’s real. And then so why move him up? Tommy’s not in the lineup today. So it’s like OK, who’s a good option to hit second?”
It was the first rain-shortened game in Busch Stadium III history. The delay was 1 hour 6 minutes and the Cardinals, stuck with a 5-3 loss to the Brewers, didn’t think that was long enough. The umpires called the game at 10:46 p.m.
Junior Fernandez enjoyed a big night in his young career. On the other hand, Adam Wainwright suffered another tough night toward the end of his long, long career.