Sunday Notes: John Mozeliak Addresses an Anomalous Losing Season in St. Louis

Sunday Notes: John Mozeliak Addresses an Anomalous Losing Season in St. Louis


The St. Louis Cardinals were one of baseball’s most disappointing teams in 2023. Favored to win the NL Central, they instead finished with just 71 wins and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2018. Moreover, the losing record was wholly unfamiliar territory. Since John Mozeliak was appointed GM prior to the 2008 season (his title is now President of Baseball Operations), the Cardinals had had nothing but winning records under his watch. They reached the postseason in 10 of those seasons and twice advanced to the World Series, capturing the franchise’s 11th modern-era title in 2011.

To say that St. Louis has had sustained success under Mozeliak would be stating the obvious. Ditto that “The Cardinals Way” — the catchphrase champions the club’s adherence to fundamentals and its player development acumen — has paid dividends on a consistent basis.

What does it mean when sustained success suddenly hits a roadblock? In the Cardinals’ current case, does it represent an anomaly? Was 2023 simply a blip, or is there a need for Mozeliak’s team to change its processes in any way? I asked that question of the executive during last month’s GM meetings.

“I think it would be somewhat foolish to just approach this past year as, ‘Oh, odds have it that you’re going to lose, so it happened,’” replied Mozeliak. “You can learn from some things that happened last year. I hope everybody who is involved in this is having that reflection moment and trying to understand what we could have done differently, what we should have done differently, and what we will do differently going forward.”

Asked if he could share specifics, Mozeliak said that while some have been identified, he preferred not to call any of them out, lest he “make anybody feel bad.” He did say that he was willing to call himself out. “Adding more pitching prior going into camp, would have, in hindsight, made more sense” was the mea culpa he chose to share.

That area of need is already being addressed for 2024, as Kyle Gibson, Sonny Gray, and Lance Lynn have all been inked to free-agent contracts. Just how much the trio meaningfully moves the needle is a big question. Gibson and Gray are clearly upgrades — Lynn is 36 years old and coming off a season where he allowed 44 home runs while logging a 5.75 ERA and a 5.53 FIP, so the jury is out — but are they the type of starters the Cardinals most need? In terms of experience and an ability to supply innings, the answer is seemingly yes. On the other hand, none of them are especially prolific when it comes to missing bats. Of the 58 pitchers to work at least 150 frames last year, Gray had the 28th highest strikeout rate, Lynn ranked 30th, and Gibson was near the bottom at 49.

That Miles Mikolas — who remains in the rotation — ranked 56th is notable, as is the now-retired Adam Wainwright’s having ranked dead last among the 127 pitchers who threw at least 100 innings. All told, Cardinals starters were second-worst in strikeout rate among the 30 teams, trailed only by the Colorado Rockies. Which brings us to another issue. Cardinals starters had a .325 BABIP-against, easily the highest of any team. A year earlier that number was a middle-of-the-pack .294.

Why this happened is yet another question. Was having Willson Contreras and not Yadier Molina behind the plat the primary factor? Or was it more that St. Louis’s defense plummeted from fourth-best to 20th-best in DRS, and from third to 18th in Def? (Nolan Arenado’s going from 19 DRS in 2022 to just one in 2023 stands out like a sore thumb).

Will the additions of Gibson, Gray, and Lynn do anything to ameliorate these issues? Mozeliak did say that his team needs to get back to the fundamentals they’ve been known for, but to what extent were fundamentals actually an issue last year? (I didn’t see anywhere close to enough Cardinals games to offer a valid opinion). Either way, was this an issue that can be solved by shuffling a few deck chairs and tweaking processes here and there? The same goes for other issues that contributed to the unexpected losing season. Is there anything actually amiss with “The Cardinals Way” that has worked so well, or was 2023 largely what Mozeliak was unwilling to call it: a blip within a successful system?

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Billy Herman went 39 for 100 against Dizzy Dean.

Babe Herman went 37 for 100 against Ray Kremer.

Sparky Adams went 35 for 100 against Eppa Rixey.

Pie Traynor went 33 for 100 against Pete Donohue.

Earl Averill went 31 for 100 against Lefty Stewart.

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The Cincinnati Reds had 16 players make their MLB debuts this past year, and while some of them were pitchers — Andrew Abbott, Connor Phillips, and Brandon Williamson are most notable — the biggest impacts were made by position players. Elly De La Cruz, Noelvi Marté, Matt McLain, and Christian Encarnacion-Strand all emerged as likely lineup mainstays for years to come. Ditto Spencer Steer, who debuted in 2022 and received down-ballot Rookie of the Year votes this season.With wunderkind De La Cruz now graduated from prospect status, still-rookie-eligible Marté projects as the organization’s new No. 1.

