Mad Em-Dashes is a St. Louis Cardinals blog by Dan Moore that does not want to waste your time. 

Why I keep rooting for Tommy Pham

There were years after I bought my first copy of Baseball Prospectus when I would have wished on a one-fingered monkey’s paw for the ability to run projections on everything, instantly, whenever I wanted. Having set aside the tragic and inevitable ironies that accompany all monkey’s paw usage as a matter of course, it seemed to me that real-time projections basically subsumed all other wishes.

The movie would have very little conflict but a ton of montages: The one where you walk into the casino and count cards without actually having to count cards, and become rich; the one where you see exactly how likely your significant other is to be charmed by your unpredictable (to her!) combination of flirtatious eye contact and mysteriousness, and fall in love; the one where you determine, finally, that there is a 90 percent chance the vector for the monkey’s paw’s insidious lesson will be your son who sharpens the diamond saws at the metal works, and find him a job where there is statistically zero industrial machinery for him to fall into. (At the time this was not already the plot of Limitless.)

It wasn’t just about using my powers to become rich; projections were as close as I could get to a metaphysics. I imagined the world around me as one potential outcome shuffled in among billions, the gaps impossible to cross without some kind of compass. Because I had the supreme self-confidence of the internet baseball fan circa 2003 it did not bother me very much that I was imagining a universe basically predetermined by a run of dice rolls I hadn’t been party to.

Most 18-year-old tools goofs you pick out of the middle of a draft will never make it out of the low minors. Most 20-year-olds who hit .215 with power will not outlast your self-deprecating jokes about touting them. Most 22-year-olds who suddenly show potential have not flipped a switch. Most 23-year-olds and 24-year-olds and 25-year-olds will start looking for other things to do when their own bodies tell them over and over that they are not cut out for the thing they’ve been preparing to do their whole lives. 40 games, 12 games, 75 games… PECOTA used to make a big deal of attrition rate. This was the gothic, extraordinarily complex Nate Silver version of PECOTA, held up on all sides by flying buttresses, but attrition rate just measured the likelihood of someone’s chances to play collapsing from one year to the next.

It captures injuries, but it also captures bad relationships with coaches, replacement by better or cheaper prospects, fluky playing time events. Far enough from the major leagues it has to be picking up more than that--a loss of the desire to play, or the conviction that you can get ahead, whether it’s your conviction or somebody else’s.

With a sufficiently clairvoyant projection-generator you could run live ZiPS career totals for all of us, figuring out just how many trade-offs it would take, and just how far back in our lives you’d have to go, to wedge a single game onto our baseball card. Here’s Babe Ruth if he had stayed a pitcher, or Rick Ankiel if he’d never been one; here’s Matt Harrington if he’d signed his first contract, and if he’d signed his second, and his third and fourth and fifth. You could watch the 90th-percentile projections of all the high school stars you knew flicker and zero out as they stopped growing or hurt their arms or followed their girlfriends to college or got a job somewhere in town.

Most 26-year-old September call-ups do not have long careers, but at every stage in his career a baseball player is facing the most certain projection of all, that eventually he will play zero games and figure in no pennant races.

I can’t disprove the world I imagined when I was 17—where all of us are governed by probability, and it’s best that we all accept it and will our favorite organizations to become more efficient—which I guess is the point. When you are a supremely confident teenager, if you’re lucky, you get some idea of how the world really does work, and you root for progress to take hold and install you in your rightful place among the elect who have also read the right books. Sometime after that, if you are lucky, you fail convincingly enough to realize that you are the fat, not the lean cut of meat you kept yelling at general managers to finish trimming.

We are in the world where Tommy Pham will eventually be forced out of the major leagues like all of us were, whether we were a minute old or 13 or 31. Between now and then we have a reasonably good idea of what will happen, but I think we also have an obligation to enjoy what happens in the moment—to be generous with our attention because the world conjured up by all the money and information there is in professional baseball will not be generous with much else. When I root for Tommy Pham it’s just because he’s a person who’s capable of surprising me, and himself—who has to alternately fight against and accept certainty like the rest of us.

What part of Kolten Wong's future is Mike Matheny's job?

