Birds on a Power Line
A PROGRAM OF MEASURED BUT CONSTANT EVOLUTION HAS MADE THE CARDINALS A MODEL OF CONSISTENT EXCELLENCE, AND THEIR LATEST BID TO STAY AHEAD OF THE GAME IS BRINGING A HEAT WAVE TO ST. LOUIS
When we think of the Cardinals, we think of a distinct organizational culture: anodyne, diligent, supportive, resolute. Midwestern, really. And that includes fiscal discipline; St. Louis's next truly onerous free-agent contract will be its first. We think of red-clad fans who turn up at Busch Stadium even for midweek day games against very bad opponents—more than 44,000 showed for last Thursday's 12:45 start against the Mets—where they perform the wave without irony.
Mostly, we think of consistency. Since 1960 the Cardinals have had consecutive losing seasons just once, in '94 and '95. Their 11 championships have been well distributed. No son or daughter of St. Louis born since 1902 has reached the age of 25 without having lived through at least one victory parade.
Baseball changes. The Cardinals stay the same.
Although this is only partly true. While an overriding ethos—the Cardinal Way—has developed over the years, it is flexible enough to allow the team to capitalize on the game's changing realities better than any other. "We understand that we're going to have to zig and zag to stay successful," says John Mozeliak, the team's general manager. "We can't ever just get complacent and think that we've figured it out. The moment we do that, we're going to get passed."
In other words, if you're playing the long game, as the Cardinals are, you can't always play it the same way, even in the short term. The Cardinals' 11th title came 19 months ago, but of the 25 players who beat the Rangers in that dramatic seven-game World Series, only nine were in uniform last week against the Mets. The manager's office had a new inhabitant too. La Russa was gone. Albert was gone. Carp was gone (though injured, 2005 Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter swears he'll be back). Even the Man was gone: Stan Musial, the franchise's icon, died in January at 92.
At week's end, though, the Cardinals were where they have so often been over the decades: atop the National League, with a 28--15 record. They were there, in large measure, because of a starting rotation that has been historically good. Its cumulative ERA of 2.62 is not only close to the 45-year-old full-season record of 2.49—held by the 1968 Cards and set with the help of Bob Gibson and a pitching mound that was five inches higher—but also nearly 20% lower than the 3.20 put up by the second-ranked Reds.
The Cardinals have ended up with such a rotation by doing what they've always done, and what any team or corporation ought to do if it seeks success in the long term. Which is to ceaselessly, though judiciously, innovate.
WHEN ADAM WAINRIGHT was 22, the Braves traded him to the Cardinals. Atlanta was Wainwright's boyhood team, and the organization had drafted him out of Glynn Academy in Brunswick, Ga., in the first round three years earlier. Such a trade might have been crushing for many young players. It wasn't for Wainwright. He had a devastating curveball, but as he had advanced up the Braves' minor league system—he reached Double A in 2003, the year he was dealt with pitchers Ray King and Jason Marquis for outfielders J.D. Drew and Eli Marrero—hitters had begun to catch up with his four-seam fastball, which sat in the low 90s and came in flat. "I had started to be passed up by some of the younger guys," he says.
Upon arriving in Jupiter, Fla., for spring training in 2004, Wainwright began working with Dave Duncan, a former big league catcher who had been the pitching coach on teams managed by Tony La Russa since 1983: the White Sox, the A's and then, since '96, the Cardinals. Duncan had come to believe that in a game gone power crazy—the eight homer-heaviest seasons in league history were played between '98 and 2006—most pitchers only stood a chance by keeping their offerings down in the strike zone to induce grounders. "When a guy hits a ground ball, where does he have to hit it to get an extra-base hit?" the 67-year-old Duncan asks, as he has during hundreds of coaching sessions. "Down the first base line, down the third base line. However, if the ball is hit in the air, you have all kinds of opportunities to get extra-base hits."
Baseball's latest construction boom fed Duncan's philosophy too. "They began building all these new ballparks over the last 25 years, and they were bandboxes," says Duncan. "At the same time, we went through this period when it seemed like just about everybody could hit a home run." (Read: the steroid era.) "All of a sudden, you have 160-pound second basemen hitting opposite-field home runs, and you go, Oh, wait a minute, we gotta do something about this."
The problem was that almost every pitcher was reaching the major leagues by virtue of his four-seam fastball. "It's really a comfortable pitch to throw, the grip feels good, the release feels good, everything about it feels good," Duncan says. But most of those offerings were no longer good enough. "The majority of the pitchers that you came across fit into the category of average velocity, 90- to 92-mile-an-hour fastballs, straight as a string. And 90- to 92-mile-an-hour fastballs that had no movement on them were basically a hitter's delight."
Duncan's genius did not lie in his realization that his pitchers should minimize, and sometimes abandon, their four-seamers for two-seamers—either a cutter, gripped slightly on the outside of the baseball, or a sinker, gripped slightly on the inside—which impart a downward movement, thereby yielding more grounders. His genius lay in his ability to persuade pitchers to try it, and to help each get the hang of it in his own way. "They gotta tinker," he says. "That's the only thing that works."
