What Can We Learn From the Cardinals' Success Drafting and Developing Pitchers?
Few - if any - teams boast the top to bottom organizational pitching depth of the St. Louis Cardinals. When healthy, the Redbirds have as many as nine legitimate Major League starting pitchers, including 2013 first-round pick and recent call-up Marco Gonzales.
Gonzales, who reached the Majors in his first full professional season, is the next in a long line of elite Cardinal pitching that has been drafted and developed by the organization. Despite losing his debut, Gonzales is a high-floor pitcher with an elite changeup who has the tools to stick in the middle of their rotation for a long time.
Sound like a familiar profile for a Cardinals’ rookie starter? No, Gonzales is not Michael Wacha, and can't be expected to have the same immediate success as Wacha, though the two have many similarities.
This led me to wonder about the organizational pitching philosophy that has helped this franchise draft and develop quality arms at such a high rate. Are there inefficiencies with amateur pitchers that the Cardinals have found and taken advantage of? Is a great changeup, such as the ones possessed by Wacha and Gonzales, the key to developmental success?
Major League Roster and Disabled List
Before tackling these questions, let’s take a look at the current status of each of the arms on the Major League roster and Major League disabled list.
Along with their current status, I have listed the method of acquisition for each of these players. Unsurprisingly, almost all of them have been drafted and developed by the organization. The pick number for Cardinals’ draftees is listed in parenthesis and players on the preseason MLB.com Organizational Top 20 Prospects are listed with their ranking.
|Adam Wainwright||Trade from Atl 12/03|
|Carlos Martinez||International FA 2010|
|Lance Lynn||2008 Draft (39)|
|Shelby Miller||2009 Draft (19)|
|Marco Gonzales (4)||2013 Draft (19)|
|Trevor Rosenthal||2009 Draft (639)|
|Pat Neshek||Minor League FA 2/14|
|Jason Motte||2003 Draft (575)|
|Randy Choate||Free Agent 12/12|
|Seth Maness||2011 Draft (350)|
|Sam Freeman||2008 Draft (965)|
|Eric Fornataro||2008 Draft (185)|
|Nick Greenwood||Trade from SD 7/10|
|Michael Wacha||2012 Draft (19)|
|Jamie Garcia||2005 Draft (608)|
|Joe Kelly||2009 Draft (98)|
|Kevin Siegrist||2008 Draft (1235)|
Despite having three quality starting pitchers on the disabled list, the Cardinals rotation remains close to elite. Adam Wainwright is the leader of this staff, and a true ace who will be in consideration for the Cy Young Award this season. Following him in the present rotation are (in their current order), Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, and the aforementioned Marco Gonzales.
Even without playoff hero and number two starter Michael Wacha, this is an impressive group. Of the four not named Wainwright, Lynn and Miller have been stalwarts, while Martinez and Gonzales are very recent additions to the starting five. Four of the five have been signed as amateurs by the Cardinals and developed by the organization, while Wainwright was traded for very early in his career.
The move of Carlos Martinez from the bullpen to the rotation weakens the setup role, but Pat Neshek and Jason Motte have done well this season and are likely to see high leverage innings in front of a not quite as dominant Trevor Rosenthal. Neshek is the only one of these three arms not drafted by the Cardinals, as he was a value sign as a minor league free agent this past offseason. It's also worth mentioning that Motte was initially drafted by the organization as a catcher but has found his niche as a late innings reliever.
Randy Choate, the only Major League free agent signee on this staff, is a true lefty specialist and will continue to see a very specific role. Seth Maness will continue to induce ground balls, and the others, all but one of whom was drafted by St. Louis, will see sporadic action in mostly low-leverage situations.
This isn't only a homegrown staff, but an extremely talented one that ranks second in Major League Baseball in ERA at 3.21, and second in FIP at 3.29. The elite staff FIP shows us that the ERA is supported by their skill set and is not a fluke, and we can also marvel at how the Cardinals have been able to post such terrific numbers despite having three starting pitchers, including Wacha, currently on the disabled list.
