[3/5]

The St. Louis Cardinals won more games than any other team in 2015 despite key injuries to pitchers Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Jordan Walden and Lance Lynn. Position players Matt Holliday, Matt Adams, John Jay, Randal Grichuk and Matt Carpenter also missed time, some more than once.

Their roster resilience in face of adversity is no accident. It is the product of a player evaluation system put in place more than a decade ago and refined over time by people at the cutting-edge of their industry.

It began in 2003. The Cardinals hired Jeff Luhnow, who had degrees in economics and engineering from Penn and a master’s degree in business administration from Northwestern. Note the absence of the word baseball in that resume.

The Cardinals assigned Luhnow the task of developing a new data methodology the team could use for scouting, evaluating and projecting talent. He started by hiring a NASA engineer and biomathematician, Sig Mejdal, to help him devise a system that could assimilate all the available information.

The Cardinals’ player evaluation program was one of the first that combined scouting information and statistical analysis. The system has evolved into one of the most sophisticated in the business, with proprietary algorithms (using neural nets and other artificial intelligence technology) that determine the value for each player.

Luhnow, who now works for the Houston Astros, recently offered a hypothetical example of how it works:

“Let’s say the player has played two summers in a wood-bat league. He’s got hundreds of Division I at-bats with a composite bat but against a wide variety of competition. You’ve got scouts’ input on his potential. Your video analyst says his swing is in the top quartile of swings he’s seen that lead to success in the major leagues. Your area scout says his character is in the top 10 percent of players. But he’s a C-minus student. Not academic, doesn’t learn well. Your doctor says he’s got a slightly above-average risk of sustaining an injury. I’ve just given you nine pieces of information. How do you weight them? I can’t do that in my mind. It’s overload for any human being. But we have a thousand players on the draft board we’re trying to rank in order.”

The player evaluation program takes all these variables into account and weights them according to the values determined by front office brainpower.

The Cardinals have been doing this for a while. Their advanced analytical process has allowed them to mine the later rounds of the draft with unusual hit rates. They believe their statistical approach can understand performance levels at smaller colleges, for example, and uncover talent there.

Matt Adams was drafted in the 23rd round (2009) out of Slippery Rock University. Trevor Rosenthal was selected in the 21st round (2009) out of Cowley County Community College. Kevin Siegrist was chosen in the 41st round in 2008 out of Palm Beach Community College. They hit on Matt Carpenter in the 13th round (2009).

The Cardinals have also done well with their first round selections: Lance Lynn (2008), Shelby Miller (2009), Kolten Wong (2011), Michael Wacha (2012), and Stephen Piscotty (2012).

Their analytic evaluation methods also suggested they focus on pitchers with more athleticism and big arms. By 2009, they were acquiring Miller, Wacha, Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez and Siegrist.

And while they don’t participate in the free agent market as much as they did under the previous regime, the Cardinals have been successful with their few signings like Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday and Jhonny Peralta. They traded for Grichuk and Jason Heyward.

So how did all this start?

It began at the insistence of a data-driven owner.

Bill DeWitt, Jr. lives in Indian Hill, a suburb of Cincinnati, where his investment capital business operates. DeWitt Jr. [pictured below] has degrees from Yale and Harvard and is a successful businessman. He also is the principle owner and managing partner of the St. Louis Cardinals. DeWitt Jr. was the principle investor in the group that bought the club from Anheuser-Busch for $150 million in 1995.

william_dewitt_jr.

Running a major league baseball organization was in Bill DeWitt Jr.’s blood. DeWitt’s father had worked as a young man for Branch Rickey. Bill Sr. had become the general manager and owner of the Cincinnati Reds in 1961. That’s right. An NL Champions pennant with “1961” on it is displayed in Great American Ball Park. Bill DeWitt Sr. is also credited for building the farm system that produced the Big Red Machine teams.

His son, Bill DeWitt Jr., is the person most responsible for the Cardinals being the enlightened, forward-thinking, successful organization they are today.

