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So What Went Wrong?

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The season is over, and the Cardinals have gone home. Why did it turn out this way?

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

And just like that, it was over.

It is October in St. Louis, and there is no more baseball to be played. Sunday’s game was the last we will see until next March, and the last meaningful contest until the defending, um, never mind. The Cubs will come to Busch Stadium to open the 2017 season, and that is the next time we will see the Birds on the Bat back on a field playing a baseball game that matters.

This is a dark state of affairs. Octobers are meant to be filled with tension and dread and joy and sorrow and all the wonder playoff baseball can deliver. Instead, this October, at least for we Cardinal fans, will be filled only with regret. Regret over every instance one of our recappers had to write some variation on the sentiment, “The Cards can’t keep giving away games like this one. In a playoff race this tight, it could literally come down to one game, and you can’t lose these.”

Well, it literally did come down to one game.

Just one of those interminable, frustrating losses needed to go the other way for the Cardinals to be hosting the Giants for game 163. Kolten Wong standing at third base is perhaps the most lasting image from this season, simply because it seemed so apropos. Excellent result from an unexpected source, and yet somehow the team just couldn’t manage to cash in.

There were, of course, other tough losses along the way. There were Trevor Rosenthal meltdowns. There were rotation leaks. There were nights when the offense, so potent and so powerful, simply didn’t show up. Maybe more often than normal, maybe not. It felt awful every time it happened, though. And then there were the Matheny Meltdown nights, when the manager would look at the dominos all carefully arrayed in front of him, and decided to simply swipe them aside like a petulant four year old in favour of some odd double switch.

In the end, it was perhaps the most frustrating team I can recall watching, at least in the era of competitive Cardinal teams which began with the turn of the millenium. Not because they were bad, but because it nearly always felt like they were half a degree away from going on a long run and reminding everyone that they were, in fact, still the Cardinals. The frustration of this season was as much about the stop and start nature of the team as it was the pure record.

So the question must be asked: what went wrong?

And the answer, of course, could be teased out in two ways, neither of which is entirely satisfying.

— So what went wrong?

— Well, lots of things went wrong.

or:

— So what went wrong?

— Really, nothing went all that wrong.

Let’s tackle the second one first, shall we? It is, after all, the absolute least satisfying answer, no matter how true it might be.

Really, nothing actually went wrong with the 2016 Cardinals. John Mozeliak and the rest of the front office came into the 2016 season with a clear goal of building a competitive roster, and that’s exactly what they did. The Redbirds finished one game out of a playoff spot, with a record of 86-76, ten games over .500. Narrowly missing the playoffs and finishing double digits above the break-even point is a pretty good season. The underlying numbers are maybe even more impressive; the Cards’ Pythagorean record for the season was 88-74, a game better than the Mets, who are still playing. Their BaseRuns record was even better than that; by BaseRuns the Cardinals ‘should have’ been a 90-72 club, four games better than the Mets, one better than the Giants, and just one game worse than the Blue Jays and Dodgers.

Mo and Co. also clearly came into the season with a desire to build a different sort of contending club than the Cards have fielded in the past few years, and they did that as well. Coming off two straight seasons of extraordinarily anemic offensive production, the retooled Redbirds bashed the most home runs in the National League (second-most in baseball behind only the Baltimore Bombers), the second most doubles in the NL behind only the Rockies, who really shouldn’t count in these cases, had the second highest slugging percentage in the senior circuit (again, behind the Rockies, so, you know), and scored the third most runs in the NL, behind only the Rockies and Cubs. The Cardinals clearly set out to inject more power into their game this season, and they succeeded in a giant way.

The team was tested, certainly, and ultimately came up a little short. But nothing really went wrong, per se; it was just one of those years when the club wasn’t quite strong enough to overcome their various competitors. Remember, the other guy lives in a big house, too.

Then on the other hand, lots of stuff went wrong.

First off, injuries went wrong. The Cardinals were among the most injured teams in baseball this year, both by simple man games lost and, more meaningfully, in WAR lost. According to mangameslost.com, the Redbirds lost the fourth-most wins above replacement to the disabled list in the majors this season, behind only the Padres, Diamondbacks, and Angels, who essentially saw their starting rotation just evaporate. Also, keep in mind those are figures based on projections; Aledmys Diaz missing all of August due to being hit by a pitch is probably underrepresented there, as I doubt the projections adjusted quickly enough to capture just how valuable the young Cuban actually was this season.

