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Equilibrium, BaseRuns, and the Misperceptions of 2011-2015

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After five years of glory, the franchise declined. What this article presupposes is... maybe they didn’t?

St Louis Cardinals v Arizona Diamondbacks
Brandon Moss, Jeremy Hazelbaker, Matt Adams, Aledmys Diaz, and Ruben Tejada... it’s the most 2016 Cardinalsiest imaginable
Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

Editor’s note: Mr. LaRue has joined the Viva El Birdos staff to contribute an analysis piece every Sunday. Check out John’s first piece and give him a warm welcome to the site! -Josey

Ah, 2011-2015- the halcyon days when rally squirrels and happy flights were rampant and Maikel Cleto roamed the earth. If you’re reading this site, you surely remember those years fondly, with each season offering its own successes and memories. We all celebrated good times (come on!) during those years- the impossible run to the playoffs in 2011, David Freese’s mammoth NLCS and World Series, 2012’s KozMagic moment in the NLDS (I live in DC, and even some of my co-workers will not let me forget it), the 2013 run to the World Series on the back of a very green Michael Wacha, Matt Adams’ walkoff blast in the 2014 NLDS, and the sprint to 100 wins in 2015. Good times were had by all. And there’s certainly a perception in some pockets of the world right now that the franchise has collapsed the last two seasons, failing to live up to the standards set by those 2011-2015 teams. But is that true?

Let’s begin by looking at BaseRuns. You can find a definition of BaseRuns here via Fangraphs. If you’d rather the quick definition, BaseRuns is much like pythagorean record in that it digs deeper into a team’s performance to predict a winning percentage. It’s very good at identifying teams that are likely to improve or decline moving forward. Unlike pythagorean record, which stops at runs scored and allowed, BaseRuns goes under the hood to evaluate the component parts that led to those run totals. It illustrates team strength, and the gap between BaseRuns records and actual records can reasonably be explained by simple sequencing variance. Does your mammoth homerun come before or after two walks, for instance? One of those homeruns scores 3 runs, while the other is a solo shot. BaseRuns strips sequencing variance out of the equation.

With that out of the way, let’s use BaseRuns to reevaluate the 2011-2015 run, and put it in the context of the last two seasons. Has the franchise really slowed down, or has sequencing altered our perceptions? We’ll look at each individual team in that timeframe.

2011

Actual finish: 90-72, won the Wild Card on the final day of the season, won the World Series
BaseRun Record: 88-74, out of the playoffs
Consequences of Sequencing: Had the 2011 Cardinals played to their BaseRun record, they would have missed the playoffs. This means no thrilling final game of the season, no epic NLDS game 5 duel between Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay, and most of all, no legendary David Freese explosion (including no Game 6).

2012

Actual finish: 88-74, defeated Atlanta in the first year of the play-in game, lost the NLCS
BaseRun Record: 94-68, NL Central winner
Consequences of Sequencing: Technically, the Reds- the actual 2012 NL Central division winners- were an 87-win team using BaseRuns. As a matter of fact, the Cardinals had the 2nd best BaseRuns record in the NL that season behind only the Nats. This is a rare case during the 2011-2015 run where BaseRun success surpassed reality. There’s also the matter of the Giants failing to make the playoffs had BaseRun records been the official mark rather than actual wins and losses, which eliminates the Cardinals’ apex predator that year. In this version, the road to the World Series would be an LDS appointment with Arizona (yep… Arizona was better than the Giants that year by BaseRuns, and I’m as shocked as you about it). The Cardinals were 8 games better by BaseRuns than the Diamondbacks that year, so they certainly would have been a favorite in that scenario. The NLCS matchup would have either been the Nats or the winner of the Braves-Reds play-in game. Add this all up and it’s a much easier path than reality.

2013

Actual finish: 97-65, lost the World Series
BaseRun Record: 92-70, #1 Wild Card
Consequences of Sequencing: Things get a little sticky here. In reality, the Cardinals won the division by 3 games over the Pirates and 7 over the Reds. They also took down homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs. But the Pirates bested them- just barely- in BaseRuns record, and the Dodgers had the best BaseRuns record in the league. Suddenly, instead of avoiding the play-in game, the 2013 Cardinals now have to win it. Had they survived that, they would have faced the Dodgers in the NLDS, with homefield advantage belonging to LA. That’s a very different route than the one the actual 2013 team had to take to reach the World Series, and it’s unlikely they would have made it.

2014

Actual finish: 90-72, won the division, lost NLCS
BaseRun Record: 83-79, #2 Wild Card
Consequences of Sequencing: Goodness, this is a large gap. It’s amazing that they would have still made the playoffs had they played to their BaseRuns record. In this version of reality, the Pirates win the division and the Cardinals would have found themselves in the play-in game yet again, this time on the road against the Giants. Had they won that game, they would have traveled to DC to face the Nats. Yet again, this becomes a much more difficult road than the one they actually faced.

2015

Actual finish: 100-62, but I don’t remember what happened after that
BaseRun Record: 89-73, out of the playoffs
Consequences of Sequencing: That’s right- the 100-win team from 2015 benefited so much from sequencing luck that they fall all the way from “unquestioned best regular season team in the league” to completely out of the playoffs. It’s just barely- the Mets were only a smidge better through BaseRuns in 2015. Given the way that October went, it really wouldn’t have made much difference had they missed the playoffs altogether anyway. But certainly the 100-win reality has changed the way we look at where the franchise was entering 2016.

