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Missouri's Highest Peaks: Cardinals at their Greatest

Over at Play a Hard Nine Erik christens his "Hall of Excellentitude" by discussing the Hall case of Keith Hernandez, erstwhile Cardinal first baseman and star of the [second] most-embarrassing commercials on national television. It's not a bad case; Hernandez is a major beneficiary of the re-evaluation of defensive statistics, gaining more than a hundred runs on the average first baseman and vaulting him from the Hall of Very Good for a Long Time to genuine Hall consideration. 

I might be a small-Hall guy, or I might just be underrating Mex because I'm young enough that my first memory of him is Seinfeld-related (though if anything I'd think this would make me overrate him.) But the numbers don't convince me, yet, that he's a Hall of Famer. 61 WAR, if you like that sort of thing, is pretty good—it's the line, for the Baseball Projection version of the omnistat, at which Hall of Famers and players who are maybe-I-guess Hall of Famers begin to converge. Mark McGwire (63) and Harmon Killebrew (61), meet Bobby Abreu (57) and Kenny Lofton (65). 

The borderline of any Hall of Fame is difficult to process; at the Hall of Merit, where people who know more about Dickey Pearce than I do about the 2009 Cardinals have met to create an alternate-universe hall, one in which the connotations of the word fame are not an issue, voters split almost immediately along one line.

At one end, the peak voters. As the no-brainer backlog of pre-National League baseball worked itself out they quickly took as a patron saint Hughie Jennings, a shortstop of the 1890s. Hughie, perhaps best known today for managing Ty Cobb in Detroit, or for being nicknamed Ee-Yah!, combined a high-average bat, a propensity to get hit with the ball (51, 46, and 46 in consecutive years and the all-time record of 287), and brilliant defense to put up a run equalled by no shortstop this side of Honus Wagner. For reference: his best five years, 1894 to 1898, total up to 41.3 WAR. Albert Pujols's peak, to this point, is around 45; Chase Utley's brilliant, ongoing peak 33. 

The rest of his career? 6.6.

Okay: Baseballs hurt, for one thing, and for another baseball at the turn of the twentieth century lent itself to long-term job security as internet entrepreneurship did at the turn of the twenty-first. Ee-Yah! fell off an Alomar-sized cliff in 1899, when an arm injury moved him to first base, and puttered around as a replacement player before catching on as a firebrand manager. 

On the other side, in those early faux-years at the Hall of Merit, were the career voters. They fought hard for players like Jake Beckley, an ageless first baseman who began his career in 1888 and ended it a St. Louis Cardinal in 1907. Beckley made the OPS leaderboard four times in seventeen seasons as a full-time player, and he never got higher than fifth; he played pretty good defense, was always at least average for a first baseman, and got hit with 183 pitches in his career, which would be more impressive if we hadn't started with Hughie Jennings. His "peak", such as it is, is 22.2 wins over five seasons. Ray Lankford's is 24.7. 

But over the rest of his career, Jake Beckley produced 39 wins. You can remove the best five year run of his career and end up with a reasonable facsimile of, say, Reggie Sanders

There are real baseball reasons to take these differences into account—that high peak will get you closer to a pennant, if for a briefer period of time—but a lot of it is also aesthetic and subjective. If I may borrow Erik's schtick, for a moment (and do it in a way that is both less visually appealing and less informative), it comes down to which of these graphs most represents the Hall of Fame to you: 



There is likely room for both Beckley and Jennings in the Hall of Fame, and Keith Hernandez besides—if it should come down to it I can't imagine the Hall would have trouble buying up one of Cooperstown's hundred baseball card shops and storing the Morgan Bulkeley and George Kelley plaques in there. But if a player isn't blessed with both a high peak and a long career, I'll take the peak every time. 

With that in mind, and having exhausted today's allotment of the will to navigate Baseball Projection and look up WAR totals, here are my five favorite St. Louis peaks Of All Time, presented here in a completely subjective order and with some worthy players almost certainly missing. 

5. George Sisler. The pride of the Browns is the borderline Hall of Famer to whom I am comparing Keith Hernandez in my head. His translated stats (still one of my favorite Baseball Prospectus tricks, an attempt to give numbers of all eras a reasonably modern look) make the young George Sisler out to be a supercharged version of Vlad Guerrero. However accurate they might be—I'm hard-pressed to imagine anybody, even someone who hit .353 in the teeth of the dead ball era, hitting .385/.420/.610 tomorrow—they evoke the excitement that contemporary accounts can't quite transmit this far into the future. He steals lots of bases at a high-risk rate; he swings constantly, and makes contact constantly; he hits line drives that fall for doubles and get stretched for triples. 

