The Cardinals Way: In the Spirit of Moneyball

Posted on February 17, 2016

by Howard Megdal

The Cardinals Way Prologue

In working on The Cardinals Way, spending days, weeks, and months with everyone in this organization from owner Bill DeWitt Jr. to current and former Cardinals John Mozeliak, Dan Kantrovitz, Jeff Luhnow, Sig Mejdal, Gary LaRocque, and many others, I’ve learned those claims come from a deep sense that, while they take pride in what they’ve built, and what the Cardinals mean to the whole of baseball, they don’t believe in relying purely on what has already worked as the road map to what will work now and in the future. Sure, there are traditions and practices— particularly through the rediscovery of statistical analysis, first pioneered by Branch Rickey, and reintroduced to the Cardinals by DeWitt’s hiring of Luhnow, along with the on- field, dynamic work of George Kissell—but they are the starting point for how the Cardinals determine what to do moving forward. And the upheaval caused by the hacking scandal—an effort by a member or members of the Cardinals’ front office to break into the Houston Astros’ computer database, where Jeff Luhnow is now the general manager, leading to an FBI investigation and the termination of Scouting Director Chris Correa by the Cardinals already—has only expedited the team’s need to search for how to maintain that continuity, even as the team’s succession plan gets challenged on multiple fronts.

But the challenge, from within and without, is not new. That need for innovation not only drove the fundamental realignment of how the Cardinals operated over the past decade and powers everything Mozeliak and company are doing even now, but also simultaneously reflected and traced back to the work Branch Rickey himself did—Bill DeWitt Sr., father of the current owner, at his side—to take the Cardinals out of the poor house and into a position of royalty in the National League, a place they’ve held for a disproportionate amount of the one hundred years since.

Cardinals Way

Bill DeWitt III followed his father and grandfather into the baseball world. AP Photo/Tom Gannam. Image is in the public domain via

How the Cardinals find themselves in this enviable position within the league, drawing so much attention for a phrase that does little more than describe how and why the Cardinals act, is not some secret formula or words scribbled by George Kissell many decades ago.

The Cardinals of today are very much a product of Kissell’s work for many decades. They are also the Cardinals of today because of decisions DeWitt made, back in 2003, to completely change the business model of the team, from an old- school approach to a balancing between traditional methods and analytics. They are reformed in a vision put forward by Jeff Luhnow, who made the leap from business- turnaround expert to senior baseball executive in weeks, in the teeth of an often hostile working environment (more than we even knew at the time, it turns out) and skeptical press. And it is up to all of them, led by DeWitt and Mozeliak, to continue innovating, with the need to find consensus within a battle- scarred organization renewed by what DeWitt has described as “a rogueish act.” In essence, this is the reverse of the original action that led to DeWitt hiring Luhnow in the first place back in 2003. As this book goes to press, the Cardinals, without any desire to change philosophies, are deciding just what the hacking scandal means to their future. No one will question a decision to change course, and future decisions by Major League Baseball or a court of law may force greater changes upon them.

But for the Cardinals of the last decade, the changed course was voluntary, enormous. And in the midst—from 2000 to 2006—of six play-off appearances, a pair of National League pennants, and the 2006 World Series championship, it appeared to many to be close to madness.

The Cardinals who ultimately emerged from this process begun by Luhnow and DeWitt were a collection of extremely bright people of utterly divergent backgrounds and personalities. You couldn’t sit in a room with the understated brilliance of Dan Kantrovitz and masterful scout Charlie Gonzalez, as passionate as he is encyclopedic, and conclude that the Cardinals employ one specific personality type.

The results have been extraordinary, and the methods seemingly obvious, as with all great decisions in retrospect. Analytics helped the Cardinals take a leap forward as a baseball team. And that the Cardinals, in particular, incorporated statistical analysis helped analytics become the industry standard.

Incorporating analytics, through the hiring of Luhnow starting in September 2003, allowed the team to revamp the way they acquired players, particularly through the draft. Luhnow took a microscope to everything the Cardinals did, and from the draft to the study of their pitchers’ mechanics, plenty of prototypical analytical practices became part of the Cardinals Way.

Interestingly, however, almost nothing changed about either the Kissell-inspired on-field practices or with the perhaps more significant ways Kissell preached for coaches and managers to emotionally connect with players.

As DeWitt put it, though, in our first interview in August 2013, “There were great people who were here when we got here. And so the Cardinals had that tradition of development that we were able to build on. But if you don’t have the talent, all the development in the world won’t get you good players.”

DeWitt didn’t purchase the Cardinals until 1996. But the foundation he described dates back a hundred years. Incredibly, the intellectual and personal through-line from the very start of major league teams entering the player-development business to the present-day Cardinals is clear, more practical than symbolic, and essentially guaranteed the flip side of DeWitt’s point.

