The 2004 season was one of the greatest in the storied history of the St. Louis Cardinals franchise. After a disappointing 2003 season, the Cardinals took off like a rocket ship and soared into the stratosphere with 105 wins. The MV3 received top billing that magical season and has deservedly established itself amongst the legends of Cardinals lore. Scott Rolen posted 9.2 fWAR that season; Pujols, 8.4; and Edmonds, 8.2. The trio's collective 25.8 fWAR was equal to the 2004 Red Sox hitters fWAR and better than the cumulative fWAR posted by 19 MLB teams.
With that gaudy offense, it's no wonder that the 2004 Cardinals' pitching staff has faded into the background as time has passed. This is a shame because the that staff was perhaps the finest of the Dave Duncan era. Last week we looked at a fundamental principle of Duncanism, throwing first-pitch strikes. The 2004 staff threw first-pitch strikes at a 59% clip, which ranked eighth in Major League Baseball. That staff was a collection of pitching democrats, as well, leading the big leagues in ground ball percentage at 48.2%. While their 4.17 FIP was good (tying for eighth in MLB), the group's ERA was the lowest in baseball at 3.74. The performance of the 2004 Cardinals pitchers was neither starting rotation nor bullpen heavy; it was a solid combination of the two.
The starting rotation consisted of a piece of scrap off the heap with a bum shoulder, two declining pitchers, a newly acquired youngster attempting to harness his potential, and a free agent innings eater. Unlike more recent incarnations of the Cardinals rotation, the 2004 group had no ace head and shoulders above the rest. Chris Carpenter emerged as the group's best pitcher with a 3.7-fWAR season. Woody Williams was second best with 2.7 fWAR, followed by Jason Marquis (1.9 fWAR), Jeff Suppan (1.3 fWAR), and Matt Morris (1.1 fWAR). This rotation's 4.07 ERA would rank fourth in the major leagues which was a bit better than their collective 4.43 FIP which ranked eleventh. It was a rotation most Duncanian.
Prior to 2004, Carpenter threw 73.1 innings for the Blue Jays. In 2002. The Cardinals signed Carpenter after the 2002 season but, due to the shoulder injury that cut short his 2002 season, he missed all of 2003. In 2004, he made 28 starts for the Cardinals, totaled 182 IP and posted a K rate of 7.52, a walk rate of 1.88, an ERA of 3.41, a FIP of 3.85 and 3.2 fWAR even though his season ended prematurely. (Carp made his final start on September 18 against the Diamondbacks, threw 47 pitches over 3.1 innings, and did not pitch again until 2005.)
As we look back from where we currently sit, in the burgeoning pitching renaissance that is the 2010s, some perspective on his ERA may be needed. That 3.41 ERA with Busch II as his home park in the heady days of aught-four was good for a 124 ERA+. Compare this to his 3.21 ERA in 2010 with Busch III as his home park (120 ERA+) or last season's 3.45 (105 ERA+). In 2004, Carpenter was good and provided fans with glimpses of the brilliance he would later show in winning the 2005 Cy Young Award.
In 2003, Williams was at the height of Duncan-induced sorcery. At the age of 36, he put up the following line: 220.2 IP, 6.24 K/9, 2.24 BB/9, 3.87 ERA, 3.72 FIP. For some run environment context, Woody's ERA+ was 106 that year. He was worth 4.2 fWAR. Williams was aging and declining (like all players not named Barry Bonds do) but the pugnacious Williams still had a solid 2004 even if it could be a textbook example of age-induced decline as compared to 2003: 189.2 IP, 6.22 K/9, 2.74 BB/9, 4.18 ERA, 4.10 FIP, 2.7 fWAR. (Ray Lankford was also on the 2004 Cardinals, I might add, so even DanUp could enjoy the final season Williams would pitch for the Cardinals.)