But more than any other player, save, maybe, Hughie Jennings, George Sisler's peak is brief and clearly marked. Having just hit .420 with 42 doubles and 18 triples in 1922 he had a bout of what was diagnosed as sinusitis that caused him to see double. He missed all of 1923 and came back, in 1924, as a shell of George Sisler.

Here, too, the translated stats tell a better story; Sisler did hit .345 one year after that, an incredible trick if his vision was still ruined, and his .320 average after 1923 is superficially impressive. But twenties replacement-level isn't quite as easy to spot, to our eyes, as the current model.

Alternate-world Sisler, having hit .373 and stolen 60 bases in 1922—2022?—comes back after a year off to lines of .265/.300/.404, .298/.323/.451, and .262/.297/.394. The power's gone; he loses his nerve on the bases; his fielding, predictably, goes from universally praised to a serious liability. 

Of course, as with Jennings, if he hadn't lost it so quickly and finally, we might not be talking about him right now. 

4. Jim Edmonds/Scott Rolen. Of course I couldn't separate these guys. So much about them is similar; there are so many opportunities to reuse copy. Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds joined the Cardinals as mercenaries with uncertain Clubhouse Chemistry tags; it did not take them very long to become the kind of acquisition for which an authentic jersey is a worthwhile souvenir-stand investment. 

They were both great, but it's the way in which they were great that held my attention. Neither was a smooth defender, by which I mean that there were specific skills they had that came into play when a ball was hit their way, instead of leaving me with the general impression that they would run fast and glide to the ball.

I haven't done the research but I think an argument could be made that Jim Edmonds was the best slow outfielder who ever lived—I never believed it when my friends tried to convince me he was timing the ball to make all those incredible dives because I never believed that someone like Jim Edmonds could afford to slow down when he was stuck in center. But his grace around the ball, that ability to dive and leap and contort his body, gave him the extra step most center fielders already had, and his throws seemed to never miss the mark. (Okay, I lied—having gone to the WAR mines one more time I was impressed to learn that Jim's range (+45 runs) and his arm (+47) are almost identical contributors by at least one metric.)

When you're talking about center fielders this is like saying you've got a great prospect coming up who can hit knuckleballs, spitballs, screwballs but has a ton of trouble with the fastball. He had a collection of secondary skills and he somehow used them to be one of the best defensive outfielders of his era. I wouldn't be surprised if he's as bad an outfielder now as the metrics suggested in 2008—how did he stay so brilliant with that skill-set for that long in the first place?

And Scott Rolen just plays third base like I've never seen it played. He and Albert Pujols have in common incredibly quick reflexes on balls hit to either side of them—I realize it's a dead metaphor but they pounce when everyone else is just crouching—but Rolen is a beat faster and blessed with a catcher's arm. He plays third base like an outfielder who's not afraid of the wall, jumping all over the field, and I guess it shouldn't have been so surprising that Scott Rolen the Hitter couldn't keep up with the pace.

3. Bob Gibson. I'm sure this can be inferred from my writing, if you read here long enough, but I'll come out and say it: I have no particular attachment to the Cardinals of the sixties and the seventies. That era of baseball doesn't appeal to me like the decades before it, for whatever reason, and I had no personal connection to it; the baseball of the nineties is what I grew up with, and the eighties were what haunted that, and anything that happened before that but was filmed in color has always felt vestigial to me. 

But of course I had family members tell me about Bob Gibson, and of course I looked up the numbers. When you're doing that on snatches of baseball cards and old encyclopedias, instead of baseball-reference, the 1.12 seems no more real than Cy Young's win total or Ty Cobb's batting average. That it happened while my parents were alive did nothing to bring it to life for me—I just wasn't able to imagine it. 

We know the context in which it was achieved, now, and that dulls the edge, but if you asked me what a pitcher looks like, on a game-to-game basis, while his ERA is 1.12 I couldn't begin to tell you.

2. Mark McGwire. We know the context in which it was achieved, now, and that dulls the edge, but at this rate if you asked my theoretical children what a hitter looks like, on a game-to-game basis, when he is in the process of hitting 70 home runs they couldn't begin to tell you.

Everything about Mark McGwire's peak has distorted the way I think of baseball even now; it has taken this long for me to realize, finally, that a 450 foot home run is a long one, and not just something that happens once a series. Between his first at-bat with the Cardinals in 1997 and his last at-bat as the real Mark McGwire in 2000 he hit 191 home runs in 1440 at-bats. 

1. Albert Pujols. Albert Pujols ruined my big-peak object lesson from before the jump. His five worst years by that measure tally at 37 WAR; if that were his five year peak, and we put bizarro-Pujols on Erik's list of Hall of Fame first basemen, he'd place fourth, behind Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and the real version of Albert Pujols. He's played ten years; eight of them are peak.