For the first time since 2009, the St. Louis Cardinals aren't heading to the postseason as a mere wild-card team.
The Cardinals have pulled off quite the accomplishment in winning the division. The NL Central is the only division in baseball with three 90-win teams. In the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds, the Cardinals outpaced two very good teams. Not a bad way to start a run to the World Series.
And after taking a look at the particulars, I've reached the following conclusion: If the 2006 Cardinals and 2011 Cardinals could win it all, then the 2013 Cardinals definitely can.
In the interest of due diligence, what we're going to do is compare this year's Cardinals to the '06 and '11 championship teams in four key areas: starting pitching, relief pitching, offense and defense. Without giving too much away, let's just say that this year's team stacks up pretty well.
Note: All the statistics ahead are current only through the completion of Thursday's action.
Good starting pitching, as you might have noticed, has been a key part of the Cardinals' success this season.
There have been several moving parts in Mike Matheny's rotation throughout the year, and the core group he's using now is notably inexperienced and hasn't racked up high pitch counts or eating innings. But hey, a 3.46 ERA is a 3.46 ERA. Per FanGraphs, only the Reds and Los Angeles Dodgers have gotten a lower ERA from their starters.
Things are already looking good here, but we can make them look better.
Do you guys remember what the '06 Cardinals rolled into the postseason with in their starting rotation? If not, take a look at the table below. With data courtesy of FanGraphs, let's take a moment to revel in the mediocrity:
Note: FIP is Fielding Independent Pitching, which effectively takes defense out of the equation to evaluate pitchers based more on their talent than their luck.
Chris Carpenter: good. Jeff Suppan: decent enough. Anthony Reyes and Jeff Weaver: yeesh.
Yes, things ended up working out in the end. But this table serves as a reminder of one of the reasons the '06 Cardinals, an 83-win team in the regular season, seemed doomed heading into the playoffs. Good starting pitching is of utmost importance in October when the series are short and teams shy away from their worst starters, and the Cardinals only had one really good pitcher to roll out.
The 2011 Cardinals, by comparison, were in better shape. Here's more data courtesy of FanGraphs:
Better. Much better.
Once again, Carpenter was his typical steady self, and I'm sure you recall him pitching like a stud at the end of the regular season (1.13 ERA in his last five starts) and in the postseason as well. Jaime Garcia and Kyle Lohse, meanwhile, were perfectly serviceable starters, and Edwin Jackson gave the Cards a boost after he was acquired in a midseason trade.
However, you might also recall Lohse and Jackson struggling in the 2011 postseason. That's always a danger with guys who can't miss bats, and that was an issue that plagued both of them in the regular season.
This serves as a nice segue into a look at the 2013 Cardinals, with more data courtesy of FanGraphs:
Simple math: the combined WAR of the top three guys here is higher than that of the top three of the 2006 Cardinals or 2011 Cardinals. That has as much to do with the fact that Adam Wainwright has had a downright brilliant season, but hats must be tipped to Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller for the seasons they've had.
And collectively, this bunch has been quite good at missing bats. Wainwright, Lynn, Miller and Michael Wacha all strike out more batters than the average starting pitcher. Joe Kelly doesn't, but he gets enough ground balls to make up for it. His ground-ball percentage is easily over 50.
If it's a choice between the three rotations, give me the 2013 Cardinals any day. The 2011 Cardinals had starting pitching that was none too shabby, and the experience their starters had must be noted. But this year's Cardinals are deeper in the starting pitching department, and their collective ability to overpower hitters is something that could definitely come in handy in October.
Now then, how about the arms in the bullpen?
Both the 2006 Cardinals and the 2011 Cardinals offer fine testaments in favor of the notion that you can find a good closer anywhere at any time.
The '06 Cardinals, after all, didn't stumble upon Wainwright's impressive ability to close games until late in the season after Jason Isringhausen was lost to hip surgery. Likewise, the '11 Cardinals didn't make Jason Motte their closer until late in the season, and even then it wasn't really official that he was the guy.
Wouldn't you know it, the Cardinals are in the middle of more closer uncertainty late in the season this year. Edward Mujica has handled closing duties for the bulk of the season, but Trevor Rosenthal has seen action in the ninth inning recently as Mujica has gotten a break.
Either way, the Cardinals are poised to head into October with a closer at least as good as the ones they had in 2006 and 2011. Behold another table:
The season Rosenthal has had is the best among the four pictured here as far as WAR and FIP are concerned, and those are honors that one indeed earns when one strikes out over 30 percent of the batters he faces while maintaining a strong walk rate.
As for Mujica, ERA does him a favor. But FIP and WAR label him the worst of the bunch here. He's showed off outstanding control, yes, but strikeouts are good and that's not a department Mujica has excelled in.
He has excelled in WPA, however. That's Win Probability Added, and it's a stat that measures how players impact their team's win expectancy. In addition to blowing Wainwright, Motte and Rosenthal out of the water in that department here, Mujica has also been among the elites as far as all 2013 relievers go. Per FanGraphs, only 10 relievers have him beat in WPA.
So whether they move forward with Mujica or Rosenthal as their postseason closer, the Cardinals are going to be in terrific shape. Perhaps not in better shape than the '06 Cardinals or '11 Cardinals given how well Wainwright and Motte performed in the postseason, but certainly just as good.
