I really don't want to talk about the big league club at the moment, everyone. Sorry, but it's just too depressing to watch a season as remarkable as this one has been end on such a downer note. I'll hope for better play once the postseason arrives, but I will say this team is beginning to remind me of 2004 in a less promising way than the simple fact of a crazy good win/loss record and occasional juggernaut appearances: this club feels a whole lot like that 2004 team at the very end, as they limped through the playoffs, looking almost completely used up.
That year we saw Chris Carpenter go down with the first of his many nerve issues, Scott Rolen suffer a strained calf in September that hampered him the rest of the way, Matt Morris go pretty much full Mark Mulder in the second half, and a general pitching malaise that left a very young Dan Haren as the club's best hurler by the time the Boston series began. This year we've got Lance Lynn looking downright bad for much of the second half in general, and unable to beat the Cubs at all specifically, Michael Wacha giving up twelve earned runs in just fifteen September innings, an offense that seems as likely as not to go MIA on any given night, and a roster that in general somehow feels more rickety the healthier it gets, rather than less.
Okay, so that thing I said a second ago, about not wanting to talk about the big league club? Well, turns out maybe I actually do have a thing or two to say for this Sunday morning posting of grievances.
The 2004 club had enough value concentrated in a few high-end players, in particular Jim Edmonds and Albert Pujols, that they were able to power through to the World Series in spite of the team as a whole running on fumes. I'm not sure I feel at all confident this particular roster is going to be able to do the same. The offense, especially, is going to have to be a topic of conversation for the front office in the offseason, I would think; despite an OBP that ranks in the top half of all baseball, the Cardinals now sit 25th in the league in runs scored. I don't care how good the pitching is; that is not a championship-calibre offense, and I'm struggling to see any way this Cardinal team can make a proper run through the postseason with the kind of hitting we've been subjected to for much of the season.
So this morning, I was initially planning to write a post writing up some notable debut performances by 2015 Cardinal draft picks, inspired by John Sickels writing up Harrison Bader on Friday afternoon. However, given I'm already close to 500 words into this contemplation of the 2015 offense, perhaps I'll put that off until Wednesday. Because now I'm curious about something.
What I'm curious about is how the current incarnation of the Cardinal offense would compare historically to other World Series championship clubs. After all, if we think this club is of championship quality -- and for much of the season it certainly appeared they were -- then they should be able to at least hold their own in comparisons to actual champions, right?
The Cardinals this year are 25th in runs scored, as I mentioned. Runs scored is, ultimately, the most important measure of an offense, of course, as the number listed under the big R on the scoreboard is the one that determines who wins and loses baseball games. I do understand, however, that runs can be somewhat deceiving in terms of the actual quality of an offense. So, let's use wRC+ as well. By that measure, the Cardinals are actually a slightly above-average offense, at 102. They rank thirteenth in all of baseball. (I'm using non-pitcher data for this purpose, just so everyone knows, because otherwise the AL and NL are not at all comparable.)
So let's go back in time and see how this team compares to other championship clubs.
The 2014 Giants ranked 12th in baseball in runs, 5th in non-pitcher wRC+. So, significantly better.
The 2013 Red Sox: 1st in runs, 1st in wRC+. That's a pretty good offense.
The 2012 Giants: 12th in runs, 5th in wRC+.
2011 Cardinals: 5th in runs, 1st in wRC+. (Do you remember how much fun it was to have an offense with Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, and Lance Berkman in the middle together?)
2010 Giants (tired of typing 'Giants'): 17th in runs, 7th in wRC+.
2009 Yankees: 1st in runs, 1st in wRC+.
2008 Phillies: 8th in runs, 9th in wRC+.
2007 Red Sox: 4th in runs, 3rd in wRC+.
2006 Cardinals: 14th in runs, 10th in wRC+
2005 White Sox: 13th in runs, 23rd in wRC+ (Interesting; this is the first really outright bad offense on this list)
2004 Red Sox: 1st in runs, 1st (tied) in wRC+
2003 Marlins: 17th in runs, 8th in wRC+
2002 Angels: 4th in runs, 9th in wRC+
2001 Diamondbacks: 4th in runs, 10th in wRC+
2000 Yankees: 9th in runs, 11th in wRC+ (This is somewhat surprising to me; I recall those Yankee dynasty teams always being offensive powerhouses.)
I think that's far enough back. So what do we see here? A bunch of very good offenses, a few middling units, and one really bad hitting club in the 2005 White Sox. So if we're looking for a hopeful comparable for our current Cardinals, that's basically the club we should be eyeballing. The Giants haven't necessarily had massive offensive numbers in any of their recent championship runs, though the wRC+ numbers paint a picture of a club better than you might think, playing in a rough ballpark for offense in general, but still doing substantially better than the 2015 Cardinals.
There really aren't any clubs on this list who are even particularly close to ranking as low as the Cardinals do this year in terms of runs scored. In terms of wRC+, however, we see that there are a handful of team that didn't boast much better underlying numbers than our current Redbirds. Still, even there, only two of the fifteen teams ranked outside the top ten in the league.
Of course, all this is relative, obviously; the one and only club with a really bad offensive ranking on this list, the 2005 White Sox, is also possibly the club with the best overall pitching staff, as that team had Mark Buerhle putting up a ~6.0 win season, Jose Contreras and Jon Garland both contributing around 3.5 WAR apiece, and Freddy Garcia adding 4.0 WAR of his own. You could certainly argue for one of the Giants' championship clubs, as they had the names at the top of the rotation in Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, and at one point Matt Cain, but there was also a whole lot of Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito sprinkled around in those years.
Actually, that's probably not fair; the 2001 Diamondbacks probably had the best overall rotation of any of these clubs. It just so happens that overall rotation consisted entirely of two pitchers who laid waste to the league that year, and not much else.
Given the Cardinals have been such a run-prevention monster this season, it's possible the offense is strong enough to support the pitching staff as they head into the playoffs. But, if the pitching is, in fact, as vulnerable as it has looked for much of September, then we may be looking at a very, very big problem.
The bottom line is this: in the last fifteen years, there has not been a single team that has won a championship with an offense as run-starved as the one the Cardinals have fielded this season. There has been just one club to win with an offense that looked weaker through the more advanced-statistics lens.
It's puzzling, really, looking at the Cardinal offense, and wondering why it isn't better. It feels like this club should be able to hit. But if someone comes up to you today while you're out and about on your Sunday errands, and asks you if you think the Cards have enough hitting to get it done in the playoffs, I'm curious what you think your answer would be.
My answer would be a sad shake of the head.
"I don't know. Probably not."