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The problem was that almost every pitcher was reaching the major leagues by virtue of his four-seam fastball. "It's really a comfortable pitch to throw, the grip feels good, the release feels good, everything about it feels good," Duncan says. But most of those offerings were no longer good enough. "The majority of the pitchers that you came across fit into the category of average velocity, 90- to 92-mile-an-hour fastballs, straight as a string. And 90- to 92-mile-an-hour fastballs that had no movement on them were basically a hitter's delight."
Duncan's genius did not lie in his realization that his pitchers should minimize, and sometimes abandon, their four-seamers for two-seamers—either a cutter, gripped slightly on the outside of the baseball, or a sinker, gripped slightly on the inside—which impart a downward movement, thereby yielding more grounders. His genius lay in his ability to persuade pitchers to try it, and to help each get the hang of it in his own way. "They gotta tinker," he says. "That's the only thing that works."
Wainwright, his career stalling, was up for tinkering. "What did I have to lose?" he says. Three seasons after he was traded to the Cardinals, Wainwright closed out the final game of the 2006 World Series against the Tigers. He did so behind a rotation that included no starter whose fastball averaged more than 92 mph and which ranked 26th in the majors in strikeouts but third in ground ball percentage.
At 31, Wainwright is now the ace and unquestioned leader of a rotation that might be better than any of its predecessors. (Through Sunday he was 5--3, with a 2.51 ERA.) In certain ways the St. Louis staff looks very much like those that came before it. Its ground ball percentage leads the league, as it has every year since 2009. That's because Wainwright and two of his rotation mates are among the top nine starters in the majors in a grounders-to-flies ratio. Wainwright gets 2.14 grounders per fly, while 26-year-old lefty Jaime Garcia (5--2 with a 3.58 ERA) is second overall at 2.79 to 1, and 35-year-old righty Jake Westbrook (2--1, 1.62) leads everyone with an average of 3.04 to 1.
In other ways, though, the Cards' rotation is something different—an evolution. It features two righthanders in MLB's top 30 in average fastball velocity: 24-year-old Lance Lynn, who can touch 95, and 22-year-old rookie Shelby Miller, who can run it up to 97. Lynn was 6--1 at week's end with a 2.88 ERA, Miller 5--2 with a 1.40, and their ability to whiff batters (Lynn and Miller were tied for 17th) has the Cardinals' staff in unusual territory: the top 10 in strikeouts.
Another difference is that Duncan is no longer coaching the group. He left, after 2011, to care for his wife, Jeanine, who has brain cancer. The Cardinals, as usual, had an in-house successor: Derek Lilliquist, a former major league pitcher who spent 10 years working his way up the organization's coaching ladder. "The philosophy hasn't changed one bit, but Dave didn't have a lot of power arms," says Lilliquist. "Why not let these guys do what they do?"
That power surge is not a matter of luck. Around 2007, when Mozeliak was promoted to G.M. after 12 years in St. Louis's front office, Duncan started lobbying for pitchers who could throw four-seam heat. Sinkerballers were fine, but he sought variety, especially as home runs started to decline and strikeouts rose (presumably because juice-squeezed hitters could no longer catch up to the high hard stuff). "In the draft we decided to emphasize not just pitchers who were throwing hard at the time, but guys we thought might throw harder in the future," says Mozeliak. The club focused on systematically evaluating prospects' mechanics (just as there is a Cardinal Way, there are Cardinal Mechanics) to identify those who not only had mid-90s potential but who could also deliver it without breaking down. Within three years the team had drafted Lynn (in '08) and Miller (in '09), and had also added Trevor Rosenthal (also in the '09 draft) and Carlos Martinez (as an international free agent in '10), the latter two of whom are throwing around 100 mph from the bullpen and are considered starters-in-waiting. There are several more elite fireballers in St. Louis's top-rated farm system (page 68), and that depth will soon be called upon: Westbrook is working his way back from the disabled list with right elbow inflamation, and Garcia landed there last Saturday with a strained left shoulder.
No one in the organization will say precisely what they looked for mechanically in such players. "Put it this way: We've analyzed it, and we've ramped up its usage in the draft over time, and we wouldn't be doing that if we didn't believe we were on to something," says Dan Kantrovitz, the scouting director. Says a slightly more revealing Mozeliak, "I'll give one: athleticism. If you look at Rosenthal—former position player. Carlos Martinez—position player. There's a theme."
The 6'3", 215-pound Miller is also a terrific athlete—he played football both ways at Brownwood (Texas) High—and when Duncan got a look at the way he threw a four-seam fastball in his first spring training, the promoter of the two-seamer delivered a simple message. "I said, 'Don't let anybody f--- you up,' " Duncan recalls. " 'If somebody wants to start making changes in what you're doing, call me.' Different guys have different abilities. But most guys don't have Shelby's."
"That's exactly how the conversation went," confirms Miller, who hasn't had to give Duncan a ring. "Nah, I don't even toy with any two-seamers."