The Cardinals Still Benefiting From the First Farm

With their victory tonight, the St. Louis Cardinals are up 2-1 in the NLCS and in good position to defend their National League title from 2011. They are also, by far, the most farm-developed team in the hunt for the World Series. As John Sickels recently wrote, 64 percent of their roster was developed by their farm system, compared to 40 percent for the Giants and 32 percent each for the Tigers and Yankees. The Cardinals famously developed the first modern farm system, under Branch Rickey. They are still, clearly, ahead of the curve.

Sickels looked at all 25 players on the Cards’ 25-man roster, and all but eight were originally drafted or signed by the Cardinals. (Mark Rzepczynski and Chris Carpenter were originally drafted by the Jays; David Freese was originally drafted by the Padres; Kyle Lohse was originally drafted by the Cubs; Adam Wainwright was originally drafted by the Braves; Matt Holliday was originally drafted by the Rockies; Carlos Beltran was originally drafted by the Royals; and Edward Mujica was originally signed as an international free agent by the Indians.)

That’s really quite remarkable. If the 2012 Cardinals were to win the World Series, they would be the most homegrown team to do so in well over a decade: the last World Series winner to be more than 50 percent homegrown was the 2002 Anaheim Angels, 13 of whose players were original Angel draftees or signees.

I wasn’t able to look at all recent playoff teams — and would love it if one of you could find more examples — but the closest comparable modern team I was able to find was the 2005 Atlanta Braves, the “Baby Braves” team that won the NL East and lost the Division Series to the Astros. That team used 18 rookies in its quest for the pennant, setting a record for most rookies on a playoff team, and its playoff roster contained 15 players originally signed or drafted by the Braves.

This team is anomalous for the Cardinals of recent years; the 2011 World Championship team was 44 percent homegrown (11 out of 25) and the 2006 champions were around 40 percent, if you give them credit for signing So Taguchi and drafting Braden Looper: Taguchi played a long career for the Orix Blue Wave before debuting with the Cards, and Looper pitched eight years with the Marlins and Mets before coming back to throw meaningful innings for the Cardinals. (I have to say “around 40 percent” because only 23 players actually appeared in a game in the World Series for the Cardinals, and I couldn’t find out who the two benchwarmers were.)

So, even though their team originated the notion of the modern farm system, it would not be accurate to say that the Cardinals have always been this homegrown. Far from it: back in 2009, the Cardinals writer on wrote, “The Cardinals farm system has been a barren wasteland for years.” It just goes to show that in a well-run organization, it doesn’t take long to make the desert bloom.

Branch Rickey was, first and foremost, a businessman, and two of his insights from nearly a century ago still undergird everything that we do in baseball analysis today. First, he realized that the tool of statistical analysis can be used to build a competitive advantage. As early as 1914, he hired a sportswriter, Travis Hoke, as a part-time statistic-keeper for the Browns. Later, when Rickey was with the Dodgers, he hired Allan Roth, the first full-time statistician in baseball history.

Second, Rickey realized that you can get a lot more bang for your buck by spending on player development than on the free agent market, and so he convinced the owner of the Cardinals to purchase stakes in numerous independent minor league franchises, which he then used as a pipeline of talent to the major leagues. That’s still true today: a team with a strong minor league system is likely to be a strong team.

The Cardinals have been feasting off their first-mover advantage for nearly a century. It is not surprising that the most successful franchise in baseball history is the Yankees. New York is the most populous and wealthiest city in the country: you would expect that city’s teams to have a revenue advantage. It is somewhat surprising, however, that the second-most successful team, in terms of championships, is the Cardinals.

The phrase “second-most successful” can be a bit confusing, so here is what I mean. The Cardinals franchise has the second-most world championships of all time, behind only the Yankees, though the franchise is actually fourth of all time in wins [behind the Giants, Cubs, and Dodgers] and winning percentage [behind the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers]. Moreover, many of the Cubs’ franchise wins occurred prior to 1900, when they were the White Stockings and then Colts. The Cardinal franchise, which started life as the Brown Stockings, is seven years younger than that of the Cubs. However, baseball measures greatness in championships, and because the modern World Series began in 1903, there’s no advantage that goes to teams that have been around since the 1870s like the Cubs.

The Giants and Dodgers both switched coasts, which makes the franchise analysis a bit difficult: the nicknames were the same, but their fan and revenue bases were totally different. Still, you’d expect the Dodgers and Giants to be able to compete with the Cardinals for championships, considering the relative size of the metropolitan areas of New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles to St. Louis. Likewise the Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, and Chicago White Sox, who never moved, and who come from cities with a much larger metropolitan area population than St. Louis.

The Cubs were latecomers to both the farm system and to night baseball, which hampered the team financially; the Red Sox are well-known for fiercely resisting integration. Both clubs were hampered for years by these decisions.

In all events, St. Louis is something like the 19th-most populous metropolitan area in the country; there is no structural reason why the teams of Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago should all have experienced less championship success than the Cardinals. Branch Rickey’s legacy is a major piece of the explanation.

The Cardinals may not win it all this year, but they have a core that they’ll control for years, from Lance Lynn to Allen Craig, Jaime Garcia to Jason Motte, Shelby Miller to Yadier Molina. They’re well-positioned for the long haul. Just the way Branch liked it.

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times.

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11 years ago

Rickey couldn’t have known that building a team through a farm system was better than through free agency because at the time free agency didn’t exist. The point remains valid, but I doubt Rickey predicted the addition of free agency to MLB that occurred in the 1970’s.

snoop LION
11 years ago
Reply to  benjh5

“and so he convinced the owner of the Cardinals to purchase stakes in numerous independent minor league franchises, which he then used as a pipeline of talent to the major leagues.”

Some where in the middle of the article before your “lets correct a fangraph author comment” alert switched on