Cincinnati’s rotation clearly has potential, but at the same time, Reds starters ranked fourth from the bottom in the National League in pitcher WAR, as well as second from the bottom in ERA. Continued growth from Hunter Greene, Graham Ashcraft and the aforementioned trio of debuting youngsters should help, as will the return of Nick Lodolo from injury. Those things said, what does the future portend when it comes to arms on the farm? With that mind, I asked Cincinnati President of Baseball Operations Nick Krall how happy he is with his club’s pitching pipeline.

“I think we’ve made progress, but I also think you can always use more pitching,” Krall told me during last month’s GM Meetings. “I like the guys we have. We drafted Rhett Lowder (seventh overall) and Ty Floyd (38th overall) one-two last year. Chase Petty took some strides forward. We’ve got guys like Julian Aguiar. Some of the guys who went from Triple-A to the big leagues are continuing to improve. I think we’re doing a good job.”

Aguilar, a 22-year-old right-hander whom the Reds took in the 12th round of the 2021 draft, was a notable mention by Krall, in part because he entered this past season unranked and unheralded. At year’s end his stat line included a 2.95 ERA, a 3.22 FIP, and 138 strikeouts in 125 innings between High-A Dayton and Double-A Chattanooga.

Petty, who was drafted 26th overall in 2021 by the Twins, was acquired by the Reds in March 2022 in the deal that sent Sonny Gray to Minnesota. After missing the first month of the season while recovering from an elbow ailment, the 20-year-old right-hander put up a 1.72 ERA and a 2.32 FIP with 66 strikeouts in 68 innings between Dayton and Chattanooga.

Asked specifically about Lowder, Krall cited the 21-year-old right-hander’s “good feel to pitch,” as well as his variety of plus pitches and competitiveness. Lowder’s numbers in his junior season at Wake Forest were eye-opening. Augmenting a 15-0 won-lost record were a 1.87 ERA and 143 strikeouts to go with just 24 walks in 120-and-a-third innings. Lowder will make his professional debut in 2024, as will Floyd, a 22-year-old righty who pitched at LSU.

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A quiz:

Which player holds the record for most one-base hits in a single season? (A hint: he also has the third-highest single-season singles total.)

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS NOTES

The Pittsburgh Pirates have hired Sarah Gelles as an assistant GM. The Amherst College graduate joined the Pirates as a baseball operations intern in 2009 before going on to work for MLB’s Labor Relations department in 2010, the Baltimore Orioles from 2011-2018, and the Houston Astros for the last five years. Her most recent position was Director, Research & Development.

The Astros have hired Deric Ladnier as their new Senior Director of Amateur Scouting. The 59-year-old former minor league infielder has previously served as scouting director for the Kansas City Royals and the Arizona Diamondbacks. I interviewed Ladnier for Baseball Prospectus in 2007 during his Royals tenure.

Brayan Peña will be the new minor league catching coordinator for the Detroit Tigers. The 41-year-old former big-league backstop has been managing in the Tigers system, most recently with the High-A West Michigan Whitecaps.

The Tigers also announced that Tim Federowicz, who had been serving as their major league catching coach, will take over as manager for their Triple-A affiliate, the Toledo Mud Hens.

Kris Atteberry will be the new radio play-by-voice of the Minnesota Twins, taking over for Cory Provus who is moving over to TV to replace the recently-retired Dick Bremer. A 1996 graduate of Stanford University, Atteberry has been with the Twins Radio Network since 2007 serving as a pre- and postgame host and backup in-game broadcaster,

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The answer to the quiz is Ichiro Suzuki, with 225 singles in 2004. Wee Willie Keeler had 206 in 1898, while Suzuki’s 203 in 2007 is the third-highest single-season total.

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The recent news that Ben Wagner won’t be returning as the radio play-by-play voice of the Toronto Blue Jays was unexpected and head-scratching. Then again, the decision not to bring back the talented, 43-year-old broadcaster was made by Rogers Sportsnet, and head-scratching isn’t exactly anomalous for the deep-pocketed media company. In recent years, Rogers, which also owns the Blue Jays, has had Wagner calling road games from a Toronto studio rather than at the ballpark where the team was playing. That they’ve done so is not only disrespectful to Wagner and the fanbase, it is also downright embarrassing.

