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Pound Wise, Penny Foolish

The Cardinals haven’t changed organizational philosophy, but they’re giving away desperately needed runs for free.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

First of all, forgive me for this meandering introduction. It’ll tie into the article, I promise, but I want to do a little setting up first. I’ve liked games since I was a small child, and that has really colored the way I think about the world. Expected value, collapsing unlike values into a single evaluating framework, calculating odds, that kind of thing. It’s also colored my sports fandom — as much as I like just watching baseball and relaxing to the soothing sounds of a ballpark, statistics and projections and economics are always lurking in the background of my brain. It’s a big reason why I ended up writing about baseball.

With that background to guide me, I’ve been, for the most part, a strong defender of the Mozeliak-era Cardinals’ decision-making. Mozeliak is a gambler’s general manager, but I don’t mean that in the sense that you probably think I do. When I say gambler, you probably picture someone beating the house in blackjack or sitting at a high roller’s table. Mozeliak, though, is more of a professional gambler — the kind of person who plays poker for a living, endlessly calculates the expected value of their plays, and tries to make moves to maximize that, even if they don’t make surface level sense.

That kind of decision-making appeals to me. The Cardinals were leery of trading away prospects for rentals before it was cool, and that made good solid sense. They were also early on the trend of guaranteeing life-changing money to role players after only a year or two in the majors. It hasn’t backfired on the team yet, and it’s also led to incredibly team-friendly deals for the likes of Matt Carpenter and Paul DeJong. Even when the players haven’t turned into stars (Carlos Martínez, Kolten Wong, and Stephen Piscotty got similar deals), it’s a win-win — players get financial security and the team gets surplus value.

These moves, along with the Devil Magic player development machine, have played a huge part in keeping the Cardinals competitive for the entirety of Mozeliak’s tenure. I know people are often unhappy with the team’s strategic vision, with the fact that they never go all-in and never tear down, that the Cardinals have achieved competitive homeostasis instead of a sine wave of competition, or a tsunami-style depression and peak like the Astros. I don’t agree with that, and I think the team’s middle path is prudent in balancing across years.

Have I disagreed with individual deals along the way? Sure! I thought the team should have signed Jason Heyward to run the 2015 team back (whoops!), and I hated the Tommy Pham trade with the fire of a thousand suns. I wasn’t overjoyed with the Goldschmidt trade, because it felt to me like the team undervalued Weaver and Kelly due to small-sample failures in the majors. Still, for the most part, I can understand where the front office is coming from with its strategic goals, and I agree with it.

The 2019 trade deadline, for the most part, represents the Cardinals doubling down on their philosophy. Shipping Jedd Gyorko out to save a few dollars and get a lottery ticket is very Cardinals. So is passing on trading Harrison Bader for Zack Wheeler, something Mark Saxon reported this week. Passing on this trade is something of a lightning rod for Cardinals cognoscenti -- many people think that not upgrading Michael Wacha to Wheeler at the cost of an outfielder that Mike Shildt can’t get on the field is an unforgivable sin from a cowardly front office.

I don’t feel that way at all. Buying a rental starter at the cost of a controllable outfielder who was worth 3 WAR just last year is the kind of trade the Cardinals mostly haven’t made, and not making those trades generally just works over time. Using Steamer projections, Wheeler should allow five less runs than Wacha for the rest of the season on average. Those five runs, in my mind, aren’t worth the cost of one Harrison Bader. Continually pick Bader over Wheeler, and you’ll accumulate a lot of value in the long run.

Here’s the thing, though. The Cardinals have wrung a lot of value out of extending contributors and hanging onto prospect capital, but they’re no longer standouts in those regards. There’s been an extension craze in baseball of late, and relative valuation of prospects has skyrocketed. This trade deadline is a great example — Taylor Trammell was the only truly big-name prospect to move, and he was dealt partially for other prospects. The second-best prospect that moved was probably Jazz Chisholm, who was traded for a fellow prospect (former Cardinal Zac Gallen, in what I think is a trade of two reasonably-overrated prospects, for what it’s worth). The third-best prospect moved was Jesús Sánchez, a bat-first outfielder whose highest ISO above rookie ball is .176 and who strikes out 20% of the time in the minor leagues. It’s fair to say he’s high-risk. Home run prospects simply aren’t being traded anymore, so avoiding trading prospect value is no longer a way for a contending team to get ahead.