Marquis entered 2004 about as big a question mark as Carpenter but for different reasons. Whereas health was the concern with Carp, mental wherewithal was the worry with Marquis. He had pitched fairly well for the Braves over 16 starts in 2001 but rather badly over 22 starts in 2002 so the Braves shifted him to the bullpen in 2003 where he posted an even worse ERA than the year before. Apparently Duncan saw something he liked in Marquis (likely the kinda-high walk rate and sinker) so the Cards acquired him in addition to lefty reliever Ray King, and some prospect named Adam Wainwright for J.D. Drew before the season. In year one under Duncan's tutelage, Marquis seemed to blossom, posting the following line: 32 GS, 201.1 IP, 6.27 K/9, 3.13 BB/9, 55.2% GB rate, 3.71 ERA, 4.55 FIP, 1.9 fWAR.
I loved the Jeff Suppan signing. Loved it. WAR didn't exist back then and I didn't know of VORP or Win Shares, but I knew Suppan posted a decent ERA and gobbled up innings. If fWAR had been around, I'd have really loved the signing. Here are Suppan's fWAR for the five seasons before joining St. Louis: 3.2, 2.6, 3.3, 2.3, and 3.0. That's a consistently valuable pitcher right there. Naturally Suppan fell off a bit in and had the first of three consecutive not-quite-2.0-fWAR seasons in 2004: 31 GS, 188 IP, 5.27 K/9, 3.31 BB/9, 4.19 ERA, 4.29 FIP, 1.7 fWAR. Honestly, though, about all we remember of Suppan that season is Game 7 of the NLCS when he beat Roger Clemens (with an assist from Jim Edmonds), isn't it?
It will always be 2001 in my mind when I think of Matt Morris. What an incredible season. 34 GS, 200+ IP, 7.70 K/9, 2.25 BB/9, 3.16 ERA, 3.05 FIP, 6.0 fWAR, and going pitch for pitch with Curt Schilling in games 1 and 5 of the NLDS. That season was Morris's flash of brilliance. Sure, he would have a 4.6-fWAR the following year but that was the start of his decline. He would post a 2.7-fWAR 2003 and would only fill out the back end of the rotation at the young age of 29 in 2004, a season that would be the first of five consecutive seasons of an ERA over 4.00 for Morris. Of course, we must remember that it was a different run environment and the work horse provided some value even with his slightly below-average ERA: 32 GS, 202 IP, 5.84 K/9, 2.50 BB/9, 51.3% GB rate (the highest of his career), 4.72 ERA, 4.93 FIP, 1.1 fWAR.
The Cardinals led the majors with a bullpen ERA of 3.01 and finished second to the Angels in bullpen FIP at 3.62 (despite the Angels pen striking out over a batter an inning to the Cardinals' 6.97 strikeouts per nine innings). The bullpen was built around closer Jason Isringhausen, who was in the midst of an impressive career peak, with a motley crew of arms that found a role they could fulfill under the coaching of La Russa, Duncan, and bullpen coach Marty Mason. Even though the Cardinals bullpenners didn't strike out as many opposing batters (their sub-7.0 K rate ranked 16th in MLB), they hardly walked anyone--leading MLB in bullpen BB/9 with a measly 2.83 rate. The bullpen consisted of a core six--Isringhausen, Cal Eldred, Julian Tavarez, Ray King, Steve Kline, and Kiko Calero--with a revolving door in the seventh spot until it was ultimately filled by a rookie then known as Danny Haren.
Isringhausen's greatest season was his first with "STL" on his cap. In 2002, he was lights out--2.45 ERA, 1.95 FIP, 2.5 fWAR, and, most DIPSily, Izzy did not allow a single homer. But his peak carried through the 2004 season in which he threw the most innings of his career (75.1) and rung up 47 saves, tying Lee Smith for the single season Cardinals record. Izzy struck out 8.48 batters per nine innings, issued 2.75 walks per nine, posted a 2.87 ERA, 3.02 FIP, and 1.8 fWAR. Isringhausen's excellence was the foundation of the 2004 bullpen.
Prior to 2004 I knew Tavarez for one thing: his altercation with Matt Morris at Wrigley Field on Sunday Night Baseball when Morris took exception to him not running hard out of the box after putting the ball in play. In 2004, Tavarez immediately won me over with the disgusting movement on his pitches that was reminiscent of video game. Soon my friends and I were referring to him as Zorro because he was crazy --even if he wasn't loco como un zorro but just crazy. Tavarez was excellent for the Cardinals in the fireman role in 2004: 64.1 IP, 6.72 K/9, 2.66 BB/9, 2.38 ERA, 2.92 FIP, and 1.3 fWAR. The following season he pitched well but not as well and then continued on his journeyman career pitching for five teams before his MLB career came to a sad end in 2009 when he was designated for assignment by the Nationals.