“Embarrassing” is a word that Jerry Howarth, the legendary Blue Jays broadcaster whom Wagner replaced upon his retirement prior to the 2018 season, used when sharing his opinion of the ouster with Rob Longley of The Toronto Sun. Howarth also used the word “injustice.” With the caveat that I’m not privy to anything that might have been going on behind the scenes — it’s always possible that Rogers had legitimate reasons — Howarth’s reaction seems spot-on. By all appearances, Wagner got a raw deal.

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The Detroit Tigers added 35-year-old right-hander Kenta Maeda to their starting rotation this past week, giving them a proven veteran to work alongside a quartet of less established, yet very promising, younger hurlers. (My colleague Michael Baumann wrote about the free-agent signing here). The projected foursome that Maeda will join comprises Matt Manning, Casey Mize, Reese Olson, and Tarik Skubal, all of whom, assuming good health, project as solid big-league starters. Alex Faedo, Sawyer Gipson-Long, and Joey Wentz, who combined to make 35 starts last year, could also factor into the mix.

Which brings us to the pitcher with arguably the highest ceiling in the organization. Drafted third overall in 2021 out of an Oklahoma City high school, Jackson Jobe possesses a power arsenal that could propel him to the top half of the Tigers rotation in the not-too-distant future. After seeing the start of his 2023 season delayed by a back ailment, the 21-year-old right-hander put up a 2.81 ERA with 84 strikeouts in 64 innings between three levels, and he followed that up with four impressive outings in the Arizona Fall League. Jobe features a mid-to-upper 90s fastball, a sweeping slider that spins around 3,000 RPMs, and a changeup that his AFL manager, Javier Colina, described to Lynn Henning of The Detroit News as “the best I’ve seen (in the minor leagues) since Zack Greinke.”

I asked Tigers President of Baseball Operations Scott Harris about Jobe during the GM Meetings.

“He has dominating stuff,” Harris told me. “You saw it across multiple levels and in the Fall League this year. The most important thing for him is that he made a real adjustment from [Low-A] Lakeland to [High-A] West Michigan. He started absolutely challenging hitters, realizing how good his stuff is and how when he was throwing chase pitches he was often doing hitters a favor. He started challenging them directly, landing all of his shapes in the zone repeatedly, and was ending at-bats quickly, which allowed him to go deeper in games. That is going to be a very valuable skill when he gets to the big leagues.”

Colina, who managed the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Double-A affiliate before overseeing Jobe’s outings in the AFL, told Henning that the youngster is “going to be a No. 1 or No. 2 (starter) for the Tigers.” Moreover, he predicted that Jobe would be called up to Detroit in the coming season. That seems unlikely given that Jobe has just 141-and-third-professional innings under his belt, and has made only one start at the Double-A level, but it’s always possible. There is no questioning his raw stuff, and as evidenced by the two interviews he’s done for FanGraphs — the most recent one can be found here — he backs that up with an analytically-aided thirst to continue to get better. Jobes’s ceiling is indeed sky-high.———

FOREIGN AFFAIRS

NPB’s Tohoku Rakuten Eagles will reportedly release Tomohiro Anraku after investigating allegations that the 27-year-old pitcher harassed and bullied younger teammates. Veteran MLB and NPB hurler Masahiro Tanaka, who also plays for Rakuten, issued an apology on social media for not doing his part to prevent the harassment and bullying.

Albert Almora Jr. is 15-for-72 with three doubles and a triple for the Puerto Rican Winter League’s Cangrejeros de Santurce. The 29-year-old outfielder’s last MLB action came with the Cincinnati Reds, who released him in September 2022.

Sammy Hernandez is 10-for-32 and has a .436 OBP with the Puerto Rican Winter League’s Leones de Ponce. Acquired by the St. Louis Cardinals from the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for Genesis Cabrera in July, the 19-year-old catcher played in the Florida Complex League and the Low-A Florida State League this year.

Nehomar Ochoa Jr. is 8-for-23 and has a .414 OBP with the Australian Baseball League’s Perth Heat. The 17-year-old outfielder played in 12 games for the Houston Astros Florida Complex League entry after being drafted in the 11th round out of Galena Park (TX) High School.

Hector Rodríguez is slashing .303/.330/.455 with one home run in 103 plate appearances for the Dominican Winter League’s Leones del Escogido. The 19-year-old outfielder in the Cincinnati Reds organization had 16 home runs to go with a .292/.343/.495 slash line between Low-A Daytona and High-A Dayton.

Franmil Reyes is slashing .300/.361/.575 with a circuit-best eight home runs in 133 plate appearances for Leones del Escogido. The 28-year-old veteran of six big-league seasons was released by the Washington Nationals in August.