I said Mozeliak was a gambler’s general manager (or team president or whatever), but I actually left out a key part of gambling, one that the Cardinals have been absolutely abysmal at over the past few years. Gambling, gaming, finance (my former profession) — all are about behaving in accordance with expected value, but all are also about picking up every small edge you can find. If you can place a bet worth $1 in expectation to you, you do that as often as you can. If you can buy a marginally undervalued bond or stock, you do it. Do these things over and over, and you can create a mountain of value out of many individual molehills.

In the past, the Cardinals took these process-driven tiny edges reasonably often, but they also didn’t need them. Their player development and contract extension machine was so unique and valuable that it pushed the team forward regardless. With that advantage having disappeared, though, little edges are far more necessary, and the team is doing a terrible job taking advantage of them.

Some of it is just general baseball inefficiencies. The 2019 Cardinals should absolutely be using an opener/headliner pairing for one of their rotation spots. Especially before Jordan Hicks’ injury, they had excess good bullpen arms and not enough starters. Protecting the fifth starter by letting John Brebbia or Giovanny Gallegos face the top of the order the first time through is the kind of small edge that adds up to runs and wins over the course of a year, and yet the team just runs out Daniel Ponce de Leon or Wacha and rolls with the punches. It’s not pretty, and it’s not traditional, but if you’re trying to get ahead, it should absolutely be something you consider.

The team isn’t platooning like it used to, either. Some of this comes down to roster construction — there aren’t many left-handed bats worth mentioning on the team at the moment. Still, that just means that the team should have tried harder to pick up a platoon option in the offseason. Corey Dickerson was available for a song at the deadline. Alex Dickerson was a free agent. Shin-Soo Choo is out there. Mike Tauchman was basically free for the Yankees. Tommy La Stella? Matt Joyce? There are almost too many names to mention, none of which would have been earth-shattering moves, but all of which would have improved the team’s outlook by vastly diversifying the number of available lineups.

The best teams right now understand these little available advantages and pick on them. They pair good outfield defenders with fly ball pitchers, then give them a rest in favor of bats when groundball-focused pitchers have a turn. They build lineups with multiple options so that players can get rest and be put in the best spots to succeed. The Cardinals don’t do this, or at least they don’t anymore.

All of these gripes, though, are just a lead-up to my major gripe. This team isn’t dumb. It’s not short-sighted. It’s built a reputation for seeing the angles and doing the math, even if it’s often risk-averse at the point of a decision. It’s also a team that’s playing Yairo Muñoz as an outfield defensive replacement! There seems to be no understanding between on-field management and the front office when it comes to making the right-EV decision.

Wednesday’s game against the Cubs came on a day when the Cardinals made basically no moves at the deadline, something I was totally in favor of. Again, they passed on the opportunity to turn Harrison Bader into five runs of pitching, and that’s all good with me. In the actual game, though, the team showed that it doesn’t properly care about the little edges.

First, Harrison Bader had been sent down in favor of Lane Thomas. I find this move pretty short-sighted and think Bader should be starting most days for the team right now, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is, the team decided they’d rather have Lane Thomas on the bench. Now, Thomas is a great player too! He hits alright, though with Bader-esque strikeout issues, and can handle all three outfield spots comfortably. Totally acceptable bench outfielder.

Somehow, though, the team made a double switch and plugged Yairo Muñoz into left field as a defender in an outfield featuring Dexter Fowler and José Martínez. Maybe you don’t think outfield defense stacks, but that is just an abysmal outfield setup. It also seems pretty bizarre to substitute Tyler O’Neill out to move the pitcher’s spot around. Just pinch hit with Yairo and leave O’Neill in the game! He’s a better defender, almost certainly, and he’s definitely a better bat.

