Cardinals: It's time for Oli Marmol's detractors to shelve their pitchforks

St. Louis Cardinals manager Oli Marmol's massive improvement in 2024 deserves acknowledgment from even the most curmudgeonly fans.
Cincinnati Reds  v St. Louis Cardinals
Cincinnati Reds v St. Louis Cardinals / Scott Kane/GettyImages
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In a vacuum, it was just one decision that turned out well. On a bigger scale, Oli Marmol's choice to stick with St. Louis Cardinals closer Ryan Helsley for the 11th inning in a tie game on July 5 illustrated his immense growth as the Cardinals manager in his second year at the helm.

The 2024 iteration of the Cardinals is superior to the 2023 version in nearly every way conceivable, from basic statistics such as win-loss record to advanced numbers and Statcast metrics. Most of that can and should be credited to the players who are doing their jobs, but despite the decreased emphasis on managerial roles in today's game, there are plenty of facets to this year's Cardinals team that Marmol has a hand in that have improved drastically from last season.

The most striking change from the 2023 Cardinals is the improvement of the bullpen, which is tied for seventh in baseball with a 3.51 ERA after it hobbled to a 4.47 ERA last year. Marmol doesn't affect how the players perform, of course, but his utilization of the bullpen is far superior to how he handled it in 2023.

Marmol is generally turning to relief pitchers in lower-leverage situations instead of leaving a pitcher in too long. The Cardinals ranked 29th in the major leagues last season in turning to relief pitchers with the bases empty, whereas they are tied for 23rd this season. His quicker hook has been the subject of scorn, such as when he removed Miles Mikolas from the game on July 3 after 87 pitches and two runs allowed and turned to struggling reliever Giovanny Gallegos, but Marmol has done well in embracing the new-school approach to limiting starters' workloads while also being aware of who is available to pitch out of the bullpen.

Marmol's latest decision to forgo Gallegos and keep Helsley in to pitch the 11th inning, allowing the closer to go more than one inning for the first time in 2024, demonstrated profound trust in Helsley — and a lack of faith in Gallegos. The Cardinals have played in 29 one-run games this season, tied for second in the major leagues, so Marmol is walking a tightrope on keeping Helsley fresh while still giving the Cardinals their best chance to squeak out narrow victories. The team's 17-12 record in one-run games is a testament not only to the bullpen's production, but to Marmol's ability to maximize its results with his choices of when to deploy each reliever.

Bullpen management is not the only place where Marmol has bloomed. The Cardinals' defense has also taken massive steps forward this season, thanks in large part to Marmol's lineup choices. Last year, Marmol often used platoon splits and would keep inferior defenders in the game after getting them a plate appearance. Now, Marmol is looking at the bigger picture and has recognized the importance of defense to a structurally sound team.

After injuries knocked Tommy Edman and Lars Nootbaar out for extended periods of time and Jordan Walker's ineffectiveness at the plate led to a longer-than-expected Triple-A stint, Marmol adjusted on the fly. Michael Siani currently ranks as the best defensive center fielder in baseball, with 13 outs above average, and it will be difficult to keep him out of the lineup despite a below-average bat. Although Masyn Winn currently rates as one out below average at shortstop, his rifle arm is a lethal weapon against baserunners, and Nolan Gorman and Alec Burleson have developed into passable defenders. As a team, the Cardinals rank 11th in Ultimate Zone Rating after finishing 24th in 2023. 

To further build on the emphasis on fundamentals, the Cardinals' baserunning has also improved. Baseball Savant has given the Cardinals four runs above average on the basepaths, which ranks third in the league. It's a marked improvement from when they were three runs below average in 2023.

Marmol's lineup decisions have been better this season as well. Marmol's steadfast decision to play Winn as his regular shortstop has paid off in spades, as has his trust in Burleson. But when players aren't performing up to the Cardinals' expectations, Marmol isn't afraid to tinker with the lineup a bit. That's what he did when Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado struggled: He smartly moved them down in the batting order instead of letting the star players' pasts cloud his decisions. 

There remain some questions, such as why Marmol has been so eager to give Winn two rest days in a row, although Winn's back problems are a likely culprit. His decisions to play Brandon Crawford in place of Winn have been irritating, but to Marmol's and Crawford's credit, the longtime shortstop has picked it up a bit at the plate lately.

Crawford was brought in to be a leader in the clubhouse above all else, and players have responded well to veterans such as Crawford, Matt Carpenter, Lance Lynn and new bench coach Daniel Descalso. The Cardinals' thinly veiled offseason clubhouse detoxification is more on the front office than it is Marmol, but the manager has a role in keeping the peace, and unlike the drama-filled 2023 season, there hasn't been any major clubhouse controversy in 2024 that media have been made aware of. 

There remain calls to fire Marmol. There will always be calls to fire Marmol. It's just the nature of a sports fan to always be wanting more. But Marmol has shown an ability to learn, develop and adapt in his job, and he warrants some recognition for how far he's come.

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