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Putting the Whiteyball Era into perspective

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A modern-day assessment of an old-school baseball scheme

Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

In news that was announced only to promptly dissipate over the weekend, the Cardinals unveiled their annual Hall of Fame class on Friday. The two leading vote-getters from the fan election portion of the process will be inducted on August 18th in addition to one veteran player chosen by a Red Ribbon committee comprised of Cardinals Hall of Famers and local media personnel. Among retired players who were eligible to be selected, Ray Lankford and Harry Brecheen were the most valuable position player and pitcher yet to get the nod according to FanGraphs’ calculation of wins above replacement (WAR). Respectively ranked 10th and fifth all-time in franchise batter and pitcher WAR, Lankford was voted in by fans while Brecheen was the Red Ribbon committee’s choice for 2018–and deservedly so.

The next most valuable Cardinal excluded from the Hall is 1979 NL MVP Keith Hernandez, who at 33.9 fWAR in a St. Louis uniform was the 17th most valuable position player in club history. Also on the fan ballot was Scott Rolen, 22nd all-time in fWAR at 27.1 wins. Due to his superior longevity to compensate for a slightly less impressive peak, I named Hernandez over Rolen as my second pick for this year’s vote to go along with Lankford. That said, I also admitted in the same article back in February that there was no “wrong decision” per se when voting between the two. With recency on his side, I expected Rolen to secure a spot in the Cardinals Hall of Fame when the voting window began.

Instead, the candidate with arguably the fifth most statistical merit leapfrogged his way into the top two. That man would be speedster Vince Coleman. John Fleming wrote in March about how the hall of fame on Clark Street doesn’t need to be assembled using the same statistics-based criteria the Cooperstown museum uses. After all, the Cardinals Hall of Fame is just that: a baseball history museum for fans to reminisce and/or learn about the countless great moments in franchise lore. Those memories may not always coincide with the names atop a WAR leaderboard, and I can’t fault fans for electing a player who embodies one of the most iconic eras in the Cardinals’ storied history.

Either way, the fact of that matter is that our more precise estimates of player performance like WAR only peg Coleman as being worth 10-12 wins in St. Louis. That’s not to demean his 13-year career, but Coleman’s 11.9 fWAR is sandwiched between Homer Smoot and Ryan Ludwick for 60th all-time among Cardinals position players. That is what cuts to the heart of today’s post.

Coleman encapsulates the perceived dominance of the “Whiteyball Era” Cardinals compared to their actual performance.

Hoisting three league championship pennants in a six-year span isn’t unheard of. Any fanbase would still happily accept a similar slew of World Series runs in a heartbeat, but I am of the belief that when assessing franchises in the macro-sense, a couple weeks in October don’t broadly define an entire era. When some fans claim the supremacy of teams prioritizing “small-ball” and baserunning, there are more effective barometers we can use to gauge success than the number of playoff victories.

One metric I enlisted was the Elo rating system employed by the statistical analysis website FiveThirtyEight. As described by their own Jay Boice:

Thanks to Retrosheet, we’ve collected game results and box scores going all the way back to 1871. We used that mountain of data to create an Elo-based rating system

[...]

For our purposes, each MLB team carries a rating that estimates its current skill level. (The average is about 1500.) After every game is played, the winning team gains some rating points while the losing team loses the same number of points, based on the chances our model gave each team to win the game beforehand (and the margin of victory). For example, a win by a big underdog results in a bigger exchange of points than a win by a favorite — and the larger the margin of victory, the larger the exchange.

FiveThirtyEight has compiled an astounding amount of data, including the Elo rating for every MLB team after every game. Using each club’s peak Elo, average Elo throughout the season, and final Elo at season’s end, we get the composite Elo for every individual MLB team on record.

How does the relative strength of the Whiteyball Era stack up against fellow Cardinals teams from other time periods?

10 Strongest Seasons in Cardinals History

Season Composite ELO
Season Composite ELO
1944 1605
1942 1605
1943 1595
2004 1577
1931 1577
1935 1576
1945 1574
1946 1573
2005 1567
1949 1565

We don’t find a single season from the 1980s on this list. In fact, only one year (1985) even places higher than 27th all-time. When looking at the 10 highest three season Elo windows (excluding any timeframes where years overlapped), we only get more of the same as it pertains to Whiteyball.

10 Strongest Three Season Spans in Cardinals History

Seasons Composite ELO
Seasons Composite ELO
1939-1941 1549
1942-1944 1602
1945-1947 1571
2004-2006 1561
1934-1936 1558
1929-1931 1555
1926-1928 1554
2000-2002 1550
2011-2013 1549
1967-1969 1549

You have to zoom out to five and season year runs–when many of the shorter spurts listed above are consolidated into one or two spots in the rankings–for the 1980s to sneak into the top 10.

