Major League Baseball

This Cardinal playoff team has been greater than the sum of its parts

Sunday concluded a phenomenal weekend for the Cardinals, a weekend in which they broke the backs of the Cubs and the hearts of their fans by winning four straight one-run games and clinching at least a wild card berth.  The Cardinals won in dramatic fashion, too.  A Matt Carpenter tenth inning homer after a Carlos Martinez ninth inning meltdown in game one.  Game two was a carousel on the bases, but the Cubs could only muster one run.  Five lead changes in game three were capped by back-to-back ninth inning homers by Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong off Cubs’ closer Craig Kimbrel.  And on Sunday, a two run ninth spoiled a great performance by Cubs starter Yu Darvish.  It was the sweetest Cardinal series at Wrigley in years, and the first Cardinal four game sweep there since 1921.

By pretty much every account, this has been a remarkable year for the Cards.  In clinching their first playoff berth since 2015, they have reversed a trend termed “unacceptable” by club President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak.  In missing the playoffs for three straight seasons (by a total of 7.5 games), the Cards matched the three-year stretch that Tony LaRussa had before going on an historic run for the franchise in which it appeared in the post-season in twelve of sixteen seasons, going to the World Series four times and winning it twice in those years.

For most of those seasons, of course, the Cardinals featured Albert Pujols.  He was joined at various times by borderline Hall of Famers like Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Yadier Molina, Larry Walker and Matt Holliday, and Cardinal Hall of Fame pitchers Chris Carpenter and Jason Isringhausen, among others.  After the falloff and departure of Holliday, the Cardinals really lacked an offensive superstar until they traded for Paul Goldschmidt last winter.  For all our expectations, while Goldschmidt has been significantly better than serviceable, he hasn’t lived up to his career norms.

That’s what’s most amazing about this team.  There isn’t a single player where, from day one, we’ve said as fans “boy, this guy is having a great year.”  Normally it takes that superstar performance for a team to win a division, which the Cards are likely to do.  For most of this season, the Dodgers have enjoyed a spectacular season from Cody Bellinger, who leads MLB in WAR this season, and excellent years from Max Muncy and Justin Turner.  Atlanta has the spectacular young Ronald Acuna, who along with Josh Donaldson, Ozzie Albies and Josh Donaldson are all in the top 34 in offensive WAR in MLB.  While WAR has its many flaws, it is accepted in front offices as a good way to rank players.  And the Cardinals top ranked player in offensive WAR is Kolten Wong, tied for 56th at 3.5.  The next Cardinal is Paul DeJong at 78th.  So, it’s reasonable to say the Cards don’t have “that guy” that’s been there all year.

Yet, it’s a group that’s been greater than the sum of its parts.  Especially in the second half, when the Cardinals have been 45-23 since the All-Star break and 31-12 since the conclusion of a five game, west coast losing streak that ended on August 8.  The pitching has been superb, fashioning a sub 3.00 ERA in those 43 games.  The starting pitching has been particularly amazing, delivering quality starts in thirteen of their last sixteen games.  A quality start doesn’t seem like much…allowing three earned runs or fewer in six or more innings of work.  The major league average for quality starts is 37%, and the Cardinals are at 47% for the season, but obviously have really turned a corner in their last two-plus weeks.

The best starter has been the extraordinary Jack Flaherty, who in the second half has fashioned a 1.05 ERA and in 85 1/3 innings has allowed 45 hits and struck out 107. When the playoffs start, the Cardinals have a first game starter that they feel good about against any opponent.

While the Cardinal offense has been inconsistent, they’ve done things to help themselves win.  They lead the N.L. in stolen bases with 111.  After years of being at the top of the league in runners lost on the bases, they’re in the bottom half of that department.  The Cardinals are fifth in the league in going first to third on a single, seventh in extra bases taken (moving up more than one base on a single or two bases on a double) and third in sacrifices.  Even though they haven’t had that great hitter, Mike Shildt has gotten his team to manufacture runs.

Defensively, the Cardinals had the most errors in the majors in 2018 with 133.  They’ll probably have the fewest errors this year, taking 63 into their last six games…and become the first team ever to go from worst to first in that category.  Cutting an error total in half is quite an accomplishment.  If you’re one of those people that believe errors are subjective and not a good statistic, in FanGraphs Defensive Runs Saved metric the Cardinals have gone from 40 last year (11th in MLB) to 92 and 3rd place this year.

People will look at the Dodgers, Braves and Nationals and say the Cardinals don’t have a chance.  But the Cardinals have those little things that lead to victory.  And as Tim McCarver said on the Fox Sports Midwest telecast on Sunday, if the Cardinals go into the post-season with the kind of grit they displayed in Chicago, they’ll be a tough out.

It’s been a remarkable season, yes.  Hopefully there’s a long way to go.