Q&A: Michael Girsch, St. Louis Cardinals Assistant General Manager
The St. Louis Cardinals have a well-earned reputation as one of the best organizations in baseball. From scouting to player development to the Win column, they excel in all areas. The people putting the pieces together are a big reason why.
Michael Girsch, the club’s assistant general manager, is part of that brain trust. Working under GM John Mozeliak, Girsch is a perfect fit for a front office that integrates analytics into The Cardinal Way. The 37-year-old has a math degree from Notre Dame and an MBA from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.
Girsch on being hired by the Cardinals: “I had finished business school and was working for a consulting firm in Chicago. I always wanted to be the GM of a baseball team when I grew up, and I was pretty well grown up, so I decided to at least give it a shot. I wrote a research paper on the amateur draft, putting a dollar value on draft picks, based on recent history. I sent this out to a bunch of teams.
“I got lucky. Mo [John Mozeliak] opened my email, and I ended up talking to him a couple of times. When they had a job opening that fall — coordinator of amateur scouting — I interviewed for it. It was an entry-level position, and while my background was in finance and economics — analytics-related stuff — it was a step toward doing what I’d always wanted to do. My lovely wife, who was pregnant at the time while raising 18-month-old twins, somehow agreed that moving, and taking a big pay cut, so I could chase my dream, was a good idea.
“At the time, I didn’t know very much. I was an informed outsider. I read Baseball Prospectus, Rob Neyer and Baseball America. I wasted probably too much time reading baseball stories when I was supposed to be doing consulting work. But I didn’t have any inside knowledge. I hadn’t played in college, and didn’t know anyone who played in the minor leagues. I didn’t know how things really worked until I got a job in baseball.”
On becoming director of the newly-formed Baseball Development department: “When Mo became GM after the 2007 season, he wanted to create a more formal group to do analytics. There were a few of us embedded in other departments, doing analytic work, but not as a dedicated group.
“We formed a separate department, called Baseball Development, that focused on analytics and web development. We built the scouting report structure we use, the game report structure our minor-league coaches use, and the dashboard our front office uses to review everything. I became the director of that department.”
On the RedBirdDog and Dashboard systems: “[RedBirdDog] is what we call our report-writing system. Scouting reports for amateur and pro, international, minor-league game reports, player-development progress reports — all of that is done through a website we call RedBirdDog. It’s basically a data-entry system for our staff to create reports.
“On the front office side, we have a separate site we call The Dashboard. It’s not for high-level summary data, but rather where we go for information on players. Everything we have about a player is there, from medical history, scouting reports from before and after he was drafted — all of that is in one place. Basically, we use The Dashboard to summarize and review those reports.
“We also have systems on the major-league side for advance scouting purposes. We have an advance-scouting portal that makes data — things like spray charts — available to our major-league staff. We have a group in our clubhouse doing video advance work, using BATS, to help the staff with advance scouting.”
On Mike Matheny’s role: “It sort of varies by time of year. He’s definitely part of the discussion with transactions and moves. During the off-season, he’s got more time to be a part of the brainstorming. That’s when we’ll sort of throw things against the wall and think about what might work, and what might not. During the season — let’s say at the trade deadline — he’s not part of discussions until they reach a point where it makes sense for him to be a part of it. He has other things to deal with. But again, during the off-season, he’s more available to discuss players and ideas, even ones that are long shots and may never happen.
“In terms of advance scouting, he pretty much manages that from the major-league-staff side. Different staff members have different roles within advance scouting. We’re preparing our hitters for their pitchers, our pitchers for their hitters, our infielders and outfielders for positioning. We prepare our base runners for pitchers’ moves and the catchers’ arm strength. We let them know how well outfielders get to balls and get rid of balls. Those things are divvied up amongst our major-league staff, and Mike runs all of that.”
On Paul Davis being hired as “Minor League Pitching Coach and Coordinator of Pitching Analytics: “We also just had Tim Leveque be promoted to pitching coordinator. Tim has been helping us with mechanics-analytics for several years, and with him taking over the pitching coordinator role, Paul Davis is going to sort of backfill the pitching analytics role. What it is, basically, is trying to formalize a way of evaluating mechanics.
