The Cardinals had an opening for a data wrangler. Chris Correa, advancing on a graduate degree in psychology at the University of Michigan, had an offer.
He would gather and organize the amateur statistics the club wanted — searching for a player’s OBP when he wasn’t researching for his own Ph.D — in exchange for a promise. Correa told the Cardinals he would work for them, voluntarily, in exchange for an appointment.
He wanted a lunch with members of the front office.
That’s it. One meal, conversation included.
“So,” Correa said earlier this month, “the price was right.”
Shortly after that promised lunch, Correa joined the Cardinals’ baseball operations staff. About five years after his first paycheck from the team, Correa has been put in charge of one of the essential facets of modern big-league baseball, the draft. Correa was named the team’s director of scouting earlier this month. He moves from overseeing a research and development staff to guiding at least 23 scouts as they canvass the amateur fields for the next Cardinals.
General manager John Mozeliak moved swiftly to replace Dan Kantrovitz, who oversaw the previous three drafts. As he does with the roster, Mozeliak preferred to promote from within.
“I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, frankly,” Mozeliak said.
Ownership’s mandate to improve a threadbare farm system a decade ago came with an investment in the draft and expansion of the use of statistics to shape decisions. The draft has thus become a thrust behind the Cardinals’ run of postseason appearances. Eleven of the 16 players who appeared in Game 2 of the National League championship series, the one game the Cardinals won against San Francisco, were homegrown. Eleven of the 16 players who appeared in Game 2 of the National League championship series, the one game the Cardinals won against San Francisco, were homegrown. The four home runs hit in that game were from players drafted or signed as amateurs by the Cardinals. The Cardinals’ first picks in the 2012 and 2013 drafts — Michael Wacha and Marco Gonzales, respectively — reached the majors within 12 months of signing. A year after Wacha won the NLCS MVP, Gonzales had two wins in relief in this past October’s NL division series.
During manager Mike Matheny’s tenure has manager the Cardinals have seen the percentage of plate appearances from homegrown players grow from 56.7 percent in his first year to 66.7 percent over the past two years. Matheny’s opening day lineup’s average age has dropped each year, from 31.1 in 2012 to 29.0 this past year. Even as the Cardinals, like every other team in baseball, have more financial ability to pursue free agents, homegrown talent remains the currency of the game, whether homegrown players are developed for a big-league debut or developed and dealt.
The draft has to be the gift that keeps on giving.
“The way to think about this going forward is I’m not interested in replicating our past success,” Correa said. “I’m interesting in getting better. We’re going to be relentless in trying to find new innovations and new ways to improve our process. We’ve started that already.”
Correa declined to go into specifics, but the importance of finding or maintaining an edge in the draft has already been underscored this winter.
Major League Baseball has kept a frenetic pace this month. The Chicago Cubs have accelerated their draft-laced rebuilding and spent handsomely on pitching. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ new front office has overhauled the roster. And the San Diego Padres have, well, gone berserker. Within 48 hours last week, new Padres general manager A.J. Preller orchestrated the completion of five deals involving 25 players.
At the center of Preller’s transaction tempest was a collection of recent draft picks. Of the 14 players the Padres traded in separate deals for Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers, five were recent first-round picks. Seven of the players the Padres traded were top 30 prospects, according to Baseball America’s rankings entering the 2014 season. That’s the underlying draw of such young players: not just talent, but cost control.
The Cardinals, likewise, have dipped into their draft stock for short-term help.
Entering the 2011 season — a year that ended with a World Series championship — Baseball America’s top 10 prospects for the Cardinals included Shelby Miller (No. 1), Tyrell Jenkins (4), Allen Craig (5) and Joe Kelly (10). All four have been traded since July. Those moves, coupled with the graduation of prospects Wacha, Gonzales, Kolten Wong and Carlos Martinez to the majors, revealed a gap in the Cardinals’ depth chart. Reinforcements are needed. With the exception of a few players, like Stephen Piscotty, the next generation of standout young players is just now approaching Class AA.
