The 2003 Cardinals were built heavily on offense. They had five players with 15 or more home runs and three (Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen) with at least 28. Their 196 home runs ranked third in the NL and their 876 total runs ranked second. A team-wide 109 wRC+ trailed only the Braves whose 112 is still the highest since the Astros in 1998.
That Cardinals team couldn’t really pitch though. Their ERA, FIP, fWAR as a staff ranked 11th, 12th, and 13th, respectively in the NL. For starters with at least 100 innings pitched, only Matt Morris (3.76) and Woody Williams (3.87) had an ERA below 4.59. To wit, Brett Tomko threw over 200 innings and had a 5.28 ERA. (According to Baseball-Reference’s Play Index, Dan Griner is the only other Cardinal to be a member of the 200+ innings, 5.00+ ERA club, and his ERA (5.08) was lower than Tomko’s and the year was 1913.)
As such, the 2003 team could never quite put it together. The highest they got over .500 was eight games and they didn’t get there until the conclusion of game 162. Then they went home for October for the first time since 1999. I’m fine blaming it all on Tino Martinez.
And yet, because the NL Central was so weak in 2003, the Cardinals were in the division race for virtually the entire season. They were in first as late as September 2 and weren’t mathematically eliminated until game 159 (they finished the season three games behind the Cubs). They were never more than six games away from first place all season and that only happened for one day. Contrast that with the 2016 Cardinals who haven’t been within six games of first place since May 23.
Where the 2003 season was really lost though was the infamous five-game series at Wrigley Field in early September when the Cubs took four of five and displaced the Cardinals in the standings. The Cubs won the first game of the series on a walk-off two-run home run from Sammy Sosa in the 15th inning, and won the last two by a single run. It was a dispiriting series which seemed to hang over the team’s head (or at least this fan’s head) even as they stayed within shouting distance of first for the final weeks of the season.
This year might be 2003 all over again. The Cardinals are first and third in the NL in home runs and runs, respectively, while comfortably in the bottom-half of the league in run prevention (although the staff’s FIP and fWAR are both in the top half). They have seven players with at least 15 home runs which ties a team record (the 2000 squad also pulled this off), while only having one starter (Carlos Martinez) who has pitched at least 100 innings while maintaining an ERA below 4.45. Throw in very bad defense and base running (which actually differentiates them from the ‘03 squad), and you have a team, like 2003, that hasn’t been able to rise above nine games over .500 all season.
Unlike 2003, the division hasn’t been close for a long time. But a weak second tier crop has had them within at least a few games of the last wild card all season. After yesterday’s loss to the Cubs, the Cardinals ensured their first losing record at home since 1999. But with the Mets and Giants also losing, the Cardinals remain just one game back from actually hosting the Wild Card game.
The NL wild card berths will not be won. They will be happened upon.— Dayn Perry (@daynperry) September 15, 2016
Seventeen games are left in the Cardinals’ season. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Met have the easiest path in MLB (by a wide margin, too), with the Cardinals and Giants having a difficult road from here. And whereas the 2003 season was sunk during those five games at Wrigley, the Cardinals have the opportunity to do the opposite starting today as they open a four-game series with the Giants in San Francisco. Come Monday we might have a pretty good idea if this team will get to game 163.
The Giants are 15 games under .500 since the All-Star break. If the Cardinals end up playing on October 5th it might only be because the Giants (or Mets) deserved it less than they did and that’s fine. The 2003 season, like this year, was a month-by-month affair of pedestrian baseball that ended appropriately so. This year though, the ending can be different. With the addition of the second wild card in 2012 and this timely series with the Giants, the Cardinals still have the opportunity to make something good out of this frustrating year. Might as well take advantage.