“It’s not like we have a secret sauce and know the right and wrong way to do mechanics. It’s more of wanting to have a systematic way of evaluating mechanics — a number of quantitative and qualitative ways to look at mechanics. That’s whether we’re measuring angles, lengths or distances, or timing. We have experienced scouts and pitching coaches evaluating deliveries in a more qualitative sense. We’re recording those things in a very specific way, to try to make sense of which of those metrics might be predictive of future velocity gains or losses, elbow or shoulder injuries, or overall performance. We’re trying to see what we can find by having a formal process for collecting that information.
“This extends to players beyond our own system. It’s easiest in your own system, because you can get whatever angle, from whatever video, on whatever player you want. We also do it for players in other systems who may become available, but it’s primarily our guys and amateurs. That’s our main focus.”
On biomechanical assessments: “We call the guys doing this for us ‘mechanics analysts.’ We put together mechanics reports. We’re not dressing guys in little black suits and putting dots in their bodies, but we’re watching them as they pitch in games, from the video we have. We’re making assessments from that, so it’s up to your interpretation what you’d call it. So yes, we do biomechanics, but it sort of depends on how you use the term.
“We code video and analyze the mechanics of our pitchers, but we don’t do it in a start-to-start, or week-to-week, fashion. It’s not, ‘Hey, so-and-so dropped his arm angle by X degrees in his last start.’ We do it on more of a once-or-twice-a-year basis, in terms of his mechanics. That data is part of how we think about players, and what we feel they need to work on, or maybe change.
“There is always give and take with anything you do with pitching mechanics. What sometimes may seem high-risk may also be what makes a pitcher deceptive, or gives him the movement he relies on. Our pitching coaches need to assess that. They’re the experts. They know what you can tweak to improve health, or improve performance, and not make either one worse.”
On continuity within the system: “We have a lot of confidence in all of our coaches and player-development staff. Continuity in your overall message to the players is important — your overall theory on what you’re trying to accomplish. What you’re teaching is critical, so you can’t muddy the waters by having different people teaching entirely different approaches. That’s whether it’s hitting, pitching, defense, mindset, whatever.
“That said, having different people with different ways of coaching the same overall concept can be helpful. Sometimes a different coach says the same thing in a different way — he explains it in a different way — and ends up making a connection with a player. The previous guy may not have been able to do that, for whatever reason.
“We don’t do a lot of moving people [between levels] in order to keep them with a key prospect. We rely on the fact that all of our coaches are good at their jobs, communicate with each other, and are on the same page. As the player moves up in the system, we know he’s getting the same message; it’s just coming from a different voice.”
On drafting the best player available; “When people say ‘the best player available’ — it depends on what you mean by that, right? Two things: There is a point in the draft where no one is drafting the best player available; they’re drafting the player that will fill the roster spot in need. If you have four shortstops for your Gulf Coast League team and you like a shortstop in the 28th round, you might go to the next guy, because you don’t have any place to put him. There are constraints beyond your actual draft board. You have playing-time constraints, rosters spots, innings in the field and on the mound, at bats. Later on in the draft, those things become relevant.
“At the top of the draft, we try to draft the best player available for us. And ‘for us’ might be different than it would be for another team. We might be looking at different things. We look at scouting reports, performance, medical, mechanics — all these different things that might not make someone the best player available in the eyes of a third-party source. It may not even be the best player available according to someone in our own organization. But when we put the whole package together, that’s what we feel he is.
“When people say ‘Oh, they reached,’ or ’They didn’t take the best player available,’ well, that differs from our opinion. Maybe our doctors were more scared of someone’s medical history, or our scouts had more concerns about someone’s makeup than other teams did. Maybe the guy we took didn’t have those concerns, so he was higher on our board. I think all teams try to take ’the best player’ if you use an all-encompassing definition.”
On Cardinals scouting director Dan Kantrovitz having a master’s degree in statistics, from Harvard: “I think that’s more than a coincidence. Dan worked here before he went to Harvard; he was the scouting coordinator before I got that job. Dan has a background as a player — he played in college and in the minor leagues — and wanted to get out in the field. He moved on to become more of a scout, which is his passion.
