Young Cards pitchers tap into wealth of experience
Miller, Rosenthal, Kelly take initiative to glean knowledge from successful veterans
JUPITER, Fla. -- Adam Wainwright now jokes about his tactics, which he's still not sure Chris Carpenter caught on to at the time.
About how he'd trail the right-hander, one six years his elder, when Carpenter was unaware he had a shadow. Or how he'd peer over to see how Carpenter was analyzing video. Or how he would use the safe setting provided by a golf course to pry into Carpenter's bank of baseball knowledge.
Every move was intentional. Each question was pointed. For as Wainwright describes it now: "If you see something in somebody that is better than what you do, you should try to see why they're better than you… and see if it works for yourself."
This idea of young learning from old is one that Wainwright still embraces, even if his placement in the continuum of it has shifted. He's excited, too, to see young pupils that remind him of himself, willing young pitchers who realize the resources available to them in the Cardinals clubhouse. Three, in particular, have tapped in.
Through Wainwright, Shelby Miller has found guidance. From Carpenter, Trevor Rosenthal has developed new habits. Even the now-departed Kyle Lohse leaves a legacy. Joe Kelly carries it.
As the three developing right-handers compete for the same Major League rotation spot this spring, they do so having been molded through their deliberate attempts to attach themselves to someone who has already ascended to a place where they want to be.
"That's not always the case, but with this team you can see the willingness," veteran starter Jake Westbrook said. "They respect the game. They see that this game is not easy and there are a lot of things they have to learn. It's refreshing not to have to fight through egos. They get it. They have the confidence and know that they are talented players, but they also have a willingness to get better."
The only information that Wainwright could draw conclusions from was that which he could glean from box scores. It was July, and Miller, who had been struggling for months, had just been knocked around in another abbreviated start.
The numbers Wainwright read gave a partial picture, but he wasn't interested in making suppositions about the rest. He wanted Miller to tell him the why.
"Here is a guy who is supposed to be a big part of your club who is not performing like he should," Wainwright said. "I wanted to pick his brain and see where he was at. If you think you're really great at something and the results say otherwise, maybe you need to make an adjustment."
Miller was resistant, at first, to tell too much, perhaps fearful that such honesty would reveal himself as vulnerable. He had never been at such a crossroads before.
"I thought I could do it on my own," Miller said. "I thought I was the best that ever pitched. And I thought that I was going to learn from myself on how to get better."
But Wainwright persisted, sending Miller texts after each start. He'd ask the former first-round Draft pick what went right that night. He'd ask him to detail what didn't and to pinpoint why.
Miller tried the exercise. Then he found value in it.
"We finally got more rights than wrongs, and stuff started happening," Miller said. "Games started going better."
Beginning with his seven-inning start on July 30, Miller closed out the Triple-A season with a 2.84 ERA over a seven-start span. He averaged 6 1/3 innings per start. He was rewarded with an unanticipated callup to St. Louis in September, where Miller joined the bullpen.
Given the opportunity to start on the final day of the regular season, Miller tossed six shutout innings against the Reds. Then, about three months since feeling lost in the Minors, Miller made the Cardinals' postseason roster.
"It was definitely, in the Minor Leagues, the most eye-opening experience I've ever experienced," Miller said. "I've never struggled like that before. I was getting it handed to me. I was probably one of the most stubborn guys that I had ever been around. I'm sure the guys probably weren't comfortable around me in the clubhouse.
"I just wasn't a happy person. I blame myself for that because I didn't want to learn. I just thought, 'I'm doing the same thing I've always done, it's eventually going to turn around,' and it didn't."
Miller's willingness to give listening a try helped save his 2012 season, and it has him on the cusp of making his stay in the Majors more permanent. Considered the Cardinals' top pitching prospect for the last several years -- ranked by MLB.com as the club's No. 2 prospect overall -- Miller, 22, arrived to compete for a big league rotation spot with a healthy dose of humility that he no longer sees as weakness.
"I think it's just that maturity process," manager Mike Matheny said. "Part of it is you learn through mistakes, I believe. But he's been extremely receptive, going about everything the right way [this spring]. He's taken a step forward."
Rosenthal, ranked as the Cardinals' No. 5 prospect, doesn't deny that there was very much an intimidation factor in play at first. Actually, he jokes, there kind of still is. It's hard to fault the 22-year-old kid for that, given that Rosenthal had been watching Carpenter pitch since he was in elementary school.
