Latest crop emblematic of Cards' growing pitching tree
St. Louis continues to pick, develop right hurlers who succeed early on in Majors
ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals' magical pitching tree must be here somewhere, growing in a corner of the park from which the Gateway Arch rises 630 graceful feet for a peek into nearby Busch Stadium.
Twenty-five-year-old Joe Kelly will take the mound there on Saturday in Game 3 of the World Series (6:30 p.m. CT on FOX, 7:07 p.m. first pitch), armed with the seventh-fastest fastball (94.9 mph) among Major Leaguers who logged at least 100 innings in the regular season. Kelly was picked from the tree. He'll follow 22-year-old Michael Wacha, who powered his way to six quality innings Thursday night in Boston for a Game 2 victory, the rookie's fourth in as many stellar starts this postseason. Wacha grew on the tree, too.
Maybe Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal will follow Kelly like they did Wacha, with Martinez navigating two innings of Game 2 and Rosenthal blowing Boston hitters away in the ninth. Maybe left-hander Kevin Siegrist, a former 41st-round Draft pick who surprised everyone when he started throwing 98 mph, will be needed to face a tough lefty. Maybe 25-year-old Seth Maness will be called to get a key ground ball, or 23-year-old National League Rookie of the Year Award contender Shelby Miller will be freed from the cupboard in which the Cards have been hiding him.
They all fell from the tree, too.
With all of these rookies doing the job for the NL's top team, how else do you explain it? There must be a magical tree.
"Unfortunately not," said Cardinals farm director John Vuch. "I wish there was."
Instead, there is a system of amateur scouting and Minor League development that stresses not only velocity -- which clubs all around baseball are making the focus of their pitching efforts -- but athleticism. It is not a set formula, according to Cards special assistant Gary LaRocque, but it is "part of the game plan" in projecting a pitcher's future success.
"Athleticism" comes up a lot when talking about the Cardinals' current crop of young pitchers. Miller played third base in high school when he wasn't pitching, and he was also a wide receiver and a kicker for his Brownwood, Texas, football team. The late-inning tandem of Rosenthal and Martinez are former shortstops who converted to pitching full-time -- Rosenthal only four years ago, after Cards scout Aaron Looper discovered him at a junior college tournament in Kansas when he moved from shortstop to pitch the final inning.
Kelly was a center fielder in high school, but his arm caught the eye of an evaluator from the University of California-Riverside, who offered him a scholarship to pitch. Despite posting a 5.65 ERA in his sophomore season with the Highlanders, Kelly was the Cardinals' third-round Draft pick in 2009.
Word is that he was also quite a basketball player.
"I can definitely dunk from standing underneath [the rim] by jumping straight up, but I don't want to talk about dunking abilities," Kelly said with a smile on Friday. "That's probably not good. I don't think the GM wants to hear that."
Brent Strom's fingerprints are all over these big arms.
A former first-round Draft pick who pitched in the Majors for the Padres, Mets and Indians, Strom has served in a variety of instructor posts over the past two decades, including nearly six years as the Cardinals' Minor League pitching coordinator from late 2007 until earlier this month, when he was hired to be the Astros' pitching coach.
Rockin' rookie relievers
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"A number of years back when I came on board with the Cardinals, I had a different vision," Strom said. "The Cardinals had been very successful under [former pitching coach] Dave Duncan, and rightfully so. He's a potential Hall of Fame pitching coach, if there's going to be one. The idea there was they would pound the bottom of the zone with sinkers, create contact, things like that.
"But my take on this thing when I joined the organization was I was going to take each individual, see what their strengths are, and try to maximize their strengths. It's always been my contention -- and this is not to belittle sinkerball pitchers, by any means -- that sinkerball pitchers are people that can't throw solid fastballs. If you look at the top pitchers throughout baseball -- the [Clayton] Kershaws and the [Justin] Verlanders and the Cliff Lees -- they have really good fastballs. That's one of my mainstays that I really got from the Dodgers under Sandy Koufax, the idea of fastball/curveball, creating momentum off the rubber, moving your body correctly.
"You study how velocity is created, how it's maintained. We had the mindset that we were going to try to create velocity, and I think you see that a little bit in guys like Rosenthal and Martinez and Wacha. It just takes time, it takes opportunity, and the injuries that took place at the Major League level for the Cardinals, it meant a need. That need happened to be filled by a group of players who were ready at the right time."