Wainwright, his career stalling, was up for tinkering. "What did I have to lose?" he says. Three seasons after he was traded to the Cardinals, Wainwright closed out the final game of the 2006 World Series against the Tigers. He did so behind a rotation that included no starter whose fastball averaged more than 92 mph and which ranked 26th in the majors in strikeouts but third in ground ball percentage.
At 31, Wainwright is now the ace and unquestioned leader of a rotation that might be better than any of its predecessors. (Through Sunday he was 5--3, with a 2.51 ERA.) In certain ways the St. Louis staff looks very much like those that came before it. Its ground ball percentage leads the league, as it has every year since 2009. That's because Wainwright and two of his rotation mates are among the top nine starters in the majors in a grounders-to-flies ratio. Wainwright gets 2.14 grounders per fly, while 26-year-old lefty Jaime Garcia (5--2 with a 3.58 ERA) is second overall at 2.79 to 1, and 35-year-old righty Jake Westbrook (2--1, 1.62) leads everyone with an average of 3.04 to 1.
In other ways, though, the Cards' rotation is something different—an evolution. It features two righthanders in MLB's top 30 in average fastball velocity: 24-year-old Lance Lynn, who can touch 95, and 22-year-old rookie Shelby Miller, who can run it up to 97. Lynn was 6--1 at week's end with a 2.88 ERA, Miller 5--2 with a 1.40, and their ability to whiff batters (Lynn and Miller were tied for 17th) has the Cardinals' staff in unusual territory: the top 10 in strikeouts.
Another difference is that Duncan is no longer coaching the group. He left, after 2011, to care for his wife, Jeanine, who has brain cancer. The Cardinals, as usual, had an in-house successor: Derek Lilliquist, a former major league pitcher who spent 10 years working his way up the organization's coaching ladder. "The philosophy hasn't changed one bit, but Dave didn't have a lot of power arms," says Lilliquist. "Why not let these guys do what they do?"
That power surge is not a matter of luck. Around 2007, when Mozeliak was promoted to G.M. after 12 years in St. Louis's front office, Duncan started lobbying for pitchers who could throw four-seam heat. Sinkerballers were fine, but he sought variety, especially as home runs started to decline and strikeouts rose (presumably because juice-squeezed hitters could no longer catch up to the high hard stuff). "In the draft we decided to emphasize not just pitchers who were throwing hard at the time, but guys we thought might throw harder in the future," says Mozeliak. The club focused on systematically evaluating prospects' mechanics (just as there is a Cardinal Way, there are Cardinal Mechanics) to identify those who not only had mid-90s potential but who could also deliver it without breaking down. Within three years the team had drafted Lynn (in '08) and Miller (in '09), and had also added Trevor Rosenthal (also in the '09 draft) and Carlos Martinez (as an international free agent in '10), the latter two of whom are throwing around 100 mph from the bullpen and are considered starters-in-waiting. There are several more elite fireballers in St. Louis's top-rated farm system (page 68), and that depth will soon be called upon: Westbrook is working his way back from the disabled list with right elbow inflamation, and Garcia landed there last Saturday with a strained left shoulder.
No one in the organization will say precisely what they looked for mechanically in such players. "Put it this way: We've analyzed it, and we've ramped up its usage in the draft over time, and we wouldn't be doing that if we didn't believe we were on to something," says Dan Kantrovitz, the scouting director. Says a slightly more revealing Mozeliak, "I'll give one: athleticism. If you look at Rosenthal—former position player. Carlos Martinez—position player. There's a theme."
The 6'3", 215-pound Miller is also a terrific athlete—he played football both ways at Brownwood (Texas) High—and when Duncan got a look at the way he threw a four-seam fastball in his first spring training, the promoter of the two-seamer delivered a simple message. "I said, 'Don't let anybody f--- you up,' " Duncan recalls. " 'If somebody wants to start making changes in what you're doing, call me.' Different guys have different abilities. But most guys don't have Shelby's."
"That's exactly how the conversation went," confirms Miller, who hasn't had to give Duncan a ring. "Nah, I don't even toy with any two-seamers."
"If it plays," says Lilliquist, "it's going to play."
It has played, as part of a rotation that is now a hybrid of Duncan's sinkerballers and a more powerful future. "We're not looking to reinvent the wheel," says Mozeliak, but the Cardinals have modified it for a new baseball road. "He's different from a lot of other guys we have on our staff, which complements the next guy who steps up on the mound," says second-year manager Mike Matheny of Miller. The best example of that came two weekends ago, when Miller allowed a leadoff broken-bat single to the Rockies' Eric Young, and then retired the next 27 batters, 13 of them on strikeouts. The next night, Wainwright threw a two-hit shutout, mixing stellar command of his breaking ball (he threw 35 of 41 curves for strikes) with two-seamers, so that only six of 27 outs were made in the outfield.