In spite of the overall offensive excellence, some things also went wrong with the Cards’ attack this season. While the club ranked very highly in all the power-related statistical categories, they finished up the season with just a .255 batting average, ranked 18th in the majors. Now, batting average is probably the least important indicator of offensive quality, but it’s not completely useless. A club with a low BA is going to struggle more than some others to do all those execution-based offensive things that broadcasters love; a club with tons of power but a relatively low batting average is going to have more of those moments throughout the season when you see a leadoff triple die at third base, or a rally killed off prematurely. The Cardinals in 2016, for as potent as they were, really did struggle much of the time when it came to situational hitting, and while I wouldn’t sacrifice the power for a couple players who shorten up and hit the ball the other way with two strikes, it doesn’t seem like those things should be mutually exclusive, necessarily.

Far worse than the situational hitting and the like, though, was the baserunning. Powered by Mike Matheny’s incessant insistence on aggressive baserunning, the Cardinals attempted an active, assertive running game this season.

Here’s the problem, though: you have to have the right kind of team to push things on the basepaths, and the Cardinals most definitely did not. I understand the desire to be aggressive and force the issue; aesthetically, there’s a part of me that longs for a swashbuckling, devil-may-care running game that takes extra bases at will and goes first to third on every single from left-center to the right field line. I did grow up with the Whiteyball teams, after all. But you cannot build a team full of Jhonnys and Marps and Yadis and then go crazy aggressive with the baserunning. (By the way, did you realise that Yadier Molina was worth -7.9 runs on the bases this year? He gave back nearly a full wins’ worth of value through poor baserunning. That’s incredible.)

Here, look at this. That’s the fangraphs team batting page, with the baserunning column highlighted. Now scroll down. All the way.

The Cardinals were, by the best metrics we have available, the worst baserunning team in baseball this year. How bad? Well, they were at negative 19.9 runs this year, or nearly two full wins’ worth of runs. Go all the way to the top of the chart, and we find the outlier Padres at positive 23.5 runs. Drop down a few spots, and we quickly get into the very good, very smart baserunning team, who for the most part gained something like 15-17 runs on the bases. The Cubs gained 15.2 runs through their baserunning prowess; the Cardinals lost 19.9. That’s three and a half wins, roughly.

We hear broadcasters complain unendingly about station to station baseball (seriously, why is it that broadcasters have settled on stolen bases as the thing they’re obsessed with?), but pure station to station baserunning would be vastly preferable to what we saw from the Cardinals this year. A cavalcade of runners thrown out at the plate, cut down at second base, making the third out at third base. Getting picked off because they’re not in any way, shape, or form basestealers, but are trying to get the lead to go anyway. What we saw on the bases this year from the Redbirds was a nightmare, and I don’t want to hear any shit from anyone on the staff about how it was the fault of spring training, that if the club had simply worked on baserunning it would have been better. You do not have good baserunners. Do not try to be aggressive.

Worse even than the baserunning was the defense. The Cardinals’ defense this season was porous at best, and often much worse than that. (Is there an adjective that means ‘like a colander’?) The infield was unsettled for much of the season, and very few of the players who manned the positions did so admirably. Too many errors, too many free outs, too many plays not made. The pitching staff struggled badly, but a big part of that has to go on the players with the gloves behind them. A club cannot give away extra outs at the rate the Cardinals did this season and expect the run prevention to hold up at all. And guess what? The Cards’ run prevention didn’t hold up at all.

All of this added up to a team where ‘nothing really went wrong’ seems absolutely absurd, as if the person saying so was simply ignoring reality. This was a club that got plenty of big things right, but seemed to fail at every one of the little things. And really, when you fail at the little things on the scale the 2016 Cardinals did, they are not, in fact, little things. Those little things become big things, simply by dint of addition. Or perhaps multiplication.

There is one other thing that may or may not have gone wrong, and it’s kind of tough to even talk about. Not because it’s tragic or ugly or anything of that sort; rather, the giant thing that may have gone wrong is fundamental, elemental even, and tackling it head on is tough.