Once the Cardinals figured out how to input more talent into their system, a hundred-year tradition, complete with established practices dating back to Branch Rickey and Bill DeWitt, Sr., and refined by George Kissell, supercharged the results. An incredible tradition merged with a group of great baseball minds to maximize what baseball’s new collective- bargaining agreements eventually forced other teams to try to emulate.

The St. Louis Cardinals, ahead of the curve on the very existence of the farm system that transformed twentieth-century baseball, have once again ridden a combination of foresight and attention to detail at every level to represent a particular moment in baseball history here in the twenty-first century.

Cardinals Way

George Kissell. AP Photo/Watertown Daily Times. Image is in the public domain via

False starts occurred along the way—a skeptical group within the organization itself, the ill- fated 2004 draft, among others. Realistically, what is astonishing about the St. Louis Cardinals over the past decade isn’t their sometimes-contentious path to their current state. Finding baseball executives to argue strategy, or scouts to disagree over a particular player, might be the easiest task on earth. And it appears that the rancor that led to the hacking of Luhnow’s new team’s database came from personal, not philosophical differences—Chris Correa, for instance, was a Luhnow hire with full analytical buy-in.

The marvel is how completely the Cardinals of today are both the manifestation of a vision Branch Rickey had a hundred years ago, and how much of the team’s current business model both fits what Rickey envisioned and is practiced by direct acolytes of Rickey himself.

There is no Cardinals Way without George Kissell, signed by Branch Rickey. There is no Cardinals Way without Red Schoendienst, signed by Branch Rickey.

There’s no analytic revamp of the Cardinals without Bill DeWitt Jr., raised in and around baseball by Bill DeWitt Sr., whom Rickey hired at age thirteen and worked with for decades. There’s no analytics revamp of the Cardinals without Luhnow, hired by DeWitt less than a month after they first met. And bringing in Luhnow, and the analytics team he assembled, wasn’t some rejection of Cardinals tradition—the very concept of an analytics department dates back to Rickey, who hired Travis Hoke,² baseball’s first team-employed statistician, in 1914 to chart every game “with base and out efficiency” in mind.

The hiring of Luhnow was characterized by some in the organization and many outsiders as a new direction for the Cardinals, a break with tradition. Really, it was nothing more than a restoration of a key component of Branch Rickey’s tradition, dating back a hundred years. And the key to the Cardinals sustaining that success in the years to come will depend on maintaining that level of innovation, even as that talent finds homes all around the league.

It also represented something vital for the industry itself, in the post-Moneyball world. The extent to which that book created sides, a supposed war of ideas, is frequently cited by both those with primarily analytics background and the scouts. So for the Cardinals to incorporate both worldviews into a highly successful franchise—perhaps the most successful of the twenty-first century to date—signaled to everybody that not only would integrating the two approaches be possible, it would be the wisest possible course.

Accordingly, the St. Louis Cardinals, circa the 2010s, will mean something significant to baseball fans now and forever, just as the Oriole Way did under Paul Richards and Earl Weaver, or the Big Red Machine conjures up the best Cincinnati Reds teams of the 1970s, or the $100,000 Infield is Philadelphia A’s baseball approximately a hundred years ago.

Cardinals Way

Albert Pujols hit 39 homers in 2010. By Dave Herholz. Image is in the public domain via

Here’s how it happened—from Rickey and DeWitt to DeWitt and Mozeliak. Here’s how it happened, from George Kissell’s insight and training to Jeff Luhnow’s, Sig Mejdal’s and Michael Girsch’s revolution to Dan Kantrovitz and Gary LaRocque’s implementation. And here’s how it works in practice, as seen through the eyes of players and coaches, scouts and analytics experts, operating the Cardinals Way at all levels of the farm system right now.

Mike Matheny may object, but he’s only forty-five, and he’s only been present for a small part of the history of the determining factors in the success of the St. Louis Cardinals. Even Branch Rickey himself was once fired as manager of the Cardinals, and if anything, it ultimately enhanced his building of the organization. The Cardinals Way is almost a hundred years old, both the deep connection with young players and reliance on new data, and it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.

So there’s pride, but no belief from the Cardinals that this is somehow the best or only way to do things. The implicit idea that would come with such an attitude, that twenty-nine other teams ought to follow the Cardinals’ example, wouldn’t even make sense, though many will try, and the Astros, in particular, will be a fascinating test case of many of the ideas that once drove the Cardinals’ success, with so many of those who drove the Cardinals’ innovative engine now in Houston with, as Luhnow put it to me in August 2015, “a clean sheet of paper.” Meanwhile, this Cardinals Way is a product of a hundred years of serendipity, a number of innovative baseball men creating a tradition that predates any efforts to duplicate it, and a group in place now who have the ability to both maximize and build on what the St. Louis Cardinals began a century ago.

HOWARD MEGDAL is the author of The Cardinals Way: How One Team Embraced Tradition and Moneyball at the Same Time and has written for Capital New York, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, and USA Today, among others. The Cardinals Way is his fourth book. He lives in Rockland County, New York with his wife, Rachel and his two daughters, Mirabelle and Juliet.

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