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Escaping Purgatory

If the Cardinals want to escape 85ish win purgatory, it’s time to innovate.

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Italy : Illustration Photo by Frédéric Soltan/Corbis via Getty Images

I hope everyone is enjoying a long relaxing holiday weekend complete with barbecues, beverages of your choice, and good times with friends and family. With the maddening way the Cardinals have been playing in 2019, there’s a very real chance that enjoying your holiday weekend and watching this team are mutually exclusive depending on your threshold for frustration. The organization is trapped in purgatory at this point, seemingly forever doomed to a seasonal win total that pivots around 85. Entering the final weekend before the All-Star break, they’re a game over .500 coming on the heels of 88, 83, and 86-win years that have left fans disenchanted. Malaise has overrun baseball in St. Louis. If they want to escape purgatory, it’s time to return to their franchise roots. It’s time to innovate.

Lest you think this sounds overly pessimistic, it’s absolutely true that they are within striking distance in the National League Central, just 1.5 games back of the division lead. Mike Shildt’s controversial comments a few weeks ago were factually correct. They are a better defensive team with top-shelf baserunning, and they are right in the thick of the division race. They may still right this ship and take over the division in the coming months. In years past, virtually any point between 2012 and 2016, fans could almost assume it would happen even if it sometimes didn’t for one of the era’s best franchises in the game. The problem is that this franchise has lost the right to any benefit of the doubt after the last 40 months. They’ve become Just Another Team™, not quite irrelevant but still making golfing reservations by early October just like the Marlins and Reds.

Most organizations exist in one of two states. They’re either a bad team with an improving farm system dreaming of the near future, or they’re a good team reaping the rewards of a rebuild. Either has hope to sell to their fans, particularly if the down teams have the right franchise builders on hand (case in point: the current Orioles with Mike Elias, Sig Mejdal, et al.). The Cardinals are not currently, nor have they been for some time, in either of those states. It’s mind boggling how thoroughly average (or slightly better if you’re a stickler for accuracy) they’ve become from top to bottom, each year.

Both winning percentage and pythagorean winning percentage are gradually becoming average after a peak earlier in the decade. It’s especially trend-worthy in the three-year graph. Rookie fWAR has been good, but has taken a downturn this year. The Baseball America organizational talent rankings have also taken a bit of a downturn, settling into the 10 to 15 range year after year. That’s not bad, but it also doesn’t foreshadow a youth-inspired boost out of purgatory in the next few years. It’s been an especially tough year in the farm system, with top prospects Tyler O’Neill, Alex Reyes, Elehuris Montero, Malcom Nunez, and Genesis Cabrera struggling with poor performance and/or injuries.

As I covered last month, their free agent and trade record in recent years has only exacerbated this stunning spiral into mediocrity. Their moves are fine in a vacuum, but they’re no longer making proper evaluations. They used to be innovative, a crown jewel of the league capable of drafting and developing better than everyone else, but other teams caught up. Worse, other teams have become genuinely good at developing their major league talent in ways that the Cardinals have not. Whatever advantage they have in draft and development is washed away by poor free agent and trade decisions and a continued inability to maximize their major league talent.

Part of their innovation was their advanced use of quantitative analysis and a robust research and development staff early in the Luhnow era. They weren’t the first team to enhance their quantitative analysis efforts in the wake of Moneyball, but few did it better than the Cardinals once they committed. Eventually, the brain drain took its toll. Ample front office talent left for Houston, Oakland, and other locales. As of last October, per Eno Sarris’ brilliant article at The Athletic, seventeen other teams employed more R&D staff members. Just seven other teams employed fewer than the Cardinals. We can’t know if that is or is not a factor, but it’s a bad look for a franchise that’s consistently making mistakes in free agency, trades, and not maximizing their talent once it hits St. Louis. They no longer look innovative.

Innovation in baseball today is moving at breakneck speed, with more data- and more analysis of that data- than ever before. Every season, several teams discover something new that gives them an edge. For the Brewers and Rays, it’s been optimal bullpen usage. For the Twins, Astros, and Dodgers, it’s finding previously unknown potential in their major league rosters, polishing mediocre talent into star production, just to name some examples.

The best Cardinal teams of the past have been built on the generation and development of bold ideas. The first great Cardinal teams were germinated in Branch Rickey’s revolutionary farm system, which sustained the franchise for three decades. By the early 1960s, the franchise had fallen behind their National League peers in using African-American talent. Once they embraced it with players like Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Bill White, and Curt Flood, it launched them to the top of baseball. The success of the 1980s teams was rooted in Whitey Herzog’s roster-building efforts, which emphasized talent best suited to the flavor of the era- namely, cavernous stadiums and fast astroturf. The Walt Jocketty era was wildly successful, if lacking in innovation. However, phase two of the Jocketty era and phase one of John Mozeliak were fueled by R&D from Luhnow, Mejdal, Elias, Dan Kantrovitz, and others. It’s time for more bold ideas, for more innovation. It’s time for new voices.

None of this is to say that it’s time for Mozeliak, General Manager Michael Girsch, or anyone else on staff to be fired. Your mileage may vary, but I’m not convinced that it’s time to run off this group, particularly with how intertwined they are with ownership and a massively successful recent run by the franchise. Rather, it’s time to infuse some new ideas. It’s time for a more robust R&D department, time for more bold forays into organizations like Driveline or the college ranks for coaching talent. It’s time for enhanced use of technology like Rapsodo and Hawk-Eye. The current front office can be successful but they need a boost. It’s time they found that boost and escaped purgatory.