Calero burst onto the scene in 2003 with the combination of electric stuff and wonderful name that made him seem destined for the pantheon of Cardinals relievers. Sadly, his 2003 season was cut short by a freak leg injury after only 38.1 innings. Calero returned in 2004, his electric repertoire intact, and with newfound control that made him an even more lethal weapon out of the bullpen. Watching him pitch made me feel like Steve Irvin when he would come across a particularly rare and lethal creature. Have a look at this rare Puerto Rican Calero! 9.33 K/9, 1.99 BB/9, 2.78 ERA, 3.14 FIP, and 0.8 fWAR! It is no wonder than many folks thought his inclusion in the Mulder trade made the bounty sent to the A's too much and still more Cards fans were clamoring for the front office to sign him after the 2009 season.
King arrived in St. Louis and immediately formed one of the more effective LOOGY tag teams of the La Russa/Duncan era. He appeared in 86 games but threw just 62 innings in 2004. In those innings, he posted the following line: 5.81 K/9, 3.48 BB/9, 2.61 ERA, 3.27 FIP, and 0.9 fWAR. This was his best big league season and after the 2005 season he would be a part in the trade with the Rockies that brought the Cardinals Aaron Miles.
Kline was a solid lefty reliever from 1998 through 2002 who succumbed to reliever volatility in 2003. His consistent K/BB rate fell from about 2.0 to 1.03 that season. In 2004, he bounced back--as reliever are wont to do. Because of his colorful personality and dirty cap, us fans were happy to see this. In the role of LOOGY No. 2 (if they were a professional wrestling tag team, Ray King would have started the match), he made 67 appearances and tallied 50.1 IP with the following line: 6.26 K/9, 3.04 BB/9, 1.79 ERA, 3.68 FIP, and 0.5 fWAR. The aforementioned colorful personality was a bit disagreeable with manager Tony La Russa. The two feuded on occasion, which added some spice to the season. In June, Kline flipped La Russa the bird from the bullpen during a game and the manager threatened to go to the bullpen and stomp on Kline's chest. The southpaw would pitch for the Orioles in 2005 and be out of Major League Baseball by 2008.
Eldred joined the Cardinals in 2003 after having his 2001 cut incredibly short by an injury that would also keep him from pitching in the 2002 season. Eldred posted a 3.74 ERA, 4.34 FIP, and 0.1 fWAR over 67.1 innings. In 2004, he repeated these numbers in uncanny fashion. Even though his strikeout and walk rates fell, his final 2004 line was 67 IP, 3.76 ERA, 4.38 FIP, and 0.1 fWAR. Eldred is a shining example of a replacement reliever.
RELIEVER NO. 7
A parade of relievers saw time in this role during that season. The group included Mike Lincoln (17.1 IP), Jason Simontacchi (15.1), Randy Flores (11.0), Carmen Cali (7.0), Al Reyes (7.1), and even pitching Rick Ankiel(10.0). Danny Haren emerged as the seventh bullpener. Haren made 12 starts for the Cardinals in the pitching disaster that was 2003 and posted a bloated 5.03 ERA (4.57 FIP) as a 22 year old. He started five games for the Cardinals in 2004--most of which after Carpenter was shut down--but also made nine appearances as a reliever, which was the role he would fill in the postseason. In the 20.2 innings he threw as a reliever, he posted a 2.61 ERA, but with a 4.40 FIP due to only striking out out 5.66 batters per nine while posting a 3.48 walk rate.
The 2004 Cardinals pitching staff featured a steady rotation that ate innings while pitching at a level about league average or higher with results that ranked in the game's top five. Their effectiveness allowed the bullpen to operate within the comfort zone of defined roles and lead the big leagues in ERA (even with the seventh spot in flux). This has long been the formula for an effective pitching staff during the La Russa/Duncan era. Even if oft-overshadowed by the MV3-led offense, the 2004 pitching staff is one of the jewels of the era in St. Louis Cardinals history that just came to an end.