No professional sport in this country has such an extensive history as baseball. Dig long enough and you’ll find untapped subject matter worth chronicling. Add in the recent rise of analytics and you get an ever-evolving study of the game. The result is a universe with the number of good books on baseball too large to count.
On Episode 980 of the essential Effectively Wild podcast, hosts Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller (along with guest Andy McCullough) “drafted” a few of their favorites. (You can find a complete Amazon list of all of the drafted books here - h/t @ericroseberry.) At one point, one of the hosts, and I believe it was Miller, mentioned (I’m liberally paraphrasing here) that he’s only interested in the weird aspects and stories of early baseball because it didn’t resemble the modern game. It was a different sport, one that shouldn’t be thought of as the same game being played today.
He’s right. Read a few of Old Hoss Radbourn’s tweets bragging about his feats and it comes off as if he’s talking about a sport that was played on Mars. It explains why when measuring by bWAR, all but one of the 20 best seasons in the history of the sport just happened to have occurred before 1924. No, baseball players weren’t coincidentally better back then, the game was just wildly different.
And that’s what’s so fascinating about the 1980s Cardinals. The “Whiteyball” era. They seemed to play a completely different sport than the rest of the league. Outliers to an absurd degree. A book begging to be written.
From 1981 to 1990 the Cardinals hit a grand total of 731 home runs in 1,562 total games - or a home run in less than 50% of their games for an entire decade. Without context, it’s hardly notable. But in the same timeframe the Detroit Tigers led all of MLB with 1,641 home runs - about 2.25 times more than the Cardinals. The Astros, who were out-homered by every team but the Cardinals, cranked 950 - a difference of 219 from last to second-to-last. Start all the way at the top with the Tigers and work your way down to the Cardinals and the next biggest gap from one team to the next is 128 home runs (the separation from the Angels and Red Sox, who rank 6th and 7th, respectively).
The Cardinals also ranked dead-last in slugging (.361) and ISO (.104). Meaning for an entire decade the Cardinals as a team hit for less power than the 2016 version of Howie Kendrick, who had a 91 wRC+ and was worth just 0.9 fWAR in 546 plate appearances.
Yet, this team of less than Howie Kendricks at the plate still won. Three pennants, even. Their .527 winning percentage for the decade was second only to the Mets (.539) in the National League. Pitching was a big factor. The Cardinals had the fifth best team ERA (3.55) and FIP (3.65) in MLB. This isn’t news to anyone who reads this blog but there was a lot more to it than that though.
Their defense and base running were historic. From 1981 to 1990, the Cardinals had an accumulative 746.4 Defensive Runs Above Average (or Def), which is FanGraphs’ measurement of a team’s defensive value relative to league average. This dwarfed the rest of the league. The Pirates were second with 495.3 - a difference of 251.1. Work your way down the ladder and the next largest gap from one team to the next is 113.1 (the separation from the Brewers and Indians, who rank second-to-last and last, respectively).
By FanGraphs’ base running metric (or BsR), which measures all base running relative to league average, the Cardinals’ 123.4 score more than doubles the second place Mets (52.4) by a difference of 71. Again, start from the top and go down the line and the next largest gap from one team to the next is 23.1 (the separation from the Pirates and Angels, who rank 17th and 18th, respectively). It contributed to the Cardinals wielding zero power yet still having the second highest batting average on balls in play (.290) in the league for the decade.
Led mostly by Vince Coleman (even though he didn’t arrive on the scene until 1985), and backed up with Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee, the Cardinals as a team stole an outrageous 2,149 bases, or 1.38 per game over the course of a decade. (Last year the team averaged 0.22 stolen bases per game.) The Expos are second on the list with 1,673 stolen bases for the decade - a difference of 476. Same drill as before, start at the top and work your way to the bottom (where you’ll find the Red Sox with just 500 stolen bases) and the next largest gap from one team to the next is 185 (the separation from the Orioles and Red Sox, who are at the bottom).
From 1981 to 1990, there were 26 teams in the league which means the Cardinals likely represented around 4% of the total plate appearances. During this span the entire league hit 33,170 home runs and stole 31,249 bases. The Cardinals accounted for just 2% of the home runs and about 7% of the stolen bases. Running well to manufacture runs as a way to make up for lack of power was not just a meme surrounding Whiteyball, it was a real thing.
Using some of the stats highlighted above, here’s how the ‘80s Cardinals compare with the teams who led the league in their respective decades dating back to soon after the league was integrated:
(A couple of things to consider/remember: First, 1995, 1994, 1981, and 1972, were shortened to varying degrees by work stoppages. Second, prior to 1962, teams only played 154 games per year. Third, we still have four seasons left to complete this decade so the last row might require some math if you want to compare it to the others. Fourth, I realize a ten year stretch from say 1964-1973 is no less interesting or relevant than one that encompasses the entire ‘60s, but since Whiteyball nearly conveniently matches up perfectly with the ‘80s that’s how I’m doing it. And fifth, I didn’t include any teams who weren’t around for the full decade. E.g., the Mets in the ‘60s or the Marlins in the ‘90s.)
The ‘80s Cardinals’ inordinate lack of home runs contrasted with the elite base running, namely their incomparable skill at swiping bases, really stands out. Just stare at that stolen base total for a bit and then the home run total (and remember that 59 games in 1981 were cancelled due to the strike). Since 1951, no team comes close to matching those numbers over the course of the other decades and going forward I don’t think another team will.
And the only thing that makes this interesting is that they were successful doing it. The Browns/Orioles of the ‘50s were also at the bottom of the league in the slugging categories listed above, but they were inferior defensively and on the base paths (per FanGraphs) and the result was a .431 winning percentage for the decade. However, the ‘80s Cardinals cracked the code.
A deeper dive into just how big of an outlier they were when compared to their peers would make for a fantastic analytical book. (I should mention there have been books written about the ‘80s Cardinals, notably Fleeter Than Birds, which is about the ‘85 season and Whitey Herzog’s autobiography neither of which I have read but I don’t think they quite cover what I’m talking about here.) The subject matter is there. The characters are there. I don’t have the time nor the skill to write such a book. Perhaps you do. If so, write it and I promise you will sell at least one copy.
Credit to FanGraphs Leaderboards and Baseball-Reference’s Play Index for the stats in this post.