The Cardinals Did Not Give Up Shelby Miller for Nothing

On November 17, 2014, the St. Louis Cardinals traded Shelby Miller, barely 24 and a year removed from being a Rookie of the Year finalist, as well as pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins for reliever Jordan Walden and Jason Heyward, the Atlanta Braves' superstar right fielder. You may have heard about this once or twice.

In 2015, Shelby Miller pitched very well. Wins above replacement metrics differ as to his exact value, as Miller's ERA-FIP gap created some room for disagreement regarding his efficacy, but he was certainly above average by any measure—Baseball Reference says he was worth 3.6 wins, Fangraphs says 3.4 wins, and Baseball Prospectus says 4.6 wins. His 6-17 record is as strong of an argument against win-loss record as a valuable pitching statistic as one could conceive. With that said, Jason Heyward was even more productive. Heyward was worth 6.5 Baseball Reference wins, 6.0 Fangraphs wins, and 5.5 Baseball Prospectus wins. The 2015 Cardinals, with Jason Heyward and without Shelby Miller, won 100 games. With Jason Heyward, they had a right fielder who will wind up receiving down-ballot MVP votes in the coming weeks and without Shelby Miller, the Cardinals had the lowest team ERA in Major League Baseball since 1988.

It is impossible for me to fathom an alternate universe in which the Miller-for-Heyward trade (I am well aware that there were two other players in the trade, but for the purposes of this, the combined 10.1 innings accumulated by Jenkins and Walden in MLB this season are not especially important) does not benefit the 2015 St. Louis Cardinals. But if Jason Heyward is a member of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2016, it will be at a significantly steeper price than the $8 million he earned in 2015. And in Atlanta, Shelby Miller will be earning below his true market value thanks to the magic of salary arbitration for the next three seasons. I don't think it's unreasonable to wonder if the Cardinals will end up regretting the trade.

However, 2015 mattered. The production that Jason Heyward has already accumulated as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals matters. While it may not be sufficient given the sizable cost of his acquisition, that the 2015 season ended without a twelfth World Champions pennant at Busch Stadium does not invalidate the entirety of the season.

And yet, if you search Twitter, you'll find people claiming that the Cardinals traded Shelby Miller for nothing. It's not a majority opinion by any means, but this isn't a completely fabricated straw man either, and the fact that one could see the 2015 Cardinals as an unmitigated failure because of the result of three baseball games suggests that we are doing a poor job of emotionally contextualizing baseball seasons.

This works both ways, mind you. The 2011 trade of recent hot prospect Colby Rasmus for a collection of spare parts (Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel, and the Ghost of Corey Patterson) and a more long-term piece that never really materialized as such (Marc Rzepczynski) was highly controversial at the time, but after the Cardinals made a tremendous run to not only make the playoffs but also capture the club's 11th World Series title (citation needed, but I swear this happened, and it was really fun), the controversy quickly subsided. And intuitively, if you frame the question as "Which is worth more to the Cardinals: the three arbitration years of Colby Rasmus or a World Series title?", it's not really a decision.

But, as anybody who remembers the 2011 World Series, or the 2011 NLDS for that matter, should know, the margins between a World Series champion and a World Series runner-up and an NLDS exit are razor thin. If Nelson Cruz catches that fly ball, then the Cardinals gave up a guy who was worth 5.1 fWAR in 458 plate appearances in a 2013 season in which Jon Jay was struggling in center field in exchange for, as some Heyward trade cynics might surmise, nothing. But within every season, win or lose, fans make memories. The end result is not the only thing that matters. Say that in 2011, instead of winning the World Series, the Cardinals lost Game 5 of the NLDS on the strength of Raul Ibanez's 4th inning-ending deep fly which, in an alternate universe, is a 3-run home run. Did the Cardinals lose the Colby Rasmus trade? I don't have a great answer, but had the trade not been made, it's unlikely the Cardinals close the 10 ½ game deficit they faced agaisnt the Atlanta Braves. And my memories of September 28 of that season, anxiously watching the closing innings of Braves/Phillies with eager anticipation while struggling to articulate the sheer insanity of what was happening to my mother (who, God love her, certainly fully realized how crazy all this was, but decided to let her 22 year old son pretend to be a baseball reporter like he was 12 all over again), matter. Standing in my bathroom and brushing my teeth before going to bed, looking in the mirror, and muttering to myself "How on Earth did we make the playoffs?" matters to me. And I bet your own memories of that wild September matter to a lot of you as well.

And 2015 matters. Winning 100 games in the toughest division in baseball was exciting. The countless games I watched with my family, with my friends, with strangers, alone with my laptop, were a lot of fun. Losing to the Chicago Cubs in the NLDS wasn't my favorite thing, but to pretend that MLB teams that are not the Kansas City Royals ended 2015 in a 29-way-tie for least satisfied team in baseball is absurd. The 2015 Cardinals brought a great level of joy to the legions of fans of the club, and Jason Heyward was a significant part of that fan experience.

And to end with a somewhat numerical point, the Cardinals won the NL Central by two games over the Pittsburgh Pirates and by three games over the Chicago Cubs. Jason Heyward was worth an average of six wins above replacement among the major measures of the stat and due to a cavalcade of injuries to the outfield, even with the presence of outfield depth such as Stephen Piscotty and Tommy Pham, Heyward was often replacing something quite close to the hypothetical "replacement level" player. Shelby Miller was worth an average of 3.9 wins, rounding up, while the player who took his spot in the Cardinals rotation, Carlos Martinez, was worth an average of 3.0 wins (blame DRA, not me). Regardless, Shelby Miller was considered to be worth a little less than a win more than Carlos Martinez. Even if Heyward was replacing a league-average outfielder (which he wasn't due to the litany of injuries), which is approximated at 2 WAR, Heyward represented a four-win improvement. I would consider this an extremely conservative estimate, and even so, Heyward's 3.1 wins above Miller makes up the entire actual win gap between first place in the NL Central and third place. So imagine that on October 7, instead of watching Jake Arrieta mow down the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park, you're watching him mow down the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field. I mean, the Cardinals lost their playoff game against Arrieta when he wasn't even particularly good. In the NL Wild Card Game, he was unhittable. So instead of finishing first and the season ending on October 13, imagine it ending a week earlier and the Cardinals finishing third, bemoaning not how the young guns of the Pirates and Cubs may eventually surpass the Cardinals, but about how they already have.

The fact that this didn't happen, and the fact that the Cardinals won the NL Central, and the fact that I got to enjoy yet another Cardinals playoff series, matters to me.