10 Strongest Five Season Spans in Cardinals History

Seasons Composite ELO
Seasons Composite ELO
1942-1946 1590
2001-2005 1559
1927-1931 1555
2011-2015 1547
1947-1951 1545
1933-1937 1545
1964-1968 1539
1981-1985 1533
1922-1926 1526
2006-2010 1519

10 Strongest Seven Season Spans in Cardinals History

7 Seasons Composite ELO
7 Seasons Composite ELO
1941-1947 1583
2000-2006 1553
1930-1936 1551
2011-2017 1542
1963-1969 1537
1922-1928 1534
1948-1954 1534
1981-1987 1533
1971-1977 1512
1956-1962 1511

The Herzog-managed Cardinals finally check in at...eighth on both countdowns. The pinnacle of this era in St. Louis baseball doesn’t come all that close to matching its peers. Although it doesn’t synchronize perfectly with Herzog’s tenure as manager, the 10 year period from 1979-1988 is just fifth best among nine non-overlapping intervals.

10 Strongest 10 Season Spans in Cardinals History

10 Seasons Composite ELO
10 Seasons Composite ELO
1940-1949 1573
1926-1935 1551
2000-2009 1540
1960-1969 1532
1979-1988 1526
1950-1959 1513
1989-1998 1503
1916-1925 1503
1906-1915 1463

Disregarding historical comparisons with other eras for a moment, the Whiteyball Cardinals may not have been as dominant against their actual competition as we tend to give credit them for, either. For the sake of data collection, I considered 1982–Ozzie Smith’s first season in St. Louis when the Cardinals won it all–the beginning of the Whiteyball Era and 1989–Herzog’s final full season as manager and the last year before the Cardinals dismantled the core of their roster–as the end of the era. Here are the run differential figures all 26 existing MLB teams posted during those eight years:

Sixth out of 26 isn’t too shabby, but it’s certainly not the mark of a premier team that annihilates any and all opposition standing in its path. Collectively batting 8% below league average after adjusting for park factors, the Cardinals’ 92 wRC+ from 1982-1989 was the third least productive in all of baseball. St. Louis also finished dead last in both slugging percentage and isolated power (ISO), though this was by schematic design, of course. The Cardinals constructed their roster to emphasize baserunning and defense, but the offensive viability of this plan warrants a closer look.

Even in the run environment of the 1980s, attempting to steal a base represented a gamble posing far greater risk than the potential reward. Case in point: stealing second with nobody out would have increased a team’s run expectancy by just 0.249 runs while jeopardizing .601 runs should the try be unsuccessful. This table displays the minimum success rates needed in various situations to merely end right back where you began run expectancy-wise.

Stolen Base Break Even Points During the Whiteyball Era

Attempting to steal.... Outs Break Even Point
Attempting to steal.... Outs Break Even Point
2nd base 0 70.71%
2nd base 1 70.21%
2nd base 2 66.46%
3rd base 0 78.13%
3rd base 1 68.79%
3rd base 2 87.13%

Even for a team as small-ball savvy as the 1980s Cardinals, FanGraphs estimates their cumulative baserunning value to be worth 109.7 runs above average from 1982 to 1989. That may seem like a lot, except it works out to an average of just 13.7 or so runs–or approximately 1.4 additional wins–per season.

FanGraphs also rates these Birdos as the top defensive team over the same eight years, but at quite the cost offensively. This era of Cardinals clubs predominantly relied on run suppression to win, which may not necessarily appear to be a negative in a vacuum. This issue is that this philosophy will naturally cap a team’s ability to achieve a higher run differential. Teams like the Cardinals, who were in the bottom third of the league in run scoring, must win more close game by default if they are consistently scoring four runs or fewer every night. Teams that excel in the nuances of the game like baserunning and fielding can maintain more favorable records in these tight games relative to the average team, but they will still be subjected to statistical variance and what essentially boils down to luck because they don’t have the offensive firepower to build big leads and blow teams out.

The Whiteyball chapter of Cardinals history is one that rightfully carries a great deal of sentimental value for fans who were alive to witness and treasure it. A fan is always free to fondly recall the memories that such a defense-and-base-running-oriented club kindled by enjoying its fair share of success, but one can simultaneously acknowledge that focusing on small-ball tactics is an antiquated strategy that fails to maximize efficiency.