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A long overdue farewell

Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

November 2015: While enjoying my favorite website, I came across a new post from Craig Edwards, announcing that the site was looking for new writers. At the time, I had no professional writing experience. However, I had tried my hand with Fanposts, writing 13 of them. I also had a few thousand comments to my name at the time, mostly discussing possible roster moves the team could make.

I already spent a lot of time thinking critically about the Cardinals on this site, so what the heck I thought. I might as well apply. Over a hundred people applied, so I didn’t hold out much hope. It would be no big deal if I didn’t get it, as I had just made the decision to go back to school to major in Computer Science anyway. It’s not like I had a lot of time on my hands.

Against the odds though, Craig had interest in bringing me aboard. I was one of three new hires. Craig also brought John Fleming aboard, as well as the now departed Alex Crisafulli. Though I’ve only talked to John once (when recording a podcast) and I never met Alex, I’ve felt a connection to those two ever since.

It was exciting, but also terrifying: I wrote those 13 fanposts over the course of 5 months. How on earth was I supposed to find something relevant to write about two to three times a week? Almost two years later, I’d say I figured it out, but it wasn’t always easy finding my way.

I’ve always thought of my job here as comprised of two main categories: analysis and writing. More specifically, I’m using writing as a medium to share my analysis. I’ve also always thought of myself as much better at the analytical part then I was at the writing part. My early email correspondence with Craig confirms that. It’s littered with him telling me about grammatical issues that most professional writers just don’t make. It took me a while to get used to saying “The Cardinals” instead of “we” for instance. One thing I never got over was starting sentences with “and” or “but” or “or”. I get it, you’re not supposed to do that, and I’ve known that since grade school. Still, I try to write like I talk. My favorite writers have always done that. And sometimes, starting a sentence with “and” just feels more natural. Sorry if that was like scratching a chalkboard for you.

While I always tried to improve my writing game, I could never have the literary prowess of the writer formerly known as The Red Baron. For one, I’m not even sure if “literary prowess” is the right way to describe what Aaron does. He could literally just write what we all already know (though of course he doesn’t, he shares a lot of top notch analysis), and it would still be thoroughly entertaining, because he says it so well. While Aaron has a lot of admirers, I think John Fleming and Ben Godar don’t get enough credit for also being strong in that sense. I looked to all three to try to improve my own writing game, and thank them for their inspiration.

Baseball was my first passion in life, and the Cards are my team for life. So to get a gig covering them was a dream come true. However, it isn’t my only passion. As I mentioned, I started going back to school a little more than a month after I started writing here. I’m majoring in Computer Science because it turns out developing software is something I absolutely love to do, as well as something I’m actually really good at. My own favorite articles here are ones where I figure something I could have only figured out through writing some code, like this one.

When school was in, it was always a challenge to balance my real job, school, my writing duties here, and a reasonable amount of down time. I really wanted to both program and write about the Cardinals though, so I always somehow made it work.

You know what though? After nearly two years, it’s become exhausting. I haven’t spent enough time with my awesome girlfriend, who pushed me to apply here in the first place and has been incredibly supportive even though it has meant less fun times with her. I also have a high-energy dog who hasn’t been getting enough walks, and when we adopted her I swore that I wouldn’t be that type of dog-owner. While I love you guys, it just doesn’t compare to my love for them.

With that in mind, I’ve made the extremely tough decision to step down as a writer for VEB. Craig offered me the opportunity to adjust my schedule to one that would allow me to continue writing here but at a reduced level. After contemplating that though, I think I would lose some of my edge when it comes to analysis from spending less time on it.

I actually stopped writing about five weeks ago, hence the reason the article is titled the way it is. Craig told me just to let him know when I had a good-bye post ready, and I just didn’t have time. It’s actually more fitting this way as I’m finishing editing this on the day of my two-year anniversary of my first article as a paid writer here. You might not have even noticed my absence on account of the abundance of good writers here, but it was really strange for me to pull up on Monday and Saturday mornings and not see an article authored by myself.

I was hired during a time when VEB was attempting to drastically increase the amount of content. I’ve been a member here long enough to know that this strategy wasn’t what everyone wanted. Some were rightfully concerned that the powers-that-be might favor quantity over quality too strongly. Some left over it. However, I would say that problem never materialized.

