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The most exciting Cardinals World Series wins (according to science)

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The drama of the Fall Classic is impossible to quantify, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at St. Louis Cardinals Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight, Game 6 of the 2017 World Series will be played, and a team might win the World Series. It will be the first game of the 2017 season which might be the final baseball game of the season. It’s a bittersweet realization, as the end of the season means months without baseball, but it also means that baseball is about to be really, really exciting for a game or two.

Perhaps the Houston Astros will win their first World Series—they already won their first-ever World Series game six days ago (and if ESPN is to be believed, they played their first World Series game seven days ago). Perhaps the Los Angeles Dodgers will come back and win their first World Series in twenty-nine years on Wednesday, a drought which probably deserves more attention—for a fan thirty-five or younger, the Dodgers were every bit as cursed as the Chicago Cubs before last season.

The 2017 World Series has been, so far, excellent. The first three games of the series were decided by a combined four runs, with the second game in particular being hailed as an instant classic. Game 4 finished 6-2, but was a tense, 1-1 affair entering the ninth inning, with the two runs being scored in consecutive half-innings—by and large, the game was dramatic and had several high-leverage moments. And then Game 5 was mind-bending insanity.

Leverage Index is a statistic used to measure the leverage of an individual baseball play’s circumstances. The higher the number, the more impact can be had on the game’s win probability. For instance, if a player comes to bat with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning with a runner on third base and his team down by one run, the leverage of that at-bat is very high—a home run gives his team a win probability of 100%, an out gives his team a win probability of 0%, and a non-home run hit gives his team a considerable boost in win probability.

But if a player comes up in the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs, a runner on third, and his team is losing by 11 runs, the leverage of the situation is very low—a home run improves his team’s chances of winning from less than one percent to, well, still less than one percent, albeit slightly higher.

Leverage index has some practical benefits in baseball analysis—managers can use the principle that potentially meaningful situations occur in situations other than save situations to, say, deploy their best relievers with the entire season on the line instead of a guy who hadn’t pitched in twenty days. It can also be used to give a general idea of how tightly contested a game was—it may not convey the entire drama of a situation (for instance, while Game 7 of the 2016 World Series was an above-average game for on-field drama, it is more heralded than its 131st ranking among all World Series games by Average Leverage Index might suggest because it was the seventh game of the World Series, it was contested between the two baseball teams with the longest active World Series droughts, etc.), but it’s not a bad snapshot of excitement.

The St. Louis Cardinals have won eleven World Series titles, and I was alive for two of them. I am totally unqualified to rank the quality of these Fall Classics, and unless you watched the games of the Cardinals’ first title ninety-one years ago, you aren’t qualified to do the job, either, at least with complete objectivity.

Below is a ranking of the eleven Cardinals World Series titles, ranked by combined Average Leverage Index. I decided to rank only victorious World Series campaigns because, well, I’ve already written over 600 words and ranking nineteen World Series is just that many more words. Going with combined aLI rather than, say, average aLI is a judgment call, but I think this makes sense because a series is more dramatic if it goes more games. The 2005 World Series was full of excellent, hotly-contested games, but it is rarely cited as a great World Series (when it is remembered at all). Is this a perfect method? I don’t know, maybe? Probably not. Luckily none of this matters and this is just a framing device. I personally think the list is fine.

Longtime Viva El Birdos readers will probably find it unsurprising that I relied heavily on the Baseball Reference Play Index to conduct the research for this post.


#11: 1942 World Series

The Cardinals have never won a World Series in a sweep, but they have won in five games twice, and this was the less exciting of the two. Of the 72 games played by the Cardinals in a World Series which they won, two of the 1942 games against the New York Yankees—games four and five—rank in the top half, with game five ranking in the top ten, by aLI. With a combined 4.988 aLI over five games, the series had ever-so-slightly below-average leverage (a perfectly average five-game set would accumulated 5.0) but was hurt mostly by a relative lack of drama regarding the series victor.

#10: 2006 World Series

Last week, VEB’s parent site SB Nation released a video about this series titled “The Worst World Series”. While the series was marked mostly by endless defensive blunders by Detroit Tigers pitchers and by an 83-win team winning a championship, three of the five games were legitimately exciting. Game 4 was particularly gripping, and if the Tigers had won it, the series would suddenly be tied. It is the 87th most exciting World Series game ever by aLI. For scale, here’s a clip from #91.

