Who Had the Finest Season in St. Louis Cardinals Franchise History?

St. Louis Cardinals players have put together many excellent seasons throughout the history of the proud franchise. Let's have a look at which Cardinal's individual season is the all-time greatest.

During the Hot Stove, official Major League Baseball club Twitter feeds are usually the stuff of official roster announcements hours or days after the MLB gossips have broken the story. This being so, I was surprised when the official St. Louis Cardinals Twitter feed (@Cardinals) posted an interesting tweet last Tuesday. The tweet posed the question of which Cardinals player had the finest single-season performance for the franchise. Accompanying the tweet is a link to an answer form that allows fans to answer this "Question of the Week" and provide the rationale for their vote. The phrasing of the question on the webpage seems to narrow down a voter's choices a bit.

With November being the month for annual awards and a time to reflect back on the season, which player in Cardinals history do YOU think had the finest performance during a season for the franchise? Was it Musial's MVP run in 1946 or 1948? Was it Bob Gibson's record-setting showing from the mound in 1968? Or could it have been Rogers' Hornsby's 1924 campaign when he batted .424? What do you think?

The question brings up some of the greatest single-season accomplishments in Cardinals' history: Hornsby hitting .424; Musial hitting for a .376 average, 39 homers, and 131 RBI; and Gibson's 1.12 ERA in 1968. On the heels of the American League MVP debate devolving into a false choice between Wins Above Replacement (WAR) and traditional stats, I thought it would be interesting to look at the question of which season was the finest in Cardinals history by using Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement (bWAR).

Even if we use WAR*, the question of comparing pitching seasons and hitting seasons is a tricky one, in my opinion. There is an argument to be made that WAR overvalues elite starting pitchers. I haven't settled this argument in my own mind yet, so I will be evaluating the greatest position player and pitcher seasons in Cardinals franchise history separately. First, we'll take a look at the best seasons for Cardinals position players and then we'll examine the finest seasons by Cardinals pitchers.

*For a primer "in plain English" at Beyond the Box Score on Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement (bWAR), which I used for this post, please click here.

POSITION PLAYERS

I made the following chart using the Baseball-Reference Play Index by searching for Cardinals seasons from 1871 through 2012 that meet the following criteria: 600 or more plate appearances (PA), OPS+ of 130 or higher, and bWAR of 6.0 or higher. The chart lists the top ten seasons by Cardinals position players, according to bWAR total.

TOP 10 CARDINALS POSITION PLAYER SEASONS

Player

bWAR

Year

PA

XBH

HR

RBI

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

OPS+

Hornsby

12.0

1924

642

82

25

94

.424

.507

.696

1.203

222

Musial

10.8

1948

698

103

39

131

.376

.450

.702

1.152

200

Hornsby

10.6

1921

674

83

21

126

.397

.458

.639

1.097

191

Hornsby

10.1

1925

606

90

39

143

.403

.489

.756

1.245

210

Hornsby

10.0

1922

704

102

42

152

.401

.459

.722

1.181

207

Pujols

9.4

2009

700

93

47

135

.327

.443

.658

1.101

189

Hornsby

9.4

1920

660

73

9

94

.370

.431

.559

.990

185

Musial

9.3

1943

700

81

13

81

.357

.425

.562

.988

177

Pujols

9.0

2008

641

81

37

116

.357

.462

.653

1.114

192

McGwire

8.9

1998

681

91

70

147

.299

.470

.752

1.222

216

Stan Musial is undeniably "The Greatest Cardinal of Them All," but that doesn't necessarily mean he had the greatest Cardinals season of them all. The Cardinals got it right when nominating Rogers Hornsby's 1924 and Stan Musial's 1948 seasons. The question of best season from a position player comes down to Hornsby vs. Musial. It is a close race and one that Hornsby wins.

Hornsby's 1924 season is one for the ages. In a sport where the greatest players fail six out of ten times, the Cardinals second baseman failed in less than half of the times he dug into the batter's box. Hornsby set franchise records with a .424 batting average (BA) and .507 on-base percentage (OBP). In addition to leading the National League in BA and OBP, he also finished first with 121 runs scored, 227 hits, 43 doubles, 89 walks, a .696 slugging percentage (SLG), and 1.203 on-base plus slugging (OPS).

