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For the Cardinals, Youth is (Always) Served

During the current decade, in most ways, the Cardinals’ track record for and consistency in rookie production is unmatched.

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

On Sunday, the Cardinals’ 2018 rookie class put on a stunning display. Jack Flaherty and Jordan Hicks each did something that had only been accomplished one other time in recorded MLB history. Tyler O’Neill’s performance didn’t quite reach such rarified air. All he did was go 3-for-4 and blast his second homerun in as many days, and then hit his third homerun in three games on Monday. These contributions come in tandem with a very solid beginning of the season from Harrison Bader, the pending return of Alex Reyes, and assorted contributions from Mike Mayers, Ryan Sherriff, and Francisco Peña (technically a rookie, although one who performed so well last weekend that the equipment manager playfully banished Yadier Molina’s locker to the supply closet). On the basis of the first five names mentioned in this paragraph alone, it feels like something a little bit special may be happening in St. Louis this season. What if I told you it happens all the time? At Busch Stadium, youth is served like so many slingers to city drunks.

To be sure, it’s not always as attention grabbing as it is with this group. Very few Cardinal rookie classes have possessed the face-melting queso of Reyes or Hicks, the Bunyanesque dense pillar of meat-iness of O’Neill, the raw intensity and hustle of Bader, or the sheer polish of Flaherty. Still, Cardinals rookies have produced value every year. In fact, they’ve been the best in the league at producing rookie value since 2010 by a variety of measures. Let’s start with something light and easy, an appetizer of sorts. Here’s a simple bar chart that shows how many rookies have amassed 2.0 fWAR or better, by team, since 2010.

The Cardinals have had nine such rookie seasons. No other team even has eight. With the exception of 2014, they’ve had at least one rookie reach the 2.0 fWAR mark every year since 2010. The list: Jaime Garcia in 2010, Allen Craig in 2011, Lance Lynn in 2012, Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal in 2013, Randal Grichuk in 2015, Aledmys Diaz and Seung Hwan Oh in 2016, and Paul DeJong in 2017. You might say it’s cheating to include Oh in 2016. That’s fair. But consider that Kolten Wong’s 1.8 fWAR in 2014 just misses the list. And the 2016 squad also received lots of rookie value just below the 2.0 threshold from Alex Reyes (1.6 in 12 appearances) and Greg Garcia (1.4, and amazingly he had not exhausted his rookie eligibility).

Some time ago, John Mozeliak mentioned that the franchise wanted to graduate a certain number of players from the minor league system to the MLB club each year. For the life of me, I can’t find the original quote. The best I can find is this, from an archived Joe Strauss article in the Post-Dispatch way back in 2008, and it doesn’t specify Mozeliak.

“One club official said a goal exists to “cycle” 4-5 organization players onto the major-league club each season.”

That was the goal in 2008. The game has shifted in a way that most or all teams feel the same way. Given that as a goal, I’d say the Cardinals have been pretty successful. That’s the beauty of all of this. Most teams cycle through the bust and boom cycle of farm systems, as Stephen Loftus covered for Fangraphs this past off-season. Farm prestige naturally rises and falls for the majority of teams, including the Cardinals. And yet, through that noise, the Cardinals have found a way to land rookie production on the MLB roster’s shores year in and year out. My graph above shows overall value- the total number of 2.0+ fWAR rookies since 2010. The trick is that the Cardinals have done this with a steady pipeline. Rather than dumping multiple quality rookies on the roster all at once and then going through a drought, they’re adding value every season.

We can illustrate the consistent nature of their rookie success in a few ways. One easy opportunity is to rank each team by rookie fWAR each season. The Cardinals are highlighted in red.

Their seven seasons in the top 10 are matched only by the Rays. Only four other teams have more than the three seasons the Cardinals have in the top 5. In fact, the Cardinals are just one of six teams with more than two finishes in the top 5. They’re currently ninth this season (through Monday’s games), but Flaherty probably just joined the rotation for good, Reyes is about to return, and O’Neill doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere soon. In other words, there’s a very good chance they end up in the top 5 again this season.