Mike Moustakas is a black box that was 11-31 with three doubles and a home run in AAA Omaha last month. Before that he was a Greek statue of a third baseman turning to dust in the back room of a Victorian museum, and before that he was a teenage prospect with no time between minor disappointment and major breakout season. On May 20 he was hitting .152/.223/.320. On June 1 he was called back up; he's doubled twice since then.

He is not the Royals' first round-trip visitor to Omaha. Alex Gordon did the same thing, and Zack Greinke before that. Gordon and Greinke slipped through mediocrity into catastrophe, whiled away a couple of months as the best player on their team, and came back changed players.

Kolten Wong had played 52 regular-season games and hit .192/.239/.223 when he was sent down. That's really bad, but it's split across two seasons and a million sudden shifts in role. In AAA he hit .344 in 15 games. Since then he's hit .327 in 14 games.

Kolten Wong hit .258 on balls in play in April and he hit .381 on balls in play in May. If you think of him as a guy who's basically always going to hit like a Kolten Wong projection the 15 games in which he beat up the Pacific Coast League are a waste of two unusually good weeks.

It's both a credit to and an indictment of the Royals that they were able to recoup their investment in two prospects on the edge, having first drafted and put them there.

The Cardinals have been far more proactive with their prospects. They move fast through the minor leagues, but they're integrated slowly into major league roles—so slowly that a guy like Jon Jay or Allen Craig can go through multiple role changes, and fall in and out of favor multiple times, before he's a full-time starter at the position we know him for.

Kolten Wong has struggled to escape the shadow of Matt Carpenter and Mark Ellis, and that's the Cardinals' MO. An explicitly temporary minor league demotion is more unusual, mostly because the Cardinals don't need it—either a player like Matt Adams is on a temporary injury-replacement assignment or he's working in a role that involves time off as a matter of course.

He thinks the stint might have helped

"They just kinda told me that they saw things in my swing that it was getting too long," Wong said. "And before it got too bad or too late, they wanted to send me to a less stressful environment to work on it. I took it as an opportunity to work on my approach. ... I could feel it getting a little big, too. That's not the player I am, so when it gets that way, it's in my best interest for me to do whatever I can to turn it around."

"I feel like I'm around there again," he said. "I think my swing's back. My confidence is definitely back. Now I just want to get back up and take the confidence that I've developed from here and use it there."

Of course it's not in his best interest to tell an MLB.com contributor that he's going to hit .450 until even his halfwit boss gets it into his stupid head what a stupid idea it was to demote him. But I've had jobs before, too, and slumps, and backing up to a place where I can succeed without confronting the same existential threats every day has helped me sometimes.

That is, I think it's possible that something like this could help Kolten Wong or Mike Moustakas. I think it's much more likely to help Moustakas, who has failed for years now, than it is Wong, but my immediate reaction to Kolten Wong's demotion conflated those two questions in a way that probably wasn't helpful.

I've been reading a lot of old Bill James lately—the Managers book and a random Baseball Abstract from a used bookstore—and what's really struck me about it is how he's willing to take as read the thing traditional sportswriters most often accused him of forgetting: The idea that baseball players are human beings who must sometimes be taught and coerced and tricked into playing above or below or just toward their statistical projection.

Sometimes you give Rick Ankiel three months to be the best player in the history of the Appalachian League and he still can't pitch at the end of it; sometimes you give Alex Gordon a chance to work on some things and he does.

Why are we so worked up all the time about Mike Matheny? I don't think it's just because we often think he's bad at his job—it's because we can't separate from that our lingering doubt about whether his job is important at all.

Now that Kolten Wong is the Rookie of the Month, and safely ensconced on the major league roster, I can separate those two thoughts more easily. I think Matheny's job is important, and I also think that Kolten Wong is not Mike Moustakas.

Oscar Taveras, Number 18, and the Greatest Cardinals of All Time

The Cardinals have had a great broadcaster wear number 18, but no great players. 18 was Andy Van Slyke, until he was traded; Keith Hernandez, but only for a couple of years; Luis Alicea, of all people.