DeWitt’s commitment to modern baseball has produced a golden era for the Cardinals. In his 20 years as owner, the Cardinals have won more postseason games (71) than any National League team. By comparison, the Reds have won two over that period. The Cardinals have won two World Series and four NL pennants. They’ve done all this with a mid-sized market and average payroll.

“As time went on we had to change,” DeWitt said. “There was so much information out there. The use of metrics kept proliferating, and we weren’t doing anything to take advantage of it to evaluate what a player’s true performance was — and what that meant in terms of their value.”

DeWitt embraced advanced metrics as an evaluation tool … in 2003 … the year that Moneyball was on the bestseller list, far earlier than other owners.

“Today, every aspect of the game is under analytical scrutiny. On the field. Off the field. … There has been a coming around to information in the last 10 to 15 years and a lot of teams were looking for that edge,” said DeWitt. “I feel good that at the beginning we were able to capitalize on it.”

DeWitt hired Luhnow, who he knew from business dealings, to lead the Cardinals into their sabermetric future. Keep in mind that other than playing in a fantasy baseball league, Luhnow had no direct experience with the game. DeWitt gave him the keys to the computer lab – and the bank account.

“I wanted to make sure we were cutting-edge on all fronts and thought having someone from the outside would give us a fresh look,” said DeWitt. “There was no budget. What we needed is what we did.”

DeWitt had grown dissatisfied with the Cardinals threadbare minor league system. Under their old approach, the Cardinals system was regularly ranked in the 25-30 range (DeWitt: “and rightfully so”). DeWitt ordered more reliance on home grown players and less trading for established, aging stars and their expensive contracts.

“There was a new frontier,” said Dewitt. “If you feel good about how you look at the metric, then you have a chance to answer the question, ‘What’s the value?’ We all want to be at the forefront of player valuation techniques.”

Billdewitt3

Eventually, DeWitt gave more authority over scouting and player development to Luhnow, which created well publicized tension with the Cardinals general manager, Walt Jocketty.

Despite the Cardinals success in the mid-2000s, Jocketty wasn’t a good fit for Bill DeWitt’s plan to move toward more data-driven decisions. DeWitt wanted a more analytical front office and Walt Jocketty didn’t offer that.

By 2007, Jocketty’s most successful strategy had become outdated. He had been adept at grabbing players from other clubs engaged in mid-season fire sales. But as revenues surged in baseball, along with generous revenue sharing, teams became less eager to unload salary.

The division between Luhnow and Jocketty simmered barely beneath the surface for the summer of 2007. DeWitt fired Jocketty on October 3.

John Mozeliak, who had been an assistant to Jocketty, took over as the Cardinals GM at the age of 38. One of Mozeliak’s first moves was establishing a Baseball Development department, which had not existed under Jocketty.

Mozeliak put together a team of baseball outsiders to work with the Cardinals scouts and other baseball people. His analytics department consisted of a NASA engineer, and people with degrees in business, psychology and statistics. Their product generates the 0’s and 1’s for the organization’s data-driven decision-making.

“We’re able to combine advanced stats with the ability to create a model that gives us recommendations on contracts, salary and length,” Mozeliak said.

It factors in aging curves among other variables. Instead of paying players for what they have already accomplished, under Mozeliak the Cardinals pay for what they expect the players to do going forward.

On the field, Mozeliak notes that his manager, Mike Matheny and his coaches have embraced advanced-metric scouting reports. A big part of that was convincing Matheny to stop using small sample sizes for determining lineup and playing time and to accept larger samples sizes for those decisions.

The insight shows up in the standings. It’s Mozeliak, it’s Matheny, it is every name on the organization chart. “Everyone in the Cardinals’ organization is analytical,” an industry insider said recently.

And all that can be traced back in a straight line to the vision and leadership of owner Bill DeWitt Jr.

Steve grew up in Cincinnati as a die-hard fan of Sparky’s Big Red Machine. After 25 years living outside of Ohio, mostly in Ann Arbor, he returned to the Queen City in 2004. He has resumed a first-person love affair with the Cincinnati Reds and is a season ticket holder at Great American Ball Park. The only place to find Steve’s thoughts of more than 140 characters is Redleg Nation. Follow his tweets @spmancuso.

