A little while back, Dave Schonefield wrote a terrific post on ESPN's Sweet Spot blog, "Five Best Players in Baseball: A History." Using cumulative WAR for five-year periods, Schoenfield listed the five top players in Major League Baseball. The post inspired me to do something similar for the St. Louis Cardinals. Using Schoenfield's formatting, I began in 1959 (the eve of the El Birdos era, in a way) and worked forward to the present day.
If one is ranking the best Cardinals, one must include Bob Gibson. It's non-negotiable. However, Schoenfield's list included no pitchers, a fact that hardly seemed equitable to me. I began to wonder why this was. Was it because Fangraphs does not have pitcher WAR prior to 1974? Was it simply an exercise in position player valuation? Does Schoenfield have a problem an intermingling of pitchers and position players ranked by WAR? So, I used Baseball-Reference's WAR (rWAR) rather than Fangraphs WAR (fWAR) because Fangraphs lacks WAR prior to 1974. (Posts on WAR in general and the difference between rWAR and fWAR can be found here.)
This post was a fun trip down memory lane that produced some interesting results. I thought it would prove a fun late-winter read. But, it ballooned in size. Because of it's length, I cut it in half. The first half, which is below (and still rather long), covers 1959 through 1988. I decided it best to divide it after the conclusion of the Whiteyball era. The second half, covering the years 1989 through 2011 will be posted later.
1959-1963: Ken Boyer, 3B (29.7); Ernie Boglio, SP (19.4); Larry Jackson, SP (19.4); Bob Gibson, SP (13.8); Bill White, OF/1B (14.4)
Over this time period, Boyer was exemplary. He hit for average and power while also posting a walk rate of 10.2%. His slash line of .304/.375/.504 equaled a .384 wOBA. On top of this elite offensive production, Boyer also provided first-rate glove work at the hot corner. He was head-and-shoulders above his teammates during this five-year stretch.
Broglio was (in)famously traded mid-season in 1964 to the Cubs for Lou Brock. His rWAR total for the five years leading up to this trade shows why it didn't seem so bad at the time the deal was made. Broglio had quite a breakout during the 1960 campaign. His 21 pitching "wins" led the league and his 2.74 ERA was good for a 150 ERA+. Brolio placed third in the Cy Young voting and sixth in the voting for MVP that season. After a 4.12 ERA in the following season, he returned to form with an ERA of 3.00 in 1962 that equaled a 144 ERA+. In 1963, Broglio had another solid season with a 2.99 ERA over 250 IP. In 1964, Broglio had a 3.50 ERA for the Cardinals at the time of the trade and a 4.04 ERA for the Cubs over the remainder of the season, but then fell of a cliff with a 6.93 ERA over 50.2 IP in 1965 and a 6.35 Era over 62.1 IP in 1966. Broglio for Brock lives on in baseball infamy for the production of the players after the trade; before it, Broglio was pretty good for the Redbirds.
1964-1968: Bob Gibson, SP (34.0); Lou Brock, OF (21.9); Curt Flood, OF (19.1); Tim McCarver, C (15.7); Orlando Cepeda, 1B (10.5)
Bob Gibson's 34.0 rWAR led the Cardinals over this five-year period as well as all Major League pitchers. This should not be at all surprising to Cardinals fans who are well aware of the great Gibby's stunning accomplishments over the span of this golden era in the franchise's rich history: four All-Star Game appearances, four Gold Glove awards, a Cy Young, a National League Most Valuable Player award, and Major League Baseball lowering the pitcher's mound.
From 1961 through 1963, Lou Brock hit .258/.307/.392/.699 for the Cubs. At the time of his trade to the Cardinals for Broglio, he was hitting .251/.300/.340/.640. As a Cardinal over the remaining 103 games of 1964, Brock hit .348/.387/.527/.915 (146 OPS+). Brock would lead the league in stolen bases with 74 in 1966, 52 in 1967, and 62 in 1968. His best seasons were in the year of El Birdos and 1968. In 1967, Brock hit .299/.327/.472/.799 (127 OPS+) and accrued 5.1 rWAR. In 1968, the real Year of the Pitcher, Brock hit .279/.328/.418/.746 (124 OPS+) and led the league in doubles and triples as well as stolen bases. He again accumulated 5.1 rWAR that season.
1969-1973: Bob Gibson, SP (35.6); Joe Torre, C/3B (20.3); Steve Carlton, SP (16.1); Ted Simmons, C (13.1); Lou Brock, OF (12.2)
Gibson posted a 2.69 ERA (ERA+ of 137), which was better than the 134 ERA+ Gibby managed from 1964 through 1968. Relative to his pitching peers, Gibson was better from 1969 to 1973 than he was from 1964 to 1968--as reflected in his rWAR. Gibson put together an astonishing decade-long peak, as evidenced by the bronze plaque in Cooperstown, retired number, and red blazer.
Joe Torre put together an excellent five-year run for the Cardinals. Torre's best season was his MVP season of 1971. That season Torre posted 6.8 rWAR on the strength of an excellent offensive performance. Torre led the league in BA (.363), hits (230), total bases (352) and RBI (137). While his .976 OPS did not lead the league, it did equal an OPS+ of 171. His bat was worth 9.5 WAR but his glove was worth -2.6 WAR. His poor defense explains the seemingly low rWAR total given his superb offensive production.
