Illini grad played his Cards right

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Illini grad played his Cards right

By DAN WHOBREY
 

ST. LOUIS — One of the best seats in Busch Stadium belongs to Chris Correa, who watches Cardinals games in a private box next to general manager John Mozeliak.

Manager of baseball development for the Cardinals, Correa never imagined such a role after graduating from the University of Illinois with a master’s degree in education and psychology in 2004.

Sure, he was a baseball fan. But that was the extent of his baseball experience.

“The Cardinals had a new baseball development department and were looking for help with their draft analytics. I was in grad school at the University of Michigan at the time, and I volunteered to help. They eventually invited me to come on full time. It was a big leap. I left the doctoral program in Michigan in 2009 and moved to St. Louis.”

With the moneyball era in full swing, teams were looking for people with different backgrounds. Correa’s undergraduate degree was in cognitive science.

“I started as an analyst. My focus was on helping to prepare for the amateur drafts, but ultimately it grew to where now we are helping the major league staff, and we’re helping our player development system. We also provide analysis and decision support tools for major league transactions.”

Correa’s current title is Manager of Baseball Development. He leads the research and development group for baseball operations.

“It’s a really rewarding job because you get to help out in a lot of different areas and learn about a lot of different areas of this operation.”

While a big part of his job puts him behind a computer screen, Correa tries to get out of the office whenever he can.

“I’ve made it a point to go out into the field as often as possible. Not that I’m going to be the world’s greatest scout, but I think it’s important to understand their job and their perspective. In fact, I’ll be watching tonight’s game from the seats behind home plate with two of our scouts. I go to amateur games whenever I can. I do this to facilitate communication and to give me a better understanding of what’s going on. It’s part of that interdisciplinary mind-set.

“But in terms of preparing for a game, the coaching staff asks a lot of great questions that we try to help them with. We’ll build reports and conduct analysis and have conversations to help them understand player tendencies — and to talk about strategic issues in general.”    

Like any successful organization in a highly competitive environment, the Cardinals are reluctant to talk specifically about their formula for success. In spite of being a small-market team (based on TV households and the size of the local population), they have the second-most World Series titles in baseball behind the New York Yankees. They are among the leaders in postseason appearances also.

How do the Cards play with so many winning hands?

“It’s hard to say. We have a dedicated group of coaches throughout our minor league system, really hard-working scouts and good continuity in leadership. We have a very disciplined process in place, where we have ways of thinking about how to make decisions related to baseball, and we stick to it. Everything we do is very thoughtful — we’re not very reactionary.

“In the baseball development group, we’re in a position where we get to see how these decisions are made. Look, it sounds corny, but there’s something to the Cardinal way. There’s a lot of talk of championships and playing the game the right way. I think with the coaches and scouts we have — finding players with great make-up. It’s just sort of all working right now. It’s fun to see.”

The departure in 2011 of one of baseball’s greatest players and Cardinal icon, Albert Pujols, may be a good example of this disciplined, non-reactionary approach. Although Pujols had spent all 11 of his major league seasons in St. Louis, the organization declined to match the $254 million, 10-year offer he eventually accepted from the Los Angeles Angels.

Whatever angst Cardinals fans felt over losing Pujols was eased by another postseason run in 2012. Through savvy moves like re-signing slugger Lance Berkman and grabbing free-agent Carlos Beltran, the Cards didn’t drop the ball after all. It’s likely they even saved a few million dollars in the process.

Another way small-market teams compete is by promoting from within. The Cardinals farm system has paid dividends this year through several rookie pitchers who have been called up to fill in for ailing starters and relievers. It’s a long season, but early on the Redbirds lead their division and have maintained one of the best records in baseball.  

Speaking of baseball icons and star players, do the front-office people get to rub elbows with the guys between the lines?

“We interact with the coaching staff, but we try not to get in the way of their work with players. That’s the coaches’ domain and they do a great job. We like our guys, but we have a lot of other things to do, and the big picture is getting another (World Series) flag up there. That’s what we’ve got to keep our eye on.”

On game day, Correa and his staff keep their eye on the ball, too.

“Game day in some ways are the easiest days for us. We’re all about preparation — making sure we get the right players on the field, doing everything we can to help the minor leagues, helping the major league staff prepare, so that’s when we’re busiest — leading up to games. But when it’s time to play the game, particularly in the postseason, that’s our time to sit back and watch it play out.”

Correa grew up in the Boston area and developed a love for the game at Fenway Park with his dad. But at age 7 he decided that his favorite player was Kirby Puckett and his favorite team was the Minnesota Twins. Naturally, the rest of his family rooted for the Red Sox. At least he wasn’t a Yankees fan.

While attending the UI, Correa worked in the cognitive development lab at the Beckman Institute. Reflecting on his time in Champaign-Urbana:

“I would say that was one of the things I took away from my experience at Illinois was to appreciate looking at the world through interdisciplinary lenses, that was sort of what the Beckman Institute was all about. That’s been pretty influential in my life and even my work here. Our research group has a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds so we can approach every problem from a lot of different ways.”

For the time being, Correa is enjoying his view of the world from his reserved seat high atop Busch Stadium.

Dan Whobrey is a University of Illinois grad who lives in Savoy. He retired from State Farm in 2011. He has been a part-time photographer since the late-1970s and is a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals and Illini fan.

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