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The Cardinals and the joy of meaningful baseball

By virtue of being good but not too good, the Cardinals have rarely played meaningless games in the 2010s

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Most casual fans, if asked who the greatest baseball team of this decade has been, would say the San Francisco Giants. After all, the Giants have won three World Series championships in a decade in which no other team has won more than one.

But the Giants have had some noticeable valleys alongside their very prominent peaks. In 2013, the Giants finished 76-86 and were eliminated from playoff contention on September 11. Following that day, in which the Giants were mathematically eliminated from defending their World Series championship, San Francisco played sixteen more games.

They finished 10-6, in theory a positive note upon which to conclude a mediocre season, but the games had a certain intrinsic hollowness to them. And this season was not nearly as draining of an experience for Bay Area fans as 2017, in which the Giants will play thirty-seven games having already been eliminated from NL West contention and twenty-one games having been eliminated from mathematical contention for a Wild Card spot.

This is not an experience which St. Louis Cardinals fans have shared with the Giants faithful. While the Giants played sixteen “meaningless” games in 2013, the Cardinals played ten. In the first seven years of the decade.

In this context, “meaningless” is defined as a game in which the team has no incentive to win. This applies most obviously to games played after a team has been mathematically eliminated, but it applies also to games played after a team has solidified its place in the playoffs with no possibility of improvement nor descent.

In 2010, the St. Louis Cardinals got half of their decade’s meaningless games out of the way, playing five of them following the September 28 NL Central clinching by the Cincinnati Reds. Oddly enough, the team won its next five games, but this was little consolation for Cardinals fans.

But in 2011, the Cardinals played 180 meaningful baseball games—all 162 in the regular season and 18 postseason contests. As most fans surely remember, the Cardinals entered the final game of the regular season tied with the Atlanta Braves for the National League Wild Card spot, and played the entirety of that night’s game against the Houston Astros not knowing if a loss would end their season (as it turns out, as was typically the case in 2011, the Astros lost and the Philadelphia Phillies won, thus putting the Cardinals in the playoffs).

In 2012, the Cardinals clinched the second Wild Card spot on the penultimate day of the regular season, leading to a bizarre final game in which the starting lineup included the team’s third catcher, Bryan Anderson, playing first base and batting sixth. And yet the Cardinals beat a Reds team which was still alive for the NL’s number-one playoff seed and played its typical lineup. Because baseball.

In 2013, the Cardinals played no meaningless games; game 162 still had implications for determining home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs. In 2014, the Cardinals played one such game—the Cardinals entered the final day of the season with a one game division lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates, but once it became evident that the Pirates were going to lose their earlier-starting game and clinch the division for St. Louis, the Cardinals trotted out a mostly reserve lineup with Nick Greenwood getting the start. And the Cardinals won the game 1-0. Again, this is a weird sport.

Some sanity was restored in 2015, when the Cardinals actually lost their meaningless games—all three of them, in Atlanta, after the Cardinals simultaneously clinched home-field advantage, the NL Central, and 100 wins with a victory over the Pirates in Game 159. The 2015 Braves were a very bad team, but they shut out the Cardinals for the series, thanks in large part to the half-speed lineups a team with no incentive to win utilized. And then in 2016, the Cardinals entered the final game of the season within striking distance of a Wild Card spot, and thus the team fielded a typical lineup (until a Giants victory cemented the Cardinals’ elimination, at which point the team opted for a more theatrical approach).

Choosing any year and making it the beginning point for this data set is going to be somewhat unfulfilling because any starting point can be construed as arbitrary. I chose 2010 over 2011, a year that I, through illogical personal biases, view as the beginning of this current Cardinals run, or 2012, the first year of the Mike Matheny/post-Albert Pujols era, because it’s a nice even cutoff. And since 2010, no team has played fewer meaningless games than the St. Louis Cardinals.

This is mostly a reflection of the team’s success, but it is also partly the result of the team never being dominant (even the 100-win team of 2015 was somewhat overshadowed by the 98-win Pirates and 97-win Cubs chasing them in September). Last year’s Cubs, for instance, played seven games to close out 2016 after having clinched the NL’s best record.

Several of MLB’s stalwart teams had individual seasons with more meaningless games than the Cardinals have over seven years. For the first four seasons of the 2010s, the Braves more or less kept pace with the Cardinals, playing only seven meaningless games to the six of the Cardinals, but in 2014, the Braves played seven, and once the tanking hit its stride in 2015, they pulled away—22 meaningless games in 2015 and 20 in 2016 (one could make an argument that losing teams deserve a further bump because if a team is, say, ten games back with eleven games to go, fans won’t realistically perceive themselves as “in it”, though I decided to keep it simple and go with mathematical elimination as the threshold; if you wish to consider all-but-eliminated, adjust accordingly and consider a larger lead for the Cardinals by this measure).

Some of the decade’s more successful franchises have also had individual seasons with more meaningless games. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals have become two of the sport’s premier organizations, but in 2010, they were underwhelming enough to play 11 and 20 meaningless games, respectively. The Texas Rangers played in zero meaningless games for a three-year stretch from 2011 through 2013, but cratered in 2014 and played in 22 of them. Only the New York Yankees, a franchise which won at least 84 games in every season this century, are within reasonable striking distance of the Cardinals’ consistency, at 14.

After a disappointing weekend at Wrigley Field, the odds that the Cardinals make the playoffs are looking longer and longer, but the team is playing with a specific purpose. It may not, and probably won’t, come to fruition, and it is likely that the Cardinals will play a nonzero number of meaningless games in 2017, but there is virtue to the organization’s ability to keep this to a minimum. As disappointing as the 2016 Cardinals could be considered, there were 162 games fans watched with a sense of importance. In a season without meaningless games, September feels like the playoffs, since every game has an additional layer of significance.