What I’m Reading: “The Cardinals Way” by Howard Megdal

The Cardinals Way: How One Team Embraced Tradition and Moneyball at the Same Time is an ambitious book that does a lot of things really well and makes for a captivating read.

Author Howard Megdal illustrates the way in which the team’s conversion to analytics was not out of line with the team’s history, which included the innovations of Branch Rickey and the commitment to continuous improvement of longtime baseball men like George Kissell, and also includes a sustained commitment to scouting and player development.

As a result, The Cardinals Way ends up becoming several books in one. Megdal devotes the early chapters to tracing the Cardinals’ history under Branch Rickey and the innovations he introduced to the St. Louis Cardinals, including the creation of a minor league system designed to continuously pump fresh talent onto the major-league roster.

Megdal then devotes significant time to Kissell, the Cardinals’ long-time minor-league coach, whose baseball philosophy remains a significant part of the Cardinals’ identity. Of all the Cardinals books I’ve read, I have not yet found another that is as dedicated to showing the impact Kissell has had on the Cardinals behind the scenes. At one point in this section, Megdal describes an interview with a minor-league instructor who played under Kissell. As that coach glowingly describes their interactions with Kissell and the impact he had upon their life and career, another player-turned-coach overhears them and begins to share their own Kissell stories. Soon, yet another coach joins them to share additional stories.

The section on Kissell alone makes this book worth reading.

Megdal follows that section by discussing Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. and his growing belief after buying the team that the Cardinals need to improve their data gathering and analysis. To implement that plan, DeWitt hires Jeff Luhnow, and Megdal describes the changes that take place in the St. Louis Cardinals organization and the challenges Luhnow faced in implementing his vision for more data-based decision-making.

One of Megdal’s real strengths in this book is the access he obtains. He interviews all the key players, including DeWitt, Luhnow, Walt Jocketty, Sig Mejdal, and Dan Kantrovitz, and they all seem to be genuinely open and honest with him about that time period. Megdal actually dives into the personalities of Mejdal and Kantrovitz – arguably the two least well-known of the key players in the Cardinals’ shift to analytics – but I would have liked to have seen Megdal dive more into who these other men are and how their backgrounds shape their decision-making.

He’s fair with Jocketty and is quick to point out that what Jocketty was doing was working – as evidenced by the World Series appearance in 2004 and the World Series championship in 2006 – but he doesn’t give us any understanding as to how Jocketty got to this position or what his organizational philosophy has been.

I also would have liked to have gotten a better feel for who Luhnow is as a person. He’s obviously a key player in the story the book is telling and Megdal quotes him throughout that section of the book, but as a reader, I really never got to know much about him outside of his professional background and his philosophy for the organization. Obviously, Luhnow’s personal characteristics are more interesting now, in 2020, given the manner in which his career with the Astros ended.

When it comes to discussing the conflict within the front office, however, Megdal gets unparalleled access, including interviews with Jocketty about his days with the Cardinals. Personally, I found this part of the book fascinating as well, as it covers topics related to baseball, but also provides great insights regarding organizational goals, communication, and leadership. This transition to incorporating analytics into their decision-making is as important as anything that has happened to the Cardinals under DeWitt’s ownership, and this is the deepest dive into that transition that I have seen.

In the final portion of the book, Megdal illustrates how important the Cardinals’ scouts and player development professionals are to the team’s success. Megdal speaks to a number of Cardinals prospects – regular, run-of-the-mill prospects looking to make their major-league dreams come true. At the same time, he also spotlights the Cardinals’ scouts, primarily Charlie Gonzalez. Charlie is a memorable character, and the scenes where Megdal brings us into the scouts’ meetings in advance of the draft provide a fascinating glimpse into the process.

As you can probably tell, I enjoyed all three pieces of the book, as they paint the full picture of how the Cardinals’ analytics version ties the past with the future and the analytics movement with an emphasis on superior scouting and player development. The publisher doesn’t actually divide the book into these three sections, but these shifts in focus are so defined that I can see why readers would like one or two of the book’s sections more than the others.

Ultimately, though, I think all three pieces are necessary to fully paint the picture of how the Cardinals have incorporated analytics into their operations. I love that Megdal placed a spotlight on George Kissell and the impact he has had upon Cardinals baseball. I was impressed by the access Megdal was given to the club, even in discussing its internal conflict and its scouting decisions, and I liked that this book took me inside the Cardinals’ front office with a perspective I haven’t seen during this generation of St. Louis baseball.

For Cardinals fans, even those who haven’t bought into analytics, this book offers a bit of everything. It’s definitely worth reading to better understand the process that led to the 2011 World Series and established the foundation for the Cardinals teams of today.

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