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Which of Tony Gwynn and Robin Yount had the better career? I asked that question in a Twitter poll earlier this week, and the result was a landslide win for the player who accumulated less WAR, as well as fewer hits, doubles, triples, home runs, runs scored, and RBIs. That would be Gwynn, who garnered 76.2% of the votes cast, while Yount received just 23.8%.

Gwynn had the far higher batting average of the two (.338 to .285) and he also captured eight batting titles while Yount won none. Gwynn also received 15 All-Star nods, while Yount (inexplicably) received only three. The Milwaukee Brewers legend did win a pair of MVP awards, an honor never bestowed upon the San Diego Padres legend. Moreover, as mentioned above, he had the edge in six primary counting stats, as well as in WAR (66.5 to 65.0). Each played 20 seasons, and neither won a World Series.

Given his batting titles and All-Star appearances, it’s easy to see why Gwynn won the poll going away. In many respects, he did have the better career. At the same time, it is by no means unreasonable to feel that Yount’s was better. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

At Pittsburgh Baseball Now, John Perrotto wrote about the tenuous relationship between Ted Simmons and Jim Leyland during the duo’s brief time together — Simmons as GM, Leyland as manager — with the Pirates in the early 1990s.

Well before becoming President of Baseball Operations for the Tampa Bay Rays, Eric Neander spent college summers working at Sal’s Pizzeria in Cooperstown, New York. Marc Topkin has the story at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s website.

The Athletic’s Eno Sarris told us about a dozen potential future stars in management and coaching (subscription required).

At Twins Daily, Sherry Cerny wrote about Minnesota’s depth, and how letting free-agent pitchers Kenta Maeda and Sonny Gray go was part of the payroll plan.

Fish on First’s Louis Addeo-Weiss made a case for Chase Utley’s Cooperstown-worthiness.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Cito Gaston slashed .318/.364/.543 with 29 home runs and a 144 wRC+ for the San Diego Padres in 1970. It was a career-best year by a wide margin. A big-league outfielder from 1967-1978, the two-time World Series-winning manager finished with 91 home runs, a 94 wRC+, and 0.8 WAR.

Brandon Phillips finished his 17-year big-league career by going 3-for-24 with the Red Sox in September 2018. The first of his three Boston hits was a game-deciding ninth-inning two-out two-run homer off of Atlanta’s A.J. Minter in a 9-8 Red Sox win.

Hall of Fame right-hander Don Drysdale went 11-11 with a 3.33 ERA for the Montreal Royals in 1955. Tommy Lasorda, a left-handed pitcher before becoming a Hall of Fame manager, went 9-8 with a 3.27 ERA for the Triple-A club that year.

Ron Cey slashed .328/.400/.588 with 32 home runs for the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate in 1971. He returned to Albuquerque in 1972 and slashed .329/.455/.546 with 23 home runs.

The New York Mets signed Mike Hessman as a free agent on today’s date in 2009. The right-handed slugger proceeded to go 7-for-55 and hit the last of his 14 big-league home runs in 2010. All told, Hessman homered 462 times over 20 professional seasons, He hit 433 in the minors, 14 in Japan, and one in Venezuela.

The Detroit Tigers acquired John Wockenfuss from the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for Lawrence Elliott on today’s date in 1973. Wockenfuss made his MLB debut the following year and went on to play 12 big-league seasons, all but the last two with the Tigers. Elliott never made it to the majors.

Players born on today’s date include Larry Anderson, who appeared in 16 games while pitching for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1974-1975 and for the Chicago White Sox in 1977. Not to be confused with Larry Andersen, the longtime reliever once traded for a young Jeff Bagwell, Anderson threw a five-hit shutout against the Detroit Tigers in 1975 for one of his two big-league wins.

Also born on today’s date was Hooks Iott, a left-hander who threw two innings for the St. Louis Browns in 1941, missed multiple seasons serving in WWII, then returned to pitch for both the Brown and the New York Giants in 1947. Per his B-Ref bio page, Iott fanned 25 batters in a nine-inning game, and 30 batters in a 16-inning game, pitching for the Northeast Arkansas League’s Paragould Browns in 1941.

Dixie Walker played for the Cotton State League’s Vicksburg Hill Billies in 1929 before going on to log 2,064 big-league hits, the bulk of them with the Brooklyn Dodgers. His father, also known as Dixie Walker, played for the Central League’s Zanesville Infants before going on to log 25 wins for the Washington Senators from 1909-1912.

Dixie Dean, one of the most famous players in English football (soccer) history — his 383 goals with Everton FC from 1924-1938 are the most any player has scored for a single club — also dabbled in baseball. The Toffees legend played in England’s National Baseball Association with Blundellsands and with the Liverpool Caledonians.



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