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The best Cardinals teams, statistically speaking

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Some rock-solid information

80th MLB All-Star Game Photo by Morry Gash-Pool/Getty Images

On Monday, Scott Ferkovich wrote in the Hardball Times on the lost art of teams who hit .300. This is a rare feat, non-existent in baseball’s modern era as Ferkovich notes the last team to do it was the 1950 Red Sox – the same team who employed the man who was often quoted as saying that baseball is the only sport where you can fail seven out of ten times and still make the Hall of Fame (a line that now, of course, has been “well actually’d” to death). Unless I missed someone, the Splendid Splinter himself and Bobby Doerr are the only two from that Sox team to be enshrined in Cooperstown.

Point stands though, it’s a hard thing to do. The Cardinals as a team have batted over .300 only three times since the turn of last century: 1921, 1922, and 1930. The ’21 and ’22 teams were aided by Rogers Hornsby hovering around .400, and every starting position player on the ’30 team hit over .300, with second baseman Frankie Frisch leading the way at .346 and outfielder Taylor Douthit on the other end at .303.

Curious, and with the aid of FanGraphs Leaderboards, this had me thinking about the best Cardinals teams measured by various offensive and pitching statistics. I used a timeframe of 1962, from when the National League first started playing a 162-game schedule, until the present, and I only looked at the type of traditional stats that you might find on the back of a 1987 Topps baseball card. Perhaps later I’ll do the same exercise with a bent towards advanced statistics, but until then save it nerds what follows are the five best Cardinals teams in the modern era for various statistical categories.

Hitting

Batting Average

The six best Cardinals teams to hit for average since 1962 averaged almost 88 wins. The ‘08 team doesn’t get a lot of accolades because they’re one of the few Cardinals teams since 2000 to not make the postseason but their issues were not on the offensive side of the ball. Albert Pujols hit .357 to lead that team in batting which was second in the NL to Chipper Jones (.364).

On-base Percentage

These seven teams averaged approximately 90 wins. You see the Pujols effect here. He played for four of these teams and during his eleven seasons with the Cardinals he led all of baseball (min. 3,000 plate appearances) with a .420 on-base clip. However, he didn’t play for the 2000 team which had six players (Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds, J.D. Drew, Fernando Vina, Fernando Tatis, Ray Lankford) with at least 300 plate appearances and an OBP above .360.

The 1998 team featured McGwire’s 70-home run season and his .470 on-base percentage, which is the third best in team history for qualified hitters behind two seasons from Hornsby in the ‘20s.

Slugging

These six teams averaged approximately 91 wins. The ‘04 team is tied for the 15th best slugging percentage in the NL dating back to 1901. You will not be surprised to learn there are a lot of Rockies teams in front of them.

Home Runs

These five teams averaged approximately 92 wins. The 2001 team hit almost 200 home runs and yet that was good for only 7th best in the NL because more home runs were hit in the league that season (2,952) than any other year save for 2000 (3,004). Trends change. Just two seasons ago the NL accounted for 900+ fewer home runs (2,025).

Runs

These five teams averaged approximately 92 wins. Edmonds led the ‘00 team with 129 runs which tied Barry Bonds for third in the NL behind Jeff Bagwell and Todd Helton. Pujols led the league with 133 runs in ‘04 and was joined by Scott Rolen (109) and Edmonds (102) in the top 16.

Runs Batted In

Not surprising, these are the same teams as directly above in nearly the same order.

Stolen Bases

These teams averaged 84 wins, which is a good chunk less than the slugging teams above but there’s a lot of great facts packed into this chart. First, ten of the top eleven stolen base seasons in Cardinals history occurred from an eleven season stretch from 1982-1992 (the outlier is the 1914 team which stole 204 bases, which ranks 9th best in the organization’s history).

Second, the top three seasons above were aided by Vince Coleman who stole 110, 107, and 109 bases, respectively, from ‘85’-’87. These three seasons rank in the top six all-time for stolen bases in a single season. And this three-year total of 326 stolen bases is 29 more than the entire organization during the five-year Mike Matheny era. (That’s not to say the team should try to steal more bases in 2017 because they absolutely shouldn’t.)

Third, the ‘85 team stole 314 bases, the Cubs were second in MLB with 182. The Padres were dead-last (26th) with 60 - which means there was a larger separation between 1st and 2nd than 2nd and last.

Pitching

Earned Run Average

Factor in Bob Gibson, John Tudor in 1985, and the run prevention wizards of ‘15 and you get five teams which averaged approximately 97 wins. From ‘67-’69, Gibson had a 1.95 ERA, which led all of baseball. The others in the top-five were Jerry Koosman, Tom Seaver, Phil Niekro, and Juan Marichal, and none of them had an ERA below 2.34.

Also, post-dead-ball era, the Cardinal’s 1968 team ERA remains the best in the NL.

Walks/Hits Per Innings Pitched

These seven teams averaged approximately 92 wins. Mostly the same story as from above only add in the ‘92 team which saw Bob Tewksbury’s influence. Tewskbury had a 1.02 WHIP that season, which was third best in the majors (min 150 IP) behind Curt Schilling and Greg Maddux. He also had a league-best 2.2% walk rate, which out-paced teammate Rheal Cormier whose 4.3% mark was second in all of baseball. Dating back to 1933, Tewksbury’s ‘92 walk rate is the best in the NL save for Bret Saberhagen’s 1994 season in which he allowed only 1.9% of batters the free pass.

Strikeouts

Well, look at that. Since 1962, the five highest strikeout total seasons have come during the five years of the Matheny/Derek Lilliquist era (an era in which the team has averaged 92 wins). That’s not a huge surprise with all of the hard throwers that have come through the farm system the last few years following the 16 seasons of the Dave Duncan ground ball philosophy.

Even in the last five years though, they ranked in the bottom half of the league in strikeouts more often than not. The Cardinals have never been a strikeout heavy organization. Going back to 1962, the Cardinals have struck out 50,861 batters which ranks dead last in the NL (only including the ten teams that have been in existence for that entire period). The Astros, who came into the league in 1962, rank ninth with almost 1,000 more total strikeouts.

Walks

*strike shortened years were omitted

These teams won around 92 games on average. Here again we see Tewksbury’s influence as well as different trends from era to era. The BB/9 rate for the NL in 1968 was 2.62. By the next season they lowered the mound and it has only dipped below 3.00 in the NL four times (1988, 2013, 2014, 2015), and never lower than the 2.89 rate in ’14.

Saves

On the backs of the best closers in franchise history (Trevor Rosenthal, Jason Isringhausen, Lee Smith, Bruce Sutter), these teams averaged nearly 93 wins. The 62 saves in 2015 set an NL record and ranks fifth all-time across MLB. The 1990 White Sox hold the record with 68, aided by Bobby Thigpen’s then-record of 57.

*****

Again, down the road I might do a similar exercise with more advanced statistics, but I don’t think there will be too many surprises. Most of us know when the team pitched well, hit well, ran well, et., and that the ‘70s was a decade of mediocre Cardinals baseball. One thing that stood out though is the absence of the 2005 team - a team that won 100 games. If anything caught your eye feel free to share it in the comments below.

Enjoy your long weekend, everyone.