"Oh, it was beautiful to watch," says Lilliquist, a sentiment echoed through the St. Louis dugout, up to their front office and out across the heartland.
TWO WINTERS ago the Cardinals had to make one of the most difficult decisions any club has ever had to make. They could stretch to re-sign 32-year-old slugger Albert Pujols, who once seemed destined to retire as a Redbird, or they could let him to go the Angels, who were offering 10 years and $240 million. They chose not to stretch.
"Losing an iconic player was not easy—it was jolting," says Mozeliak. "The biggest fear, when you were thinking about it as logically as you could, was the length of the contract. The price of playing poker goes up from time to time, you get that. But the overall length of a deal like that is difficult, especially at an age when one is entering free agency. From a very simplistic standpoint, we knew we would have resources to deploy elsewhere."
An organization committed to agility cannot be tied for a baseball generation to a single player, no matter who he is. It is no coincidence that two months after Pujols signed with Los Angeles, St. Louis announced a five-year, $75 million extension for catcher Yadier Molina. The Cardinals have long understood a catcher's defensive value. Their clubhouse is home to the winners of eight of the last 10 NL Gold Glove winners at the position, in Matheny (St. Louis's backstop from 2000 to '04) and Molina.
While you can replace what Pujols did to a degree (led by Allen Craig, Cardinals first basemen combined to hit .293 with 21 homers and 109 RBIs last year to Pujols's .285, 30 and 105), St. Louis views Molina as one of a kind. His physical skills—throwing out runners, blocking and framing pitches—and his game-calling, for which he relies on an elephantine memory, are unmatched. "We would sit down at meetings, and he would say, 'Well, you remember back two years ago, when we faced this guy?' " says Duncan. "He would remember stuff like Tom Seaver could remember stuff. I couldn't remember it, but he did."
It's difficult to statistically determine how much of the rotation's ERA is due to Molina, but Miller has an idea. "He is a game-changer for me," says Miller, who despite his stuff had a 4.74 ERA in Triple A last year. "I'm not even out there thinking what to throw. Whatever he calls, I'm going to go with."
"You want to get our pitchers mad," says Matheny, "start talking poorly about Yadi."
Molina, who is 30, is under contract with the Cardinals until at least 2017. His recliner-soft catcher's mitts, religiously conditioned with the brown bottle of Lexol that he keeps in his locker, will gently receive harder and harder pitches, as the club's hybrid rotation promises to become more power oriented. Even within that rotation, though, will come progress. During Miller's near perfect game, he threw almost solely fastballs and curves—of his 113 pitches, 93 were four-seamers, just two of them changeups. During his next outing, a 4--2 win against the Mets, his fastball wasn't quite as sharp, but he threw 10 changes. "I don't think I'd gotten an out on a changeup all year," he said. "I think tonight really opened my eyes that I can throw this pitch and get people out."
Such developments suggest more success in the team's near future. Any good fortune will be shared by the entire organization. In 2011, the Cardinals flew 170 people to Texas for Games 3 and 4 of the Series and doled out 400 diamond-encrusted rings when they won. "I always think that my role here is almost like working for a public trust, and I'm a steward of it," says Mozeliak—who, in a navy bow tie, light-blue gingham shirt and square-rimmed glasses, might look at home in a financial house. "I always hope that when I look back at my time here, that I've left this place better than I found it. But most important, [that] I didn't take it backward."
A modernized rotation and ever more days spent in first place make that unlikely. Still, this is a club that always looks back, even as it moves on more quickly than many realize. On May 15, Wainwright stood on the top step of the home dugout at Busch Stadium, watching his teammates take batting practice beneath the rounded cage that looks like a shelled reptile. "Look out there behind the 'turtle' right now and you'll see Red Schoendienst"—the Hall of Fame second baseman from the 1940s and '50s. "He's 90 years old, and he's still hitting fungoes, shagging balls. That's how it works here. The legacy that Chris Carpenter passed to me, I look forward to passing to the next guy, like Shelby. We take such pride in being a Cardinal and the way we play the game, we want to pass that on and keep it going. We honestly look at our organization as greater than an individual. Stan the Man, Red, those guys helped make it what it is, but the legacy lives on no matter who is in here."
The sentiment might sound mawkish, but it is one that even those that have departed say is genuinely felt. "The people that work there and leave, they continue to identify themselves as former Cardinals," says Mike Elias, a 30-year-old Yale graduate who got his first job in baseball as a St. Louis scout in 2007. Last year he became the Astros' scouting director after his former boss Jeff Luhnow took the G.M. job in Houston.
"When I think about how we're running this business right now, we tried to find a way to do it where we were able to sustain our own success," says Mozeliak. A similar goals is shared by every organization, but only one has been able to meet them, almost without fail, for as long as most anyone can remember. Even the Yankees—who had three straight losing seasons between 1965 and '67 and four between '89 and '92—can't quite say that.
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