I’m very proud to have been part of the writing team here. There is literally not a single topic related to Cardinals baseball that at least one of the writers here isn’t more than capable of covering. That type of coverage allowed me to stay in my own lane, honing in on deep analytical dives. I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. If this site was dominated with those types of articles, less people would tune in. VEB’s ability to cover the whole spectrum is very impressive though, and I am proud to feel like I contributed to that.

I was actually hired to provide transactional analysis, and I did a lot of that. However, I learned early on that a pretty big portion of analyzing possible trades or free agent signings is applied player evaluation. What I mean is: how much one should be willing to spend on a free agent or give up in a trade has a whole lot to do with first getting an appropriate understanding of a player’s real talent level. Projecting how a player is going to perform going forward is perhaps the biggest piece of information for whether to acquire, trade, release, or extend a player.

Anyway, before I say good-bye to seeing my articles at the top of my favorite website, I have a few last thoughts to share with you, in no particular order.

In baseball, be process-oriented, not results-oriented

Results are important. There are tons of situations in life where the result tells you all you need to know. Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, and Benjamin Franklin have all been attributed the popular quote that insanity is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. That’s because there’s enough things in life where doing the same thing only produces the same result.

However, some things are ruled by probability. If you’re playing blackjack, and you have eleven vs. a dealer showing a six, you’re supposed to double down. You don’t double down because you’ll win every time, you do so because overall, you’re more likely to win than lose. If you do it once and lose, you’re still right to double down the next time, and shouldn’t feel insane for expecting a different result.

Unless you’re counting cards though (and can avoid being noticed counting cards, as the casinos really don’t appreciate it), blackjack isn’t a game you can win long-term. You’re playing the house, and the house would be a fool to offer you a game where the odds are in your favor. I’ve always found the better analogy to be poker, where the house makes money by facilitating gamblers to compete against one another. These are games where smart gamblers can realistically make money. Like a lot of others, my game was No-Limit Texas Hold ‘em, thanks to the popularity of the World Series of Poker on ESPN in the early ‘00s.

While it’s often portrayed in the media as a simple game based largely on bluffing and noticing “tells”, poker is a game rich in complexity and probability. One of my favorite quotes on the subject goes, as paraphrased “No good move in poker goes unpunished”. The best hand preflop - pocket aces - typically has a 80% or better chance of ending up being the best hand when playing one other person. Still, that means that if you get all your money in preflop, you’re coming away unhappy around 20% of the time.

Few situations in poker are that clear, but the fundamental point rings true throughout: Making the right moves means taking losses on a somewhat normal basis, because you can’t outright predict what card comes next. It’s actually a huge part of the appeal of the game. If the money too consistently and quickly moved from the fish to the sharks, the fish wouldn’t want to play. Betting on chess isn’t very common, because the best player almost always wins. The swings of poker also stops uninformed players from learning to make better decisions, because the inverse is also true: every bad decision sometimes works out. A prerequisite to being successful in poker is accepting this and making smart decisions regardless of whether the results have paid off recently. It sounds counter-intuitive but the best gamblers can have long losing streaks, and while sometimes poorer than usual play can be a contributing factor, it often really is because they’ve just been unlucky over and over when it’s mattered most.

Baseball is also skill-based game that fundamentally hinges on probability. That’s because players don’t display their talents in a symmetric manner. In other words, performance day-to-day doesn’t look like an average of their performances over the season. That’s not because they’re saving it for the opportune time, it’s just because that’s the way the game works.

As a former little league coach of mine once opined, “Why is it 60 feet and 6 inches between the rubber and the plate? Why not just go with 60 feet, or 61 feet? Because baseball is a game of inches”. Often, calling it a game of inches doesn’t do it enough justice. If a pitcher’s release point is consistently a fraction of an inch off, he’s going to have a bad game. The difference between a homer and fly-out often is just a fraction of an inch in terms of where on the barrel the hitter makes contact. Probability also greatly affects front office decisions. Just as no poker hand will always win, no contract for a free agent player will always pan out. There’s no such thing as a draft pick that can’t bust, or a trade without a chance of looking in hindsight.

While results can cloud judgement, I sincerely hope the front office continues to make decisions based on process rather than results. Having your own process, one that out-competes the league, is the only way to find long-term success in this game. Just following the rest of the league is a recipe for mediocrity at best. And for the Cards, it’s not just a good process. The results have shown an ability to more capably produce talent from the draft and the international amateur market, especially when controlled for the fact that their consistent winning has allowed them less resources to do so. Paul DeJong, taken 131st overall just two and a half years ago is a strong indication that they still know what they’re doing. While the narrative of the Cards as the model franchise has died down a little bit, their competitive advantage continues to be an ability to better project which amateurs can hack it in the show.

