How Did the 2012 St. Louis Cardinals Manage to Reach the NLCS?

Ezra Shaw

Improved performances and excellent replacements allowed the 2012 Cardinals to get one win away from the World Series despite Albert Pujols leaving via free agency and losing multiple veterans to injury.

The St. Louis Cardinals lost many key contributors to the 2011 World Series championship club. Improved production from other players and excellent performances from replacements allowed the club to weather the injuries and win the second Wild Card berth.

During last offseason, the Cardinals lost future Hall-of-Famer Albert Pujols, who chose Anaheim over St. Louis in free agency. The once-great slugger took perhaps his most pronounced step into his career's decline phase during the Cards' 2011 championship season. Even so, Pujols was an integral part of a veteran core that led the club to the postseason with All-Star caliber production. The first baseman posted a 5.0-fWAR* season (which was the lowest of his career until his 3.9-fWAR 2012) and was one of a handful of Redbirds to put together a 2011 season of approximately 5.0 fWAR in value.

*For this post, I used Fangraphs' Wins Above Replacement (fWAR). For a primer on Fangraphs WAR, one can click here.

Matt Holliday tied Pujols with 5.0 fWAR in 2011. Lance Berkman nearly did with a 4.9-fWAR season; his value dragged down by his poor outfield defense. Catcher Yadier Molina's defense helped make his 2011 fWAR total 4.7. On the pitching side of the Cards' 2011 roster, veteran ace Chris Carpenter tied with Holliday and Pujols for the team lead in fWAR with 5.0 fWAR of his own.

After the free agent Pujols chose to sign with the Angels, folks understandably wondered whether the Cardinals could replace the superstar in the aggregate. The general view was that a full season of Berkman at first base, David Freese at third base, Allen Craig playing right field, and Adam Wainwright in the rotation would likely replace Pujols's value in terms of fWAR. The Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak signed free agent outfielder Carlos Beltran, who posted 4.7 fWAR with the Mets and Giants in 2011, and the 2012 Cardinals appeared likely to be better than the 2011 World Champions--at least on paper.

In April, Berkman injured his calf and, in mid-May, he suffered a significant knee injury in a collision at first base that would leave him ineffective or DL'd for the remainder of the season. The 2011 Comeback Player of the Year would take just 94 plate appearances in 2012 and put up just 0.4 fWAR worth of production. The injuries to the insurance plan at first base left a 4.5-fWAR hole at the position.

The position players answered the call and put together an excellent season. The following chart shows their offensive numbers for 2012. The final column is the difference between 2012 fWAR total and 2011 fWAR total.

2012 ST. LOUIS CARDINALS POSITION PLAYER STATS

Player

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

wOBA

wRC+

fWAR

fWAR +/-

Molina

.315

.373

.501

.874

.375

139

6.5

+1.6

Holliday

.295

.379

.497

.877

.378

141

5.1

+0.1

Freese

.293

.372

.467

.839

.365

132

4.1

+1.4

Jay

.305

.373

.400

.773

.341

116

4.1

+1.3

Beltran

.269

.346

.495

.842

.355

125

3.6

-1.2

Craig

.307

.354

.522

.876

.374

138

3.1

+0.5

Furcal

.264

.325

.346

.671

.298

87

1.2

+0.4

Kozma

.333

.383

.569

.952

.396

153

1.4

+1.4

Descalso

.227

.303

.324

.627

.278

73

0.5

+/- 0.0

Carpenter

.294

.365

.463

.828

.355

125

1.6

+1.6

Schumaker

.276

.339

.368

.707

.310

95

1.1

+0.5

The Cardinals lost Pujols to Anaheim, then lost Berkman for nearly the entire season due to injury. They also lost Furcal to injury. Every Cardinals position player except Descalso contributed more production to the 2012 team than to the 2011 champs. Because of this, the Cardinals were able to replace their lost teammates' production in the aggregate.

2011 & 2012 ST. LOUIS CARDINALS HITTING STATS

Season

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

wOBA

wRC+

fWAR

2011

.273

.341

.425

.766

.334

112

33.2

2012

.271

.338

.421

.759

.329

107

33.4

In spring training, the Cardinals lost Carpenter for what was projected to be at least two months and maybe more. Carpenter wound up missing all of the regular season except for the final two weeks, leaving a season-long 5.0-fWAR hole in the starting rotation.

Early in the season, the Cardinals also lost lefthanded starter Jaime Garcia to a shoulder injury that caused him to make only 20 starts and pitch just 120 1/3 innings. Because of this, the Cardinals were without their second-best 2011 starter for much of the season.

2012 ST. LOUIS CARDINALS STARTING PITCHER STATS

Player

IP

SO%

BB%

ERA

FIP

xFIP

fWAR

fWAR +/-

Carpenter

17.0

16.7%

4.2%

3.71

4.09

4.47

0.2

-4.8

Garcia

121.2

19.0%

5.8%

3.92

2.97

3.39

2.9

-0.8

Wainwright

198.2

22.1%

6.3%

3.94

3.10

3.23

4.4

+4.4

Lohse

211.0

16.6%

4.4%

2.86

3.51

3.96

3.6

+1.1

Westbrook

174.2

14.1%

6.9%

3.97

3.80

3.92

2.3

+1.2

Lynn

169.0

24.5%

8.7%

3.67

3.47

3.57

2.9

+2.8

Kelly

91.1

15.1%

8.2%

3.74

4.20

4.08

0.8

+0.8

As with the position players, the replacement starting pitchers stepped to the mound and performed very well. There's no denying that the club missed Carpenter, but, under the tutelage of Mike Matheny and Derek Lilliquist, the other starters pitched well enough to replace his production in the aggregate. It was an impressive season.

2011 & 2012 ST. LOUIS CARDINALS STARTING PITCHER STATS

Season

IP

SO%

BB%

ERA

FIP

xFIP

fWAR

2011

999.0

16.0%

6.6%

3.81

3.69

3.76

13.3

2012

989.1

18.8%

6.5%

3.62

3.47

3.69

17.3

The Cardinals were able to overcome losing Pujols and multiple injuries due to improved production from returning starters and excellent performances from the players the club called upon to fill in for injured veterans. The Cards' 2012 season was a success not just because of the club's NLCS performance, but also because of the strong foundation that was built for the years ahead.

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