April 3, 2015
Every Team's Moneyball
St. Louis Cardinals: The Player Development Appliance
Every day until Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus authors will preview two teams—one from the AL, one from the NL—identifying strategies those teams employ to gain an advantage. Today: the final two teams! Sunday's Opening Night teams, the player development appliance of the Cardinals, and the job security of Cubs' executives. Read our wrap-up here.
Remember that guy you knew back in high school, or in college, or in that job you had years ago, the one to whom everything always seemed to come easy? Completely at ease in any group, his clothes always fit and his skin never broke out. He never had to deal with the embarrassment of a car that broke down on a date, and if he croaked out a weak, off-key version of Don’t You Forget About Me on karaoke night, people found it charming, not sad. He was a lucky bastard, and everyone loved him, or hated him. There was no in-between.
That guy was the St. Louis Cardinals, or at least the current popular conception of the St. Louis Cardinals. Consistently successful, immune to bad fortune, the Cardinals never suffer through the bouts of crippling injury or high-priced failures in the free-agent market that bedevil other franchises. They’re lucky bastards, and everyone either loves them or hates them. There is no in-between.
Except it’s not luck, of course, and it doesn’t come easy. The Cardinals suffer their fair share of injuries, but they’re able to survive them by drawing from a deep well of replacement talent. If they’ve avoided handing out bad paper, it’s because they rarely need to pay for outside talent in the first place. The Cardinals have become the envy of baseball through that most painstaking and foundational of baseball activities: player development.
For proof, just take a look at their current roster. Of the fourteen players that comprise their projected starting lineup, starting rotation, and closer, nine of them were originally drafted or signed as amateur free agents by the Cardinals. Four of them (Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright, John Lackey, and Jason Heyward) were acquired via trades in exchange for players developed in the St. Louis system. Only Jhonny Peralta is a true free-agent signee, and he merely posted the highest WARP of any shortstop in baseball last season.
The Cardinals’ success at player development is nothing new. From 2006-13 (using data I collected for the 2014 Baseball Prospectus Annual and am too lazy to update with last year’s stats), St. Louis benefited from 148 WARP in total from players they themselves drafted, the most in baseball. The average team earned 94 WARP. Our old friend Ben Lindbergh ran some numbers over at Grantland and found that players who appeared in major-league games from 2010-2014 were more likely to have been drafted by St. Louis than any other franchise by far.
So how do they do it? When I asked the Cardinals themselves, they told me … well, actually, they politely declined to tell me, which only makes sense. Their peerless player development system is by far their biggest competitive edge. However, when you ask scouts, analysts, and even other front offices, it becomes clear that the Cardinals have done an exceptional job of defining their player development process, integrating it with every aspect of their operation, and treating the physical and mental welfare of both players and staff as their most important asset. They’ve built a Player Development Appliance.
Much has been made of “The Cardinal Way,” the organization’s player development handbook, but as our own Sam Miller pointed out in a piece he wrote for ESPN The Magazine last year, it doesn’t contain any secrets or earth-shattering insight into the development process. It’s mostly just a set of simple, common sense guidelines for development staff to follow. Its value isn’t in the details it contains, which likely aren’t that different from other teams. Its value is in the fact that it’s codified, memorized, and enforced, allowing staff to spend the bulk of their time addressing the development concerns of each player as an individual. A quick whip-round of opinions among BP staff and baseball insiders identifies several areas that describe the Cardinals’ comprehensive, integrated approach to the development of individual players:
These are just some of the things we know about and can report, but everyone with knowledge of the Cardinals organization describes a comprehensive and focused approach tailored to bring out the best in every player and staff member. Many teams strive for this, but St. Louis has the most fully-integrated, forward-thinking, and completely realized player development process in baseball today, and they recognize it as the cornerstone of their continued success. The Player Development Appliance allows St. Louis to overcome bad luck and the occasional bad choice, and will likely provide them the edge they need to be contenders for the foreseeable future. Love them or hate them, it’s impossible to argue with their success.