Moving on to more Cardinal-specific things...

The Cards aren’t doomed if they don’t make big moves this winter

The last couple of months this place could rightfully be called VES: Viva El Stanton. There’s not a single player - Cardinal or otherwise - who has received more attention. That’s not to say that a lot of attention hasn’t also gone to other acquisition candidates, but even then it always seems to come back to Giancarlo.

There’s good reasons for that: he was the perfect match. He plays the position that is the biggest weakness for the Cards. He’s better than anyone available in free agency this year, and he’s the only elite player being actively shopped by a team right now. The Cards are a team filled with average to above-average players, and a player of Stanton’s caliber was the only realistic way to significantly improve the team. They also were one of the only contenders with a corner-outfield weakness as well as both the prospects and payroll space to pull off a trade for Stanton. As you likely know by now though, Stanton won’t be Cardinal, despite giving the Marlins the best offer. After 8 consecutive losing seasons on a team about to embark on a massive rebuild, Stanton would rather risk staying in Miami than play for one of the most storied franchises in the game.

That’s his right, and I won’t begrudge him for that. Heck, I don’t want to live in St. Louis either. Still, it’s a hard pill to swallow for someone who grew up watching Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds, and Scott Rolen take discounts to wear the Birds on the Bat. It takes it to a whole new level when you consider his apparent preference for the Cubs. Back in 2013 and 2014, I understood the Cubs Apocalypse was coming. All things change, and the Cubs couldn’t be bad forever. But players picking to play for them over the Cardinals is quite the kick in the crotch that I didn’t expect.

No, the Cardinals aren’t a super-team, which is apparently the only place he’s willing to go. They didn’t have a cool rebuilding phase where the front office purposely fielded a poor team for several years, trading any MLB talent they could find for prospects and reaping all the best draft picks and the highest international bonus pools as a direct result, which is the best way to acquire the elite talent the team is currently lacking.

Stanton was a really big upgrade, and after weeks of speculation, it was a bit crushing to hear the news. While there’s been a lot of talk about possible large upgrades the team could make though, they are under no mandate to do so. I know, some don’t like the projections. We already have some for 2018 though, and before any additions have been made, the Cards already project to win 85 games in 2018. That’s the eighth highest total in a sport where ten make the playoffs. It’s fourth most in a league where five make the playoffs. The Cards are far from assured a return to the playoffs in ‘18, but they remain squarely in the mix.

At the same time, the Cubs are projected to win seven more games than the Cards. Perhaps Stanton could have cut that in half, but they’d still be underdogs to win the division even if the Cubs did nothing else to improve themselves this winter. Should the Cards invest heavily just to get around the Cubs’ level for a few years? Or should they keep that powder dry and look for a more opportune time, one where the big moves put the Cards in the driver seat for the division? As an American living in the 21st century, my impulse is to say “I want what I want now!”, but the smarter answer is probably to wait on the big moves, if the asking price is to steep. The Cubs are obviously willing to shorten their window to maximize the glory they can obtain right now, and they’re simply better set up right now to win that fight. Better to zig while they zag.

That doesn’t mean I don’t think the team shouldn’t be considering upgrades. Each win they obtain could be the difference between a Wild Card spot and none. The team should be concentrated on making smart moves that make them better in 2018 while not sacrificing future success in a probably-not-too-distant future where the Cubs are no longer a super-team. Which leads to my text topic:

Lorenzo Cain continues to be the best plan B to me

As I wrote a couple months ago, Cain has outproduced the more popular free agent outfielder - J.D. Martinez - as well as the recently extended Justin Upton who was otherwise expected to be a free agent this winter. He also projects to be better than both going forward. However, the experts continue to think he’ll command a deal for much less than those two.

Chief baseball decision-maker John Mozeliak has already had a conversation with Fowler about possibly moving to a corner so that the probably better-fielding Tommy Pham can man center. Adding Cain for the job would be even better. Fowler, Cain, and Pham across the outfield would be above-average on offense, at the plate, and on the base-paths.

