This past Sunday, I had the privilege of attending the Cardinals’ annual Blogger Day at the Ballpark event. Besides getting to take in St. Louis’ 9-2 win over the Reds alongside a group of fellow Cardinals bloggers from around the web, the invitation also included a Q and A with President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak and Team President Bill DeWitt III. The former fielded questions concerning the baseball side of the franchise while more business-related questions were directed towards the latter in the second half of the forum. For the sake of avoiding a post that eclipses 5,000 words, I have decided to split the Q and A between the two’s responses. What follows are the topics that Mozeliak covered in his portion of the hour:
- Mozeliak began the session with an opening statement in which he called the Cardinals blogosphere an “informal report card.” He expressed optimism regarding the club’s outlook on the 2018 season, specifically citing the team’s depth and ability to “endure injuries and get us over the hump and allow us to have internal solutions.”
- Regarding Adam Wainwright’s right elbow inflammation, Mozeliak said Wainwright “probably could have pitched through it, but when you have an injury that happens in April, you’ve got to be thinking about the long view.” He feels confident in the pitching depth at Memphis to give the Cardinals a quality start or two in the meantime while also noting that with the 10-day DL, “trying to protect the players is a lot easier to do now than in the past when you used to have that tough decision.”
- Mozeliak spoke on Wainwright’s future and if that will entail a conversion to the bullpen, pondering if relieving really is “easier than being a starter. Getting up and down, getting hot, there’s some level of stress on your body, specifically on your elbow, that comes into play versus if you’re pitching every fifth day. I think we always debate this and we try to act like we know the answer, but I don’t really know what’s best. I think Waino sees himself as a starter, so I think there’s a mental component if all of a sudden we said ‘you’re going to the bullpen.’ The other part is what’s the role in the bullpen?”
- Mozeliak agrees with the general consensus among fans “that the way [Flaherty is] pitching, he deserves to be in the big leagues, but that means someone else doesn’t. These are the tough parts about when you sign someone to a long-term deal because at some point you’re going to see a regression in performance or a medical risk becomes higher and unfortunately I think that’s probably where we are here [with Wainwright]. The good news is I think we can manage it and the better news is I think we do have that depth to solve the problem.”
- Speaking of the bullpen, Mozeliak said “the one thing I think we’ve done a fairly good job of is creating some real competition and depth. We signed Norris and we were all pretty bullish on that. There were some people in this room that were advocates for this deal just based on how he pitched and very analytically driven on the same things we were looking at. Between Gregerson, Norris, and Holland, we’re going to be a strong bullpen when it comes all said and done.”
- DeWitt coyly muttered “Reyes?” as Mozeliak’s speech about the bullpen came to a pause, eliciting laughter from us bloggers and a brief moment of banter between the two executives. As for the “hot topic” right-hander, who currently remains on the 60-day DL, Mozeliak told us that the Cardinals intend “to try to have him come back as a starter and that’s how he will go on his rehab. I have also said this–and I don’t think I’ll run from this–is it could be based on need. So depending on what the club looks like, where we are might dictate how he’s going to be used.”
- “Here’s the good news, peeps,” Mozeliak added. (And yes, he actually used the word “peeps” to address the crowd.) “He’s feeling good, he’s throwing well, the velocity’s there, his feel for his off-speed pitches are there. I think by putting him on the 60, we didn’t have to rush anything. We didn’t have to all of a sudden make a knee-jerk reaction because of what was happening here. I think in the end it was a smart move and I hope that in the end he’s going to be an exciting person that has real value whether it’s in the rotation or in the bullpen.”
- When asked about the plan for Carson Kelly given that Yadier Molina has still been a productive player at age 35, Mozeliak began by quipping “productive player? I’d say an elite player.” He said “the key thing for [Kelly] is exactly what we decided to do, make him play everyday. For him, it’s evolving as a hitter. There’s no doubt last year when we brought him up to the big leagues, you saw him take a step backwards. Now he just needs to find where he once was and get back to that level.” With Molina’s extension and Kelly’s presence in addition to the emergence of catching prospect Andrew Knizner, Mozeliak ambiguously concluded his answer with the remark, “we have some options about what we could possibly do there down the road.”
- As to whether or not position changes could be in store to accommodate for the glut of catchers within the organization, Mozeliak replied that “most catchers have more value as catcher. The other thing to think about is where are they offensively.” He said he would “accept the argument that somebody like Knizner could play a different position because he’s hitting so well. He does profile at really anything from an offensive standpoint,” but “the simplest way when you sit in my seat is that you never want to devalue the asset. By starting to move these guys around, I think they’re better off becoming great catchers and hoping for that offensive upside. Moving someone to first base isn’t a big project.”
- Mozeliak laughingly said, “it would be awkward for me to tell you if there was something that I thought wasn’t happening with the coaching staff, given that I helped make those changes” after being asked about the new additions this offseason. He said he has “never tried to put too much pressure on the coaching staff to make it seem like that’s the end-all, be-all.” He referred to spring training as a “pretty fair proxy on how you think about coaching,” stating that, “the energy was very positive. I certainly applaud what Mike Matheny and his staff were able to do in those six weeks. When we’ve transitioned into the season, it’s been seamless and still very productive. I certainly feel like the coaches have made a very positive impact on this club.”