Using advanced metrics helps to further set Hornsby apart from the crowd. In OPS+, which weights a player's performance based on the run-scoring environment of his league for a given time period and the parks he played in, Hornsby's 222 led the NL and set an all-time Cardinals record for players with at least 600 PA in a season. Hornsby's 12.0 Wins Above Replacement (bWAR) is the highest in Cardinals franchise history and led the NL that year, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

This is not to say Musial's 1948 season was no incredible. It was. Musial's 230 hits that season overtook Hornsby's 227 for the all-time franchise single-season high--a record that still stands. In addition to leading the NL in hits that year, Musial also led the league with 135 runs scored, 46 doubles, 18 triples, 131 RBI, a .376 BA, .450 OBP, .702 SLG, and 1.152 OPS.

By the advanced metrics, Musial's season was also incredible. His 200 OPS+ is fifth in franchise history only to Hornsby's 222 in 1924, 2010 in 1925, and 207 in 1922 as well as Mark McGwire's 216 in that unforgettable 1998 season. By bWAR, Musial's 10.8 is the second highest mark in the history of the Cardinals.

PITCHERS

I made the following chart using the Baseball-Reference Play Index by searching for Cardinals seasons from 1871 through 2012 that meet the following criteria: 200 or more innings pitched (IP), ERA+ of 130 or higher, and bWAR of 6.0 or higher. It contains the top ten pitching seasons by a Cardinal, sorted by bWAR.

TOP 10 CARDINALS PITCHING SEASONS

Player

bWAR

Year

GS

CG

IP

SO

BB

H

R

ERA

ERA+

King

14.0

1888

64

64

584.2

258

76

435

203

1.63

195

Gibson

11.1

1968

34

28

304.2

268

62

198

49

1.12

258

Breitenstein

11.0

1893

42

38

382.2

102

156

359

197

3.18

148

Gibson

10.3

1969

35

28

314.0

269

95

251

84

2.18

164

Foutz

9.1

1886

57

55

504.0

283

144

418

216

2.11

162

Caruthers

8.8

1885

53

53

482.1

190

57

430

196

2.07

160

Chamberlain

8.7

1889

51

44

421.2

202

165

376

220

2.97

141

Brecheen

8.6

1948

30

21

233.1

149

49

193

62

2.24

182

Gibson

8.4

1970

34

23

294.0

274

88

262

111

3.12

133

Dean

8.4

1934

33

24

311.2

195

75

288

110

2.66

159

The 19th century was a different time. In those days, men made 50 starts and threw over 400 innings. They didn't strike out many opposing batsmen, either. Perhaps the best of those 1800s ballplayers was Silver King. In 1888 he threw 64 complete games in 64 starts, which is really incredible. Even more incredible, he notched 584 2/3 IP. Those stats led his league. So did King's 1.63 ERA, 45 pitching "wins", and six shutouts.

Using advanced metrics, King's was an all-time great season. His 14.0 bWAR is the highest in Cardinals franchise history. If we use ERA+, a metric that adjusts ERA for ballpark and league run-scoring environment, King's 195 is also amongst the best all-time for a Cardinal. Despite this, I'm going to discount King and his fellow 1800s ballplayers. The game was so different then that to compare Silver's 1888 season to more modern seasons i akin to comparing apples and oranges.

Looking at the modern era, there is but one choice: Bob Gibson in 1968. The Cardinals once again hit the nail on the head with their nominations. Gibson led the league with 13 shutouts, 268 strikeouts, a 1.12 ERA, and a 258 ERA+. His 11.1 bWAR also set the pace for his league. Gibson deservedly won the NL Most Valuable Player that season with the best pitched season in the history of the Cardinals.

#

In doing the research for this post, I was struck by the crossover between the candidates the Cardinals specifically mentioned using traditional stats such as batting average and ERA and the seasons that topped the list using bWAR. It seems that, at least in Cardinals history, there is a pretty strong correlation between excellence in traditional stats and excellence in bWAR total. The top three seasons by bWAR in the modern era were explicitly mentioned in the Cardinals' question. If we look at the time period of 1871 to present, three of the top five seasons by bWAR are cited.

Now I put the question of which player had the greatest season in Cardinals history to you in the form of a poll. Please feel free to explain your vote in the comments section.

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