Secret Sauce: Evaluating Talent the Cardinal Way

USA TODAY Sports

"A good friend of mine used to say, 'This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.' Think about that for a while." -- Ebby Calvin LaLoosh, Bull Durham

A week or so back, Ben called me in the midst of picking up my three kids from childcare (yes, three, all under the age of 3, please hold your sympathy until the end of the post) he was excited and talking 1000 miles a minute. He'd been offered the site manager job at VEB and wanted to know if I would be interested in contributing to the site by taking over the reigns at the Future Redbirds desk. As someone who spends far too much time studying Cardinal prospects for the literal benefit of nobody, I graciously accepted. What better way to utilize my brother's MiLB.tv account (he's Director of Food & Beverage for the Oklahoma City Redhawks and therefore gets gratis access) to watch countless game replays and summaries while completely ignoring all work responsibilities for 5 months during the season.

I've got some fresh ideas for covering the Cardinals minor league system from Johnson City all the way to Memphis and plan to continue the Daily Farm Reports and prospect profiles that Erik, azruavatar, and the rest of the FR contributors have written so well over the years. Feel free to drop me an email with any ideas you have about the site or if you have anything you'd like to contribute. I'll do my best to answer each and every one.

* * * * *

Yesterday I took at look at first round draft picks of the Cardinals since 2007, and how their pick distribution of college and high school players compared to the league as a whole. That was first year John Mozeliak and Jeff Luhnow convinced Bill DeWitt to re-think the Cardinals strategy of player evaluation and player development. Over the next 4 seasons, Mo and Luhnow turned a system with one top 100 prospect (Colby Rasmus) and a bottom 5 ranking into the envy of GM's everywhere. So how did they do it? Let's examine the theories that I think make up the Cardinals' "secret sauce":

Tools vs. Skills

We've all heard of the five tool player, the GOB's gift to the game. He can hit for average, hit for power, run, field, and throw. Pure, raw talent that rarely exists, and when it does makes all of us hold our breath as if something amazing is about to happen when you watch that player on the field.

Tools are all about potential and projection, but skills are what determine success -- they're the finer points of the game learned from coaching, training, and endless repetition from the time you were in short pants. Can the player utilize the tools he has and refine them into skills that can make him successful at the MLB level? That's the sui generis of scouting: Being able to recognize these traits by simply watching a high school or college player face a team of his peers.

My take is that the Cardinals are more focused on skills than tools. They're not against taking a tools guy (see Stock, Robert and Tilson, Charlie) if that's the best player available, but few of the Cardinals selections are guys who don't have at least one high profile skill to go along with some other average or above-average too.

Attributes

This is the dreaded category that some would call "intangibles". We know they exist, we know they probably matter, but we have no way of measuring it in any meaningful, predictable way. If we did, Ryan Leaf would never have been drafted, the Wonderlic test would actually be worthwhile, and I would have avoided taking all those intelligence tests in high school that told me I should be a warehouse manager. Mozeliak calls this a player's "makeup", referring to his ability to mentally handle the rigors of the game.

One statistically definable attribute that the Cardinals clearly look for when scouting offensive players is "approach", or how that hitter handles his plate appearances. This is bit of a natural evolution of Brad Pitt moving Hatteburg to first: If you take a lot of pitches and have a good idea of the strike zone, you're going to perk up the ears of a Cardinal scout.

The Secret Sauce

So what makes up the "secret sauce"? It's a combination of a few of things:

  1. Determining tools, skills, or attributes that have the greatest predilection towards success as a player enters professional baseball and moves up through the farm.
  2. Utilizing player development programs to turn above average tools into above average skills
  3. Identifying players who might have only one elite tool, skill, or attribute but have enough other tools and skills that they can be developed into a productive player.*

One way to measure the approach attribute is to note the BB% of players. Those with a good approach will tend to have higher than average walk rates, even if they don't have other above average tools and skills, and the amount of plate appearances that end in a walk correlates surprisingly well with sustained success in the major leagues as a hitter. This is clearly an attribute that the Cardinals focus on: the Redbird farm system is loaded with guys who take a walk in 12% of their PA's. Mike O'Neill comes to mind first, but there's also Greg Garcia, Jermaine Curtis, Xavier Scruggs, and James Ramsey -- and that's just the guys pegged to start at Memphis this April.

Players do tend to walk more in the minor leagues, due to pitchers not having the fine tuned control of most MLB hurlers. But I think it's telling that if you sort the entire Texas League by BB% for the 2013 season, you end up with 6 Cardinals in the top 20. And look at who makes up a good chunk of the rest: the Astros (who are currently managed by Jeff Luhnow, former Cardinal scouting director) and the Athletics, with Moneyball Billy Beane at the helm. Coincidence? Possibly, but probably not.

For example: If you combine this preference for approach with the focus on elite skills (#3 above) you can see why the Cardinals would take someone like Matt Carpenter (13th round, 2009) in the later rounds of the draft. Carpenter's approach was one that azruavatar described as, and I'm paraphrasing, a "strange but total control over the strike zone" back in 2011. I agree with that sentiment. Couple that with an above average hit tool and good athleticism and you have a player who can be developed into a productive major league player.

To conclude: It's not a matter of High School vs. College kids, it's a matter of skills over raw tools.

*The Cardinals have really made some hay with this one, with late round production from Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist, Seth Maness, and Matt Adams (all taken after the 10th round). That's a pretty rare place to find a productive player, and the Cardinals have 7 such players on their 40 man roster. Lucky? Sure. But still impressive.

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