I have a bit of a pet project I trot out every spring. For the past four years, I’ve collected various pieces of info about each team as it entered the regular season. Each piece of information represents a facet of overall organizational health. You might also think of it as a picture of where a team stands in the win cycle. Once armed with that info, I look through the past to find historical comps. Which historical teams are most similar in the chosen categories?
Today, I want to look at historical comps for this year’s edition of the Cardinals. To clarify, this is where a team stood at the dawn of an upcoming season. When you see a year and a team in the comp list below, it’s that team as they entered the regular season. When you see the 1990 Royals, for instance, think of it as the Royals in April 1990.
First, let’s establish the six categories.
- Previous year’s pythagorean record. How good was this team in its most recent season?
- Last three years pythagorean record. What is recent equilibrium for this franchise?
- Payroll. How much money do they spend relative to the rest of the league?
- Production from players age 25 and under. How much young talent do they have contributing at the Major League level, using fWAR as a guide?
- The Baseball America Bump. I wrote about this recently. How much talent have they collected in their minor league system over the last four years?
- Net Free Agents and Trades. How much talent did they import and export in the most recent off-season?
With the involvement of Baseball America’s organizational rankings, I have complete data for all teams going back to 1988. Going back further would leave us without four years of BA talent rankings. If you’d like to read more about the total methodology, feel free to read here.
Each team is given a percentile rank amongst all teams since 1988 for each of those categories. From there, I can either use the net percentile difference or z-scores to determine the closest matches to any single team. I’ve used the net difference for this exercise, although the four most similar teams are identical either way, and 11 of the top 15 are the same in different order. Nine of the ten closest are the same teams (the 1999 Blue Jays are a z-score comp, replaced with the 1989 A’s using net difference). There’s almost no difference between the methods.
With the preamble out of the way, who are the most similar historical teams to the 2019 Cardinals? Apologies that this is so huge.
I want to dig deeper into some of the closest comps, but we can eliminate a few immediately. The Braves at the dawn of the 1993 season and the A’s at the dawn of 1989 were both clearly ascendant. The Braves went from 65 wins in 1990 to 94 and 98 in the next two years, while the A’s had gone from 76 in 1986 to 81 and 104 in the next two years. That’s not the current Cardinals. We can also eliminate the 2017 Cardinals because of course they’re similar. It’s the same franchise, two years apart, and they cherish consistency. You don’t need me to tell you how they’re different, and it’s boring anyway. On to the comps.
In the three years prior, Chicago’s pythagorean win totals were 87, 89, and 86. For the Cardinals, it’s 88, 87, and 88. Both persistently contended but hadn’t gotten over the hump.
The Cardinals’ production in 2018 from the 25-and-under crowd was very good (87th percentile), much like the White Sox in 1992 (86th). The White Sox got their youth production out of three key contributors (future Hall of Famer Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura, and Alex Fernandez) while the Cardinals spread it around (Jack Flaherty, Paul DeJong, Harrison Bader, Jordan Hicks, etc.).
In the off-season, the White Sox added a once-dominant pitcher in slow decline in his mid-30s (Dave Stieb) and a talented hitter (Ellis Burks). They aren’t perfect comps for Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller. The Cardinals boast a higher league-relative payroll and their farm system is in better shape than Chicago’s in 1993. Those are the biggest differences. Chicago went on to win the division and were on the way to the same in 1994 before the strike burst their bubble.
Here’s another team stuck in unfulfilled contention. The Phillies from 2001 to 2003 went from 86 wins to 80 and then back up to 86 (pythag: 84, 79, 90). Like last year’s Cardinals, the Phillies in 2003 had gotten their youth production out of a robust group- Marlon Byrd, Jimmy Rollins, Vicente Padilla, Brett Myers, and others. However, it wasn’t as strong a group as the Cardinals.
In the off-season, they acquired flamethrowing lefty bullpen ace Billy Wagner and rotation stalwart Eric Milton. They had acquired their 31-year old mashing first baseman (Jim Thome) the year before, preventing this from being an anecdotal slam dunk.
The Phillies remained stuck in perma-contention without the post-season in 2004 (and 2005 and 2006) before finally breaking through in 2007 and beyond.