It's a Hall of Famer, Dazzy Vance, but only for 150 innings after his 42nd birthday, when he'd finally broken down. It was David Green, of all the ill omens, but only after he'd been packaged up in the Jack Clark trade and exiled to Japan.

18 is a blank slate. It's adjacent to a retired number, Dizzy Dean, and right by Jim Edmonds and Ray Lankford, who just as well could be, but there's not a lot of interference at 18 itself.

I've been kicking around a list of the 100 Greatest Cardinals Of All Time forever, and the first thing you learn when you set out to make a list like that is that there are not really 100 Great Cardinals, not even Of All Time. Guys get traded too soon, or something about their reputation is caught up on the weird, jagged edges of baseball in their own time, and pretty soon you're trying to figure out what anybody ever saw in Ken Reitz, if you're me, or Roy Washburn, if you're my mom, or Jason Isringhausen, if you were born after I started writing about the Cardinals on the internet.

I hope Oscar Taveras's cartoonish home run swing will happen often enough, over the next decade, that he'll be the last guy who ever wears it. Failing that, I hope it'll make it so that every time an Orlando Palmeiro or Chris Duncan or Ivan Cruz or even Kolten Wong wears it, we'll feel like something is a little off.

One step at a time—four plate appearances in a game, 162 games in a season, and so on. Right now I'm hoping he'll chase down Luis Alicea.

With apologies to CardNilly.

Name Years G H
Mike Shannon 1963-1970 872 708
Del Rice 1946-1954 954 690
Andy Van Slyke 1983-1986 521 392
Luis Alicea 1988-1994 437 299
Hal Smith 1956-1958 252 207
Joe Orengo 1940-1940 129 119
Lon Warneke 1937-1942 183 91
Gene Tenace 1981-1982 124 62
Keith Hernandez 1974-1975 78 57
George Crowe 1959-1961 157 49
Nelson Burbrink 1955-1955 58 47
Bill Walker 1934-1936 84 18
Skip Jutze 1972-1972 21 17
Red Munger 1943-1944 53 11
Leo Burke 1963-1963 30 10
Jim Mallory 1945-1945 13 10
Tex Carleton 1933-1933 44 9
David Green 1987-1987 14 8
Dazzy Vance 1933-1933 28 5
John Antonelli 1944-1944 8 4
Si Johnson 1936-1936 12 4
Craig Anderson 1961-1961 25 3
Chris Sabo 1995-1995 5 2
Manuel Lee 1995-1995 1 1
Bobby Fenwick 1973-1973 5 1
Oscar Taveras 2014-2014 1 1

Shelby Miller and a Healthy Suspicion of Young Pitchers

Shelby Miller's strikeout-to-walk ratio is half what it was last year, and it's beset by decline from both sides; he leads the National League in walks, and his strikeout rate is well back of Kyle Lohse's. If you squint at the numbers it's a little like the way he pitched last September.

And-but his velocity is pretty steady. He's throwing a cutter, according to PitchF/X, that he started leaning on right as his command declined. He's two years removed from that weird season in Memphis where he started the year the Cardinals' top prospect, ended it in St. Louis, and spent most of the middle getting beaten up and down the Pacific Coast League.

This is the year of injured pitchers, and anything Shelby Miller does for the rest of the year is going to slip naturally into the groove Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey are digging. Our friend Chris O'Leary already has a page up listing Miller as a likely victim of what he calls the Elbow Injury Epidemic.

And all of that is a possibility. I'm not going to bet against a 23-year-old pitcher eventually suffering elbow and shoulder injuries. Pretty soon suspicion is going to be our default disposition toward young pitchers.

And the weird thing is that there's going to be nothing new at all about that. Baseball fans are born to be suspicious of young pitchers. In 1888 Silver King, at 20 years old, won 45 games; in 1893, at 25, he was finished. In 1934, 24-year-old Dizzy Dean won 30 games; when he was 30 he won the last three games the Dean brothers would ever win.

In 1964 Ernie Broglio, 28, was the broken-down old pitcher the Cardinals traded for Lou Brock. In 2004 Rick Ankiel, 24, made his last comeback as a pitcher. In 2013 Shelby Miller pitched extremely well, and maybe he doesn't know how to do it consistently or maybe he just hurt himself.