Steve Carlton was traded after the 1971 season in one of the worst personnel decisions in franchise history. Even though his 16.1 rWAR represents only three seasons worth of production for the Cardinals. In 1972, his first season with the Phillies, Lefty won the first of his four Cy Young awards en route to accumulating 61.8 rWAR after leaving St. Louis.
1974-1978: Ted Simmons, C (23.9); Keith Hernandez, 1B (11.0); Bake McBride, OF (10.0); Bob Forsch, SP (9.9); John Denny, SP (9.9); Lynn McGlothen, SP (9.9)
I never saw Ted Simmons play, but I wish I had. From 1974 through 1978, the Cardinals catcher put up a .300 BA, .375 OBP, 468 SLG, .843 OPS and clubbed 86 homers. Simmons posted an OPS of .887 (142 OPS+) in 1974, .908 (144 OPS+) in 1977, and .889 (148 OPS+) in 1978. Even though his slugging dipped considerably in 1976, Simmons still managed a .371 OBP.
The three-way tie of pitchers that expands this five-year span's list to six is an interesting one. Despite accruing the same rWAR totals, Forsch pitched 975 innings to Denny's 729.2 to McGlothen's 681.1.
1979-1983: Keith Hernandez, 1B (24.1); Ken Oberkfell, IF (14.3); George Hendrick, OF (13.4); Gary Templeton, SS (9.8); Lonnie Smith, OF (9.2); Ted Simmons, C (8.7)
In 1979, Hernandez put up a monster season that won him the National League MVP. His .344 BA, 48 doubles (in cavernous Busch II), and 116 runs led the league. His .930 OPS was good for a 151 OPS+. Hernandez's 1980 season saw production at a similar level: .321/.408/.494/.902 (147 OPS+). His .408 OBP and 111 runs scored led the league. In 1981, the first baseman only made 444 Pas, but his slash line was still elite: .306/.401/.463/.864 (142 OPS+). In 1982, Hernandez again reached the 690-PA plateau and had another good season with a .299 BA and .397 OBP, but his SLG dropped to .413 which brought his OPS down to .810. After 55 games in 1983, the Cardinals traded him to the Mets.
That there are no pitchers in the top five rWAR totals for the timespan of 1979 to 1983 was surprising to me. Looking at the numbers, I became all the more thankful for the performances in 1982 by Joaquin Andujar and Bob Forsch. Andujar joined the Cardinals in 1981 and accrued 7.1 rWAR through 1983. 5.8 of that rWAR came in 1982 when he posted a 4.64 K/9, 1.69 BB/9, 2.47 ERA, and 2.87 FIP over 265.2 IP. Forsch accrued 7.1 rWAR over this five-year span and a full 2.7 of it came in that magical 1982 season. Even playing his home games in the pitcher-friendly Busch II, how Forsch did what he did with a 2.67 K/9 and 2.09 BB/9 is beyond me.
It should also be noted that 64% of Lonnie Smith's rWAR total from 1979-1983 came in the World Series championship season of 1982. I will also take this opportunity to note that Lonnie Smith was on the Cardinals during every season that Ozzie Smith wore a powder blue away jersey. This makes every powder blue throwback jersey that doesn't read "O. Smith" on its back historically inaccurate. During Ozzie's powder blue jersey days, the Cards had an "L. Smith" and an "O. Smith" but no one with just "Smith" on their jersey back. Majestic is swindling Cardinals fans with the historically inaccurate apparel they are peddling.
1984-1988: Ozzie Smith, SS (28.0); Willie McGee, OF (17.8); John Tudor, SP (16.1); Jack Clark, 1B (11.4); Tom Herr, 2B (11.3)
In 1987, Ozzie Smith had his greatest season. Ozzie posted the following line: .303/.392/.383/.775 (105 OPS+). He added exceptional defense worth 1.4 dWAR to this batting line and accrued 7.1 rWAR. The Cardinals won the pennant but Andre Dawson robbed The Wizard of what should have been an MVP award because the writers split the Cardinals vote between Jack Clark and Ozzie, who finished in second place.
Willie McGee's 1985 was truly exceptional. McGee led the league with a .353 BA, 18 triples, and 216 hits. (There was no BABIP back then, so I'm not going to mention it here.) He posted an OPS of .887 which was good for a 147 OPS+ and stole 56 bases with a success rate of 77.77%. Throw in his good defense and McGee fittingly accrued 8.5 rWAR for the season, which is slightly less than half of his five-year total.
Jack Clark arrived in St. Louis in 1985 and mashed. He posted an OPS of .895 that season which was good for a 149 OPS+. His production dipped due to injury in 1986 but The Ripper bounced back with a vengeance in 1987. He led the league in OBP (.459), SLG (.597), OPS (1.055), OPS+ (176), and walks (136). He also clubbed 35 dingers and drove in 106 runs. But Clark's season was cut short due to injury. Nonetheless, he amassed 6.5 rWAR that season and finished third in the MVP voting despite being more deserving of the award than its winner.
The five best St. Louis Cardinals by rWAR from 1989 through 2011 can be read here.