Join the conversation! 51 Comments

  1. Great Article. However… the words that comes to mind after reading it are….. scary… and despair.

    Don’t quite know how else to put it.

  2. It’s sadden me to read this, especially being his father was part of building the big red machine.

    • His father, lest it be forgotten, also traded an “old” Frank Robinson and got back Dick Simpson and Milt Pappas. I am not saying that Jr. did wrong but Daddy is also one of the least liked GMs the Reds ever had.

  3. The question ive always wondered why could’nt dewitt of bought the reds?

    • Yes, very interesting outlook.

    • I remember when that article came out thinking that Matheny was saying out loud what other managers kept inside as a dirty little secret.

      The progressive GMs will be the first to say how difficult it is to change some of the ingrained habits. There’s a recent article interviewing Luhnow where he was discussing his move to Houston where he said “I thought, well, now that I’m GM I’m going to be able to dictate all this stuff. But it turned out he still ran up against resistance.”

      Some practices (defensive shifts, focus on plate discipline) have been easier to change than others, like bullpen roles. The Matheny article contains a good explanation why that is in this case.

  4. The Cardinals, the baseball team, are impressive….the Cardinals the business are even more impressive.

    Their ability to develop cheap talent keeps cost down and increases profits. In reinvesting those profits, They’ve developed the area around the stadium, have paid down their stadium debt and are in an incredibly enviable financial position.

    A decade ago, they made a multi million dollar investment in analytics that has created hundreds of millions in tangible and intangible value……..the Reds have Adam Duvall

  5. Goes to show a couple of key things, I think:

    1) It takes a while to ramp this up and get really good at it – so you better catch up, Reds

    2) It needs to be top-down, like most corporate/organizational priorities… it is really hard to make hay as someone in the middle if you senior people don’t believe in it.. or maybe more importantly, you aren’t going to make the right hires.

    3) Another case of long-term thinking and systematic planning and execution leading to sustained success – short-term thinking will kill you

    The sad thing is that when the Reds finally get into the game, they will be one of the last players at the table and it will be simply a bit of catch-up… the hopes that we could be in position today to reap these benefits are a far-off dream atm.

    • Yes – when you’re the last to catch up, you’re probably the last to succeed. Or, you can stubbornly insist that the earth is flat.

      • I’m not sure I agree that last to the party is last to succeed.
        What is going on is essentially research and development. In such processes, there are always fits and stops and dead ends.
        A team that jumps in late should be able to extrapolate from what other teams have already learned that works and avoid a generation (or several) of errors and the cost related to them.

        That said, if you don’t play, you can’t win. It is high time the Reds got off their duffs and into the action with both feet.

  6. This article makes me sadder than any of the game recaps this year. And when I think about Bob C’s anger during the 2013 wildcard game, I wonder if he has EVER thought about data analysis regarding baseball players.

  7. Why is this not enough to make us all St. Louis Cardinals’ fans? A well-run business doing things in a forward-thinking way. Yet we still cling to the Big Red Machine and the very very slim chance that our franchise might see the light of day sometime. It’s interesting that our hearts win out over our minds here, since maybe we should see our love for the Reds as a sunk cost, finally break up with her, and move on to a relationship that’s more sustainable…

    • Bengals fan here. Suffered through the lost decade. Things have slowly been changing.

  8. The point of the article: change begins from the top. We fans await what Mr. Castellini sets in motion this off-season.

  9. Hasn’t Walt exhibited an ability to make good trades? How does he determine who the best candidates to get in return for a player are? Presumably, he relies on his scouting department to recommend/rate players. It would seem that he would be all in on incorporating analytics if it would provide him better and more certain guidance.

    The Cardinals have over 10 years of development into player assessment using advanced statistical measures. And have demonstrated continued presence in the playoffs despite roster turnover and even in the face of substantial injuries. The Reds need to bring in new management with some experience in this area so they can shorten the 10 year time frame they need to make up on the Cardinals.

    • Good question. Next post [4/5] addresses the paradox between the good trades Jocketty made with the Reds this year and the lousy free agent signings.

