Since 2000, the Cardinals have appeared in eleven National League Division Series, nine National League Championship Series, and four World Series. Given their success, there is an impulse to find a reason why the Cardinals seemingly play deep into October every year. After the grind of a 162-game regular season, a five-game series and a couple seven game series inject randomness that is easily ignored in a regular season. The Cardinals beat the Dodgers three out of four games in July and nobody thinks anything of it. They do the same thing in October and they are lucky.
The postseason is by and large a a crapshoot. It is impossible to predict, and equally as impossible to explain. There is talk of grinding it out, playing a hard nine, and #DevilMagic, but success in the playoffs is not determined by grit, great bullpens, clutch players, or wanting it more than the other guy. The Cardinals have not had success in the playoffs because they have good luck. They have success in the playoffs because they succeed in the regular season. Opportunity is the secret to playoff success, and the Cardinals are better than any franchise in the majors at providing themselves the opportunity to win in October.
Before the series against the Dodgers, Aaron Finkel discussed the Cardinals success in playoffs and noted that in the World Series, the Cardinals were an even 2-2 and the same held true when it came to the National League Championship Series at 4-4. However, in the NLDS, the Cardinals were tyrants, to use Aaron's word, going 8-2 in the opening round of the playoffs, now improved to 9-2 after besting the Dodgers.
All but two of the teams above are within one series win of .500, with the Braves only winning once in eight tries and the Cardinals on the other side of the ledger. The nine NLCS appearances in fifteen years is amazing, but the more important figure is the appearances. The Cardinals have 50% more playoff appearances than all teams except for the Braves (just 38% more) and are double the appearances of 12 of 16 teams that spent time in the National League in the past fifteen years. Their success in the NLDS has provided the Cardinals with many memorable moment, and winning nine out of eleven times is unlikely, but not #DevilMagic-level unexplainable.
Three times the Cardinals came in to the NLDS with a pythagorean W-L record (standings from Baseball Reference) at least ten games ahead of their opponent, had home-field advantage, and won each series (2004, 2005, 2013). Once, they were within four games (tossup) of their opponents pythagorean W-L, had home field advantage and won (2000). Four times they were in a tossup series without home-field advantage, and won three times (wins in 2002, 2006, 2012 and a loss in 2001). It is perhaps a surprise, but not completely out of the ordinary. Three times the Cardinals entered a series eight games or more behind their opponent in pythagorean W-L and twice they won (wins in 2011, 2014 and a loss in 2009), unusual, but not magical. The Cardinals total record appears like a great anomaly, but breaking any series down results in less surprising outcomes.
When the chances of advancing are roughly the same as landing heads in a coinflip, the most important thing to do is to give yourself as many coinflips as possible. Most of the playoff narratives are myths. Ben Lindbergh at Grantland rebutted many of them, including: September momentum, the need for playoff experience, the importance of small ball, in-series momentum, and players who step up in October. Debunking these myths and understanding that there is no secret sauce to predict playoff success is frustrating because without a logical explanation or a legitimate narrative, magic and luck enter the discussion.
After the Cardinals defeated the Dodgers, Ken Rosenthal, tongue slightly in cheek, asked for a witch doctor to explain the Cardinals results in the playoffs.
Seriously. I want someone to explain this to me. Preferably a sabermetrician, but at this point I'll settle for a witch doctor.
Don't tell me it's random. Don't tell me it's a small sample size. And don't tell me that baseball is crazy, as Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday did in a postgame interview on Fox Sports 1.
No. Sorry. The Cardinals' annual October magic is not some accident.
Over at Baseball Prospectus, Russell Carleton responded, providing multiple occasions the Cardinals' magic failed, times when they could not come through. The point of the article was this:
But let's not fall victim to the Halo Effect and overlook the times that the Cardinals fell short. It's easy when you already know the outcome of what happened to look back and see the past in a golden glow. If the Cardinals really do have a magic lantern that will inevitably guide them through the playoff storm with the shining light of righteousness, why does that lantern seem to flicker so much?
But the most important part of the piece comes two paragraphs earlier.
The Cardinals did win those World Series, and nothing can take that away from them. They have had a wonderful run of success over the past decade. They have run a very good organization that has had good luck in the draft. They've done fantastic things in player development. The fact that they even got to the playoffs speaks volumes about the job that they've done.
The Cardinals win a lot in the playoffs because they make the playoffs. Other franchises have had considerably more success given the opportunities they have been given. Since 2000, the Red Sox have made the playoffs seven times compared to the Cardinals' eleven appearances and made the World Series three times compared to the Cardinals' four, The Red Sox have three championships, but rarely do we hear about the Red Sox luck in the playoffs. The Cardinals' opponents in the NLCS, the Giants, have made just six (five before this year) playoff appearances since 2000. In those five appearances, they have made the World Series three times, winning twice, but #GiantDevilMagic has not entered the public consciousness.
The Cardinals owe their playoff success to one thing: regular season success. After the two wild-card entries this season each advanced in short series this season, there has been discussion about the fairness of the playoffs to decide a champion. Ben Lindbergh, Sam Miller, Zachary Levine discussed randomness in the playoffs in the BP: Effectively Wild podcast on Wednesday. They came off slightly critical of the current system, although recognized the exact system last year ended with the two teams with the best records in the World Series. Last year, both wild-card teams lost in the first round. Ben Humphrey and Aaron Schafer took issue with the fairness argument on the VEB podcast.
My position, and it is one I have discussed before, is that I want a champion who has earned that distinction. "Earning it" is admittedly somewhat vague. There are several different ways to crown a deserving champion, but a great deal of randomness should not be a part of it. A single game elimination tournament at the end of the season would be a very poor way, for example. In hockey, more than half of the teams make the playoffs. The regular season serves to eliminate the truly poor teams, and the Stanley Cup playoffs' four sets of grueling seven-game series weed out any doubt that whichever team wins, that they have earned. In the English Premier League, every single team plays the exact same schedule (a game home and away against every team), so there is little doubt about the fairness of the soccer champion.
Major League Baseball uses a hybrid of hockey and soccer. The regular season is incredibly important, but unbalanced schedules, separate leagues, and potentially a very slim margin of victory after 162 games would make crowning a champion over solely regular season record an unfair determination of a champion. Just one-third of the teams make the playoffs and only 20% receive a guarantee into the Divison Series. The schedule of the Wild-Card Game this season with days off both before and after the game lessened the advantage that the winningest team in the leagues held last year, and perhaps in the future , the schedule can be tightened to restore that advantage with perhaps a seven-game division series.
Even so, winning a wild-card game, a five game series against the best team in the league, a seven game series against another playoff qualifier, and a seven game series against a team that has survived a similar gauntlet is a fair way to determine a champion. The team that survives both the long regular season, and three short series in the month of October has earned their championship without that title lessened by talk of luck or magic.