The Cardinals tend to err on the side of tradition in some of their strategies. They don't utilize platoons as much as “matchups,” manager Mike Shildt has said. They believe in the intricacies of the game -- crisp fielding, strong starting pitching, adeptness on the basepaths.
With 20 winning seasons since 2000 (including 13 in a row), it’s paid dividends this century. But some of that may need to change this decade -- at least for '21.
With pitcher health a central question after the unorthodox 2020 season -- Spring Training ramp-ups, Summer Camp ramp-ups and, specific to the Cards’ case, ramping up yet again after an August COVID-19 outbreak -- pitching coach Mike Maddux’s job this year will be just as much guiding the pitchers as he did in ’20, if not more so.
The 2020 season, Maddux told reporters Thursday, was “something we really don't want to do again.” But Maddux, a 15-year MLB veteran and a renowned pitching coach entering his 19th season in the role, learned plenty about the job and his team over the past year.
“We showed last year that we are adaptable,” Maddux said. “We adjusted on an elite level. I think that's why we ended up where we ended up -- making the playoffs.”
How those lessons pan out in an uncertain 2021 is to be determined, but the Cardinals are keeping themselves open.
“As far as a six-man rotation or a hybrid-type rotation, one thing we have done since I’ve been here is honoring the off-days,” Maddux said, adding that long stretches without a break could inspire creativity.
What gives the club confidence in the risks of creativity is that it believes its pitching depth is ready for whatever 2021 has to throw at it. Younger pitchers have emerged, and some -- like Jordan Hicks and Miles Mikolas (despite the latter’s shoulder ailment) -- are returning after lengthy absences.
Maddux is going to keep a vigilant eye this season, perhaps more than in past years. He gained a wealth of knowledge in 2020 -- much of which he hopes to disseminate in ’21.
“We're going to watch it, we're going to monitor the guys and we're going to honor the off-days,” Maddux said. “And at the beginning of the year, we're not going to push them, maybe as we have done in the past.”
Here’s more of what Maddux had to share with reporters on Thursday.
On Alex Reyes:
This week, the Cardinals made the somewhat surprising decision to limit Reyes, a highly talented right-hander, to 80-100 innings in 2021, likely putting him in a bullpen role. Reyes could make some spot starts, especially as the season moves along, but the Cards made the decision with the 26-year-old’s long-term health in mind, preparing him to be a starter in '22.
Maddux provided more insight.
“In Alex's case, he didn't quite have that track record [to jump in innings],” Maddux said. “So we're starting him as a young guy again, which he is. He had three years without really pitching. … Will he be a starter in the future? Probably. Is that going to happen this year? Maybe. But we do have a buildup that we have to do.”
Reyes has made only 32 appearances in four Major League seasons. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2017, tore a tendon attached to his right lat following one start in ’18 and broke his left pinkie finger in ’19. Though he’s 26, the Cards are going to be slow with Reyes. He has not thrown 100 innings since 2016.
“Alex is a rare animal,” Maddux said. “He's a big, strong young man, and a bright future lays ahead. But we're probably going to err on the side of caution.”
On Kwang Hyun Kim:
As Kim begins to navigate through his second year in the United States, he has seen mixed results in Spring Training. He only recorded two outs in his first start and was tagged for four runs in the opening frame of his second start before settling in and ending his day with one out in the third.
Kim's role elevated due to Mikolas being sidelined and questions about the rest of the back end of the rotation. There’s been some concern Kim may be “figured out” by opponents ahead of his second MLB season. But none of those concerns lie within the St. Louis clubhouse, partly because Kim now gets to face teams outside the Central divisions.
“Even though he saw [the National League Central] two, three, four times, he kept getting better as the season went on,” Maddux said. “ … I look for good things out of K.K. He'll make any adjustments, and he’ll make them on the fly.”
On his golf game:
Maddux made headlines when he sunk a pair of hole-in-ones before Game 3 of the 2019 NL Championship Series -- a 1-in-67-million feat.
That was a precursor to this offseason.
Maddux added another hole-in-one this winter, bringing his career total to eight -- “But who’s counting?” -- and he hit a career-long drive just after he found out the news of the Cardinals acquiring Nolan Arenado while on the links, he said.
“Adrenaline led to a career drive off the first tee,” Maddux laughed. “ … He helps us win that [World Series] championship, I’ll trade a couple aces for a championship any day.”