But now, probably more than ever, we understand that performance in the regular and postseason are largely separate. We've seen a historic run of success out of the Cardinals over the past decade and-a-half, and yet our two World Series winners during that span were among the weaker iterations of the team going into the playoffs.
I occasionally see folks online who seem to want to dismiss the playoffs entirely, given their randomness. But that's not cool. Winning during the regular season and during the playoffs is what a team has to do in order to call themselves "champions," and the teams that do so have earned that title.
All that being said, it's still fun to consider who the best teams of all-time were, regardless of how they finished out their campaign.
FiveThirtyEight recently published a "Complete History of MLB" based on ELO rankings. ELO rankings are a system which rates teams based on how they are expected to perform and how they actually perform in competition with each other. It is fluid, and changes game to game. If a good team beats a bad team, their rating will improve slightly. If a bad team beats a good team, theirs will improve more substantially.
This is not the first time ELO ratings have been applied to baseball. Baseball Prospectus has used them for years in things like their playoff odds reports. But FiveThirtyEight's project is interesting for a couple reasons. Rather than just looking a team's final ELO rating (remember, they are fluid), the FiveThirtyEight model calculates something called "Composite ELO" by considering a team's peak, average and final ELO for the season.
The FiveThirtyEight data is also very pretty and sortable. So what does it say about the best Cardinals teams of all-time?
Unsurprisingly, the Cardinals dynasty of the 1940s rates as the best Redbirds teams of all-time. In terms of Average and Peak ELO, the 1944 Cardinals team ranks behind only the two biggest outliers of all-time - the 1906 Cubs and 1939 Yankees.
As noted at FiveThirtyEight, the disparity between the very best and very worst teams was much higher before the 1960s, so the highest rated teams skew heavily toward that Golden Age of Baseball. The Cardinals place eight teams in the Top 100, and the only modern team to make that cut, probably unsurprisingly... is the 2004 team.
That '04 MV3 squad is rated the 5th best team since 2000, trailing only the '01 and '02 A's, the '01 Mariners and the '09 Yankees.
The 2010s have seen even fewer teams place in the upper echelons of ELO. Only two teams have placed in the Top 100 of all-time. The best was the 2011 Phillies, who ranked 76th, and you may remember lost to the Cardinals in the division series.
If you're looking for a fun, data-driven way to play around in Cardinals history, it's worth checking out.