Statistics have finally told us what makes a great pitcher great, and we can watch their strikeout-to-walk ratios and know in the moment whether they're going to stay great or not, whether they've earned it. Advances in medicine tell us a dead arm can be revives, and put names on off years that used to be outlined in mist and greeted with pained shrugs.

But we're never going to know enough to stop being surprised. Shelby Miller is a young pitcher, like Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey. The historical anomaly we're dealing with is the end of a moment when we weren't suspicious enough.

Mike Matheny, managers, and the problem with Daniel Descalso

I've been reading The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers this week—it's $6 on Kindle after 15 years or so out of print—and because it's less about evaluating managers or players than observing them the refrain he returns to over and over, across 150 years of baseball history, is that great managers don't just have a type of player in mind—they have an understanding of those types that is nuanced enough to get the best performance possible out of them.

It's stronger before the front-office era, when managers were responsible for the scouting, composition, and discipline of their entire roster, but the book picks up a throughline that connects Connie Mack and John McGraw's comprehensive player development philosophies and contemporary managers' preference for certain kinds of players and bench structures.

Daniel Descalso has played most of his defensive innings over the last two years at shortstop. This year Daniel Descalso has taken 19 of his 50 plate appearances in high-leverage situations—17 with the game late and close, 14 as a pinch hitter. Yesterday he batted in the bottom of the 12th inning, as the final piece in a comprehensive double-switching regimen that made the Cardinals worse on offense and defense and allowed no single pitcher to go more than one inning.

I think sometimes it's too easy to look at the omnibus stats, WAR etc., and determine that Mike Matheny is foolish for keeping somebody like Daniel Descalso on the roster, but in this case it's too easy because defaulting to overall value is not hard enough on what Mike Matheny is doing.

Mike Matheny, like Tony La Russa, like Connie Mack, like Harry Wright, will have his guys. Every time he'll take a utility infielder who looks like he's working hard over a talented malingerer or an unproven rookie. That isn't the problem. The problem is that over and over this year he has set his guys up to fail.

Thinking hard about Mike Crudale

Did you guys read CardNilly? If you did—or if you didn't, and you're yearning this afternoon for the internet epoch just before the Age of Content—you'll be as happy as I am to know that the bulk of it appears to be available on Archive.org. Here's No. 54, from Scott's long series on jersey numbers:

Ah, #54… Pound for pound, this is probably the worst uniform number we’ve got out there. I mean, there are some individual stinkers out there (Chad Hutchinson — I’m looking at you here…), but this is a whole collection of guys who just weren’t all that good.... We’re left with Mike Crudale — more or less by default, but his numbers support the pick, too.

As a Cardinal, he threw 64 IP with a 1.97 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP. Useful stuff, particularly back in 2002 and 2003, when most of the bullpen could be kindly described as horrific. Why, then, did Walt & Co trade Crudale in the middle of the 2003 season, one which would feature extended appearances by Esteban Yan and Pedro Borbon Jr. in the Cardinal pen?

I don't know what it was about my Saturday night that reminded me of a long-gone Cardinals blog, but I'm glad it worked out that way.

One of the sad side-effects of the incentives search and social media aim at blogs right now is that everybody is talking about the same thing as everybody else. You basically have to; what people are looking for drives Google traffic, and what people are talking about drives Facebook traffic, and that's basically all the traffic there is. (See also MetaFilter.)

The first wave of blogs sprang up to talk about things people weren't talking about. As a form it's actually pretty terrible at generating on-demand thinkpieces about trending topics, which is why the blogs that are best at monetizing Google and Facebook and Twitter have had a series of discreet cosmetic surgeries to remove all the reverse-chronological crows' feet around their bylines.

Which is why it's such a pleasure to read these old blog posts, and sites like RetroSimba that appear to be transmitting out of a wormhole connecting us to 2007. Even now there's few things the format is better at than forcing yourself to think hard about Mike Crudale.

