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The 21st century Cardinals have spoiled us all

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Our lack of appreciation for this season illustrates the high standards we’ve set for our favorite team

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals season is over, and I feel sad. For the first time since 2010, the Cardinals get no postseason fun. This feels like a hardship, but the logical part of my brain is resisting that urge.

I live in Colorado Springs, where the few baseball fans around are mostly not Cardinals fans. Despite being 40 minutes from Denver, there’s not many Rockies fans either. Colorado Springs is filled with people that moved from somewhere else, either as a medical (and now recreational) marijuana refugee, or as a member of the military that stayed in one of Colorado’s many military bases and liked the place enough to stay. People come from all over, so the few baseball fans you see have allegiances all over the map.

Anyway, while out and about I saw someone wearing a Red Sox hat, and couldn’t help but feel some jealousy. The Red Sox are entrants in a fun tourney that is sure to produce new memories of the joy of rooting for one’s favorite team. Me, I’m just rooting for the Cubs and the Giants not to win, and looking forward to the Hot Stove season.

I couldn’t help but feel like I was experiencing #Cardinalsfanproblems. Most fans surely wouldn’t find a 86 win performance so abhorrent, right? In one comment thread here at VEB, I saw a comment to the affect that the Cardinals obviously didn’t have a good season, and didn’t deserve to be in the playoffs. Don’t quote me on the exact wording. Now, the second part isn’t really controversial. The Giants and Mets both won more games, and those two both deserved it more than the Cardinals. Well, the Cardinals actually had a better BaseRuns record than both those teams, which is a better indicator of talent level than win-loss record. But hey, those are the breaks, and I'm not complaining. Championships aren't decided based on BaseRun records.

It was the first part that stuck in my head. The claim that this team wasn’t "good". That’s a subjective statement of course, but we are talking about a team that ended up winning ten games more than they lost. Clearly, the team was at least above-average, if not meeting one’s definition of "good". It also occurred to me that, for most fans, of most teams, a 86 win season certainly would qualify as "good".

But let’s work with this definition of good, which, at a minimum, means 86 wins is not a good year. I took every team’s record in the 21st century, and counted how many 86 win or lower seasons each franchise had. Here are the results:

With the exception of the Yankees, the Cardinals have experienced the least seasons that weren’t good, under this definition. I think this explains how a Cardinals fan can come to think of an 86-win season as a down year: It has occurred a little less than one out of three seasons. But for the large majority of teams, 86 win or less seasons occur much more frequently. And most the teams that manage to avoid them to similar (but less) degrees have much more resources than the Cardinals.

The Angels placing high might throw you off, but they did have a good run in the previous decade. Also, all three of the Yankees sub-87 win seasons have occurred in the last four years.

So while it’s a stretch for fans of most teams to call an 86 win season a disappointment, we can see why it’s very unwelcome to Cardinals fans. Let’s lower the expectations a bit, to adjust more towards a level reachable for most teams. Here’s seasons where a team was .500 or below:

Again, the Cards are topped by only the Yankees. The order is similar, but there’s some changes here and there. The A’s interestingly, have no seasons with less than 88 but more than 81 wins. That illustrates Billy Bean’s strategy to either buy hard or sell hard at the deadline. The Blue Jays, on the other hand, have amassed 6 seasons between 81 and 86, inclusive.

All but six teams have at least seven .500 or below seasons. 16 teams have 9 or more. The Cardinals have just one. However you want to describe that chart, it’s hard to do so without seeing how great it is to be a Cardinals fan. Again, almost all the teams in the top 5th or so are big market teams. The A’s and Braves’ success early this century are well documented exceptions.

So we have one measurement at 86 wins or less, and another a bit lower at 81. Let’s try a tougher standard. I have preferred to use making the postseason as the benchmark for a successful season, despite the fact that only a third of teams do so. Using my tough standards as the basis of a successful team, let’s look at all team’s non-playoff years:

Trumped by the Yankees and no one else once again. Only three teams have made the playoffs more years than they haven’t, only two have made it in two-thirds or more years. Again, just another way of illustrating the ridiculous level of success of the Cardinals since 2000. For most the league, defining a successful season as making the playoffs would lead to feeling negatively about one’s team the large majority of years. The Cardinals’ success has warped our standards.

There’s also the fact that this has nothing to do with windows closing. The Detroit Tigers also won 86 games this year and just missed the playoffs. But they have a much older team compared to the Cardinals . A rough season last year allowed the Tigers to restock at the deadline a bit, but after missing the playoffs again this year, they may not see it again for some time. The Cardinals still have an off-season’s worth of changes to make, but they will enter the 2017 season as at least a realistic contender for a playoff spot.

There was things to be happy about this year. Aledmys Diaz arrived just in time to replace a hurt and aging Jhonny Peralta. Stephen Piscotty was an above-average hitter for the year, despite showing signs of slowing down near the end of his first full-time MLB season. The Cardinals also graduated a Top MLB prospect and another top 100 prospect who both had moments of success, even if they also had some rough times. Kolten Wong and Randal Grichuk worked out of rough slumps to end the year about where realistic expectations were for them going into the year.

Joe’s article last week on watching the 2016 Cardinals being more of an obligation than a privilege has gained a lot of traction around these parts. I can certainly agree on aesthetics. The 2016 Cardinals did struggle mightily on the bases and on defense. They also failed to execute small-ball strategies. Like many in the SABR community, I’m not a big proponent of small-ball, but if you’re going to use those strategies, you need to execute on them. Otherwise you’re just wasting outs.

Although I haven’t noticed similar complaints, I’ve also have grown tired of how often hitters fake a bunt and waste a strike. I feel like I saw someone do it in every game I watched. Yeah, maybe it draws the corners in another step, but it doesn’t seem worth it when it means falling behind in the count. Mike Matheny of course can also create a lot of frustration. So I get how a person might describe the play of the Cardinals as hard to watch at this season. And then there’s the aesthetics of watching the boringly average Mike Leake...

But in terms of watching a winning team win games? Well, an avid watcher this season still would have watched the Cardinals win ten more games than they lost. That’s still tied for 11th best in the MLB. Sure, it’s not what any of us wanted going into the year, but how fun would watching baseball be if our favorite team never experienced failure? Yeah, failure sucks, but it’s also what makes the good times great. And when failure means still doing better than most the league, and having something to play for all the way to game 162? Well, that’s the privilege of being a Cardinals fan that none of us should ever forget.