Now that we have established the talent of this staff and their success in player development, let’s take a look at exactly how they do it. Is there are trend with these pitchers? Do the Cardinals prefer a certain type of pitcher to other types of pitchers? What is the ideal profile of a Cardinals’ pitcher, if any?
Apart from a well below-average home run rate that may be unsustainable, there isn't much to be gleaned from traditional stats or batted ball data. However, there's a lot to be learned from the raw pitch data of this staff, that will help us make progress on understanding the Cardinal way for pitchers.
Raw Pitch Data
This section requires a primer, because it's the most unfamiliar and important section of this article. In this section we will examine all of the pitch types thrown by Cardinal pitchers this season by looking at the frequency velocity, and effectiveness of each pitch.
Frequency and velocity are simple, as frequency is the total number of pitches within each pitch type divided by total number of pitches thrown and velocity is the average speed of each offering.
The final category, effectiveness, tells us how good each pitch has been for each pitcher, or in this case entire staff, over a period of time in the form of runs above or below average. We use the statistic wFB to tell us the effectiveness of the fastball, wCB to tell us the effectiveness of the curveball, and so forth. This data is not perfect on its own, as sequencing can lead to a pitch playing up or down, but it gives us a general idea of the effectiveness of certain pitches from the staff as a whole.
This is where things get interesting. The first statistic to jump out is reliance on and effectiveness of Cardinal fastballs. They lead the league in both frequency and effectiveness of the pitch, while ranking fifth in average fastball velocity. The easy conclusion from this is that the velocity is the main reason for the success, but a closer look at the individual Cardinal pitchers shows that the players with the most velocity are not necessarily the players with the most effective fastballs.
The chart below shows the individual fastball statistics for each of the players who have pitched for the Cardinals this season. wFB/C could also be written as wFB/100, as it's each player’s wFB per 100 pitches. This takes total pitches thrown out of the equation and is a rate stat, not a counting stat, so pitchers with more innings grade out on the same scale as those with fewer innings.
The biggest surprise with this chart is the ineffectiveness of the fastballs of the hardest throwers on the team, especially Carlos Martinez and Jason Motte. The hardest and fifth-hardest throwers on the team, respectively, they're two of only four pitchers on the staff whose heaters have been below average this season.
Some hard throwers, such as Trevor Rosenthal, Joe Kelly, and Kevin Siegrist, confirm the conventional wisdom that a harder fastball is typically a better fastball, but we also see some extremely effective fastballs in the lower velocity range.
Somewhat surprisingly, the most effective fastball according to this metric belongs to setup man Pat Neshek, who barely sits above 90 MPH. Jaime Garcia and Adam Wainwright also boast impressive fastballs that lack premium velocity and both also throw in the 90 MPH range.
The best way to prove this point is through the coefficient of determination (R-squared), which tells us what proportion of the variance in wFB/C is due to change in fastball velocity. That figure is a mere .017, which suggests that there is no correlation between fastball velocity and fastball effectiveness among pitchers on this staff.
With this in mind, it's clear that the part of the Cardinals method is to acquire players with good fastballs, but not necessarily high-velocity ones. There are many ways to do this, such as by generating movement on the pitch or having good command of the pitch, and the Cardinals appear to be masters at finding these types of elite fastballs.
The elite fastballs on the staff are impressive, but perhaps equally impressive is the collective effectiveness of each of the off-speed pitches thrown by the staff. No single pitch dominates in the same way as their fastballs, but that Redbirds are one of only four staffs that demonstrates above average effectiveness with every pitch (the Athletics, Nationals, and Mariners are the others).
This means that while the Cardinals dominate with fastballs, the presence of quality off-speed pitches is necessary and helps the fastballs of the pitchers without elite stuff play up. I won’t include the every pitch from the entire staff, but here are a few of the leaders in each of the pitches for the Cardinals.
