In 1943, early in his wildly successful St. Louis Cardinals career, Stan Musial had one of the best seasons he would ever have. By Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement, it was his second best season.
The 22 year-old Musial was worth 9.4 WAR. Here is a comprehensive list of players who ever had a season worth 9.4 or more WAR to the Cardinals: Stan Musial, Rogers Hornsby, Albert Pujols, Bob Gibson. In helping to lead the Cardinals to a National League pennant, Musial appropriately won his first NL Most Valuable Player award.
And it could be argued that for all practical purposes, it did not matter.
That season, the Cardinals finished a whopping 18 games ahead of the second-place Cincinnati Reds. If you work under the assumption that WAR is more or less accurate in gauging player value, even if Musial were to be replaced by the worst right fielder in baseball history (by bWAR, this would be 1985 Texas Ranger George Wright, who somehow managed to be worth -3.7 WAR), the Cardinals would have still finished comfortably in first place.
In some seasons, the margins for error for a team is razor thin: the Cardinals twice made the playoffs with only a one game cushion and eleven times, the Cardinals made the playoffs with two or fewer games separating them from missing the postseason.
Which got me to wondering what players have truly made the most difference in determining Cardinals champions. This is often not much of a reflection on a player's quality: Ted Simmons, the 8th greatest Cardinal ever by WAR, never made the playoffs as a Cardinal. This wasn't really his fault, but nevertheless, his contributions never directly contributed to a playoff run since he never, as a Cardinal, had a playoff run.
Before I continue forward: no, I am not claiming that Nick Punto is a greater Cardinal than Ted Simmons. Rather, I am observing the randomness and arbitrariness of when player value manifests itself into team success. One of the inspirations for this thought exercise was a Baseball Prospectus article from Sam Miller in which he delved into what a difference Mike Trout would have made for MLB teams (spoiler alert: Mike Trout is very good and most teams would really like to have him), but due to circumstance, the Los Angeles Angels were relatively unaffected by his presence under the WAR model--two fourth place finishes in 2013 and 2015 become third place finishes and 2012 and 2014 remain the same.
So bear in mind that this model of a player's "true" value would also conclude Mike Trout has provided no value for the Angels and is thus for recreational purposes only. Here is what I did:
- I looked at the 28 occasions in the modern World Series era (1903-present) in which the Cardinals played in the postseason. I considered the amount of games by which the Cardinals made the postseason, either as a league winner (1903-1968), a division champion, or a wild card, and then credited any player worth that many or more WAR as being the difference between the playoffs and staying home for October.
- I am making no differentiation between, say, an 8.6 WAR player on a team that made the playoffs by one game and a 1.1 WAR player on the same team. This may seem unfair (it is absolutely unfair) but assuming he is replaced by a replacement level player, the end result of removing either player from the team is the same: the team does not make the playoffs.
- A player's contribution to a playoff appearance is multiplied by the end result of the season. For instance, a player who helped the 1982 Cardinals make the playoffs gets more credit than a player who helped the 2015 Cardinals make the playoffs because he helped the team advance further. Results are multiplied by four for World Series champions, three for pennant winners, two for teams bounced in the NLCS, one for teams bounced in the NLDS.
- There is an inherent recency bias in this metric, since there were formerly fewer playoff teams and thus nobody pre-1969 could even possibly have lost in the NLDS or NLCS. With that said, modern baseball as a whole has made the decision that these extra teams should get some credit. Insert something here about millennials and their participation trophy culture (while conveniently ignoring that the size of Major League Baseball has nearly doubled since 1960).
- The math got a little fuzzy for three recent Cardinals teams: 2012, 2013, and 2015. The 2012 Cardinals made the Wild Card game, and while they eventually made the NLCS, they were essentially a coinflip from not even making the NLDS. The 2013 Cardinals won the division by three games, and four players made the difference in this, but made at least the second wild card by 11 games, and the team did not have an 11 WAR player. 2015 was the same situation but in an even more extreme manner, winning the division by two games but clearing the second wild card threshold by 16 games. Each of the players on these teams get half credit.
And here are the twelve most valuable Cardinals by my measure, alongside the twelve most valuable Cardinals by the much more rational measure of Wins Above Replacement.
|Player||Difference Seasons||WAR (through 2015)||Player||WAR|
|T1||Jesse Haines||1926, 1928, 1930||32.5||1.||Stan Musial||128.1|
|T1||Frankie Frisch||1928, 1930, 1934||32.6||2.||Rogers Hornsby||91..4|
|T1||Albert Pujols||2001, 2006, 2009, 2011||86.4||3.||Bob Gibson||89.9|
|T1||Ozzie Smith||1982, 1985, 1987||65.6||4.||Albert Pujols||86.4|
|5||Yadier Molina||2011, 2012, 2013, 2014||31.1||5.||Ozzie Smith||65.6|
|T6||Stan Musial||1942, 1946||128.1||6.||Ken Boyer||58.0|
|T6||Enos Slaughter||1942, 1946||50.3||7.||Enos Slaughter||50.3|
|T6||Marty Marion||1942, 1946||31.6||8.||Ted Simmons||44.8|
|T6||Howie Pollet||1942, 1946||28.1||9.||Curt Flood||42.2|
|T6||Murry Dickson||1942, 1946||19.1||10.||Lou Brock||41.6|
|T6||Chris Carpenter||2006, 2011||26.8||11.||Dizzy Dean||40.8|
|12||Adam Wainwright||2006, 2013, 2014||36.4||12.||Joe Medwick||39.8|
As you can see, there is some overlap, but due to circumstance, some players have had the opportunities to bring more hardware to the Busch Stadiums and have taken advantage. It's a bit like RBI: it's a poor stat for evaluating past performance or predicting present or future performance because it is so reliant on circumstance beyond a player's control, but it's still worth a salute to those who took advantage of the situation when it arose.