The wave after that — well, that’s where the draft comes in.
“We’re in a great spot,” Correa said during a break in his appointments at the winter meetings in San Diego. “We’ve got the competitive balance pick. We’ve got an extra third-round pick. We’ve got five picks in the first three rounds. That gives us a lot of flexibility to acquire a lot of talent.”
Correa, 34, is the third Cardinals director of scouting in the previous five years. He follows Kantrovitz, who is now an assistant general manager in Oakland, and Jeff Luhnow, who is the GM in Houston.
Correa grew up in southern New Hampshire, his fondness for baseball sparked at Fenway Park, though he wasn’t a Red Sox fan. He and his father had front row seats in Fenway’s right field, where Correa became fascinated by the opposing Twins’ jovial outfielder, Kirby Puckett. He became “a Twins fan in New England.” Correa studied cognitive science at Hampshire College, received a masters in psychology from the University of Illinois and was a doctoral candidate at Michigan when he found an opening in baseball.
Correa’s first trip to St. Louis came when he was invited for lunch. Front office members took him to J. Buck’s, the Cardinals’ go-to place for interviews. Correa remembers talking to them about whether playing catcher would reduce minor-leaguer Steven Hill’s offensive potential.
“I wanted to get to know them,” he said, “and understand baseball better.”
Correa’s first role with the Cardinals was collecting data from Division I to Division III college baseball and cross-stitching that with the scouting evaluations the Cardinals had. This was part of an early system then known as STOUT that the Cardinals have since improved. As he joined the front office, officially, he worked on the team’s algorithms and expanded their evaluations.
Correa had an open invitation to watch games from the general manager’s box at Busch Stadium but instead spent “thousands of hours” in Section 150, where the scouts sit. He identified mentors in Mike Roberts and Mike Jorgensen, two venerable scouting voices in the organization. In grad school, Correa would take his textbook studies and apply them to baseball, and now in baseball he was able to utilize those “data science skills” — but with a view of player evaluation expanded and sharpened by his conversation and trips with scouts.
“I think what I learned there that helps me here is how to conduct empirical research and how to think critically about it,” Correa said. “And what that means for applying it to day-to-day decisions.”
During an interview he repeatedly calls his new position with the Cardinals "the best job in baseball" because of the executives and scouts around him.
Compared to when the Cardinals began their emphasis on the draft in 2005, baseball’s June draft has become more intricate, limiting teams’ power of the purse. There is now a spending limit on the total bonuses for players drafted in the first 10 rounds. In 2012 and 2013, the Cardinals outspent that bonus cap by 4 percent and paid a penalty. This past summer, the Cardinals failed to sign their third-round pick, reducing overall spending and falling short of the cap. They have an extra third-round pick in 2015 as a result — and the increase in their bonus purse. That may be even more valuable.
Where teams are looking for edges now in the draft is accumulating picks but also strategizing how to spend their bonus money. The Cardinals gave 34th overall pick Jack Flaherty a higher bonus ($2 million) than their first pick, Luke Weaver, and had to shape their picks around that spending. Teams will also wait to draft talent outside of the first 10 rounds where the hit on the bonus pool is less. Correa will orchestrate that strategy. Over the past few years, the Cardinals also have tried to better understand, through interviews and observation, the makeup of players who excel — how they deal with failure, what traits allow a player to thrive at a higher level. There is, of course, a psychology study aspect there, an area Correa knows well.
“Teams that have a better handle on that have an advantage,” he said.
Correa spent time during the winter meetings talking with agents to start fostering the relationships he’ll need to gauge signing bonuses this summer. He also conducted interviews for an open area scout position.
Now, people want lunch with him.
“We have to have high expectations for the draft,” Correa said. “There’s a big-leaguer in every draft round; we just have to find him. … We have more than 1,000 guys on our draft board, and I think the big thing for us is to come up with disciplined decision-making processes that are driven by lessons we’ve had in history. That way we make sure that we have the right names floating to the top of our list for each round.”