Weren’t These Guys Supposed to Finish Third?

If baseball were played out by preseason pundits, the Cardinals would have lost the National League Central by about eight games. Almost no one picked them to top the division — no one at Baseball Prospectus; no one at ESPN.com; no one at All-Baseball.com; not even one lonely soul at The Hardball Times. Heck, I didn’t even pick St. Louis to win the division, and I bleed Cardinal red (then again, most people bleed red whether they like the Cards or not).

Now, of course, the Cards don’t have the division wrapped up — there’s plenty of time for them to go all ’64 Phillies or ’95 Angels on us. But they’re setting a pretty nice pace. They’re 30 games over .500. They’re on track for 104 wins. They’re nine games up on the Cubs. They’re second in the league in runs scored and fourth in fewest runs allowed. They haven’t lost a road series all year. And they just completed a stretch of games where they went a staggering 43-14.

To paraphrase David Byrne: “You may ask yourself — how did we get here?”

In one sense everyone knows how the Cardinals got where they are. Scott Rolen, Albert Pujols, and Jim Edmonds are terrorizing NL pitchers, the Cards’ rotation has been surprisingly solid, and their bullpen is stepping up large. But is there anything about the team’s success that we could have predicted back in April? Is there anything all the prognosticators missed, anything that might teach us how to build a better ballclub?

Here are a few possible lessons …

Lesson 1: A Lot of Pitching is Actually Defense

Before the season started, the Cards’ rotation looked much like Swiss cheese. Matt Morris was coming off a troubled 2003, Woody Williams was awful down the stretch last season, Jeff Suppan seemed little more than an innings sponge, and Jason Marquis and Chris Carpenter had just finished the year with a grand total of zero major-league wins.

But GM Walt Jocketty was very shrewd about the pitchers he kept and the new ones he acquired. He knew he didn’t have enough resources to land a first-class power pitcher, so instead he stockpiled guys who had a history of keeping the ball down, in the park, and in the strike zone.

The theory was this: the Cardinals wouldn’t strike out many guys, but they’d take advantage of the team’s vaunted defense and turn a lot of batted balls into outs. And when the staff did surrender a home run or two, hopefully there wouldn’t be enough guys on base to do serious damage.

So far the plan has worked beautifully. The Cardinals are near the bottom of the league in strikeouts — only 6.12 per nine innings. But they’ve issued fewer walks than any team in the NL and they’ve more or less kept the ball in the park (the only hiccup: Morris, who leads the NL in gopher balls). Meanwhile, the defense has kept up its end of the bargain by turning more double plays than anyone else and gobbling up more batted balls than any team but the Dodgers.

The poster child for this approach is Carpenter. He actually leads the team in strikeouts, but his fastball isn’t much to write home about. He succeeds because he gets a ton of groundballs (he’s got a 1.9 ground/fly ratio against a league average of 1.29), keeps runners off the bases (only two walks per nine innings), and lets his fielders work for him (the team Defensive Efficiency Ratio when he pitches is .721 vs. the league average of .698). In turn, he’s extraordinarily efficient on the mound, which allows him to pitch deeper into games without putting excessive wear and tear on his mending shoulder.

It’s doubtful that Carpenter — or really, any of the Cardinals’ pitchers — would be as successful with a different defense behind him. Does this make them worse pitchers? Maybe in some abstract sense, yes, but that’s precisely the point. In the context in which they perform, Cardinals pitchers are highly effective. This is a textbook example of assembling a team holistically rather than discretely, whereby each player’s strength is maximized by the players around him.

Lesson 2: Don’t Underestimate Superstars

One of the tenets of Moneyball is that you shouldn’t overpay for replaceable parts. But there’s a flipside to that advice: you should pay, and sometimes pay dearly, for irreplaceable parts. And one of the hardest things to replace is a superstar.

The Cardinals have three no-doubt-about-it superstars on their roster: Pujols, Rolen, and Edmonds. Put together they’ll make $35 million this year, more than the Brewers’ entire payroll. But they’re worth it — so good, in fact, that they make up for a lot of mediocrities in the Cardinals’ lineup. Here’s where the Cardinals rank in terms of team OPS at various positions:

Catcher        12th
Second Base    10th
Shortstop       3rd
Left Field     14th
Right Field    13th

With all those holes in the lineup, how are the Cardinals second in the league in runs? Well, here are some Cardinals’ OPS rankings that you probably know already:

First Base      1st
Third Base      1st
Center Field    1st

That would be Pujols, Rolen, and Edmonds. Here’s what they’ve each done so far this year, projected out to a full season:

              G      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     2B     HR     RUN     RBI
Pujols      154     596     .323     .412     .636     44     47     141     119
Rolen       157     578     .333     .410     .611     37     38     115     147
Edmonds     156     527     .301     .411     .649     47     44     112     119

That’s just astonishing, like having three MVPs, one after another, in the heart of your order. On top of that, each of these guys is among the top glovemen at his position. Pujols is 5th in fielding Win Shares at first (a former third baseman, he’s very handy with the leather), Edmonds is 2nd in center (those SportsCenter “web gems” aren’t just hype), and Rolen, of course, is the best third baseman in the league.

In the old, pre-sabermetrics days, sportswriters used to wax rhapsodically (almost hilariously so) over great players. It was as if you could just add Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, two cups of water, and — presto — you’ve got the ’27 Yankees! Nowadays us wise folks recognize that a great team is more than just the sum of its great players. But I sometimes wonder if the revisionist movement among statheads hasn’t gone too far. After all, you can’t build greatness out of effective role players and spare parts; and in one respect the old-timers had it right: nothing is as useful, reliable, or predictable as a great player. And the Cardinals have more of them than any team in baseball.