I suspect there are multiple iterations of the 2011-2019 Cardinals that would pair up as a doppelgänger with the 2012-2019 Nats. They’re the equivalent of the Packers and Cowboys of the National League, perennially contending, one of them failing to ever reach even the slightest post-season success, both occasionally regular season juggernauts. Where the 2014 Nationals and this year’s Cardinals differ most is that the Cardinals had more young talent at the MLB level and were more successful in the previous season. Additionally, the Nats’ off-season amounted to Doug Fister (don’t forget that u in the first name) and some depth, a less productive set of moves than Goldschmidt and Miller.
They ended up cruising to 96 wins in a weak division (no other team finished above .500) before losing the NLDS to the Giants. That series included the epic 18-inning marathon game 2, and my diehard Nats fan wife was there for the entire game. It’s not relevant to this article. I just wanted to brag about my wife a little bit.
Here’s yet another team with multiple years of unfulfilled contention. The Royals’ pythagorean wins from 1987 to 1989: 84, 87, and 87. Much like the 1993 White Sox (and unlike the 2019 Cardinals), the Royals’ young production was concentrated in just a few players- Bret Saberhagen, Tom Gordon, Luis Aquino, and Kurt Stillwell, with Saberhagen providing the most by far. It’s strange to think there was a time when the Royals were big spenders, but such was the case in the late 80s and very early 90s. Their payroll then outranks the Cardinals this season.
Their big off-season acquisitions were the most 1989iest off-season acquisitions imaginable. They spent big on a generic innings eater (Storm Davis) and a flash-in-the-pan bullpen ace (Mark Davis), two moves that would not happen today. They also subtracted their own innings eaters, Charlie Leibrandt and Floyd Bannister, though understandably so considering they had a young Kevin Appier waiting in the wings.
Both Davises went bust and the season was a disaster. They won 75 games and only cracked .500 three times in the next 22 seasons.
I’ve paired these two teams because they’re an interesting contrast. The 2008 Angels fall within ten percentile of the Cardinals in five of the six categories, but aren’t closer than five percentile points in any category. Moreover, the 2008 Angels fare better than the Cardinals in all categories except 25 and under production and free agents/trades from the off-season. The 2003 Astros, on the other hand, fared worse than the Cardinals in all categories except farm prestige.
In the off-season, the Angels lost Patron Saint of Fat Guys Bartolo Colon and Orlando Cabrera while adding Jon Garland and Torii Hunter. The Astros signed Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens.
The Angels massively overperformed their pythagorean record while the Astros massively underperformed. There was a 13-win gap in the Angels’ favor despite the Astros holding a seven-win edge in pythagorean record. The fact that they’re both comps for the Cardinals illustrates just how fine the line is between a great season and golfing in October.
As mentioned above, I’m going to skip the #7, 8, and 10 teams
Here’s the boogeyman of the list. No Cardinal fan would ever want to relive the 1990 season. It was the end of the 80s party. They were 13 games under .500 and 13 games back in the division by the end of June. Whitey Herzog quit mid-season, Willie McGee was traded, and it was the final season in St. Louis for 80s stalwarts Terry Pendleton, Vince Coleman, and John Tudor. It’s terrifying to think that this year’s Cardinals bear any resemblance to the 1990 version.
However, they match up poorly in two of the most important categories- the two recent pythagorean records. In the off-season, the 1990 squad added Bryn Smith and brought back Tudor, but lost starting catcher Tony Peña in free agency. That’s a reasonable set of moves, but it’s not Goldschmidt and Miller. Overall, they’re 10 to 20 percentile points away from the 2019 Cardinals in four of the six categories. In other words, don’t let their inclusion on this list scare you.
This list is all over the map. There are five playoff teams and one World Series winner. However, two of the five are the ascendant Braves and A’s, which makes them different from this year’s Cardinals. Of the three perma-contention teams trying to break through to the playoffs, only one succeeded. One of the perma-contention teams remained that way and the other completely collapsed for two decades. It just so happens that the one to break through, the 1993 White Sox, was the closest comp.
Of the five non-playoff teams, the 1990 Missouri twins were by far the dregs. One was a last place finisher and the other was just one game out of the basement. The three remaining teams (2004 Phillies, 2017 Cardinals, 2003 Astros) were close to the playoffs but couldn’t close the deal. The average pythagorean wins for all 10 comps is 89.4.