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Medium, Incorporated

The Cardinals were good but not great this year. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

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Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images

It’s been a frustrating week to be a Cardinals fan. A playoff position has been tantalizingly close, but the team seems to have slipped on the proverbial banana peel of fate. After Friday’s games, the Cards sit two games out of the second Wild Card spot, but like Charlie Brown to the rest of baseball’s Lucy, it just feels like the playoff spot keeps getting pulled away at the last moment. It’s not a great feeling, I won’t lie. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here. The crazy thing about this is, I don’t work for the Cardinals. You, I assume, don’t work for the Cardinals (if you do, that’s pretty cool though). Imagine how they feel.

There are probably a lot of sighs and groans in the Cardinals’ front office today, a lot of rumpled shirts and long faces. 160 games into the season, a playoff spot remains maddeningly out of reach. Maybe Sunday’s game will matter; probably it won’t. It must be hard to think you are playoff-bound before falling short at the final hurdle. It must be especially tough to have it happen to you three years in a row even as you continually try to improve. The thing is, though, I think the front office will say to themselves that while there’s always room to improve, 2018 was a fine year. The Cardinals chart a middle path. Their window is now, but that’s because their window is always. The Cardinals never go for it because they’re always going for it. It’s a perpetual motion machine aimed at reaching the playoffs every year indefinitely. Maybe they didn’t make it this year, but they didn’t miss by much, and the machine rolls on.

To really underscore the Cardinals’ approach to team-building, let’s play a quick game of John Mozeliak or Jamie Dimon. Here are some quotes that either the Cardinals’ President of Baseball Operations of the JP Morgan CEO has said. Try to guess which is which:

“It’s an interesting question; trying to maintain success by giving young talent an opportunity. For us, to maintain that balance, we’ve been fortunate to retain the right people...”

“The simplest way to answer that, with our internal metrics that we use and have developed does bank in some things that traditional numbers don’t have. But I can’t go into too much detail…”

“From a high level, it was really integration of the two sides. Making that work together. Having the unity of both sides has allowed us to be more successful from marketing and a business model.”

“It’s not something we ignore, but it’s not something we put a lot of resources to. One of our principles is if we do something, we do it right. We wanted to have success in Latin America and other places before we jumped to another area. As far as trying to really grasp what’s going on in Asia, we have a foundation for it. We are not putting a lot of resources in the Asian market right now.”

Think before you answer- but don’t think too hard. They’re all Mozeliak. Listening to bank earning calls is a chore I was not willing to do to find even one Dimon quote to use. The businesslike nature of the quotes jibes well with the businesslike nature of the Cardinals. I didn’t even have to look that hard. With minor edits (replacing ‘players’ with ‘talent’ so that I didn’t give away the game), I pulled all of those from a single interview. Have you heard of trusting the process? Of course you have. It’s something of a motto for tank-to-compete teams these days. The Cardinals have a process, but it’s barely recognizable as being from the same sport. For the Cardinals, the process is winning ninety games and finding another three or four rookies who contribute meaningfully in the majors. The process is trying to compete for the playoffs every year with no let-up. It’s a factory production line; Henry Ford cranking out baseball teams.

To get a sense for how consistently the Cardinals have competed, I chose to look at the number of games they have played with no chance of advancing to the postseason. Is this the best metric for consistent competition? I think so. When teams talk about giving themselves a chance, this is what they mean. Take the Royals, for example. The Royals have won a World Series in the last five years. They’ve also played nearly 10% of their games over the last ten years with no shot at the playoffs. In all, the Royals have been eliminated for 142 games they’ve played in the last ten seasons, worst in the majors. With fair warning that this is going to be a giant table of teams and numbers with no context, here are all 30 teams, ranked by the number of games they’ve played while eliminated from the playoffs in the last ten years:

Meaningless Games, Last Ten Years

Team Meaningless Games
Team Meaningless Games
NYY 11
LAD 22
BOS 42
TEX 54
TB 56
LAA 62
SF 65
DET 66
ATL 66
MIL 80
WAS 83
CLE 86
OAK 91
PHI 94
COL 98
CHC 99
TOR 102
PIT 103
CIN 104
ARI 106
NYM 108
SEA 112
MIN 124
MIA 128
CWS 132
HOU 136
BAL 137
SD 137
KC 142

First. The top tier is pretty clearly the Cardinals, Yankees, and Dodgers, but the Cards finish first by this metric. That’s remarkable. In the last ten years, the rest of the NL Central has been all over the map. The Reds, Cubs, and Brewers have all won the Central, and the Pirates won three Wild Cards. Even then, though, the Cardinals have only played meaningless games in two years- three games in 2017, and six in 2010. From a standpoint of having something to play for every day, the Cardinals have literally been the best in baseball for the last ten years. Want to limit it to the last seven years, the length of the current double Wild Card era? They’re second, just behind the Dodgers, in those seven years.

