The St. Louis Cardinals are 47-27, atop the National League Central and well on their way to another postseason appearance. Should the Redbirds make it to the playoffs, it would be their third appearance in a row and their 10th since the turn of the millennium, an impressive feat exceeded by only the New York Yankees. Impressively, the Cardinals have finished below .500 only once in the 21st century. Although previous teams included Albert Pujols, arguably the greatest player of his generation, the Cardinals of more recent vintage succeeded without any true superstar players.
General manager John Mozeliak took over after the 2007 season after the firing of Walt Jocketty. As Phillies GM Ruben Amaro has shown, it is actually quite difficult to take over a team that has already achieved so much success and keep it steady. Mozeliak, however, brought an appreciation of statistical analysis that has helped the team in myriad ways.
Perhaps the most obvious was the willingness to part ways with Pujols as he reached free agency. For a majority of front offices, it would have been a no-brainer to re-sign a player coming off a season in which he posted a 148 adjusted OPS and had accrued 86.5 wins above replacement (Baseball-Reference) in his 11-year career. Many GMs would try their hardest to reach an agreement just from the threat of fan blowback alone, but Mozeliak and the Cardinals were content to let Pujols sign a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Angels.
Despite opening 2013 with a payroll of approximately $117 million, the Cardinals are paying only one player more than $15 million: Matt Holliday ($17 million). Mozeliak has, for the most part, eschewed expensive, long-term free-agent contracts in favor of young, cost-controlled players from within the organization, short-term free-agent contracts (e.g., Carlos Beltran) and contract extensions for key players such as catcher Yadier Molina.
Indeed, of the nine Cardinals to accrue 140 plate appearances this season, only two of them are older than 30 (Holliday, Beltran). Only 23 of 74 starts have been taken by players older than 30, and their current closer, Edward Mujica, is a 29-year-old who entered the season with four career saves.
How do the Cardinals do it? In Anna McDonald's excellent piece on the Cardinals in February, she wrote how Mozeliak has focused on "how to best combine advanced metrics as well as traditional scouting." He is using scouts and stats rather than picking one over the other.
Particularly, despite never having a high pick, the Cardinals have done well drafting college pitchers. Twelve pitchers to have appeared in the big leagues this season were drafted by the organization. This list shows pitchers drafted under Mozeliak to have pitched in the big leagues for the Cardinals in the past three years:
Michael Wacha (first round, 2012, Texas A&M)
Seth Maness (11th round, 2011, East Carolina)
Tyler Lyons (ninth round, 2010, Oklahoma State)
John Gast (sixth round, 2010, Florida State)
Trevor Rosenthal (21st round, 2009, Cowley County, Kan., CC)
Shelby Miller (first round, 2009, Texas high school)
Joe Kelly (third round, 2009, Cal-Riverside)
Keith Butler (24th round, 2009, Wabash Valley College)
Kevin Siegrist (41st round, 2008, Palm Beach CC)
Lance Lynn (first round, 2008, Mississippi)
Sam Freeman (32nd round, 2008, Kansas)
Although the Cardinals haven't had a top-10 pick since 1998, they often have had multiple first-round picks, which speaks to Mozeliak's hesitancy in the free-agent market. When teams sign big-name free agents, they must (in most cases) surrender a draft pick. Consider that, when the Phillies signed Raul Ibanez as a free agent after the 2008 season, Seattle got their first-round pick, which it used on Nick Franklin, Keith Law's No. 69 prospect going into the season and now playing well for the Mariners after a recent promotion. The consequences of poor decisions in free agency go beyond the contract length and dollar figures.
Secondly, note that 10 of the 11 pitchers drafted under Mozeliak to reach the majors have been college pitchers. Since 2008, five of the seven pitchers the Cardinals selected in the first round (or supplemental first round) have been college pitchers. When they drafted Miller at No. 19 in 2009 -- and he fell in part because of his demands -- it was the first time the Cardinals had drafted a high school pitcher in the top five rounds since 2005.
As for position players, Matt Carpenter is the latest example of what happens when you marry scouts and stats. Carpenter was selected in the 13th round of the 2009 draft. In the minors in 2010 and 2011, Carpenter posted .418 and .417 on-base percentages, founded on high averages but also 174 walks in 1,135 plate appearances. Getting his first taste of major league action last year facing mostly right-handed pitching, Carpenter hit .294 and drew walks in 10 percent of his plate appearances. In 2013, the Cardinals moved Carpenter from third base to second to get his bat in the lineup, and he's been the best second baseman in baseball according to FanGraphs, leading second-place Dustin Pedroia in WAR 3.5 to 2.5. Carpenter is hitting .315 and has drawn walks in 10 percent of his plate appearances. The analytics said Carpenter could hit; the scouts said he could handle second base.
Although, contrary to popular belief, "Moneyball" was not about on-base percentage, OBP was and still is a critical component in the success of the more sabermetrically-savvy organizations. The Cardinals lead all 30 major league teams in on-base percentage among non-pitchers at .350. They have struck out in the second-lowest percentage of plate appearances behind only the Giants. As a result, they put the ball in play more than just about anyone. Consequently, the team's .326 BABIP has led to rally after rally, leading the National League in averaging five runs per game (the league average is 4.06).
Only one regular has a BABIP below the league average of .295, Jon Jay at .282. Only three of 10 did so in 2012 (minimum 200 PAs), and three of 12 in 2011. Not only do the Cardinals identify players with great plate discipline but they also identify players with skills that lend themselves to a high BABIP -- things such as making consistently good contact, possessing speed and using bat control to test opposing defenses.
The most recent breakthrough in sabermetric research has been catcher framing, most notably by current Astros analyst Mike Fast. In a study Fast published at Baseball Prospectus in September 2011, Molina rated as one of the top five catchers in terms of framing pitches. Molina has evolved into one of the best hitting catchers, but it is his work behind the plate that led Mozeliak to reward him with a five-year, $75 million contract extension in March last year.
Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov once said he calculates on average three to five moves ahead. Although being a baseball GM is a markedly different venture, it seems as if Mozeliak is operating several steps ahead of most other teams. Some organizations, such as the Phillies, have yet to embrace analytics, and it has shown. The Phillies were unable to see the ticking time bomb that was Ryan Howard, choosing instead to give him a five-year, $125 million extension. Mozeliak somehow backed off of Pujols, one of the greatest players ever to play the game, before it was too late.
Other teams have tossed millions upon millions of dollars at free agents and, as a result, have scarcely picked early in recent drafts, leaving their minor league systems bereft of talent. The Cardinals, comparatively, have used the draft to great effect, building an entirely new core off of it.
Bill Baer writes about the Phillies at Crashburn Alley and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.