- I decided to jump in and ask a question that yielded a nearly two-and-a-half minute response from Mozeliak.
TK: When you brought in Mike Maddux as your pitching coach, you stressed analytics when it comes to in-game strategy. With all this information and data that teams have available now, how is your staff using it and early returns on this year, how would you grade the way they have used all that information?
JM: I certainly think our coaching staff has welcomed the analytical side. I feel like, especially to this room in general, when we talk about analytics versus traditional baseball nuances, that we all gravitate more towards one versus the other. The one thing all of you have to realize is when you’re thinking about coaching and managing a major league club, it’s part art, part science. There’s not one single way to do that. And why is that? Imagine that you’re running a team. I think a lot of people in this room, they get behind their keyboard or microphone and they have a very strong opinion on why. But there’s a lot of things that go on in that clubhouse or in that dugout that you don’t know, you don’t have access to. I feel like Mike gets beat up a lot because of decisions he makes. Let’s just go to yesterday, for example. Obviously, Tyler Lyons being left in there or not, there’s no doubt there’s a fork in the road. Whatever side you go on–and it’s random, right?–statistically, he did the right thing. He left the left-hander in to face three out of the four lefties. But what happened? He got none of them out. Analytically, it would have said that was the right decision. From the art part of it, it wasn’t. Clearly, Mike gets beat up on that. At some level, a player has to execute. If we don’t have the right players executing, then that falls on the front office in failure to give him the right tools to be successful. But–I sort of rambled on this question [laughter]–it’s a lot harder than people think. It’s not simply just by playing blackjack and trying to play your best odds. We’ve encouraged both Mike and all the coaches to understand that playing your best odds in the end will give you the most positive outcome, but there are some things that just can’t get factored into that algorithm, trying to understand who can go that day, who can’t? Who’s fresh, who’s not? Who’s feeling a little down, who’s not? All of that’s not public information, and therefore all of us downstairs are left with trying to get yourself the best odds based on what we know.
- Mozeliak believes “the season continues to just get longer. From a fatigue standpoint, trying to keep the athlete most healthy, I’m wondering if there’s some tradeoff that makes sense. I would be someone that would consider what a shorter season might look like.” He said he has discussed the idea of returning to a 154-game season with ownership, but doesn’t expect the schedule to ever shrink below 154 “because of the revenue factor.”
- Mozeliak also touched on the issue of pace of play, downplaying the tension between the commissioner and the player’s association. He said the situation is “a little bit less drawing a line in the sand than public appearance. Players also don’t want to play three-and-a-half hour games. They understand.” Regarding potential fan backlash to a pitch clock, Mozeliak thinks “most people that complain about having a clock in baseball are also the same people that leave in the seventh inning. We’re advocates for a pace of play that draws a younger generation to the game.”
- Discussing his new title as President of Baseball Operations compared to General Manager, Mozeliak said he is no longer “in the weeds at every decision that fell under baseball ops. The biggest challenge for me is pulling myself away from that and focusing on bigger picture items on our landscape, where we want to see the club in 2020, 2021, and so forth. It’s hasn’t been as easy as I hoped, but I feel that’s on me. I’m forcing myself to be less engaged in some areas and then focus more on the long-term view of the company.” Mozeliak also believes the job transition allows Michael Girsch to “have more skin in the game.”
- Mozeliak said he could “sit here for an hour and talk about Jordan Hicks.” When it came to the decision to promote the 21-year-old righty from High-A ball to the big leagues, “when I was talking with Yadi and Mike Matheny, the one thing that Yadi said to me was, ‘Let me take hold of this wheel and see what we have.’ That was a pretty compelling statement to me. He knows how to work pitchers to their strengths, how to get the most out of them. I had this internal confidence that with him behind the wheel, great things could happen.” Mozeliak addressed concerns stemming from Hicks’ underwhelming peripherals–admitting that “the strikeout rate is not where it should be”–by comparing him to Aroldis Chapman. “The big difference here is the nuances. [Hicks is] going to have to learn how to create that swing and miss opportunity for himself,” Mozeliak said. “I think that’s where Yadi’s going to comes into play, being able to cater a strategy to his strengths. If he does that, he’s going to be very special.”
- Mozeliak continued his answer about Hicks by saying in the long-term he doesn’t “know if he’s going to be a starter or reliever. But I certainly wouldn’t want to sit here in April and tell you I already know the final chapter because we don’t know what it’s going to look like.”
- With reference to Hicks’ low fastball spin rate despite his high velocity, Mozeliak said the Cardinals “try to create a curriculum to what you do and in Hicks’ case, getting ground balls is something we’re okay with. When you look at what a pitcher’s strength is based on spin rate, that’s what we’re trying to adapt to.”
- Mozeliak added that the Cardinals are preparing “to invest heavily in Jupiter to try to create our own pitching lab where we have to ability to start messing around with this in the offseason, that’s our goal. I think we have the right personnel in place to build this curriculum and allow pitchers to move the needle there, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet.” Around this time next year, he hopes to “have bricks and mortar up, pitching labs moving, and we’ve already seen some small signs of success.”