Kevin Siegrist is an injured pitcher

Sam Freeman is probably a pretty good reliever at this point. He's old for a guy who hasn't made his name in the major leagues yet, but he came by it honestly—he was also old for an injured reliever who was spending a full year in AA Springfield three years ago. In parts of three years in Memphis he's struck out a batter an inning and kept his home run and walk rates down for a well-below-the-league-average ERA of 2.84. Kevin Siegrist is probably the young arm the Cardinals can best afford to lose to a possibly-but-not-definitely euphemistic forearm strain.

The thing that's harder to afford, as a baseball fan, is the sense that getting excited about a young pitcher is just the first part of a story that always involves a year in the wilderness and a flinching unease every time you watch him throw that bewildering slider.

Until better evidence contradicts it, I'm willing to believe that a lot of what looks like an epidemic is in fact a combination of teams taking better advantage of young pitchers who are ready to dominate in the major leagues and being more observant of signs that those young pitchers are wearing out in front of them. If Anthony Reyes were the Cardinals' top prospect now—not even 10 years later—he wouldn't grit his teeth and throw a sub-90 fastball for two years before someone suggested the problem was in his shoulder, and not his head.

The more we know about sports injuries the better the game gets—for us and the players and their families and all the kids who really just want to learn a curveball or put on a big helmet and go full-contact. And the more obvious it becomes that being totally oblivious about these things, in addition to causing all kinds of avoidable, sad disasters, was some part of what made sports so fun to watch.

When you find yourself thinking hard about Joey Butler

Joey Butler is moving to Japan to play with the Orix Buffaloes, and I am happy for him. Osaka is a really cool city, and Brandon Dickson, who's 4-3 with an ERA of 2.47 this year, could use the run support.

I'm happy I'm happy for him, too. Because Joey Butler is a warning sign—Joey Butler is the player you become interested in when your team's farm system has nothing else for you to be excited about.

A tweener outfielder who strikes out too much with a career AAA line well above the PCL average—.304/.397/.472—is the kind of player whose Ken Phelps All-Star hum is only audible above the white noise of Juan Encarnacion swinging through a hundred curveballs.

It's John Gall, basically. And if you find yourself getting excited about John Gall, like we used to, it might be time to powercycle your general manager.

Why treating Trevor Rosenthal like he's Ryan Franklin could be a bad idea

Tony La Russa overused his fair share of relievers. It's weird to say so, since his most lasting fame will come from carving every pitching role into tiny slices, but if you look at the Cardinals who've made the most relief appearances since 1996 you'll find a lot of weird seasons to half-remember from his tenure.

Early on you'll find a ton of long relievers, a role modern bullpens have largely La Russa'd out of existence—Manny Aybar threw 97 innings in 65 games, Mark Petkovsek 96 in 55, John Frascatore 95 in 69, all before 2000. In the middle years you'll see Steve Kline and Ray King.

All the way through you'll see guys getting leaned on like the Cardinals are leaning on Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez now. Here's every righty between 2000 and 2011 who threw at least 65 games for the Cardinals, organized by batters faced. I apologize for jarring all your Gene Stechschulte memories loose.

Player G Year Age G SV IP H R ER BB SO ERA BF
1 Ryan Franklin 74 2008 35 74 17 78.2 86 34 31 30 51 3.55 346
2 Dave Veres 71 2002 35 71 4 82.2 67 34 32 39 68 3.48 346
3 Kyle McClellan 68 2008 24 68 1 75.2 79 37 34 26 59 4.04 327
4 Ryan Franklin 69 2007 34 69 1 80 70 28 27 11 44 3.04 317
5 Dave Veres 71 2000 33 71 29 75.2 65 26 24 25 67 2.85 310
6 Izzy 74 2004 31 74 47 75.1 55 27 24 23 71 2.87 308
7 B. Looper 69 2006 31 69 0 73.1 76 30 29 20 41 3.56 308
8 Kyle McClellan 68 2010 26 68 2 75.1 58 20 19 23 60 2.27 307
9 Mike Timlin 67 2001 35 67 3 72.2 78 35 33 19 47 4.09 307
10 Stechschulte 67 2001 27 67 6 70 71 35 30 30 51 3.86 301
11 F. Salas 68 2011 26 68 24 75 50 20 19 21 75 2.28 295
12 Kyle McClellan 66 2009 25 66 3 66.2 56 27 25 34 51 3.38 288
13 Dave Veres 71 2001 34 71 15 65.2 57 29 27 28 61 3.7 279
14 Julian Tavarez 74 2005 32 74 4 65.2 68 28 25 19 47 3.43 278
15 Jason Motte 78 2011 29 78 9 68 49 22 17 16 63 2.25 268
16 Julian Tavarez 77 2004 31 77 4 64.1 57 21 17 19 48 2.38 268
17 Russ Springer 76 2007 38 76 0 66 41 18 16 19 66 2.18 257
18 Jason Motte 69 2009 27 69 0 56.2 57 32 30 23 54 4.76 244
19 Al Reyes 65 2005 34 65 3 62.2 38 15 15 20 67 2.15 244
20 Russ Springer 70 2008 39 70 0 50.1 39 14 13 18 45 2.32 205

