A couple weeks ago, VanHicklestein wrote an interesting Fanpost in which he evaluated which current-day MLB players are the closest analogues to the three primary offensive superstars of the mid-2000s St. Louis Cardinals—first baseman Albert Pujols, center fielder Jim Edmonds, and third baseman Scott Rolen. Ultimately, he arrived at Carlos Correa, Daniel Murphy, and Manny Machado as players with similar offensive track records to these icons of his (and my) teenage years.
This team, particularly the 2004 iteration, receives an enormous share of the local nostalgia market, and hopefully this post was effective in conveying to those who do not remember 2004 just what it was like to watch such a potent offensive attack.
The only other individual Cardinals team which can compete with 2004 for nostalgia share is the extremely different Whitey Herzog era Cardinals of the 1980s. Rather than being built on the sheer power of three dynamic sluggers, the hallmark of “Whiteyball” was speed and defense. While they did not win the World Series, the 1985 team was the best of the lot, winning 101 regular season games and epitomizing a forgone era known for base-running prowess and Glenn Frey montages.
I’ve seen the highlights. I’ve seen the memorable moments. But having grown up on a steady diet of superhuman titans as the path to victory, it is a bit hard to imagine such an ensemble, particularly with my memories of the fleet-footedness of the most recent World Series champions firmly intact.
So in order to better conceptualize it, I found the current player best representative of 1985’s lineup equivalent. There are no perfect analogues, but I tried to find the player who best combined stylistic similarities and overall quality. While there are certainly intangible qualities I may have missed, as well as shortcomings in the available statistics from 32 years ago, the bright side is that these picks are less influenced by sentiment and more influenced by the raw production of the players involved.
Catcher: Although Tom Nieto actually played more games and had more plate appearances, it is 1982 World Series MVP Darrell Porter who received the majority of postseason playing time and was the more productive player. Porter was an above-average hitter (109 wRC+) with a good batting eye (14.4% walk rate) and solid defense and running abilities. Although not much of a base-runner since the late aughts, veteran Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin mostly fits the Porter mold—good defense, solid but not Buster Posey-level offense, and a consistently high walk rate.
First Base: Former San Francisco Giants outfielder Jack Clark switched to first base with the Cardinals and was the offense’s biggest power threat, belting 22 home runs and ranking among the best first basemen in the league at drawing walks, while his 150 wRC+ was second only to Don Mattingly’s 151 among first basemen with close to as many plate appearances as The Ripper. The best parallel to Clark, interestingly, might be another walk-drawing monster recently converted to first base who has limited speed but solid power—current Cardinals first baseman Matt Carpenter.
Second Base: Tom Herr was second only to Ryne Sandberg in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement among 1985 second basemen. His value was primarily offensive—in 696 plate appearances, Herr posted a 127 wRC+ and was a plus base-runner, with 31 steals. The only modern second basemen with comparable base-thieving abilities are Jose Altuve, a far better hitter, and Dee Gordon, a far worse hitter. A player with some similarity, though, is Red Sox veteran Dustin Pedroia—while Pedroia is a superior fielder and not a speedster, he is a comparable overall player and has a similar batting profile, avoiding strikeouts with non-zero but far from great power.
Shortstop: Ozzie Smith is the greatest defensive shortstop ever, so finding a comparable player is difficult. Although the Wizard was only slightly above average at the plate (104 wRC+) with just six home runs, his 31 steals and elite fielding made him the best shortstop in baseball in 1985 by fWAR. The only reasonable comparison is Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons, currently in the midst of a well above-average offensive season but probably closer to average by true talent when considering his track record, who is widely considered the best defensive shortstop in baseball.
Third Base: Eventually an MVP with the Atlanta Braves, Terry Pendleton was a slick fielder at the hot corner who produced very little offensive value in 1985. Pendleton tied with Expos third baseman Tim Wallach for the position lead in Defensive Runs Saved, but he managed a paltry 66 wRC+ with a .240/.285/.306 triple-slash line and was thus a roughly average player. The closest comparison I can fathom among third basemen is a poor man’s version of 2017 Manny Machado, who himself is a poor man’s version of pre-2017 Manny Machado. Machado remains a slick fielder but his offense is down, though not nearly to Pendleton’s level. A closer analogy in spirit is Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias, a strong defender and terrible hitter.
Left Field: Although left field was initially patrolled by fascinating specimen Lonnie Smith, 1985 Rookie of the Year Vince Coleman was the primary starter throughout the year. Coleman was a subpar hitter with so-so defense, but he was an above-average overall player because of his historic speed, swiping 110 bases that season. Coleman is the player who looks the most bizarre through a modern lens, and there isn’t a great comparison in 2017, but I’m going with Rangers left fielder Delino DeShields Jr., a comparable hitter. DeShields has better defense, particularly if you consider Coleman’s defensive metrics declining after 1985, but consider this an off-set of DeShields being one of baseball’s better runners and being on pace for only around a fourth of the steals that Coleman accumulated.
Center Field: Willie McGee was mostly solid as a Cardinal in the 1980s, but 1985 was easily his best season—he won MVP, stole 56 bases, had a 151 wRC+, and played competent defense. Conveniently, the closest thing in 2017 to 1985 McGee is current Cardinal Tommy Pham, or at least the very high BABIP version which has shown up this year—a very potent offensive threat with a solid all-around game.
Right Field: Although somewhat less celebrated than the ultra-flashy stars such as Smith or Coleman, Andy Van Slyke was an all-around standout—he posted a 117 wRC+, stole 34 bases, and was well above-average in the field. Van Slyke was comparable to Astros right fielder Josh Reddick—while Reddick has been worse defensively in the last three seasons, he is still above-average throughout his career in the field, and his above-average offense and base-running make him a more fair comparison than my original pick, the far better defender Mookie Betts.
My reaction to this lineup is a bit mixed. On one hand, I would enjoy having Dustin Pedroia and Andrelton Simmons on my team. On the other hand, an outfield of Delino DeShields Jr., Tommy Pham, and Josh Reddick seems—fine? But it does seem a bit more stripped of the mythology that the legendary 1985 team holds. This dichotomy sums up the reality of the 1985 Cardinals—they were a great team, albeit one that did have its shortcomings, and they existed in reality. And just as this lineup would be an intriguing one today, the 1985 one held similar esteem in its day.