Apart from the fact that Pat Neshek has flat out dominated this year, this chart shows us that the Cardinals, as a staff, have more pitchers throwing above average sliders and changeups than pitchers throwing cutters and curveballs effectively. If not for Wainwright, Wacha’s cutter and Kelly’s curveball would be the only pitches other than sliders and changeups on this list of highly effective pitches on this staff. (Note: 1.00 was the cutoff and there were no pitches that just missed inclusion on this list.)
Is this a model for pitching within the organization? Do the Cardinals have an affinity for pitchers with good but not necessarily fast fastballs, good sliders, and good changeups? Do they favor these characteristics over pitchers with a different skill set?
The best way to investigate such a hypothesis and look for a trend is through player acquisitions. As a team whose acquisitions come almost entirely through the draft, looking at current minor league players and recent draft picks can tell us a lot about the type of pitchers that the Cardinals target and acquire.
In the chart below, I put this theory to the test. Each of the pitchers among the Cardinals' MLB.com Top 20 Prospects is listed, in order, along with relevant language and grades from their MLB.com scouting report. For those unfamiliar with the scouting scale, it ranges from 20 to 80 where 50 is MLB average, 60 is a first division player, 70 is a star, and 80 is a once-in-a-generation talent. It is best to be realistic with these grades, as not every player in the farm will be or has the potential to be a star. But elite production of MLB quality arms in all roles is what separates this system from others.
|Name||Acquisition||FBv||FB Grade||CH Grade||BB Type||BB Grade||Control|
|Rob Kaminsky (3)||2013 Draft (28)||89-94||60||55||CB||60||50|
|Marco Gonzales||2013 Draft (19)||88-91||50||60||CB/SL||50/45||60|
|Alexander Reyes (5)||International FA 2013||93-97||65||50||CB||60||45|
|Tim Cooney (9)||2012 Draft (117)||87-93||50||55||CB/SL||45/40||60|
|Jordan Swagerty (12)||2010 Draft (75)||91-96||60||40||CB||60||50|
|Tyrell Jenkins (15)||2010 Draft (50)||93-95||65||45||CB||55||45|
|Zach Petrick (16)||Undrafted FA 2012||90-94||55||55||CB||50||60|
|Lee Stopleman (17)||2012 Draft (750)||87-92||50||50||CB||50||50|
|Cory Jones (19)||2012 Draft (180)||92-97||60||40||CB||50||40|
|Nick Petree (20)||2013 Draft (275)||87-88||45||60||CB/CT||45/45||60|
There's a lot to take in here, starting with the most obvious fact that the idea of the Cardinals favoring the slider over the curveball is clearly not accurate. The opposite is true at the Major League level, but among their top pitching prospects, everyone throws a curveball and only two players throw sliders.
Next, there are a few pitchers who are exceptions to the prototype, specifically Alexander Reyes, Jordan Swagerty, Tyrell Jenkins, and Cory Jones. Reyes bucks the trend as his fastball is effective due to the velocity and life of the pitch and not command. He does have an average changeup as his third pitch, but the below average command makes him an exception.
Swagerty's poor changeup places him on the list, but he is a reliever all the way with a a very good curveball, perhaps the best in his draft class. Jenkins is the biggest outlier and is the exact opposite of the hypothesized prototype as a hard thrower with a good curveball who lacks both a quality changeup and command. The Cardinals bet on his elite athleticism to translate into the ability to repeat his delivery and boost his command profile, but so far that has not happened.
Jones, the number 19 prospect in the system, has the most development ahead of him and lacks a good present changeup, though he is said to be working on one. He does fit the system in that he is a strike thrower, but the lack of consistent off-speed places him behind the other arms in this system and outside the mold.
As for this group of arms as a whole, it's difficult to make any sort of overarching statement that does not have multiple exceptions. Everyone else on this list has a good changeup and good command (at least a 50), but most good pitching prospects in any organization would also have those same characteristics.
The velocities of the pitchers in this system seem to be about average and are led by Alexander Reyes' 93-97 MPH heat. They do have pitchers with slower fastballs that play up due to a good command profile, but of the names on this list, there are not enough to justify a significant trend.