Now here's the Mike Matheny list, organized by batters faced.

Player GR Year Age G SV IP H R ER BB SO ERA BF
1 T. Rosenthal 74 2013 23 74 3 75.1 63 25 22 20 108 2.63 311
2 Mitchell Boggs 78 2012 28 78 0 73.1 56 20 18 21 58 2.21 296
3 Jason Motte 67 2012 30 67 42 72 49 23 22 17 86 2.75 279
4 F. Salas 65 2012 27 65 0 58.2 56 28 28 27 60 4.3 256
5 Edward Mujica 65 2013 29 65 37 64.2 60 20 20 5 46 2.78 255
6 Seth Maness 66 2013 24 66 1 62 65 17 16 13 35 2.32 249

Now here's the difference:

Mike Matheny plays favorites. In two full years as manager Matheny has qualified six players for this chart; La Russa had 20 in 12. This year Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal, and Pat Neshek (and Kevin Siegrist, from the left side) are on pace to qualify. #Mubogmot isn't just a great piece of Photoshop work, it's a usage pattern.

Tony La Russa loved old guys. It verges a little too much on the Gladwellian to laud Tony La Russa for his unwavering loyalty to baby boomers after 15 years of rolling our eyes at it, but look at that Tony La Russa list—Kyle McClellan, may he rest in peace, is the only guy on it under 25.

Ryan Franklin, Dave Veres, Braden Looper, Jason Isringhausen—in exchange for a steady job a year or two after they deserved to have one, Tony La Russa worked his aging relief pitchers like Boxer the Horse.

Trevor Rosenthal is on pace to throw 77 innings this year, and if he doesn't bring his walk rate down he's on pace to face 337 batters while doing it. For Carlos Martinez, who is 22 years old, those numbers are 85 and 348.

This isn't about portraying Tony La Russa as an enlightened young-arm conservationist; whether by luck or design he rarely had the chance to ruin a young arm, so it's hard to say what would have happened if Jimmy Journell or Blake Hawksworth had reached the major leagues with his faculties intact. Things hardly turned out well for Kyle McClellan.

This is what it's about: Mike Matheny has found himself in a terrible situation, one where his third most-dependable right-handed reliever is Pat Neshek and his fourth is nobody knows. And he's dealt with it by using Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez like they're Ryan Franklin.

Tony La Russa was a major league manager for 19 years before he showed up in St. Louis, and I'm sure he had learned a lot of hard lessons by then. I hope Mike Matheny learns fast.

David Aardsma’s brief stint as David Aardsma

I've been in Japan for the last week or so, singing Hall and Oates and anime theme songs at karaoke with my coworkers, so I missed the brunt of what was undoubtedly a media hurricane after the Cardinals signed David Aardsma to be the last-guy-in-the-bullpen-maybe. But the only thing that really struck me after I finally got home was just how briefly he was David Aardsma in the first place.

It's hard to think of a more perfectly condensed relief career than the one he's had so far: Four years as an unsuccessful, intermittently tantalizing prospect, one year as a relief ace, one more year as a faltering relief ace, and then three years in the wilderness.

See also: Fernando Salas.