      • They just had a guy win the scout of the year award. Jocketty’s downfall is signing the veteran guys, specifically ex-Cardinals… clearly its done with emotion rather than logic… no way could any scout sign off on Skip Schumaker or a washed up Jason Marquis.

  10. Data not included:

    Albert Pujols. Huge part of this Cards success, the best player of his generation. Signed in 1999 (before Moneyball even existed) in the 13th round of the amateur draft under appointed GM Walt Jocketty. Luhnow was not even part of the team.

    Yadier Molina. Heart and soul of that team, the best catcher of all time after Bench. Signed in 2000 (before Moneyball even existed) in the 4th round of the amateur draft under appointed GM Walt Jocketty. Luhnow not even part of the team.

    Trades by WJ: Wainright, Carpinter, Holliday, Freese among many others.

    The Cardinals, until the appointment of WJ as GM in 1994, had not appeared in a WS since 1987. He was key to bring Tony Larussa (one of the best Mgs all/time), McGwire and pitching Guru Dave Duncan who shaped the pitching strategies of that organization.

    • Of course, I left out on purpose the fact the the very own signing of Luhnow as assistant GM had to be approved by Jocketty at the very least.

      • Dewitt Sr. Had 60 plus years in baseball. Even though I am an ardent Frank Robinson supporter(one of the greatest Reds ever)–Mr Dewitt was a great baseball man ,who changed the Reds and made baseball fun in Cincinnati. I also believe had Fred Hutchinson lived Robinson would not have been dealt. But the father always had good , loyal, solid people working with him—he was very careful about that and he let them do their jobs. It would be very interesting to ask DeWitt Jr.(now-today) if he would rehire Mr. Luhnow and what his feelings are (now-today) about Larussa and Jocketty. The Cardinals have always been a very well run baseball organization and some of this despite having some very poor owners (Busch-Bearden). It is always been built onto the foundation that was laid down by Branch Rrickey with” very good at their jobs” people at the very lowest level all the way to the top. They all used the very best methods known at the time. The Brooklyn Dodgers offices were known as “think tanks” in the forties and fifties and in 1947 hired Alan Roth who became baseball’s first full time statistician. All of these new ideas are wonderful if you have good people at the helm.There are many good people have big time degrees from Ivy League schools and there are many smart people who do not have those credentials but they do know what works and what doesn’t and even more important they know how to handle emotional, artistic types—like teachers, leaders, decision makers (especially under duress) and and in our context those kinds of people are known as coaches-scouts-mangers-and ballplayers.

    • Your points are fair and valid. Walt left a foundation that made it possible to
      ” create” a new way without the need to burn down the house. For that, he deserves a great deal of credit.

      It’s also fair and valid to say that the Cardinals have put themselves in a position to have sustainable success by focusing on player development and identifying under valued professional players. This was done by mixing traditional scouting, analytics and not minimizing the investment in minor league instruction.

      The Cardinals draw a million more fans per year than the Reds. They own the parking garages next to the stadium, they paid for a stadium in 2006 dollars that produces 2015 revenue, they own their version of the banks. They have a significant revenue advantage over every NL Central team but the Cubs. That was something that was part of a long term vision that the Reds lack.

      The Cardinals of 2006, had similar revenue issues as the Reds…instead of letting that serve as an excuse or impediment they create an alternative way that gave them advantages.

      • Yours is the best way to describe it. They have done a good job drafting and developing talent mixing in all the tools available. In the case of pitching, having Duncan aboard (brought in by WJ) helped a lot to correct guys like Carpenter who was a so so pitcher in Toronto. Larussa definetely left his mark too. They also had a bit of luck (Pujols’ case) and been very smart in the business side.

        But the untold story is what Castellini inherited when becoming the owner. A team that hadn’t been in the postseason since 1995, coming from 2 terrible owners (one of them driven by her dog!) who depleted their farm system and put ALL their eggs in an aging Ken Griffey Jr.

        • Krivsky was in the process of fixing things, before Dusty messed up the roster by bringing in his home boys… he wanted to bring in Gary Matthews Jr. for chrissakes.