While Cain doesn’t have the superstar potential of Stanton, there is this: Over the last three years, Cain actually has Stanton beat in terms of fWAR: 13.1 to 12.6. It took 200 more plate appearances for him to do it, but it’s impressive nonetheless. I don’t think he’ll be better than Stanton going forward, but he’ll also require about a fourth of the cost in terms of money, and none of the cost in terms of prospects (though he will cost a draft pick). The signing would make it easier for the team to deal from it’s depth in the outfield, either for bullpen help or as part of a larger upgrade elsewhere, perhaps in the rotation. The more minor financial investment would also keep the Cards open to big free agent deals in the more immediate future.

You can never have to much pitching, but the Cards don’t need to improve the rotation

Yes, the rotation looks a little unstable outside of Carlos Martinez. Michael Wacha is coming off a fine season, but has an injury prone past. Luke Weaver had a great if not full season, but scouts continue to worry that the lack of a plus breaking ball will lead to regression. Adam Wainwright has fine peripherals, but has for two consecutive years suffered poor results on-contact. He’s also a question mark in terms of health. Jack Flaherty enjoyed a fast rise through the system for a high school pick, but his track record still only involves about 170 innings above High-A. On the roster as currently constructed, he’ll compete with the newly acquired Miles Mikola for the last rotation spot.

Things don’t stop there though. Alex Reyes should be back by midseason, and I’d hate to see his talents wasted in the bullpen, even in his first season back from Tommy John. I hated it when they did it with El Gallo and I still think he’d be a better pitcher had they not put him in the pen in 2014. Dakota Hudson reached Triple-A in his first full season in professional ball. While the peripherals weren’t great, the Cards obviously see something for them to promote him so quickly through the system. Zac Gallen also made it to Triple-A in his first full pro season, and had better results than Hudson.

We haven’t even got to Sandy Alcantara, who had a cup of coffee in the bullpen this year but is still raw as far as prospects in the upper minors go. It would be prudent to just assume he’ll be working on things in the minors for all of 2018, and just be happily surprised if he ends up playing an actual MLB role. But that’s not the case for a less celebrated prospect like John Gant, who lacks the ceiling of the above guys but could still more than admirably fill in the back-end of the rotation in the event of a few injuries.

That’s not to say it can’t improve. I certainly wouldn’t complain about acquiring Chris Archer, but that’s because he’s a high-end talent, something the Cards could use anywhere right now. After-all, Waino is in the last year of his contract so any acquisition might just be filling a rotation spot one year early.

The rotation lacks certainty, that’s for sure. However, they can hedge against that lack of certainty by holding several high-risk bets, enough of them that it’s likely enough will work out to fill a rotation. Mikola represents the latest bet. If it doesn’t work, it only costs the team in a situation where they’re contending at the deadline but ended up needing more pitching. In that case, pitching is always available at the deadline, and they have a farm they can deal from. The deadline isn’t always a seller’s market, as 2017 showed.

Well, that’s about all I have for you. Big thanks are due to Craig Edwards, who without him none of this was possible. He was extremely helpful both in terms of advice as well as just learning by example from his great work both here and at Fangraphs. I leave with nothing but good feelings for Craig as well as SBNation and their parent company Vox media. If I have one regret, it’s that the Cards didn’t make the playoffs at any point during my time as a writer. All take the blame for that one if it means a return to October baseball next year.

Also a big thanks to all VEB writers, both past and present. This web site is held in high-esteem across the Cardinals-related portion of internet, and they’re the reason why. Though he no longer writes here, Joe Schwarz deserves a specific mention. His analysis was more often than not centered around pitching. That allowed me to concentrate more on hitters, which is simply the point of view that I’m more familiar with in baseball. Though we didn’t write about the same things very often, his work helped push me to provide better analysis more than anyone else.

Finally, I want to also thank the readers, and specifically the community here. While I am stepping down, this is still my favorite part of the internet. It was one thing to write about Baseball, but quite another to write specifically for Cards fans that were open to advanced analysis. I’ve yet to find another site with a similar demographic. I actually learned a lot about baseball analysis from the community here, and it felt great to feel like I was paying that forward.

With that said, my tenure as writer at VEB has come to an end. It was a great experience for me, and I hope you enjoyed it too. Baseball is impossible to predict, but projecting it can be a lot of fun for those with the inclination. It’s even more fun when you can share it with a community like this one. Thanks again to Craig, the writers, and the community, as well as anyone I may have missed. Go Cardinals!