I want to begin by posing a very basic question, one which cannot be answered conclusively but one which could provoke many theories: Why do people hate the St. Louis Cardinals?
According to a poll conducted last month by FiveThirtyEight, the Cardinals aren’t actually all that hated. In fact, only the Chicago Cubs have a higher net favorability rating in all of Major League Baseball. But anybody who has spent more than a few minutes on Twitter can tell you that those who hate the Cardinals hate the Cardinals.
The most obvious theory to suggest why the Cardinals elicit negative reactions is because of on-field success. The most disliked team in the FiveThirtyEight survey by far was the New York Yankees, the most historically successful team in the history of baseball. The Cardinals have not only been successful, but they’ve defeated a variety of teams. Of the fourteen teams in the National League, the Cardinals have defeated ten of them in a postseason series; they have defeated eight of the fourteen since 2006 alone. It’s one thing to dislike a team who has your team’s number in May; it’s another to dislike a team that ended your team’s season.
Last week, the Cardinals had a four-game series against the Kansas City Royals, split between Kauffman Stadium and Busch Stadium. Entering the series, per Baseball Prospectus, the Royals had a 32.1% chance of making the playoffs—7.9% to win the division and 24.2% to win a Wild Card spot. At the moment, they sat in the second AL Wild Card, half a game ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays. Given that Baseball Prospectus projections have become notorious for underestimating the Royals (and overestimating the Rays), Kansas City fans would not be irrational to expect their chances at the postseason to be even greater.
Following a four-game sweep in which the Cardinals destroyed the Royals, the Royals’ playoff odds fell to 14.4%—4.4% to win the AL Central and 10.1% to win a Wild Card. Over the course of four days, the odds of the Royals making it to the American League Division Series fell by more than half.
This would, in and of itself, be a bit heartbreaking for any fan base, but the Kansas City Royals are, perhaps more than any other team, in win-now mode. The Royals are coming off the end of their best five-year stretch since the 1980s. They are one of just two teams (along with the Chicago Cubs) without a top 100 prospect, and they have several key pieces who will be free agents at the end of the season, including Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas. Fearing that their window of opportunity is closing, the Royals acquired firepower for the 2017 stretch run, including pure rentals Melky Cabrera and Trevor Cahill. And while they are not finished for the season, four consecutive losses is not helpful to their cause.
The first decade of the 21st century brought a few examples of the Cardinals vanquishing their win-now playoff opponents, notably defeating a 2004 Houston Astros team which had supplemented their aging “Killer B’s” core with Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and eventually fellow “B” Carlos Beltran, and a 2006 New York Mets team loaded with veterans whose hopes were crushed by Adam Wainwright’s towering curve, crushing the spirits of their fans.
But beginning in 2011, the Cardinals truly ventured into giant-killing. And in five consecutive postseason series victories, they crushed the spirits of a team which has not won a postseason series since falling to the Cardinals.
2011 Philadelphia Phillies
The 2011 Phillies were simultaneously at the peak of their powers and on the decline. It was their fifth straight postseason appearance, and their run had included a World Series win and an additional World Series trip. Their most commonly used starting lineup, apart from in-season acquisition Hunter Pence, was north of thirty, and the rotation was led by Roy Halladay (34) and Cliff Lee (33), with Roy Oswalt (34) a significant contributor as well.
The acquisition of Pence, acquired from the Astros, for their preseason #2, #4, #8, and #13 prospects was a clear signal that they intended to win a title immediately, and their 102 wins were a testament to this. And then, in the most agonizing fashion imaginable, the Phillies fell to the Cardinals, with superstar Ryan Howard tearing his Achilles tendon while making the final out of the 2011 NLDS.
The next season, the Phillies went .500. They haven’t reached .500 since.
2011 Milwaukee Brewers
Following a 77-win season in 2010, the Brewers went for it in 2011. With Prince Fielder, one of their two big offensive threats, a free agent after 2011, the Brewers traded prospects (including Lorenzo Cain, Jake Odorizzi, Alcides Escobar, and Brett Lawrie) to add veterans Shaun Marcum, Nyjer Morgan, and most notably, Zack Greinke.
And the season went well. The Brewers won a franchise-record 96 games and sailed away with the NL Central, Ryan Braun won MVP, and they defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NLDS. And then, they lost in six games to the Cardinals.
Prince Fielder signed with the Detroit Tigers. Zack Greinke was traded to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the next season. In the five seasons since the 2011 NLCS, the Brewers have won no more than 83 games and have finished no higher than third in the NL Central.
2011 Texas Rangers
For the second consecutive season, the Texas Rangers made it to the World Series, and this team was positively loaded. At 96 wins, this was the third consecutive postseason opponent for the Cardinals who had set a franchise record for wins. The roster was so overflowing with talent that defending MVP Josh Hamilton produced 3.7 Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement, good for a 130 OPS+ over 538 plate appearances, and finished eighth on the team in WAR.
The Rangers did not grow bad after this series—they made the Wild Card Game in 2012 and then parlayed AL West titles into ALDS appearances in 2015 and 2016. But 2011 was their best chance at winning the first World Series in franchise history. And, as you may know, they were one strike away.
2012 Washington Nationals
In following with their recent history as the Montreal Expos, the Washington Nationals had a mediocre existence after their 2005 relocation, but in 2012, everything started to click. The 98-win club was led by former #1 overall picks Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg (though the latter infamously was shut down before the postseason), and while the team had a relatively young core, this was their first and perhaps best shot at making a title run. Everything about this team made their look like they were the future of baseball. Natitude! Sunglasses!
And while the 2014 and 2016 (and likely the 2017) versions of the Nationals won the NL East, the Expos/Nationals franchise has still yet to win a playoff series. And this is thanks to Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma.
2013 Pittsburgh Pirates
For the first time since 1992, the Pittsburgh Pirates had a winning record. And while the Cardinals and their 97-win campaign relegated the 94-win Pirates to the Wild Card Game, it worked out very well in the end, because it allowed the raucous PNC Park crowd to enter baseball mythology.
Led by a solid rotation and NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates jumped off to a 2-1 NLDS lead against the Cardinals, but following a Game 4 in which Michael Wacha flirted with a no-hitter, the series returned in St. Louis, where Adam Wainwright threw a complete game.
While the Pirates did make the next two postseasons, they did not advance to the NLDS.
While the chances of the Cardinals making it to postseason play in 2017 have dramatically increased in the last week and a half, it is still an uncertainty. But the four-game sweep at the hands of the Cardinals may be viewed as a fatal blow to the chances of the Kansas City Royals, and surely this would not endear the Cardinals to Royals fans. And it’s completely understandable that a special level of scorn would be reserved for teams that crushed one’s spirit during seasons which felt especially significant.