All three bullpens were/are middle of the road in terms of ERA. But FIP and WAR both favor the 2013 Cardinals pen. In its favor goes the nod.
So make it two points so far for the 2013 Cardinals over the two championship clubs. On to offense now.
It's getting hard to remember a time when the Cardinals weren't a strong offensive ballclub. They've been that way for ages, and nothing has changed this year. They've scored more runs than any other National League club.
There's not much separation between the three clubs in batting average, but the 2013 Cardinals are beat in both on-base percentage and ISO—that being Isolated Power, a slugging percentage that ignores singles. And yeah, being inferior at getting on base and hitting for power is generally not a good place to be.
But then there's wRC+. That's Weighted Runs Created Plus, and it does the 2013 Cardinals a favor by rating them ahead of the '06 Cardinals and reasonably close to the '11 Cardinals.
This is important, because wRC+ is a stat that quantifies things relative to league average. Anything over 100 is above average. It's best used for individual players rather than whole teams, granted, but in this case it reflects the depth of the 2013 club's offense.
The 2006 Cardinals were notably better at getting on base and hitting for power than the 2013 Cardinals, but they did so in a day and age when getting on base and hitting for power was a lot easier than it is today. And while the '06 Cardinals had Albert Pujols at the height of his power, only he and Chris Duncan logged over 200 plate appearances and posted a wRC+ over 130 in Cardinals uniforms.
The 2011 Cardinals, meanwhile, had four such players: Pujols, Allen Craig, Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday. Their offense was notably deeper.
As for the 2013 Cardinals, they have six such players: Craig, Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina, Matt Adams and (the extraordinary) Matt Carpenter. The depth of this offense is indeed noteworthy.
The picture doesn't change that much if we remove Craig from the equation, as well we should given that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Rick Hummel has reported that his status for the postseason is still in limbo with a foot injury. St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak told Hummel, “The way I’m always more comfortable dealing with players is when they’re cleared to go do baseball-related activities. He hasn’t been cleared for that yet.”
The Cards still have five 130 wRC+ guys even without him, and Adams is an ideal fill-in for Craig at first base. He's not the hitter Craig is, but he's unquestionably a superior source of power.
I'm not sure I would take the 2013 offense over the 2011 offense, which was well-stocked with middle-of-the-order hitters. But the 2013 offense is superior to the 2006 offense, and its depth makes it a good match for the 2011 offense.
So yeah, things are still looking good. Let's wrap this up by turning our gaze to the field.
The 2013 Cardinals have pitching and hitting, which is good enough. A team can go far in October with such things.
But good defense? That's a bonus, and it can make a difference. Especially if a defense is strong in the right areas.
This being baseball we're talking about, "in the right areas" means up the middle of the field at catcher, shortstop, second base and center field. That's where we're going to focus our attention for a defensive comparison of the 2013 Cardinals to the 2006 and 2011 clubs.
What I did was take a look at the primary players who were manning the up-the-middle positions for the three clubs heading into the postseason. That means the following players for each team:
- 2006: Yadier Molina, David Eckstein, Ronnie Belliard, Jim Edmonds
- 2011: Molina, Rafael Furcal, Ryan Theriot/Skip Schumaker, Jon Jay
- 2013: Molina, Pete Kozma, Carpenter, Jay
Next, I went and looked up how each player did in FanGraph's new "Defense" ratings, which consider how players perform defensively while also factoring in position adjustments.
Then I made the following table:
*Theriot and Schumaker combined.
There's a lot about the '06 championship team that invites criticism, but let it never be said that it wasn't strong up the middle defensively. The same can be said of the 2013 Cardinals.
And that's not surprising. Molina is still a living defensive legend behind the dish. Kozma is only playing because of his defense at shortstop. Carpenter's defense at second is pretty good for a guy who learned the position over the winter. Only Jay's defense fails to impress, but I think most Cardinals fans will agree with me when I say that this is likely a case of a good defender having a weird statistical season than it is a case of a legitimately bad defender.
This year's Cardinals have weaknesses elsewhere, of course. David Freese has had a horrible season at third base. Adams is not a good defensive first baseman. Holliday is typically one of the worst defensive left fielders in the league. Beltran is a shell of his old defensive self out in right field. Hit the ball to any one of them, and a mistake could happen.
However, there's no question it's better to be weak on the corners than it is to be weak up the middle. These Cardinals have a decent margin for error defensively because of their strength up the middle, and it's yet another area they can boast about in the company of the last two championship teams.
In Conclusion, Gentlemen...
The 2006 Cardinals won only 83 regular-season games. The 2011 Cardinals won only 90.
After seeing what we've seen, is it really any wonder that this year's Cardinals team has 95 wins and counting?
No it's not. They have good starting pitching, a good bullpen, a good offense and are strong up the middle defensively. Relative to the '06 and '11 championship teams, the '13 Cardinals are considerably more balanced.
That's not a guarantee that this club is going to win the World Series, mind you. The Cardinals couldn't win it in 2004 or 2005 despite the fact they won 100 games both years with terrific all-around ballclubs. The postseason has a mind of its own, and absolutely no reservations about devouring teams that seem well-equipped to slay it.
But don't let that reality get you down, Cardinals fans. Go ahead and have high hopes. This year's team is worthy of them.
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