There’s a lot of collateral damage to post-season glory when BaseRuns replace actual records. The 2011 and 2015 teams don’t even make the playoffs. The 2013 team almost certainly doesn’t reach the World Series, and the 2014 team faces much stiffer odds as well. In both 2013 and 2014, those teams would have had to win the play-in game to even have a chance at replicating their actual success. The one case where BaseRuns changes things in the positive is 2012, where BaseRuns had them as the NL’s second best team, ironically behind the team they Kozma’ed that year in the NLDS. Using BaseRuns as the indicator of true team strength shows us an alternate reality where the 2011-2015 run was a batch of sequencing away from turning the Cardinals into, basically, what the Rays were from 2009 to 2013.

To bring this all home, let’s create a simple line graph. At this point, I’m going to include 2016 and 2017. Here is the gap between BaseRuns (true talent) and their actual win total.

There’s a lot to unpack here. First, during the alleged franchise downturn (2016-2017), the 2016 team had a better BaseRun win total than three of the five teams from the halcyon days (2011, 2014, 2015). Last year’s team- year two of the downturn- was just 0.6 wins below the 2011 World Series champions, and surpasses the 2014 NLCS contestant. The third point, which I’m going to discuss more shortly, is in relation to the remarkable consistency in the BaseRuns line. Sure, there’s some variance, but it’s almost all derived from the 2014 team. Take away that outlier and they’re between 87.7 wins and 93.7 wins- within six games- every single year, despite several farm system cycles, despite plenty of turnover at the big league level, despite losing a generational talent after the first year, despite any and all turnover in the front office, on the field, and in the coaching slots.

For all of the talk of a franchise downturn, they’ve been almost exactly the same team in 2016 and 2017 as they were for much of the 2011-2015 run. This isn’t a new development, either. This is the franchise equilibrium portion of the discussion. Briefly, let’s take a look at standard deviations. For this particular graph, I’ve gone back to 2009- essentially, the beginning of the Mozeliak era after needing to undergo a fairly large rebuild in his first year (2008). What you see here is the size of a single standard deviation in BaseRuns win totals for each franchise from 2009 through 2017.

The Cardinals are the only team with a standard deviation under 4 wins. They come in at 2.91. The average, seen on the graph, is 8.28 wins. Predictably, the Cubs and Astros are on the far right of the graph- they have, after all, experienced the highest of highs and lowest of lows since 2009. Besides the Cardinals, other teams with a standard deviation under 6.0 wins are the Rays, Royals, Padres, Marlins, Mets, and Brewers. The Rays are the only team in there with an average BaseRun record above .500 (shockingly, they come in at 87.74 average BaseRun wins since 2009; they’ve had quite a run given their limitations). The other five have had a small variation in true talent (BaseRuns), but that doesn’t do much good when the high end of your variance leads you to 86 BaseRun wins. No other franchise has been as consistent, or as consistently good, as the Cardinals during the Mozeliak era. You can set your watch to the true talent level of the franchise, even if sequencing, one-run luck, October glory and any other number of factors occasionally make it look like it’s a noisier set of data. The last two seasons are no exception at all.

Implicit in that last bit of information is the idea that this consistency is a function of John Mozeliak’s tenure at the top. But there’s a bigger fish- Bill DeWitt Jr’s tenure as owner. Let’s try this a little differently this time. In this graph, I’m going to plot each franchise’s average BaseRun wins since 1996, when DeWitt officially took over the franchise, against the size of a single standard deviation in that same time frame for each individual team.

The lower down on the scatterplot, the more consistent a team has been. The higher up, the more inconsistent they’ve been. The further to the right, the more successful they’ve been in terms of BaseRuns, and to the left means they’ve been poor. I’ve also highlighted a few outliers (the consistently poor Royals, the wildly inconsistent Astros), as well as the only four teams to surpass the Cardinals in average BaseRun wins per year since 1996. Think of it as a quadrant analysis featuring consistently good teams, consistently bad teams, inconsistently good teams, and inconsistently bad teams.

Yet again, we see that no team has been as consistent as the Cardinals. They’re the only team with a standard deviation under 6 wins. In this case, it’s 5.3. The Dodgers have been similarly consistent (standard deviation: 6.2, good for second best), and they’ve technically been better in BaseRuns than the Cardinals… by a whopping .018 wins. The other three teams to surpass the Cardinals in average BaseRun wins over the last 22 seasons- the Braves, Yankees, and Red Sox- also had valleys that plunged deeper than the Cardinals’ valley in the same time frame. But I’m getting off message here.

The larger point is about franchise equilibrium. Under John Mozeliak’s leadership, this is just what the St. Louis Cardinals do, whether it’s 2011 or 2015 or 2017. They build teams with true talent win levels in the upper 80s. Sometimes sequencing lifts their 88-win talent to triple digit wins. Sometimes, it leaves them just on the outside looking in when the playoffs arrive and frustrates the bejeezus out of all of us. And some nights, they win the World Series (sorry, it’s gratuitous, I know…). It usually carries them to the playoffs, and it always points the way to meaningful baseball late in the season like some dorky Bowtie Constellation. But it’s not just the Mozeliak regime. In the grand scheme, they’ve put this eerie consistency on display since 1996, the entire DeWitt era, and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.