        • Not quite true she was driven by the dog. She zipped pasted me one day on I-71 as I was coming home from a game. She was driving. Schottzie was in the back seat 🙂 True story.

    • Walt Jocketty made a lot of great moves for the Cardinals. You left out (data not included) his trades for Mark McGwire, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds and Larry Walker. As I mention in the post, Jocketty’s strategy of signing salary dumps had played out by 2007.

      The Cardinals had good draft picks before 2003, of course. More data not included in your comment: They won World Series before DeWitt, too. Bob Gibson, Stan Musial, etc.

      This is an article about Bill DeWitt Jr. and how he modernized the Cardinals. Even taking into account all the “data not included” in your comment, DeWitt saw the need to fire Jocketty.

      I don’t really get your point. Are you saying that DeWitt didn’t know what he was doing when he fired Jocketty?

      • Larry Walker was a great pickup… Beltran was one I laughed at because it was 3 years and I thought perhaps at least a year too long. Yeah, I was wrong.

        • Lance Berkman is another one that seemed like an over the hill slugger who was signed for too long. But then he has an all star type year.

          If you had a proprietary metric that could somewhat accurately predict guys who are going to age well and stay productive into their late thirties, you would have a huge advantage because it doesn’t matter how much you produce, if you are over 34 no one is going to give you more than one or two years on the open market these days.

    • Your love for all things Walt has clouded your bias….Carpenter was drafted in 2011 out of TCU, 3 years AFTER he was with Reds. Wainwright was drafted by Cards in 2005. Freese joined Cards in 2009, as did Matt Holliday post Walt.

      You MUST be Walt because you REFUSE to lend any credence to ANY statistical analysis as a tool.

      • Ah, but there were two Carpenters. Walt was responsible for Chris, and while he’s a douche, he was quite the pick-up.

    • What’s with the over rating of Molina? He’s good, but not the second best catcher of all time. He’s only been an above average offensive player in 3 seasons. Maybe defensively he’s one of the best. But offense counts too.

      I heard Marty say something like he would take Molina over Piazza any day. Craziness. The numbers aren’t even close right now. Piazza is a no doubt hall of famer, according to the numbers. Yadi still has a lot of work to do.

    • If they knew Pujols and Molina were going to be so good, why did Walt wait until the 13th and 4th round to draft them?

      • You mean like the other 29 teams, passing on them several rounds ? and please do tell, who got them? Who gave them an extension that´s been called a bargain after seeing the results?

  11. Great article Steve but I doubt if the Reds will ever give in to using data at all to make baseball decisions.They will still use the gut and eye test along with rolling the dice and try to catch lightning in a bottle and any other OLD cliché you can think of to try to stay competitive.Of course to them that means maybe playing 500 baseball every once in a while.Bob and company just don’t get it and won’t get even though all teams in our division and most of the rest of the league does.But I stll have fond memories of the Big Red Machine and the 1990 Title so it ain’t all bad for this lifetime fan.

    • There’s nothing wrong with having fond memories of those teams. Obviously they’re the best teams in franchise history. The problem is (which you didn’t claim is what you were doing) that the team and the fan base has not forgot those teams and can’t let go of the fact that it’s not 1975 anymore. This team and majority of the fan base lives in the past. I understand why I guess but it seems even Castellini lives in the past. Hopefully the team can move onto the 21st century because if not then it’s going to get even worse.

  12. It seems to me that the ultimate measure of Jocketty’s success will come through his success as drafting players, and not as much through FA signings or even trades. A team like the Reds should draft well. They need big value from their 1st round selections but also throughout the draft. So I’m curious to know (and suppose I shouldfind out for myself) how well he’s drafted compared to Krivsky and O’Brien, who gave us Votto, Bailey, Bruce, Mesoraco and Cozart.

    • The GM doesn’t have direct influence over who is drafted. The GM’s influence might be indirect by shaping the way the club evaluates all players – current and future. DeWitt influenced the draft by hiring a person like Luhnow to be in charge of it and the player evaluation process. DeWitt insisted the Cardinals use advanced metrics to evaluate players. A GM could do similarly, in either direction. From what I’ve read, Jocketty isn’t that involved in the Reds specific drafting decisions. The draft is a pretty imprecise way to evaluate GMs.

