Any winning baseball team will need contributions beyond the obvious suspects. Very rarely does baseball work in such a way where the best players all have great, healthy years and you receive no surprises. The Cardinals, with a winning season every season of this past decade, are no exception. This post is a celebration of players who popped up at random to help the Cardinals achieve a winning record.
To state the type of player I’m going to be highlighting, I’ll explain an example that I will not and that is Paul DeJong. Once upon a time, DeJong was a player who could be put on this list, and probably would have had he had his rookie season in 2019. But then he kept putting up good seasons, even mtiaking an All-Star team last year. What he is an example of good scouting and a miss by prospect evaluators. His entrance onto the scene was unexpected, but his performance has been anything but lucky and random we now know.
I’ll use the New York Yankees 2019 as an example of players I will be highlighting, though I do not think any individual Cardinals season had as many players as the Yankees arguably did. In 2019, the Yankees had unexpected, out of nowhere seasons from Giovanny Urshela, Mike Tauchman, and Cameron Maybin. Even some guy named Mike Ford hit 12 homers in 163 PAs. At least one, and probably two of these guys, will be revealed as flukes next year (certainly Maybin who has never actually had two good seasons in a row)
Octavio Dotel - 2011 - 0.9 fWAR
It’s difficult to explain how Dotel is on this list without context. Dotel had a very good career - 14 fWAR as a reliever is not terribly far from guys who are getting Hall of Fame consideration. But when he was a part of the massive seven player trade in the middle of the 2011 season, he was mostly an afterthought. The true prize was Edwin Jackson and next was hoping Mark Rzepcyznski was going to become a starter in 2012.
Dotel accrued most of that 14 career WAR at the very beginning of his career and had since settled into a solid, unspectacular reliever who seemed to be leaning towards not good at the time of the trade. He was traded twice in 2010 and had a 4.63 FIP when he put on a Cardinals uniform for the first time.
And then he became the most dominant reliever in the league. In 24.2 IP for the Cardinals, he had a 33.3 K%, which was his highest mark since 2004, and his 5.2 BB% would have been the lowest of his career if he maintained it for a full season. This is a guy who had 3.3 fWAR in a season before. He had a 1.57 FIP and a whopping 0.9 WAR. If he would have done that for 60 IP, he’d have 2.2 WAR. He proved this was not a fluke the next season, but he didn’t play for the Cardinals, so he counts.
Nick Punto - 2011 - 1.7 fWAR
If you scroll through his WAR totals for his career, it doesn’t seem like he belongs here. This followed a 1.4 WAR season, which followed a 1.7 WAR season. Perfectly in line for where he was at at this point in his career. But it’s very misleading. Because he received a total of 166 PAs in 2011. In 2010, he received 288 and the year before 440. You get the idea.
But this isn’t just about WAR. Punto, out of nowhere, became an elite level hitter. Now this was the flukiest of flukes that ever fluked - just look at his postseason performance that year and I most certainly do not remember him getting 44 PAs. But he had a 125 wRC+, which is so hilariously out of line with the rest of his career, it’s absurd. His next highest was 96 wRC+ while his career was 77. Oh yeah and the year before WAR was mostly defense - he had a 68 wRC+. The year after? 70 wRC?
Looking at the rest of his career, you don’t even get the impression he had a 166 PA stretch of 125 wRC+ in him. But for 166 glorious PAs in 2011, a miracle happened.
Pete Kozma - 2012 - 1.1 fWAR
Speaking of an improbably good batting line from an unexpected source, Kozma should be the poster child of not believing in small sample sizes. Kozma at no point in his Cardinal career was considered anything but a bust. Not that baseball prospects can really be considered “busts,” but it always looked like a bad draft pick. He had a dreadful AAA line in 2011 (38 wRC+), made a brief appearance in the majors that changed nobody’s mind, and then improved a lot his next season in AAA... to a 65 wRC+. He was only 24, but he now had 1,000 PAs of absolutely dreadful hitting when he was called up for the September callups (a day early actually)
And for about a week, nothing really happened. He went 1-6 with three strikeouts through September 7th with a pinch-running appearance. He pinch-hit the next day and hit a double and earned his second start of the month two days later on September 10th. He went 3-4 with a double and triple and then basically was a regular starter for the rest of the month. He finished the season with a 152 wRC+ and while that came with a .414 BABIP, it literally did not seem like this guy was capable of an 82 PA stretch that good ever. And it happened at the perfect time.
Pat Neshek - 2014 - 2 fWAR
Again it’s kind of cheating to include players who proved not to be flukes by my own rules, but I’m still taking the loophole that they left the Cards. I have much less of a case to prove Neshek’s place on this list than I did for Dotel. Because Neshek, for most of his career, wasn’t good. He hadn’t had anything even resembling a good or healthy year since 2007! He was 33 and there was absolutely no reason to think 2014 was going to be any different.
