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March 4, 2014

Baseball Therapy

Why The Cardinal Way is the Most Important Book in Baseball

by Russell A. Carleton

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I envy Sam Miller. He got to hold it in his hands. It. The book. That one. The Cardinal Way. I feel like I should whisper when I say its name. It might give me a magic power. Suddenly, I’ll be able to hit like Albert Pujols. Oh, right.

Sam wrote an article about the experience of holding the Cardinals’ organizational bible in a recent edition of ESPN the Magazine. After it hit the newsstands, I sent a message to Sam and asked him to describe the experience. “I looked through it. It was disappointing. You could have written it.”

Uh… thanks?

The Cardinal Way has gotten a lot of press, mostly because it’s so mysterious. Oh yeah, and because the Cardinals have done a fantastic job of churning out homegrown talent (Michael Wacha, Allen Craig, Jon Jay, Matt Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, and many more) over the past few years and made the World Series a couple of times on the backs of that talent. It’s only human to want to know the secret to success. Instead of just a vague, amorphous “philosophy” guiding the Cardinals’ success, there’s an actual book. And just like all those books on how to become a millionaire—well, look at all the millionaires walking around.

Before we create too much of a mythology surrounding The Cardinal Way, let’s be realistic for a minute. The Cardinals did not invent player development. They do not have a monopoly on smart guys who are good at molding young bats and young arms. They did not invent the idea of making sure that there was a coherent philosophy running through the player development system. Lots of teams make it a point to ensure that from the Sally League to the National League, the expectations that pitchers have are as uniform as they can be. It sets up a nice uniformity and eases the transitions that players might face as they move up in the minors. For all we know, they may not be the first team to write an internal book—or a series of memos which, if someone had bothered to collect them into a three-ring binder, would look like a book.

I haven’t read The Cardinal Way. Maybe it would be a religious experience. Maybe it would be a dull checklist of developmental tasks that the Cardinals think a player needs to accomplish before coming to the big leagues. I’m not sure, and frankly, it doesn’t even matter. It’s still the most important book in baseball right now. Trying to figure out what’s in the book is missing the point. Simply by knowing that the book exists, we can conclude something even more important. In St. Louis, player development is about more than just the guys in the player development system. It’s about a set of ideas.

Don’t get me wrong. The Cardinals need really good coaches and development guys to actually implement their ideas and teach their young players. The process wouldn’t work otherwise. But the message is clear: You don’t just come in and do whatever you feel like. There’s a way that we do this and it’s bigger than you.

But the idea of The Cardinal Way is even bigger than the Cardinals, because it opens up the idea that we might actually prescribe a way to do player development. It’s tempting to dismiss this sort of thing out of hand by asking, “How can you do a one-size-fits-all approach to development?” I don’t know whether The Cardinal Way does that, and I’m hoping that the answer is no, because one size never actually fits all. But how can one successful club have a manual on how development should proceed without it applying to the other 29 teams?

Allow me to share an analogy from my other occupation. I used to work as a mental health counselor (I don’t anymore) and many of the patients who would come in presented with some of the same symptoms. The three most common were depression, anxiety, and ADHD. Now, in psychology, there’s been a move toward what are known as evidence-based practices (EBPs). The idea is that if you are going to treat a problem, the treatment needs to actually have some sort of evidence that shows that it works. You can’t just make things up and call them treatments. Insurance companies frown on that sort of thing, because there’s actual money on the line. The nice thing, though, is that there are several different empirically-based treatments. Some work better than others for different situations, and some counselors feel more comfortable with some treatments than others. A good counselor will have at least a bit of familiarity with all of them and fluency with enough of them that if one isn’t working for someone, s/he can switch over to something else.

In the same way, the Cardinals might be interested in improving a prospect’s plate discipline. There’s no question that that’s a good goal, but how to get there? Well, once they figure out how to define plate discipline, they could try some drills. Maybe they might try a video course. Maybe it’s better to just throw a bunch of live BP. Whatever they do, they might track the results of the intervention and keep track over time of what works and what doesn’t (exactly what that would look like will depend on the circumstances, so consult your local research methodologist). Some will work great, others not so much, and the ones that don’t should be discarded. But my guess is that there will be several methods that show some promise, because not everyone learns in the same way.

As The Cardinal Way develops (and it should be a living document), it becomes a repository of the accumulated knowledge over time related to player development. It separates what works from what doesn’t work. That’s already a process that goes on in any sort of coaching setting, but recording that process could make it more formal. As a quantitative guy, my bias would be to want to add more of that #GoryMath element to figuring out what works in the field of player development. Publicly, there is precious little to guide this effort, and perhaps some teams have begun to collect good, reliable information to improve their attempts at developing the next Hall of Famer. The Cardinal Way is a step in that direction, and one of those fun new frontiers that teams might try to exploit as they seek an advantage.

Russell A. Carleton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Russell's other articles. You can contact Russell by clicking here

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