      I think it might be more accurate to say that the draft is the best way to judge how well the Reds are doing in evaluating players.

  13. Reds have always adhered to the buddy system when in doubt.. Hire Price to be Dusty 11. Could have had Madden. The players catch on to this penchant for mediocrity. The fans are the last to know.

    • There is no way they could’ve had Maddon.

      He was offered 5 million per year to manage in a huge market, with a great GM and the most talented young roster in baseball.

    • I agree with Chuck above. I don’t think there’s any way that Maddon would have come to Cincy. There were some who even suggested that the Cubs tampered with Maddon while he was still in Tampa. Now, it would seem Price wasn’t the right hire but Maddon wasn’t going to happen either.

      • When they re-upped Dusty for 3 years, (on the heels of a division title), I was hoping it was going to be Francona. But winning the division made sure that Dusty got his deal.

        • I like Terry Francona too. The situation in Boston that caused his termination does need to be considered however.

        • Francona is a great example of managerial irrelevance.

          He lost 97 games with the Phillies and his Indians teams get worse each year. He wins at a rate consistent with his team’s talent.

          Would he have lost 98 games with the Reds this year? Perhaps he would’ve lost 96….or 100. Like virtually every other manager he is completely interchangeable and replaceable

  14. It isn’t that Jocketty is inept, which he isn’t. He is just terribly outdated. He is a Cessna in a G-6 baseball world. A baseball world that is set to explode into the Space X baseball world with the new technologies and data. And Jocketty maintains the Cessna puddle jumper.

  15. All I know is that if Bronson Arroyo isn’t in the Reds rotation this year I’m going to have to burn Dusty Baker’s house down.

  16. “The Cardinals’ player evaluation program was one of the first that combined scouting information and statistical analysis.”

    What I’ve always said, not just “professional opinions” nor “numbers”, but the combination of the two.

    “Let’s say the player has played two summers in a wood-bat league. He’s got hundreds of Division I at-bats with a composite bat but against a wide variety of competition. You’ve got scouts’ input on his potential. Your video analyst says his swing is in the top quartile of swings he’s seen that lead to success in the major leagues. Your area scout says his character is in the top 10 percent of players. But he’s a C-minus student. Not academic, doesn’t learn well. Your doctor says he’s got a slightly above-average risk of sustaining an injury. I’ve just given you nine pieces of information. How do you weight them? I can’t do that in my mind. It’s overload for any human being. But we have a thousand players on the draft board we’re trying to rank in order.”

    The thing is, that’s what a human will do. They will put weights on the injury proneness, on the academic success, on the character, etc., then roll them all up into one huge feedback. Nothing to say that human being is going to be right 100%. Odds are great, they aren’t going to be right 100% of the time; the Cards aren’t, but they have been better than others. And still, after a couple of iterations, you may even still consider tweeking the weights, “A little more on the character, a little less on the injury proneness”, trying to find a more ideal system, or at least how you want to weigh the various aspects you choose. Or, like, for example, “if” the Reds had a formula going like this, one could probably easily argue that they need to increase the weight on “hitting ability” and don’t need to worry about pitching for a while.

  17. AA, the Toronto GM, is now a free agent. Isn’t he some kind of analytics GM type? I figured that would get everyone an angina hollering for his signing.

  18. Problem is we HAVE a GM… and he isn’t going anywhere apparently… at least not until next year.

  19. Could you send this entire article to Bob Castellini?
    I cannot think of a better way to get him to rethink things here.

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About Steve Mancuso

Steve grew up in Cincinnati as a die-hard fan of Sparky's Big Red Machine. After 25 years living outside of Ohio, mostly in Ann Arbor, he returned to the Queen City in 2004. He has resumed a first-person love affair with the Cincinnati Reds and is a season ticket holder at Great American Ball Park. The only place to find Steve's thoughts of more than 140 characters is Redleg Nation. Follow his tweets @spmancuso.

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Modern Baseball