This metric pretty clearly misses something. The Dodgers and the Cardinals aren’t really playing the same game. The Dodgers go out and try to win 100 games every year. They’re almost never out of the playoff race, but that’s because they’re almost always lapping the field. The Yankees are closer- they’ve fought off every team in their division over the years while retooling and reloading multiple times. They’re also running average salaries more than 50 million dollars a year higher than the Cardinals. These teams can’t hold a candle to the Cardinals in terms of consistently making the playoffs without assembling a super team, “the best team money can buy” if you feel like using the title of a wonderful book on the Dodgers.

The link between payroll and winning has been examined more than enough. I won’t rehash it here. No one is giving out any awards for wins per dollar. The fact that the Cardinals have never truly been a juggernaut, though, is very interesting to me. I decided to look at this in two different ways. First, I took each team’s winning percentage over the last ten years. Then I threw them into a scatterplot against the number of meaningless games played. As you’d expect, it mostly shows that better teams play fewer meaningless games:

There are a few outliers, though. The Royals at the bottom right have played the most meaningless games but have a more respectable winning percentage. The Nationals have the highest winning percentage relative to their contention. Current antagonists the Rockies have the worst winning percentage relative to how often they’ve been in the hunt. The Cardinals just appear normal here; reliably good but unremarkably so relative to their winning percentage.

Something suggested itself to me in the winning percentage data, though. Even among teams with high winning percentages, the Cardinals were remarkably consistent. They’ve never had a season worse than a .512 winning percentage. They’ve never done better than .617, which is admittedly pretty dang great. Here are all 30 teams, with their winning percentage (horizontal axis) and the standard deviation of their winning percentages (vertical axis) both displayed:

The Cardinals actually have the lowest variance (and standard deviation) in winning percentage in all of baseball over the last ten years. In the more or less three-team tier of teams that have been consistently excellent over the last ten years, the Cardinals are basically where you’d expect them to be; they have the worst record of the three but the most consistency.

In a way, this is unsurprising. When you think of the Cardinals, you don’t think of big year-to-year changes. They’re always looking for an impact bat and never finding one. They’re always hoping their rookies are going to deliver a three-win season, and the rookies usually come through. The bullpen is always good on paper but uninspiring. You’ve seen the blueprint before, and it’s indubitably a good way to rack up a win total in the high 80s or low 90s. Whether you like this style of baseball or not is mostly a matter of taste. There is an argument to be made that the right way to play baseball right now is to optimize for competitive cycles and try to build a super team. There’s a reason the Astros have the highest standard deviation of winning percentage in all of baseball over the last ten years; they’ve been the best and worst team in the majors at various points. Some people love that style. Flags fly forever, after all.

I myself am more of a gradualist. My favorite time to watch the Cardinals in the last ten years was 2011, sure. I’m not completely insane. I gain a lot of value from the long summers of contention, though; from the playoff chase Septembers that never seem to end. I want the chase, I want the story. If I couldn’t read about baseball, what in the world would I do to fill the time while I eat lunch every day? What would I put on in the background and only marginally pay attention to every night? That’s the value of the Cardinals’ consistency for me. Again, it doesn’t have to be this way. The way I like my baseball in no way has to be the way you like your baseball. For fans like me, though, the Cardinals have been the best franchise in baseball to watch. Not a good franchise. Not one of the top tier. The actual best, period, over the last ten years.

I know the counter-argument here. Who gives a crap about ten years? The Cardinals are going to end up missing the playoffs for three years in a row. Why use a ten-year sample that has no bearing on the present? Well, first of all, I don’t think I like your tone. Second of all, you have a point. Kind of. Well, you don’t actually have much of a point. Sorry, anonymous argumentative sort. I’m not going to reproduce a 30-team-long table here, but four teams have played no meaningless games the last four years; the Dodgers, the Red Sox, the Cubs, and the Indians. The Astros have only played two meaningless games. After that, it’s the Cardinals and the Yankees tied with three. Even in what I won’t argue is a down stretch, they’re still in the top five or six teams in terms of regular season excellence. Want the winning percentage and standard deviation graph again? Let’s throw that up here too:

Spare a thought for your friends who are Reds fans. Even in this fallow period, though, the Cardinals are continuing to do what they do best. The Nationals come out slightly better in this accounting of things, but the Cardinals are right there, behind the front pack but not by much; moving forward not backward, upward not forward, and always twirling, always twirling towards the playoffs. In these three years, the Cardinals have actually been net a little unlucky by Baseball Prospectus’ Third-Order Winning percentage, a record estimator that uses individual play outcomes. It’s not fluky. It’s never, in the long run, fluky. This is just who the Cardinals are.

Let’s be real, guys. Next year is going to be more of the same. The Cardinals are going to be projected to win, eh, 88-90 games at a guess. They’ll probably be projected for a Wild Card spot, almost definitely not to win the division. This isn’t rocket science- it’s just what the Cardinals do. In a similar vein, people are going to spend all offseason writing about the Big Bat (™) the team needs to pick up, the Leap they need to make. They probably won’t make it. You know what? That’s fine by me. Come next season, I’ll expect to be watching meaningful baseball at the end of September. I have confidence that the process works. I believe in Medium, Incorporated.