Weighing in at 3.6 pounds, the Baseball Prospectus 2016 annual arrived in homes and stores this week. If by chance you're unfamiliar with this publication, it's an extensive preview of every team and player compiled, naturally, by staff and friends of Baseball Prospectus. I would recommend it to anyone whose interest in baseball stretches past casual. The mass of the 2016 edition can't be overstated - it stands side-by-side with Infinite Jest on my bookshelf with the only difference being I don't have to lie about having actually finished it. All 30 teams get their own personal essay and detailed comments and projected stats via the Pecota projection system for each roster member, as well as a section on every manager. Here are some highlights from the Cardinals' chapter.
Should there be a trophy to honor the "winner" of the regular season?
I recently finished reading The Grind: Inside Baseball's Endless Season by Barry Svrluga, which is a light yet enjoyable and informative look at what goes into a full baseball season from the superstars down to the clubhouse attendants, with the 2014 Washington Nationals used as the case study. And what the grind tells us is that there's really no other sport like baseball. Players are tasked with suiting up for a game 46% of the days in a given year and that doesn't include spring training, the constant travel, or games played into October (and now November) if your team is so lucky. Not to mention all the time spent away from home and family. That a team can endure all 162 games and be better than everyone when it's all said and done only to be sent home if the next three or four games don't go their way seems unusually cruel.
Dayn Perry, baseball scribe at CBS Sports, and formerly of Baseball Prospectus, penned the Cardinals essay in the 2016 annual and it's hilariously wonderful. Not so much for what it foreshadows about the Cardinals in 2016 - unlike most of the other essays it foreshadows nothing - but for what he says about the grind, and the Cardinals winning 100 games in 2015 and having little to show for it but for a ball encased on top of the Wrigley Field scoreboard and Yadier Molina in a cast. Perry's solution is that the best regular season team gets an honor bestowed upon them in the way of a trophy. The NHL already does this, why not MLB where they play nearly twice as many games?
Now having the best regular season record doesn't mean a team was definitively the best as Perry so acknowledges. The Cardinals were not the best team at the conclusion of game 162 in 2015 as their starting rotation was quite comprised due to injuries. But from Opening Day until said game 162, the Cardinals were consistently steadier than every other team. It's time baseball recognizes this feat.
Perry suggests the Weaver Trophy - aptly named for the late, great St. Louisan Earl Weaver for the every day prowess of his Orioles teams. Last year marked the fifth time since baseball became a thing that the Cardinals had the best record yet failed to win the World Series (1943, 1985, 2004, and 2005 were the other years - and 2013 is excluded because even though the Cardinals tied the Red Sox for the most wins that year with 97, their season was ended by those same bully Sox). Perry includes the entire list, and if you were a Braves fan in the 90s you'll want to look away.
It's not all bad for the Cardinals though. Nine times in their history they have been on the other side and eliminated the team with the best record in baseball, including three times recently (2006 - Mets, 2011 - Phillies, 2012 - Nationals) in decisive, dramatic games, on the road, no less, which go down in the great Cardinal lore. All three games I could stand to live over and over and I was lucky enough to be at one of them. With 2012 being a possible exception, there's no mystery why fans will remember these seasons more fondly than 2015. The World Series matters above all and Perry contends that would continue into the age of the Weaver Trophy.
And with regard to the team who is mighty enough to take home the Weaver and World Series Trophy, Perry adds this:
Sometimes - 19 percent of the time [since the Wild Card era began in 1995], as noted - a team will hoist both the Weaver Trophy and the World Series Trophy, in which case the privileges of conquest shall flow like rivers of honey made of cash. Fans of said team would be empowered all across the Internet, which is all any of us have ever wanted.