Like many clubs, the Cards have embraced the science of motion analysis, the video game-like process of stripping a pitcher down to skivvies, attaching sensors to various parts of his body and sending him to a mound to throw. They analyze the resulting measurements to identify both strengths and problem points, then coordinate with the strength and development staff to maximize the strengths and minimize the negatives.
"It's an ongoing thing," Strom said. "But I know we've gotten away from the 'slow down, stay under control.' Now we're trying to create athletes. That's what the old timers did. In many ways, I think we got in their way. When you watch Fergie Jenkins, Whitey Ford, you see their body responding to the goal."
A number of St. Louis pitchers have responded. The most dramatic examples may be Rosenthal, the former shortstop who has yet to allow a run in 14 postseason appearances over the past two seasons, and Siegrist, who topped out at 88 mph and barely threw a breaking ball for Palm Beach State College when he drew the notice of Cardinals scout Charlie Gonzalez.
Siegrist was gangly and threw across his body, but he was also 6-foot-5. The scout saw something.
"He was a late bloomer," Gonzalez told MLB.com in August. "He was high-waisted. He had legs like a flamingo. ... When I would talk with him, he would always give me a look like, 'What are you doing talking to me?' It was that type of thing, but I always believed in him."
St. Louis took Siegrist in the 41st round of the 2008 Draft -- a round that doesn't even exist anymore. Five years later, he has honed his mechanics, filled out to 215 pounds, earned a midseason promotion to the big leagues and pitched to a 0.45 ERA in 45 regular-season appearances for the Cards down the stretch.
Siegrist's average fastball velocity in those games? A nasty 95.2 mph.
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Some mysticism, too
Lest this sound too much like science, there is undoubtedly something else happening in St. Louis.
Take Wacha, who was pitching at Texas A&M 18 months ago. He has spoken of the heavy expectations that greet pitchers when they get to the big league clubhouse, a standard currently carried by Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright.
When a rookie steps through the door, Wacha said, it is made clear he is to uphold tradition, to act a certain way and pitch to a certain level of excellence.
"You don't want to be the guy who screws it up," Wacha said. "It makes you really focus."
In other words, there is something to the idea of success breeding success for the Cardinals.
"I remember speaking in Spring Training to the group and saying that one great thing about this organization is you can go from that clubhouse [on the Minor League side] to that one [in the Majors] very quickly," general manager John Mozeliak said. "I do think that our Minor League players know that they're going to be given opportunities, and if they do well, they're going to play in the big leagues. If you were to canvass that group of 150, they would feel good about their chances of at least getting a chance."
Vuch has felt that firsthand. In June, he visited the Cards' Class A affiliate in State College, Pa., at a time when the Major League roster featured five players who were drafted in the 21st round or later: first baseman Matt Adams (23rd round in 2009), Keith Butler (24th round in 2009), Michael Blazek (35th round in 2007), Rosenthal and Siegrist.
"I said, 'Look, there are going to be a lot of guys in this room that are going to get to the big leagues, but we're not smart enough to tell you today which three or four or five of you are going to get to St. Louis,'" Vuch said. "That serves as inspiration to the guys who were taken late in the Draft. They can look at it and say, 'Shoot, this guy was taken in the 41st round; I have a chance.' You never know where the next guy is going to come from."
Said LaRocque: "I think another of the really important things is how our Major League staff, starting with [manager] Mike Matheny and the entire coaching staff, they embrace these young guys. Believe me when I tell you, it is almost the final touch. We tell these kids, 'When you get the chance, you're going to be ready because they believe you're ready.' That really does make a difference."
Is there luck involved?
"Branch Rickey always said luck is the residue of design," Vuch said. "We hope that it's more than just luck."
Strom had a different take.
"Of course there's luck," he said. "I'm glad you brought that up. There's no question that there's luck involved.
"Take Rosenthal, for example. A scout stays for a game and sees a shortstop come in and pitch the ninth inning. One inning. He's 90-91 [mph], but he has a comfortable delivery, good movement, so we take him in the 21st round. Did I predict he was going to throw 100? By no means. But it happened. There's no question that luck plays a huge, huge deal in this.
"Once we think we have the secret sauce, we get slapped in the face. It's an ongoing process, and we just happened to hit the mother lode this year. The timing was right. There's other teams that have strong arms, too, but it's weird that a team with more rookies on it than any other is in the World Series."