Nevertheless, let's examine the profiles of the recent Cardinals' draftees, as these players will soon infiltrate their top-20 list and change the complexion of the arms in the system.
Here is a quick profile of each of the Cardinals' top six picks in the 2014 draft, all of whom are pitchers. Much of the information in these profiles is courtesy of Baseball America.
Luke Weaver, Pick 27: Weaver’s velocity is lower than most arms taken around this time, but he has good command of his fastball and a present changeup that is very good. His slider is behind the fastball and changeup, but Weaver’s profile as someone with a good fastball despite average velocity and a good changeup fit the Cardinals’ mold well.
Jack Flaherty, Pick 34: Like Weaver, Flaherty lacks premium velocity (although he is expected to add more as he matures) but has terrific command and a great changeup that Baseball America suggests could become a plus plus pitch. His slider also has the potential to be an out pitch, meaning that as a pitcher without exceptional velocity, but great control and the potential for a great changeup and a good slider, Jack Flaherty was born to be a Cardinal.
Ronnie Williams, Pick 68: The first member of this draft type to not fit the prototype, the Cardinals’ are betting on Williams’ athleticism to lead to eventual command of his good fastball. His offspeed pitches flash at least average at times but are not presently plus pitches. Williams is the clear exception in this group and is a lot more like Tyrell Jenkins than Wacha or Gonzales.
Andrew Morales, Pick 71: The ace for 2014 CWS surprise U.C. Irvine, Morales fits the Cardinals’ mold well. He features a fastball in slightly above 90 MPH and throws a lot of strikes, while also possessing a good slider that can generate swings and misses and a useful but unspectacular changeup.
Trevor Megill, Pick 104: A recent Tommy John recoveree, Megill sits in the low 90s with a fastball that he can command well. His off-speed pitches include a good curveball and a quality changeup. That's a generic profile, but with command and qualit offspeed, he fits the bill well.
Austin Gomber, Pick 135: Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Gomber features a fastball in the low 90’s that he commands well and a good changeup. His breaking ball is below average at the moment, but with the command and the changeup, Gomber is a good fit for the organization.
Five of the six players in top of their 2014 draft class have very similar profiles that pair well with the type of pitchers on the current Major League team and some of the players in the minor league system. This group of names, with only one exception, lead us to believe that there may indeed be a formula, although it is clear that the Cardinals are willing to deviate from that formula in some situations, most frequently to select extremely athletic pitchers.
How significant is this trend? Is it merely coincidence that the Cardinals favor fastball command and elite off-speed pitches from their pitchers or is this profile so obvious that it does not set them apart from other teams?
Sure, the prototype may be obvious, but not all teams are willing to sacrifice velocity for polish or superior off-speed stuff in the draft and international market. For example, it seems unlikely that the Cardinals had Brady Aiken and Tyler Kolek, the top two picks in the 2014 draft, rated similarly on their board. Aiken has good but not overwhelming velocity, plus command, good off-speed pitches, and an advanced feel for his craft while Kolek lacks great command of an upper 90s to low 100s fastball and a good slider.
An argument could be made that there is no trend, but an argument could also be made that there is a significant and interesting trend that goes a long way in explaining their success in drafting and developing pitchers. I will offer no final conclusion on this, rather I have presented the evidence, and will allow you, the reader, to decide on the significance of this evidence. I see both sides of the argument regarding this incredibly successful organization, perhaps even the model organization, that continues to promote quality arm after quality arm. Whether you believe drafting specific types of pitchers is the, or at the very least a, reason for this is up to you.
Finally, it would be short-sighted of me not to acknowledge the player development staff in St. Louis, as it's possible that the Cardinals are merely average at drafting but have the best pitching coaches in their system who can turn average prospects into useful Major League arms at the highest rate. It isn't plausible that this is the reason for their developmental success per se, but it is likely at least a partial explanation for their success.