The Twins’ Rocco Baldelli and Mike Shildt of the Cardinals won Manager of the Year by instilling a brand new philosophy on their respective clubs
On Aug. 11, the Minnesota Twins were wrapping up a four-game series against their AL Central rivals, the Cleveland Indians. The Indians got a grand slam from Carlos Santana in the top of the 10th inning and went on to win 7-3. The Twins had led the division by as many as 11 games back in June, but suddenly, after losing three of four against the Indians, that lead had completely evaporated.
It was the first crisis in the tenure of rookie manager Rocco Baldelli, who spent the previous four seasons in the dugout for the Rays as part of their coaching staff.
Baldelli passed the test easily. The Twins went 30-14 from there, tied with the Astros for the best record in the American League over the span. Baldelli led the Twins to 101 wins, the most for the franchise since 1965. And although they were swept by the Yankees in the ALDS, Baldelli’s work culminated in him being honored with the AL Manager of the Year Award on Tuesday night.
Baldelli brought a different philosophy to the Twins this year.
They scored 5.8 runs a game in 2019, an increase of nearly 1.3 runs from last season. They hit a Major League record 307 home runs, a year after finishing 23rd in the league with 166.
Under Baldelli, Jorge Polanco became an All-Star shortstop. Miguel Sano—who spent part of 2018 in the minors—rebounded to hit a career-high 34 home runs. Eddie Rosario, in his fifth year with the Twins, drove in 109 runs, 31 more than he had in any previous season.
Even the pitching staff benefited from Baldelli’s influence. Jake Odorizzi, who Baldelli worked with in Tampa Bay, led the team with a career-high 15 wins on his way to his first career All-Star appearance.
Baldelli’s claim as the most recent rookie manager to be named the league’s top bench boss lasted only a few minutes. Mike Shildt, in his first full season in the dugout for the Cardinals after taking over the team midway through 2018, edged out Milwaukee’s Craig Counsell for the award in the National League.
Shildt, like his AL counterpart, guided his team to a stunning turnaround this season. The Cardinals lost their first game back from the All-Star break to fall to 44-45. Over the next two-and-a-half months they went 47-26, behind only the Dodgers in the NL, and won the division over the Brewers by two games.
The Cardinals played like a different team under Shildt in 2019.
A year after leading the league with 133 errors, the Cardinals committed just 66 this season, the fewest in the league. They were third in defensive runs saved and had the best fielding percentage in baseball. Jack Flaherty turned into the best pitcher in baseball in the second half, while Dakota Hudson became a Rookie of the Year contender. After losing closer Jordan Hicks to Tommy John surgery in June, Shildt installed former starter Carlos Martinez in the role and he responded with a team-leading 24 saves.
Under Baldelli and Shildt, the Twins and Cardinals took similar paths to the postseason. But the paths they took personally to get here couldn’t have been more different. Baldelli was a top prospect, the sixth-overall pick in the draft who went on to play seven seasons for Tampa Bay and Boston. Shildt, on the other hand, never played in either the majors or minors. A former UNC Asheville player who realized he didn’t have a career in pro baseball, Shildt instead turned to scouting and coaching until being given the opportunity to manage last season.
“I set my sights on being the best coach I could be, and the journey led me here,” he said on MLB Network after the award was announced. “This wasn’t what I was striving for. I just wanted to be involved with young men and help coach and learn the game and grow thte game and win the game. Just be a good ambassador for the game. Lo and behold, here we are. I’m grateful for it.”
Shildt is the first Manager of the Year who never played at the pro level. He’s the first manager since Ed Barrow of the 1918 Red Sox to lead his team to the postseason without having played himself.
Both Baldelli and Shildt will be hard-pressed to repeat their performance next season. Odorizzi is a free agent. So is Cardinals’ All-Star outfielder Marcell Ozuna. But if they showed anything on their journey toward being recognized as the best managers in baseball, it’s that they won’t let any obstacle get in their way.