This past offseason, the Cardinals tried to sign David Price, and did not. They signed Mike Leake instead. Mike Leake is a fine pitcher, and he pitched well enough this season. Whether you enjoy him aesthetically or not is really a matter of taste; the fact is, Mike Leake had one of the better seasons of his career this year by fielding-independent measures, and while I’ve become increasingly skeptical of DIPS theory as more and better research has piled up over the years, those are still the bedrock things you want a pitcher to do. Leake didn’t walk anybody this year, he struck out slightly more hitters than he usually does, and he got tons of ground balls. If Mike Leake does those things every year, Mike Leake will be just fine.

Meanwhile, David Price didn’t exactly have a banner year in Boston; for much of the season his ERA was flat-out ugly. But consider this: if we lump Price in with the Cardinals’ five opening day starters this season, he would have had the highest strikeout rate. He would have had the second lowest walk rate, right behind the aforementioned Mike Leake, and let’s face it: there’s a difference between Mike Leake not walking anybody while striking out 16.5% of batters faced and David Price not walking anybody while striking out 24%. Price threw more than 30 more innings than any Cardinal starter this season. Really, the one big black mark against Price’s campaign is a case of homeritis, and to me that looks like a whole lot of Fenway fuckery.

The case, though, is not Price vs Leake. The case is star vs bargain. The Cardinals were deservedly lauded this season for having great depth; when a starter went down, a bench player stepped up and we barely even noticed the downturn. And don’t get me wrong; depth is great. But was the reason we barely noticed the downturn because the bench players were just so good? Or was it because the gap between the starter and the bench player simply wasn’t all that wide?

Or put another way: did the 2016 Cardinals make all those moves that last offseason I specifically said raised the floor but didn’t raise the ceiling, only to discover that not raising the ceiling basically just meant they barely had room to stand up?

This was a collection of interchangeable parts, of flexible, versatile pieces that could move around the diamond and contribute in different ways. At the same time, there was no concentration of value on this roster, really. Part of that, of course, was Matt Carpenter getting hurt and struggling to get back on track in the middle of a career campaign, but the fact is the Cardinals’ 2016 roster was jam-packed with 1.5-2.5 win players, while lacking almost entirely in 4+ win players. There were no trenches, really, aside from the compromised Jhonny Peralta, but where were the peaks? Carlos Martinez and Matt Carpenter before he got hurt. Aledmys Diaz before he got hurt. And that’s pretty much it. Seung-hwan Oh was amazing, but he’s also a reliever.

The question, really, is this: is this a problem limited to the 2016 Cardinals, where all those interchangeable pieces just didn’t quite fit together? Or is this a more fundamental problem? Does a roster that is deep and wide, but has no concentration of value, have the kind of ceiling to compete at the highest level?

And, admittedly, perhaps this roster does have those concentrations of value going forward. If Aledmys Diaz doesn’t get hit on the hand, perhaps he’s your 4+ win shortstop. Matt Carpenter without the oblique and the struggles is a monster. Carlos Martinez was ‘only’ a 3.0 win pitcher by fWAR, but a 6 win beast by Baseball-Reference WAR, which is calculated more by runs allowed than strict fielding-independent numbers. Alex Reyes needs polishing, still, but there’s potentially another ace-level pitcher underneath that layer of cloudiness. So perhaps the anchors of a great roster are here already, and some of those other issues discussed upthread prevented them from really anchoring this year’s club. Tough to say for sure, though.

In the end, what we can say is this: the St. Louis Cardinals in 2016 were a fine baseball team. They finished ten games over .500, barely missed the playoffs, and showed the outlines of a young core that isn’t quite complete, but also isn’t far away. So nothing actually went wrong for this team this year. Sometimes it’s a transition season, and sometimes you just aren’t quite good enough.

We can also say lots of things went wrong, from awful defense to inexplicable baserunning to occasional offensive ineptitude to bullpen blowups to a starting rotation that rarely went off the rails completely, but almost never felt like they were fully on them, either. We can say this was a roster with fundamental issues, coached by a terrible tactician, and lacking anchors to help tie the whole thing together. In other words, lots of things went wrong.

Which way you want to look at it probably depends a lot on your own perspective, and how you choose to view the world in general. Either nothing went wrong, or everything went wrong, and it’s easy to see how either thing could be true.

I think we can all agree on this, though: whether things really went wrong this year, or things just didn’t work out, the 2017 Cardinals need to be better than the 2016 Cardinals. Because it is October, and the Cardinals are not playing.

And that means something has definitely gone wrong.