#9: 1931 World Series

While the series against the Philadelphia Athletics lacked a great game, it did have several advantages, notably a seventh game (a 4-2 contest, played before a less than two-thirds filled Sportsman’s Park) and only one game, Game 6, which could reasonably be labeled a blowout.

#8: 1967 World Series

The postseason heroics of Bob Gibson give extra zest to this series from a Cardinals fan perspective, though admittedly it is a bit less exhilarating from a neutral perspective. Games 4 and 7 were not especially dramatic, aside from the inherent drama of the World Series (and of the Boston Red Sox potentially winning their first World Series in 49 years). Game 1 was the best game of the series, with Gibby and Lou Brock guiding the Cardinals to a 2-1 victory. This was not the least dramatic Cardinals/Red Sox World Series.

#7: 1944 World Series

The six-game “Streetcar Series”, contested between the Cardinals and the St. Louis Browns, is diminished somewhat by timing—World War II had depleted MLB of much of its talent and 1942 through 1945 is far from the sport at peak capacity. But in terms of competitive games, 1944’s World Series had it—the first two games were one-run games, with the second decided in extra innings. The final game of the series was a 3-1 Cardinals victory in which the team was able to overcome an early deficit. Here are some series highlights.

#6: 1946 World Series

Although most famous today for Enos Slaughter’s “Mad Dash” to win Game 7, the true classic was Game 1, a 3-2 Red Sox victory which included a go-ahead Cardinals double from Joe Garagiola in the bottom of the 8th, a two-out single from Tom McBride to tie the game in the top of the 9th, and a winning home run from Rudy York in the top of the 10th. It is the third-highest leverage game in Cardinals World Series history, and the second-highest in a victorious series.

#5: 1982 World Series

The Milwaukee Brewers and the Cardinals traded uneventful blowout wins in Games 1 and 6, but the seven-game series was marked by a tense Game 2, in which the Cardinals won by one run thanks to a bases-loaded walk by Steve Braun in the bottom of the eighth, and a closer-than-the-final-score Game 7, with back-to-back singles from Keith Hernandez and George Hendrick in the 6th inning helping the Cardinals overcome a two-run deficit before the Cardinals added two insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth to reach the final score of 6-3.

#4: 1934 World Series

Game 7 was a snoozer, with the Cardinals defeating the Tigers 11-0, but this was a series in which a team tied Game 2 in the bottom of the 9th, walked off in the bottom of the 12th, and it was still only the third-most dramatic game by aLI of the series.

#3: 1926 World Series

This series included a “golden pitch”, a phenomenon I wrote about last year. Game 7 against the New York Yankees was one of three one-run games in the series, and it was arguably the least dramatic (by aLI it was, at least). Game 5 included a 9th inning comeback by the Yankees, which led to a 10th inning go-ahead sacrifice fly. Also, Babe Ruth got caught stealing to end the freaking World Series.

#2: 1964 World Series

The series included a walk-off home run courtesy of Mickey Mantle, and the Yankees even managed to be dramatic in what turned out to be a 8-3 Game 2 victory—four of the Yankees’ runs were 9th inning insurance runs. It was a well-rounded series which included an objective classic in Game 3 and it went the distance.

#1: 2011 World Series

If you remove Game 6 from the math, the 2011 World Series still ranks at #5 on this list. The first two games of the series were one-run games, the fifth game was the #5 aLI game in the Cardinals’ World Series victories, and the only true dud of the series, the 16-7 routing of the Texas Rangers in Game 3, was only a two-run game entering the sixth inning and included Albert Pujols being awesome (not that this helps from an aLI perspective, but it did assure that every individual game had its merits).

Adding Game 6, however, makes this series #1 by a healthy amount. The gap between 1 and 2 is larger than the gap between 2 and 6. I’ll avoid the obvious commentary about the game and instead remind, or perhaps inform, you that Game 6 exists in the Simpsons universe, and Homer thinks very highly of it.

Homer was right. And you don’t see any “Homer is a dope” t-shirts, do you?