But with Carpenter's career in flux, it could well turn out that his last significant contribution as a Cardinals pitcher came in a mostly empty Busch Stadium during the offseason. There, shortly after getting his children off to school, Carpenter would arrive to meet Rosenthal for daily workouts.
The resources available in St. Louis had prompted Rosenthal to consider staying for the winter. Plans were firmed up, then, when Westbrook agreed to let Rosenthal stay in his home. An invitation to work with Carpenter came next, and Rosenthal jumped on it.
"When you look back at the career that he's had and see how hard he's still working, if you can't respect that and have it motivate you, then you're not in the right spot," Rosenthal said. "In the weight room, he was pushing himself. He was pushing me. I feel like I couldn't have had a better workout partner in that regard. Even when I was exhausted, he was making sure that I was pushing myself to the limit."
The two would continue their work until mid-afternoon. The only day they took off each week was Sunday.
"I know at some point my stuff is going to come to an end," Carpenter said last month, before recurring nerve problems shut him down indefinitely. "But to be able to know that you've had an impact and have seen some of these kids develop into what they're going to be to continue that process to what a St. Louis Cardinal is supposed to be is exciting."
Carpenter first took notice of Rosenthal last spring, when Rosenthal was a relative unknown in big league camp. That didn't stop Carpenter from investing in the young right-hander, who still talks about the impact of seeing the veteran starter observing his side sessions.
Afterward, Carpenter would dissect what he saw. Rosenthal absorbed the information, let it simmer and then applied it as best he could. The pointers kept coming when Rosenthal jumped from Double-A to the Majors in midsummer.
"If anybody is going to tell you how to do it the right way, it's going to be coming from him," Rosenthal said. "He's done it the right way for so long."
Rosenthal's biggest takeaway in it all?
"The most influential thing that I was able to get out of him was just the mentality that he takes out there," Rosenthal said. "He's really taken a huge responsibility and taken the team on his back. That win or loss on every fifth day, that means the world to him. He's going to give it everything he has. I think as a starter, that's the best mentality that you can have."
Initially, the connection was built largely out of convenience. Called up to take Jaime Garcia's rotation spot in early June, Kelly found himself plugged into the rotation right behind Lohse. Knowing he'd be facing the same offense the following day, Kelly had incentive to watch how Lohse went about dissecting the opponent. And when Lohse wrapped up his start, he'd spill perspective.
Lohse would point out who he pitched around in certain situations. He would tell Kelly which right-handers had the toughest time handling his changeup, a pitch that Kelly likes to throw in similar spots. Lohse would encourage Kelly not to be afraid to start an at-bat off with a low fastball over the plate.
After Lohse laid out his game plan, Kelly picked the parts that fit with his strengths.
"He was the first one to start teaching me stuff, and I asked him questions because he was open about it," Kelly said. "Throughout the year, we would talk and I would try to learn everything I could about how he went about his business. We are totally two different pitchers, but I was trying to learn to pitch like him. Even with my stuff, I thought it would be a good example to follow."
The mentorship grew out of friendship for a pair of laid-back Californians who had gotten to know each other previously on the Florida golf courses during Spring Training. With Lohse, there was no intimidating façade. Rather, Kelly found him to be engaging and witty, cool and confident, traits that could just as easily describe Kelly.
With respect already established, Lohse became an ideal mentor for Kelly, who turned the spot start opportunity in June into a multiple-month stay in St. Louis. Kelly became so valuable for the Cardinals that they transitioned him into the bullpen, not back to the Minors, when circumstances pushed Kelly from the rotation.
Lohse was a stable sounding board through it all.
"It was really good help I got from him," Kelly said. "I didn't go out there and start opening my mouth and being loud. I was quiet and picked my spots in one-on-one situations. I tried to go about it the right way."
The relationship wasn't all one-sided either, as Kelly actually reciprocated in the one way he could. Under Kelly's guidance, Lohse's fantasy football team advanced to the league playoffs this winter. A year before, Lohse had finished last in the clubhouse competition.
Fantasy football gave the two an excuse to stay in touch over the winter. Kelly said he will find other reasons to text his former teammate in the future, too. Lohse may have departed St. Louis, but he didn't disappear.
"He's definitely going to be missed by our team and me," Kelly said. "I would like to mimic myself after him."