Interesting notes from the player comments
The comments extend to over forty players and were credited to R.J. Anderson and other BP authors. There's a lot of pun-filled commentary, for example, Alex Reyes' entire entry is from the perspective of a fictional interview with singer Rob Thomas for some reason. Yet, there's also good synopsis on what we know of each player and what to possibly expect in the coming year. I'm going to focus on the comments on Michael Wacha and Randal Grichuk because I believe they are the most intriguing for the Cardinals heading into 2016.
For all the talk about Wacha regressing down the stretch in 2015 - and it was valid, in September and October he had a 7.88 ERA, and allowed 18 walks and seven home runs in 24 innings pitched - the comments brought up an often overlooked point in that he made over 30 starts for the first time in his career. It helps to remember Wacha had a rare shoulder injury which caused a 68-game DL stint in 2014 and that the appropriate level of concern heading into 2015 was pretty much unknown. Wacha's ERA (3.38) and FIP (3.90) in 2015 were both career highs (it's been a very short career, thus far, of course) but that he pitched nearly 75 more innings (181 1/3 total) than the previous year seems like an accomplishment in and of itself. Pecota projects his durability to continue and be good for over 195 innings in 2016 with a 3.69 ERA, 3.75 FIP and be worth 2.1 wins.
The comments were bearish on Randal Grichuk in spite of his ability to light up Statcast (and on that front, they noted that his exit velocity is actually second on the team to "Pham, Thomas" which might be my new favorite way to refer to Tommy Pham). The reasons are familiar: poor plate discipline, and an irregularly high ISO in 2015 which eclipsed anything he ever did in the minors. And all of that is fair. Because of his elbow injury and an already-crowded outfield, Grichuk was limited to 350 plate appearances in 2015. If all goes well and he's able to see in the neighborhood of 550-600 plate appearances in 2016 we might get a better understanding of the Grichuk paradox. Until then, Pecota projects him to hit .251/.293/.457 in 547 plate appearances in 2016 and be worth 1.7 wins.
If those seem low it's because projection systems are typically conservative towards the mean and Pecota is no different. Yadier Molina is projected to be worth 3.7 wins and Adam Wainwright is projected to be worth 3.6 wins, which is the highest for Cardinals batters and pitchers, respectively.
And while less important, I'd be remiss not to highlight a few excellent lines from the comments that should make every Cardinals fan laugh (or groan, I guess).
On Navyman Mitch Harris:
His groundball rate is fine but, unlike another man forced by a higher power to live on a boat, he didn't show a preference for dealing in pairs, as his double-play percentage was nothing special.
On the dearly departed Randy Choate:
Seeing as how he celebrated his 40th birthday in September, it's time to ponder: Does the lefty to end all lefties have anything left...y?
Comments on Manager Mike Matheny
Mike Matheny comes off in the annual just as you would expect: A "managing fraud" whose success comes from "riding the uniform tails of his talented roster." Harsh for sure, but it's backed up by highlighting his poor bullpen management and by referencing VEB's site manager Craig Edwards' piece last October which demonstrated that Matheny has a bad knack for letting his pitchers bat in high-leverage situations.
Still, the comments end on a good note, which is that Matheny seems like a solid, likable person who's easy to work with. That sounds trivial but when dealing with an MLB clubhouse for over half a calendar year I suspect it isn't. He's good with fans, too. Case in point, my sister-in-law met Matheny this past Monday evening in Springfield, Illinois, and hasn't stopped raving about him. Either she doesn't think it's as big of deal to let the pitcher hit in the 6th inning with runners on first and third only to pull him the next inning, or...
The takeaway from a sprawling preview book is that you never know. In the 2015 BP annual, Howard Megdal, author of the soon-to-be released The Cardinals Way, wrote the Cardinals essay and opined that after all the bad luck the team endured in 2014 (and that wasn't even including the tragic death of Oscar Taveras), they were due for a reversal of fortune. Hindsight can be a funny thing because from an injury standpoint alone no one would confuse what happened to the Cardinals in 2015 with good luck yet they still had the best record in baseball. The time has now come to close the book on that season and defend the Weaver Trophy.