And well he put together just about the most improbably good season of the decade. We all know relievers are random, but they usually never come this out of nowhere. Holy hell. He had a 26.7 K% and a 3.5 BB% for the Cardinals. He had a 1.87 ERA. If Kozma is the poster child of small sample sizes, Neshek is the poster child of signing every scrap heap reliever you can find instead of paying money for it.
Aledmys Diaz - 2016 - 2.6 fWAR
While I remember the news that the Cardinals signed an international free agent and that he could be good, I also remembering his minors performances not really doing anything to excite. He had a AA season the year before this year that is really hard to get excited about even though it’s pretty solid - a .324 OBP and a .157 ISO at Springfield isn’t turning heads. He destroyed Memphis for 14 games, but 14 games.
And then he got a break. Jhonny Peralta missed most of the first half, leaving an absence for someone to step up. And he very much did. He had what appeared to be sustainable numbers at the time - he showed good patience, and barely struck out and needed only a .312 BABIP for a 132 wRC+. And then for whatever reason, his approach at the plate the next year just became awful in a very inexplicable way and he was unceremoniously traded. He’s rebounded since, but I imagine there was some behind the scenes stuff of him of why he was traded for nothing and it had to do with his much worse plate approach.
Seung Hwan Oh - 2016 season - 2.6 fWAR
I would not have included him because obviously he was an international free agent that we expected to contribute when he signed, but he’s here because 1) his performance was wildly better than expectations and 2) his 2017 was about as unexpected as his 2016 was. He had a 32.9 K% and an unbelievable 18% swinging strike rate. 1.92 ERA, 2.13 FIP, 2.42 SIERA. He was the real deal.
And then his K rate dropped to 20.5% for some reason. His GB% fell from 40% to 28.7% as well. He struck out 49 less batters and allowed double the homers in 20 less innings. It’s not entirely clear what happened and his 2017 didn’t really help either because it was basically the midpoint of his 2016 and 2017 seasons. And then he signed with the Rockies and that might be it for him. But boy was his 2016 fun.
Tyler Lyons - 2017 season - 1 fWAR
It really should be no surprise most of this list is relievers. Being randomly good or bad is what they do. And I feel like including Lyons here is not exactly accurate. He was a spot starter for his first three seasons and pitched in 30 games in the bullpen in 2016, and for literally every one of those years, he had a very good xFIP. His ERAs the first two years were quite a bit higher and his FIP his next two years were quite a bit higher, so it wasn’t exactly clear how good he really was.
But it’s hard to say he doesn’t belong, because for a brief period of time, Lyons was the most dominant reliever in the bullpen, and that was very much unexpected. His stats don’t really do him justice, because his run wasn’t from the beginning to the end of the year. He was typical Lyons for most of the first half. And then he just became straight up unhittable out of virtually nowhere. From July 23 to the end of the year, Lyons had a 39% K rate, which would have been the 6th best in the majors last year. I knew he was capable of being good, but that? No.
And that’s the list. I chose to ignore 2019, because there’s no winning by naming any players who could qualify. Either it looks retroactively stupid and very quickly or I’m accurately predicting a player’s downfall, which isn’t fun either. Here are some honorable mentions that I didn’t include for reasons I will specify.
Lance Berkman, 2011, 4.7 fWAR - While I wouldn’t call his season predictable, him having a great season was very much something people thought might happen.
Mitchell Boggs, 2012, 0.6 WAR - WAR isn’t doing his season justice, because he had a 2.21 ERA in 73 IP. He doesn’t qualify because, well, his advanced stats didn’t really suggest he was any better than he used to be. I didn’t really want to get into fluky ERA seasons.
Matt Adams, 2013, 1.6 WAR - You can probably guess why he isn’t on this list, but this was a brief period of time where he looked like he might be an above average player with a 135 wRC+ in half a season.
Shelby Miller, 2013, 2.1 WAR - If Miller wasn’t a highly regarded prospect, I would have put him here.
Tim Cooney, 2015, 0.6 WAR - If he had thrown more than 31 IP, I would have included him and I realize I included Dotel, but slightly different.
Carlos Villanueva, 2015, 0.2 WAR - Another guy with a low ERA (2.95) whose advanced stats just did not remotely compare. Like I said, was not really going for this type of performance.
Eric Fryer, 2016, 0.5 WAR - I’d like to say the PAs was why not and to a certain extent, that’s why, but also do you remember how utterly insane people got when the Cards DFA’d him??? That was not fun and it was probably the stupidest the fanbase has ever been in my lifetime. Feel free to counter another example if you want.
Patrick Wisdom, 2018, 0.4 WAR - Mostly a PA issue on this one. I could have included him, but anything I’d say about him - just go look at the Pete Kozma paragraph. It’s basically the same.
Bud Norris, 2018, 0.1 WAR - He’d fairly easily make the list, except his second half was not good at all and he just looked like any old reliever by the end of year stats
My last note is that I came across a lot of names when researching this post and I recognized nearly all of them. But a few times, I did not. Does anybody have any memory of somebody named Eric Fornataro pitching nine innings in 2014, because I think Fangraphs is playing a practical joke here. Also Brandon Dickson also can’t be real either.