Sometimes, awards are de facto lifetime achievement awards. After not winning the Best Picture nor Best Director at the Academy Awards for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, nor Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese won both for The Departed, an entertaining and not-terrible movie which nevertheless was not generally considered in the same stratosphere as his early work. Led Zeppelin won its first Grammy Award in 2014, a solid thirty-four years after the group formally disbanded.
Occasionally, this even extends into sports. After having two truly extraordinary season in 2012 and 2013, Mike Trout finally won an American League MVP in 2014. He deserved the MVP, yes, but it did not seem to hurt to have the momentum of his superior also-ran prior two seasons.
The lifetime achievement award seemingly would not exist in awards that are decided by objective measurement rather than popular vote. And yet in the mid-2000s, this seemed to happen. After a 105-win campaign in 2004 led ultimately to a meek conclusion in which the Cardinals never held a lead in the World Series, and a 100-win 2005 which ended with an NLCS loss to a Houston Astros team which the Cardinals beat for the NL Central title by 11 games, the Cardinals won the 2006 World Series with an all-time low 83 wins.
There have been nine complete seasons since the 2006 one, and the Cardinals had a worse record than in 2006 just once, and that was in 2007, in which the wear and tear of the aging 2006 squad, which showed late in the regular season and paused in the postseason, began to really show.
|2006||83-78||Won World Series|
|2007||78-84||3rd place, NL Central|
|2008||86-76||4th place, NL Central|
|2010||86-76||2nd place, NL Central|
|2011||90-72||Won World Series|
|2013||97-65||Lost World Series|
It is a testament to the sustained success of the Cardinals franchise over the past decade that what was still a winning season could be so comparatively poor. Consider the San Francisco Giants, the only franchise to have won more titles since 2006. They had four losing seasons in this time frame.
But going strictly off of win-loss record isn't the only way to measure a team's ability. Teams get lucky or unlucky here and there, and while I feel fairly comfortable declaring that last year's 100 win team was better than 2007's 78 win team, I'm less certain when the gap is just a few games. Here are the last ten Cardinals teams by Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement.
|Year||WAR (Position players)||WAR (Pitchers)||Total Team WAR|
Some teams look better by WAR (2012, the Cardinals team in the last decade with the highest Wins Above Replacement, would not have made the playoffs in the previous season, as the second Wild Card had yet to be implemented), and others look worse (the two median teams are the 2011 World Series champions and the 2013 97-win pennant winners), but the 2006 team looks to be near the bottom of recent Cardinals teams either way.
The only problem with these metrics is that they only consider regular season success. Having seen the inches which can and often do separate World Series champions from also-rans, it would be silly to treat a title as the only measure of a team's quality, but to outright ignore the postseason is to pretend those games matter infinitely less than the regular season.
Here is each Cardinals team since 2006 listed with their total number of wins, regular and postseason included. I opted not to include the 2012 Wild Card game in the totals, as this was a win earned by the Cardinals as the result of their own shortcoming of not winning the NL Central. Note also that the 2006 Cardinals only played 161 regular season games.
By this measure, the 2006 team fares a bit better, but it is still tied with 2012 and 2014, two nice Cardinals teams for whom fans have their share of fond memories but neither of which have the luster of a World Series champion.
In some regards, this seems like a dramatic undersell. It is unlikely that young fans fifty years from now will know the specific details of the 2014 version of the Cardinals, while as the old axiom goes, "flags fly forever", and thus even for fans who dig into Cardinals history enough to see the lackluster winning percentage will first see "World Series Champions: 2006."
And from a historical perspective, this is probably all that matters. No amount of statistical analysis can take away what the 2006 Cardinals accomplished.
A team won the World Series with pitcher Mark Mulder being worth more WAR with his hitting and defense than half of the most frequent starting lineup (falling short of Mulder's 0.7 fWAR are Juan Encarnacion with 0.6, So Taguchi's 0.1, the formerly abysmal hitting Yadier Molina with -0.3, and Aaron Miles and his -0.6 WAR). A team won the World Series with its Game 1 starter, Anthony Reyes, having a below league average ERA (it was an offensive era, but a 5.06 ERA was still only good for an 116 ERA-) and an even worse fielding-independent ERA (5.49 FIP with a 124 FIP-).
That a very imperfect team such as the 2006 Cardinals could win the World Series should (won't, but should) act as some solace when the postseason shortcomings of squads such as 2004, 2005, and 2015 enter the minds of Cardinals fans.