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The Cardinals Way

The St. Louis Cardinals made it to the World Series last night in stately fashion. They bludgeoned Clayton Kershaw, who should go on to win the NL Cy Young Award, to make it to the fall classic for fourth time in the last decade. A couple of their runs to the World Series seemed lucky in recent memory, but as they continue to make it back, now including once since Albert Pujols left town, there's a growing consensus that St. Louis has a dynasty of sorts going on at the moment.

It's painfully easy to get romantic about the Cardinals. The "Cardinals way" is often characterized as "the right way" to play the game, and the roster is filled with a bunch of no-names who know how to come together and compete towards a common goal. It's a nice narrative that seems to pair perfectly with a city that's often characterized as having the best fans in baseball.*

*And they might be the best fans in baseball. More on that later.

Jayson Stark wrote an article arguing that the third inning of last night's game epitomizes the 2013 Cardinals. His article is exhibit A for the romanticized "Cardinals way." In particular, I'm fond of these couple lines from Stark's article about Cardinals game 6 winner, Michael Wacha:
Two weeks ago, most of America was wondering who the heck he was and where he came from. Next thing we knew, he was out there Friday night, outdueling Kershaw for the second time in this series, spinning seven more insanely dominant innings of two-hit, shutout baseball and winning an NLCS MVP award. At age 22.
 Wacha outdueling Clayton Kershaw twice is a fantastic story, and the kind of story that makes baseball beautiful.  Stark is good at what he does, and he has sniffed out a great storyline for sure. Michael Wacha is the Cardinals way embodied, but to write off who the heck he is and where he came from as a side story to build up the "some-nobody-versus-The-Greatest-Pitcher-In-The-NL" as a storyline is to miss the Cardinal way completely.

Michael Wacha was drafted in the first round of the 2012 draft by the Cardinals. He was regarded as one of the best college pitching prospects of that draft class, and seen as a candidate to rise quickly through the minors (which, obviously, he did). It would have been insane to predict that Wacha would outduel Clayton Kershaw in the 2013 playoffs - but, if you had to ask scouts who from the 2012 draft class was mostly likely to pull such an unlikely feat, Wacha might have very well won that vote. Yes, an unlikely scenario, but the Cardinals put themselves in a position where it was about as likely to happen as possible. This is part of the Cardinals way.

However, perhaps the most fun and insightful fact about Michael Wacha is that he was drafted with the pick the Angels gave to the Cardinals because they signed Albert Pujols. It's dumbfounding to me that the media isn't a little more enamored with the idea that the NLCS MVP was drafted with the pick the Cards got for Pujols, but that tells you a bit about how much the media wants to play up their romantic version of "the Cardinals way." It is a stunning storyline, particularly given that Pujols only left town a few years ago. There's no way the Cardinals would expect this - but again, the Cardinals put themselves in a position where this could happen. That's a key to the Cardinals way.

The Cardinals know who they are - a small-market baseball team that can masquerade as a bigger market from time to time because of their incredible fan support. Their 2013 payroll is listed at $116 million according to Cot's Baseball Contracts, which isn't chump change, but certainly a level or two below the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Yankees of the world. However, that payroll is remarkable when you consider the kind of media market that St. Louis is. Nielsen estimates that it is the 21st-largest media market in the United States, right between Sacramento, California and Portland, Oregon. Sacramento has a AAA baseball team. Portland used to have a AAA baseball team until it got booted to make a full-time soccer stadium. Neither city has ever had an MLB team.

Pittsburgh, Baltimore, San Diego, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati are the only media markets smaller than St. Louis with MLB teams, and that's not exactly a murderer's row of big payrolls. Cincinnati is probably the most analogous situation, where fan support seems to allow for a payroll that shouldn't be sustainable. Maybe Baltimore can make the same argument to a degree, but the DC media market isn't that far away and the Orioles have a presence within it. This is all to say that, while it's common to laud the Cardinals fans because of their baseball knowledge and general politeness at games, there is also some hard data that suggests why they might be baseball's best fans. St. Louis couldn't foot the payroll they carry year after year without a loyal fan base that more or less unifies their media market.

Still, this insight that the Cardinals are basically a small-market team is the key to their sustainable success. The way GM John Mozeliak runs the team suggests that he knows this is true too. Here are a few pie charts that break down the 2013 Cardinals. The first breaks down their WAR contributions by different acquisition paths, which basically makes the chart a visualization of where their talent comes from. The second breaks down their payroll by acquisition path. A player is considered to be in the first acquisition path the Cardinals acquired him in. So, for instance, Matt Holliday counts in "trade" because he was originally acquired from the A's, even though he went on to sign a contract extension technically as a free agent:

Quite simply, the Cardinals understand who they are and how they fit within baseball's economy. The bulk of their production comes from their draft picks, which is the only way a small-market team can succeed. That's where cheap production comes from. However, thanks to rabid fan support, St. Louis has a bit more money to play with than their small-market brethren, so they have the resources to add some supplemental pieces here and there, and also choose which of their formerly cheap prospects they can hold on to for a long, long time. These aren't cost-effective pieces, but because the Cardinals know how to be cost-effective, they can go after a high-price player or two from time to time and stay within their budget.

This is why Michael Wacha is the Cardinals way. St. Louis decided that Albert Pujols wasn't a sound investment, given his age and their internal options at first base (Allen Craig and Matt Adams).  St. Louis has to be budget conscious in their market. However, they don't have to be meager. They re-allocated their cash to sign Carlos Beltran and Lance Berkman**, plus sign Yadier Molina to a contract extension. Then, they also grabbed a polished pitcher with their compensatory draft pick, 2013 NLCS MVP Michael Wacha. Not too shabby.

**Berkman was awesome in his one-year for the Cardinals but they let him go, which was another smart decision because he couldn't stay on the field in Texas.

I'm sick of the general picture that often gets painted about the St. Louis Cardinals as a scrappy bunch that just knows how to win. They are largely anonymous names because so much of their talent comes from their farm system. That young core is then supplemented with a sprinkling of veterans signed in free agency, or acquired in trades. The Cardinals way isn't some miracle of hard work and perseverance - it's a process of sound decisions based off of their understanding of how to best allocate their resources given their limitations and baseball's market.

Frankly, the Cardinals are probably a bit lucky right now because so many of their draft picks have been big successes as of late, but every championship team has a bit of luck or good fortune. The Cardinals chose a path that made their chance at good fortune as wide as possible.

The Cardinals way wouldn't be such a bad way for the Mariners to go either. The Mariners will never keep up with the massive market teams spending either, but the Seattle-Tacoma media market should be big enough to allow for a splash here or there.