“Dan knew the value of analytics in baseball, and wanted to improve his understanding of that, so he went back to Harvard. He was in Oakland for awhile after that, then came here when Jeff Luhnow left. I don’t think Dan spends a lot of time running statistical models, or implementing what he learned in his masters of statistics program, but he’s able to look at the world through that lens. He’s able to assist and critique the statistical models the analysts in our Baseball Development group make on college players, because he understands what the process looks like. He knows how to get from ‘here are stats on a website’ to ‘here’s how good we think this guy is,’ because we adjusted for X, Y and Z. Here are the steps we took, and here is the math we did. That’s entirely within Dan’s wheelhouse.”
On The Yellow Pad: “That’s something George Kissell started years ago. He literally walked around with a yellow pad of notes and quotes to share with the players. We still use the term today, though our managers aren’t literally teaching off a yellow pad anymore.
“It’s really about teaching and reviewing game situations. Whether something happened in the game last night or might happen in the game today, how should we react? How can we proactively stay one step ahead of the game? It might be, ‘On this batted ball, with this many outs in this inning, you didn’t aggressively go for the extra base. Given the situation, you maybe should have and here’s why.’ It’s a reviewing of game situations.
“During batting practice, when you’re throwing a bullpen, and when you’re taking infield, you’re practicing physical skills. Mental skills, like discussing the strategic implications of plays, is something all of our staff does well. We want our players to be students of the game. When you get to Busch Stadium, you have to be more than physically gifted, you need to be mentally ready.
“We showed that this year. We brought up a ton of young guys and they didn’t perform like young guys. That’s a credit to our player development staff. They focused on these sorts of things. Minor league guys are going to make mistakes. That’s one reason they’re down there, to make mistakes and learn from them. Our job is to help make sure they learn, so they don’t repeat them.”
On the Cardinals’ organizational hitting philosophy; “Is there one? Yes and no. We have some philosophies, but I don’t think they’re all that unique in baseball. For instance, there are times with two strikes where you need to shorten up and put the ball in play. You need to battle the pitcher and have a competitive at bat. There are also times in a game where, even with two strikes, you should focus more on just playing to your strengths. There’s nothing really unique, or dynamic, about our approach.
“As for our low strikeout rate, some of that is the type of hitters we have. A guy like Yadier Molina is simply hard to strike out. Regardless of what his two-strike approach is, he has great hand-eye-coordination.
“We have what you’d call an aggressive-in-the-zone approach. We don’t take a ton of pitches and go particularly deep into counts. If there’s a pitch to hit, we try to hit it. I don’t know off the top of my head if we’re more successful with two strikes — avoiding the strike out — or whether we avoid strikeouts because we don’t get into two-strike counts as much. I’m not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg there.”
On the team’s high BABiP and RISP: “Will we repeat our RISP next year? Almost certainly not. We set a big-league record, so we’d be naive to think we could do that two years in a row. Will we continue to have a high BABiP? I think so. We have a team of predominantly line-drive hitters, and line drives drop for hits more often than fly balls. Conversely, fly balls tend to go out of the park more than line drives, so there is some trade off there.
“If a ball goes off the wall, you look lucky, and if it goes over the wall, your BABiP doesn’t get affected. Maybe a few of our doubles will go over the wall next year, so our home runs will go up and our BABiP will go down. Would the narrative be that our luck regressed or that we added power? It kind of depends on how you choose to categorize performance data.
“I expect us to have a very good offense next year. I expect the shape will change a little bit. We’ll probably hit better with no one on base and not as good with men on base — compared to this year — and I suspect we’ll hit a few more home runs. We have some really good hitters. Of course, it’s still early in the off-season. Who knows what kind of team we’ll put out there on opening day.”
On the Cardinals‘ defense: “We would rather have better defense than worse defense, just like we’d rather have a better offense than a worse offense. Same with pitching. All of those things come in packages. Sometimes you get more speed with less batting, but better defense. Or you get better bats with less defense. We try to look at the total package of our players. That’s what we’re trying to optimize. We’re not looking for more power, more speed, or better defense. We’re looking for better players across the whole spectrum.
“With a high ground-ball rate, we probably have more opportunities for our infielders to make plays, so that might have a bigger impact on us than it would some other teams. But at the end of the day, we’re trying to maximize total performance, not just offense, defense or speed. If we can do that by improving our defense, that would be great. But we can’t treat it as an at-all-costs issue.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.
Very impressive guy. Nice job, David. As always.