Referring back to the Loftus article, he also points out that a long, steady climb in farm prestige brings more sustainable success. That means a lot to the Cardinals given how important annual contention is to the franchise. Before proceeding, in fairness, I’m not comparing apples to apples here. Loftus’ article was about farm prestige and not rookie production, so it would be unfair to draw the same conclusions on my data as you might with Loftus’ (far more dense and meaningful) article. That said, rookie production is a byproduct of a good farm system. And sustaining it over long periods can only be beneficial. What I’ve done here is calculate each team’s rolling 3-year and 5-year ranking in rookie fWAR. Then I’ve given each a percentile rank. What you see here is the rolling 3-year and 5-year percentile rank for the Cardinals in rookie fWAR rank.

The 5-year rolling average hasn’t been below 90th percentile since the Harlem Shake was a thing. The 3-year rolling average hasn’t been quite as amazing, but it’s been 80th percentile or better since winning the 2011 World Series. Even if there’s a one year downturn (which really hasn’t happened other than 2014), the recovery has been swift.

Lastly, we can illustrate the Cardinals’ rookie efficacy with one final scatterplot. When I wrote about Base Run records in my first article here, I compared the Cardinals’ standard deviation in Base Run wins to the rest of the league as a means of showing how consistent they’ve been. We can do the same here. Here’s a scatterplot of team fWAR from rookies, along with team standard deviation in rank from year to year, since 2010.

Apologies that it’s a little bit upside down and inverted. The teams with better average ranks in rookie fWAR are on the bottom, worse average ranks are on top. And more consistent teams are to the left, less consistent to the right. I’ve highlighted some outliers- teams that are extremely above average, below average, consistent, or inconsistent. The Tigers have gotten low fWAR from rookies, and have had high variance in the value they’ve gotten. The Blue Jays have gotten just as low fWAR from rookies as the Tigers, but have done so consistently. The Rockies, Braves, and Dodgers have all been wildly inconsistent from year to year, with the Braves and Dodgers at least seeing above average positive value out of the proposition. Then there’s Cleveland, the most consistent team in receiving fWAR from rookies. However, the quality of the value they’ve received is just a tick above league average.

Take a peek in the bottom left quadrant and you’ll see the two standouts. The Cardinals haven’t quite been as consistent as Cleveland, but they’ve also averaged a rank six slots better for rookie fWAR. Tampa Bay is right there with them, just barely behind the Cardinals in average rookie fWAR rank, but less consistently so. Put another way, the Cardinals have the best average rank since 2010 in fWAR from rookies, and they’ve been the second most consistent team in receiving this value. No other team is on that level.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention an important caveat here. It’s a wart, but not an insignificant one. For all of the value the Cardinals have consistently received from rookie classes, they lag behind in one category. Namely, they haven’t produced rookies who provide value at the top end of the scale. They can plant 2.0 fWAR rookies on the MLB roster in their sleep by this point, along with many other valuable sub-2.0 fWAR rookies. But they’ve only produced two rookies with 3.0 fWAR or better since 2010 (Grichuk in 2015 and DeJong in 2017). Technically, that’s above average- the average team in this window has 1.5 rookies at or above 3.0 fWAR. And frankly, a lot of that is a residual of their draft order, consistently drafting in the bottom third of the first round or later. There’s no question they’ve overachieved their slot by leaps and bounds, but either their draft slot or something in their process has prevented them from developing high-end talent as effectively as they’ve produced consistent overall value.

In that first article I wrote here, I joked about the Bowtie Constellation that always points the way home. In that case, “home” meant a BaseRun record with 87-88 wins. Apparently the Bowtie Constellation also points to annual top 10 finishes in rookie production, just as integral a part of the organizational fingerprint as Red Schoendienst, the zen of George Kissler, the clydesdales, and Here Comes the King at the end of the seventh inning.