In any case, the decision immediately bit the team. Right away, Muñoz turned a can of corn into a double by taking a great circle route to the ball:

O’Neill catches that. If you insist on making a double switch, Lane Thomas catches that. Lane Thomas’s bat is also as good as Muñoz’s, per both projections and ever having watched people hit. Muñoz ended up batting twice in the game, going 0-for-2. If O’Neill stays in, he gets one of those at-bats. If Thomas is in, he takes both. Instead, the team ended up using Thomas as a pinch-runner when down two runs, one of which scored as a result of that awful outfield play. Muñoz is a totally acceptable pinch runner, bats the same as Thomas, and fields worse, yet somehow Shildt fielded with him and ran with Thomas.

This is one game where a little decision cost the team a run, but you can’t do stuff like that repeatedly and expect to win. That run ended up looming large when the Cardinals had a man on third (and second as well) with one out in the ninth inning. Down one, the team’s strategy might change. Down two, they ended up losing on two consecutive outs, one of which Muñoz made.

Defensive metrics are obviously unreliable in small sample sizes, but Muñoz has now played 183 innings in the outfield and grades out as a -32.4 runs per 150 games defender per UZR. By DRS, he’s a this-isn’t-possible -55 per 150 games. That’s worse than the worst defensive seasons ever. Statcast’s outs above average, which seems like it should stabilize more quickly due to the granular nature of its calculations, thinks he’s one of the worst defenders in baseball. It thinks he’s cost the team two outs relative to average in limited playing time this year alone, and that he catches balls hit to his zone 73% of the time when an average defender would catch them 82% of the time. That’s on par with Willians Astudillo and worse than Khris Davis and Hunter Pence, both of whom are DH’s.

This isn’t supposed to be an article where I bag on Yairo. He’s doing his best out there, and he’s a good major league utility infielder. The team is setting runs on fire by playing him in the outfield, though. He has a significantly lower OBP than literal-best-outfield-defender-in-baseball Harrison Bader, who hit so poorly the team demoted him. Meanwhile, he’s out there taking routes even Henry Hudson would consider roundabout.

This might not seem like a front-office problem. After all, Mike Shildt is down there making the decisions. Ask Mozeliak who he thinks fields worst out of O’Neill, Thomas, and Muñoz, and there’s no question what he’d respond. The problem is, getting on-field decision-makers to make optimal decisions is a key part of what front offices should be doing. Mozeliak is great at not overvaluing the five runs he can pick up by acquiring Zack Wheeler. He could pick up five runs for free, though, by not letting Shildt put Yairo in the outfield, and instead using him at second and third. He’s could pick up five or ten runs a year by going to an opener.

Maybe you think this is all small potatoes. Maybe you don’t believe defensive metrics, or your eyes. Maybe you find the opener to be an affront to baseball, no matter how it seems to work. Maybe you’re cool with playing José Martínez in right field for his league-average bat, even as his sieve-like defense gives the runs he drives in right back. Maybe you don’t mind that the team doesn’t have a freely available left-handed platoon bat, or that all the best outfielders are right-handed. Heck, maybe you don’t mind that the team is still extension-mad, but that it’s turned that policy on veterans now that young pitchers don’t seem to be very into it.

For me, though, it’s frustrating. For so many years, it’s been a lovely coincidence that my favorite team happened to operate in a way that intuitively tracks with the way I look at the world. Now, though, they’ve passed the torch. The Dodgers, Astros, and Rays have long since passed the Cardinals when it comes to thinking most like I do when it comes to tactics and strategy. It feels, though, like more and more teams are passing the Redbirds by. The Diamondbacks look sharp these days. So do the Brewers and Twins. The Braves and Phillies construct their teams well. The days of the Cardinals eating everyone’s lunch are over.

Maybe the Cardinals have another gear of shrewd prospect-hoarding, developing, and extending in the tank. Maybe they’ll find a new niche in getting players like Goldschmidt, or in drafting, where the last two years have given the team scintillating top-end talent. It saddens me, though, that the team has fallen back to the pack when it comes to maximizing their own resources. It’s not just a Matheny thing anymore. It’s a new Cardinal way, one that I’m anything but pleased with.