The Cardinals have held themselves to a brand of excellence; a trademarked class of “Cardinal Baseball.” This year, however, they have slipped away from that.
Ever since the Cardinals lost Albert Pujols to one of the biggest free agent contracts in the history of Major League Baseball following their 2011 championship season, they have been a team without a superstar. They have had their fair share of all-stars yes, most notably beloved catcher Yadier Molina four consecutive years following the loss of Pujols, and a trio of appearances for Matt Carpenter, a rising star in the league over the last four seasons. However, there is no denying that no one player has filled Pujols’ void in the years since he left. Honestly, who could?
Pujols, over his eleven seasons with the Cardinals, slugged 445 home runs, and drove in over 1,300 runs while posting a .300 batting average. Yet, somehow, since the loss of this first ballot hall of famer, the Cardinals have somehow been able to continue winning, reaching the postseason each of the last four years.
But how have they been able to keep up this type of consistency, even without the presence of a super-star force? The answer comes through something I like to call “Cardinal Baseball.” Let me try to explain what this implies.
The Cardinals, over the last decade, have held a certain sort of organizational excellence that can be matched by only a few in the four major sports, such as the baseball Giants, the San Antonio Spurs, and, of course, the New England Patriots. These teams, simply put, know how to win. They find a way, no matter the circumstances, and hold their players to a higher level of expectation than most any other organization in sports.
Since Pujols’s departure, the Cardinals have exemplified this winning nature. For the past four years, they have basically pieced together winning rosters made up of journey-men, rookies, and a few stabilizers such as Yadi and Carpenter, but with anything but a force the caliber of Pujols.
Yet it’s somehow worked for them. As proof, they somehow, in 2015, won over a hundred games in a division which included the fire-powered Cubs and the young and young, electric Pittsburgh Pirates, with rookies such as Stephen Piscotty and Randall Grichuk headlining a less than intimidating lineup, and youngsters Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez leading a rotation which had lost Adam Wainwright early in the year to an achilles injury.
So how have they done this? How have the Cardinal’s continued their excellence, with virtually no sense of a super-star figure on their roster, but instead, a patching together of wily veterans and ambitious rookies? What is “Cardinal Baseball?” I’ll throw some statistics your way, and hopefully it will help explain my idea of “Cardinal Baseball.”
From the seasons 2012-2015, the Cardinals had a .985 fielding percentage, tied for 4th best in the national league. Over this span, their pitching staff was tied for second best in the majors with a 3.39 ERA, and posted the best win-loss record, at 375-273. Their pitchers also had the lowest home run rate in the league over this span, at .76 long balls per 9, and were in the top five in walks per nine, as well as wins above replacement, in the majors. And, of course, we all remember that offense, maybe not the most potent or powerful, but the most clutch and timely, batting a whopping .330 with runners in scoring position in 2013, the year they reached the World Series in October.
This year, however, has been different. While the Cardinals have put together a solid 2016 campaign, and are still in the race for the second Wild Card spot with three games to go, their brand of baseball has not carried through with full effect. In 2016, the Cards are tied for 8th in the national league, with a .983 fielding position, matching the Reds, Braves, and Phillies, bottom of the pack teams. Their rotation in this year has a 4.12, sitting right in the middle of the majors at 14th.
While their home runs allowed per 9 remains strong at an even 1.00, their pitcher’s WARs and walks per 9 are again around the league average at 16.4 and 2.96, respectively. These middle of the road stats led their pitcher to a middle of the road 51.9 winning percentage, far inferior to their 57.9 over the previous four.
As well, the Cardinals haven’t been getting that “big hit” as we are used to seeing them do. We need look no further than this past Wednesday night, when Kolten Wong smacked a lead off triple, and the Cardinals were unable to drive him in to tie the game, leading to a crucial 2-1 loss against the last place Reds.
So why is it that these stats matter, and decide “Cardinal Baseball?” Well, to me, these stats are the marks a winning team. Making the routine play, hitting with runners in scoring position, and, of course, good, consistent, shut down pitching, pitching that throws strikes, and doesn’t give up runs.
Although the Cardinals are having a decent year in 2016, there has been a noticeable drop off in all of these categories that are inherent to their brand of baseball. For a fan of the team, I really shouldn’t need these stats to convince you of the matter. The change is visibly obvious, and it could cost them a playoff spot, producing their first absence from the postseason since 2010.
Photo Credits to Charles LeClaire of USA Today