Cardinals know their baseball

March 26, 2013

We’ve been told — before, during and since Cabrera v. Trout — that baseball has become a clash of ideologies. The Intangible is in a struggle for survival against The Tangible. Only the strongest (or at least the most dogmatic) will survive.

Well, that is wrong.

I know that because the St. Louis Cardinals embody both schools of thought, and the St. Louis Cardinals are, right now, the best organization in baseball.

The man who drafted many of the Cardinals’ core players — Jeff Luhnow, the current Houston Astros general manager — is an avatar for sabermetric thinking in baseball. He earned two bachelor’s degrees at the University of Pennsylvania, in economics and engineering, and then an MBA at Northwestern University. The old-school types nicknamed him “Harry Potter.”

But apparently Luhnow knows how to pick baseball players. During his time in charge of the Cardinals’ draft operations, he selected Colby Rasmus, Mitchell Boggs, Jaime Garcia, Chris Perez, Jon Jay, Allen Craig, Luke Gregerson, Pete Kozma, Daniel Descalso, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly, Matt Carpenter and Trevor Rosenthal, among others. (The Cardinals signed nine eventual big leaguers out of the ’06 draft alone, including Perez, Jay, Craig and Gregerson.)

Yet, perhaps paradoxically, the stats-heavy draft philosophy has produced an old-school team that rivals the defending champion San Francisco Giants in the not-so-statistical categories of XGU (Existential Guts) and DGR (Demonstrated Grit).

Ask a scout about the Cardinals, and he will probably talk about how they respect the game and know how to win. Under Tony La Russa — and now Mike Matheny — they have been known to put forth their most determined at-bats when it matters most. If that sounds too abstract for you, well, the tears of Rangers and Nationals fans were quite real on the nights of Oct. 27, 2011, and Oct. 12, 2012.

The Cardinals’ refusal to give up is downright Churchillian. But when Churchill said, “Politics is almost as exciting as war,” he was not — near as I can tell — referring to WAR (Wins Above Replacement).

So, can we draw a line from Luhnow’s systematic drafting (heavy on players from high-profile college programs), through John Mozeliak’s skillful roster maneuvering, to the ephemeral brilliance of those clutch October at-bats by David Freese, Craig, Kozma and Descalso? Does it really matter that many of these guys (a) rode the same minor-league buses and (b) genuinely enjoy playing with one another?

“I think it does play into it,” asserted Mozeliak, now entering his sixth season as the team’s general manager. “You think about the camaraderie factor and knowing your teammates. For us, we have so many players that have come up together. And not only did they come up together, but they experienced success along the way. When they got to the big leagues, they expected that.”

It’s true. When I asked Craig about this phenomenon one day this spring, he suggested Game 6 of the 2011 World Series — one of the best games in any of our lifetimes — had some roots in a postseason event that probably wasn’t on your radar: the 2009 Pacific Coast League finals between the Memphis Redbirds and Sacramento River Cats.

The Redbirds’ lineup in that series included three players — Jay, Craig and Freese, a 2007 trade acquisition — who have become essential everyday players in St. Louis. Descalso and Boggs had significant roles on the team, too. And the Game 1 pitcher against Sacramento was Jaime Garcia, who started twice in the World Series for La Russa two years later. “We were the youngest team in the league — by far,” Jay recalled. “We all started off slow. Then we figured it out.”

Naturally, Memphis swept Sacramento in three.

“We were stacked,” Craig said. “That’s one thing we took pride in, winning that league championship in 2009. Then in the World Series, you look and I was in left, Jay was in center, and Daniel was at third for the final out. Freeser was in the game, too, and obviously did what he did. That’s one of the things that made the World Series extra special.

“We all had a common goal, to get to the big leagues. It wasn’t like we were trying to fight each other to get there. We just came up together as a group. We’d talk about it. We didn’t get presumptuous, but it was always like, ‘When we get to the big leagues, we want to do great things. We want to win.’ We always just fought for that opportunity and talked through things. We’ve gone a long way as a collective group.”

Notice the number of times the word “we” appeared in that quotation. It’s the sort of thing a high school or college coach would love. It also works. Whether the Cardinals’ players have great makeup (scouting term) or understand the process (nerdy jargon), the idea is the same: They get it. And the winning ethic of the Cardinals’ homegrown core — with a major assist from Carlos Beltran — explains how they were able to lose La Russa and Albert Pujols after winning the 2011 World Series and finish with close to the same record last year.

Craig believes the cohesion created in Memphis — and the minor-league stops before — “absolutely” has influenced the way the present-day Cardinals respond to October pressure. Jay sensed the same connectedness in the dugout before the ninth inning of the decisive Game 5 in Washington last year. The Nationals led, 7-5, before the tying and winning singles by Descalso and Kozma, respectively — each with two out.

“I’ll never forget,” Jay said. “Skip Schumaker came up to me before the inning started and was like, ‘Hey man, D (Descalso) is going to come up big right here.’ Daniel wasn’t hitting until sixth in that inning. It’s something that you just believe in this clubhouse. It’s instilled in you. We never quit.”

Immediate concerns aside — shortstop Rafael Furcal is out for the season after elbow surgery — these are heady times for the Cardinals. Last October, they came within one victory of reaching the World Series for a second straight year. They have played an astonishing 31 postseason games over the last two seasons — seven more than the next-closest team (Detroit).

And while Mozeliak has made the necessary moves to sustain an elite major league roster — sometimes at the cost of prospects — the Cardinals’ farm system still ranked first in the 2013 Baseball America rankings. Outfielder Oscar Taveras and newly named No. 5 starter Shelby Miller are the headliners. Thus, the Cardinals have realized a goal that is uniform among all franchises yet rarely unattainable: in the majors, a World Series ring; in the minors, players of quality and quantity ready to pop.

The 2000 Yankees were the last organization to top the Baseball America prospect rankings less than two years after winning the World Series. “You take a lot of pride in the fact that you’re winning at the major-league level but still having success in the minor leagues,” Mozeliak said. “To accomplish both, running parallel, says a lot.”

If other teams are paying attention, the lesson is there: science in selection, passion in play. Mozeliak's team has produced the ultimate marriage of objectivity and subjectivity in the sport today.

“I think some of those subjective variables are things we thought about,” he said. “They weren’t ignored, put it that way. They’re harder to quantify, sure. But they’re certainly part of the recipe.”

As in, college players from top-tier programs with excellent makeup?

“I don’t want to oversimplify it, because it’s a little more in-depth than that,” Mozeliak said. “I’m also not going to talk about it much, because it’s what we do.”

And right now, they’re doing it better than anyone else.