Lesson 3: Stay Healthy

Okay, this isn’t really a lesson anyone needed to learn, but team health really has been a key to this Cardinals team. Before the season began, the Cardinals looked as banged-up and holey as that dude from the board game “Operation.” There were question marks about Williams’ shoulder, Tony Womack‘s elbow, Carpenter’s labrum, Ray Lankford‘s back, Marquis’ elbow, Morris’ shoulder, Jason Isringhausen‘s labrum, Pujols’ elbow, Edgar Renteria‘s back, Rolen’s shoulder (and neck), Edmonds’ shoulder (and hamstrings), and Reggie Sanders‘ entire body.

According to most baseball folks, the Cards — who have a number of key players on the wrong side of 34 (Williams, Womack, Edmonds, Lankford, and Sanders) — should have buckled as the season wore on. So far it hasn’t happened. The Cardinals have actually gotten stronger as the season has progressed, going 12-11 in April, 15-12 in May, 19-9 in June, and 20-5 in July. And they’ve done it all without suffering any catastrophic injuries.

I should note, however, that the Cardinals have not been entirely injury free. Renteria has a weak back, which in my opinion has limited his power. Morris seems to be playing with a bum shoulder, which puts a serious crimp in his fastball. Mike Lincoln, who had the lowest OPS allowed of anyone on the Cards’ staff, is out for the year with a severe elbow strain. And Lankford, Williams, Mike Matheny, and Rolen — who’s been playing with excruciating pain in his knee — have all battled various injuries. Nevertheless, Cardinals’ starting pitchers have missed only one start all year, and most of the team’s key players have answered the call day in and day out. That’s crucial for an organization like St. Louis, which has been poor at acquiring and developing secondary talent.

So how have the Cardinals managed to stay so healthy? I asked Baseball ProspectusWill Carroll this question, and while he noted the good work done by the Cards’ medical staff with regard to Carpenter, Cal Eldred, and Kiko Calero, he also said their team health picture is largely the residue of dumb luck.

Fair enough. But I should point out that the same commentators who overplayed the Cards’ injury risks in the preseason probably underplayed the shakiness of the Cards’ chief competitors. The Astros, for example, are an old team, plain and simple, and it’s no surprise that some of their best players have spent time on the shelf this year. Same goes for the Cubs — they’ve got an old lineup and a fledgling pitching staff: a recipe for the DL if there ever was one. So yes, the Cards have been lucky when it comes to health, but relatively speaking that’s not as unexpected as it seems. Which segues nicely into our last point …

Lesson 4: Under Certain Circumstances, You May Expect to Get Lucky

No doubt about it, the 2004 Cards have been lucky. Not supremely lucky, mind you — they’re only one game over their Pythagorean win total, and they haven’t been all that fortunate in relation to their performance elements (for instance, their record in one-run games is worse than their record in all other games). But the Cards have been getting a lot of breaks.

Some of them are scheduling breaks. The Cardinals played their last game against the Chicago Cubs on July 20, which means they played most of their games against their top rival with several Cubs on the DL (and without that Nomar Garciaparra kid I’ve been hearing so much about). The Cards also had a three-game set with the Royals right after they traded Carlos Beltran. They faced Seattle right after they unloaded Freddy Garcia. It’s been that kind of season. Take the other night: the Cards fall behind 3-0 to the Giants; Jerome Williams is cruising on the mound. In the fourth inning, Williams strains his triceps — he’s out of the game. Enter the Giants’ bullpen; dissolve to Cardinals victory.

So yes, they’re lucky. But it’s not as random as you might think. There’s a certain phenomenon at work here, and it even has a name: the “Plexiglas Principle.” Coined by Bill James, the theory says that any team that improves dramatically one season is likely to decline the next season. Conversely, any team that declines dramatically one season is likely to improve the next season. The thinking is that statistical glitches and quirks tend to smooth out over hundreds and hundreds of games.

The Cubs were classic “over-achievers” in 2003, finishing 21 games better than they had the year before. And sure enough, the improvement wasn’t as rock solid as it might appear at first blush. Example: the Cubs were 27-17 last year in one-run games. The Cards, on the other hand, were a putrid 14-25. This year those numbers have reversed themselves. The Cubs have been on the bad end of some bad luck, going 13-20 in games decided by one run, while the Cards are 17-11 in such contests.

Some of you might be saying, So what? Luck is luck, you can’t do anything but wait for it. But that’s not entirely true. GMs constantly make rash moves by over-estimating or under-estimating their team’s chances, so it’s important to understand just how much of a team’s success is “real” and how much is mere luck. Looking back on it, it appears that the Cards’ mediocre 85-win season in 2003 was an anomaly, a downward blip between two immensely strong Cardinal ballclubs in 2002 and 2004. In fact, the nucleus of these teams is the same, suggesting that they’re scarcely different ballclubs at all.

Fortunately, Walt Jocketty seemed to recognize all of this in the offseason. He didn’t panic, he didn’t shed precious commodities (even after several outfits, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and, I’m embarrassed to admit, my own weblog, urged him to unload Edmonds). Instead he made a series of small, pinpointed air strikes. He beefed up the bullpen simply by shedding deadweights like Esteban Yan and Jeff Fassero, and replaced them with Ray King and Julian Tavarez. He installed serviceable major leaguers like Sanders in right field and (it’s time for us to fess up) Womack at second base.

Mind you, these weren’t big deals, and no one is claiming the Cards’ success is primarily due to Womack and Tavarez. But the Cardinals, whose constituent parts were better than their record would indicate last year, were only one or two decent players away from a kind of tipping point in 2004. Jocketty went out, got those players, and his team, much to the relief of Redbird fans everywhere, tipped.

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