It took all 162 games, every last drop the season had to offer, but the Cardinals finally got the job done. They beat the Cubs yesterday on the back of yet another brilliant Jack Flaherty performance and clinched the NL Central crown.
The Central Division title is obviously not the banner the club really wants to hang, but it’s a banner all the same. Maybe the one that should really matter the most. The postseason is subject to the vagaries of small samples, of course, in a way that baseball tends not to be, and the regular season is really the greatest measuring stick we have for how good a team really is. Then again, the Cardinals and Brewers ended up separated by just two games in the standings, but had run differentials nearly 100 runs apart (Cardinals +102, Milwaukee +3), so it isn’t as if even 162 games is enough to sort out all the weirdness that can occur on a baseball diamond.
In many ways, 2019 was the year the Cardinals have been waiting for. Not just in terms of present success — obviously, getting back to a 90+ win total and a playoff berth is something we’ve all been waiting for — but also in terms of moving toward the future. The Redbirds have been in a holding pattern the last few years, even as they’ve tried to make deals and signings to improve the club, waiting for a new core of talent to emerge. Clubs do not win without a core around which they can build, and for all the Cards’ efforts they have been roundly unable to snag those core-level players.
This year, though, we saw the arrival of two talents who should absolutely be considered core pieces, and that goes a long way toward helping to clarify the Cards’ long-term outlook. Jack Flaherty went from very solid young arm to ace of the staff at age 23, while Paul DeJong solidified himself as a superior defender at shortstop and at least an average hitter, the combination of which is absolutely something you can build around. DeJong was a very good player in both 2017 and ‘18, but in different ways. In 2017 he came up like a bolt out of the blue, hitting dingers left and right and running a crazy batting line that seemed unsupported by his underlying numbers. Sure enough, 2018 saw DeJong fall off offensively, dropping down to just slightly above league average as a hitter. The steps he took forward with his glove, however, more than made up for the downturn in his offense. Time missed due to a broken hand hurt his overall season line, and he ended up worth 3.3 wins in just under 500 trips to the plate.
This season, DeJong came out of the gates hitting like a man possessed, and really never gave back the improvements he’s made to his plate discipline. Where once he struck out nearly six times as often as he walked, this year his ratio ended up more in the 2.5:1 neighbourhood, which is more than workable. He also consolidated his defensive gains; UZR/150 sees DeJong as almost exactly as good a defender in 2019 as he was in ‘18, while DRS and plus/minus think he was a little less productive, but still easily in double-digit runs saved territory. Overall, Pauly D posted a 4.1 win season, combining outstanding defense with a league-average batting line that was dragged down by a .259 BABIP(!), offering hope that there is even better production to come with slightly better batted-ball outcomes. Regardless, plus defensive shortstops who hit 30 home runs in a season are, even now, rare commodities, and DeJong has proven himself to be a very quiet star-level performer in the middle of the diamond.
Jack Flaherty’s dominance, meanwhile, was much easier to see. From the beginning of July to the end of the season, his ERA was 1.00. Early on in the season he scuffled a bit with some homeritis and occasional bouts of inefficiency, but even then he was putting up good peripheral type numbers. And once he got rolling, Flaherty kept it rolling. It was slightly disappointing to see the Cardinals have to use him yesterday to lock down the division crown, but it isn’t the end of the world. Flaherty looks like the emerging ace Carlos Martinez only briefly became, before intermittent shoulder troubles derailed his career. DeJong and Flaherty are not enough to build around all on their own, of course, but an ace-level pitcher and a 4+ win shortstop are still a very, very good place to begin.
Kolten Wong finally had the season so many of us were hoping for, and which many had predicted in the past. The combination of a full season of health (well, almost a full season...), and the confidence boost instilled in Wong by Mike Shildt pushed him from to a new level of performance, and he combined with DeJong to give the Cards’ one of the most dynamic middle infield combos in baseball. It’s impossible not to mention Tommy Edman here as well, as the rather physically unimposing second base prospect hit the big leagues in early June and basically just never stopped impressing. Both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs’ versions of WAR see Edman as the Cardinals’ best player this year on a rate basis; he produced right around three and a half wins in a little over half a season of playing time. Do I think Tommy Edman is a 6+ win player going forward? No, I do not. But I do see enough avenues to value in his game I could see a 4+ win player. He is an outstanding defender at second base, I believe, a solid enough defender at third, and can fake it at shortstop when needed. The speed plays extraordinarily well on the bases, and while his low walk rate concerns me, he has enough pop and pure hitting ability in his bat to produce at least league-average batting lines going forward, I believe, and probably a bit better than that. I’m not 100% sold on Edman as a core player yet, but I’m definitely getting there.
The rotation was bad early on, but then it was great. The bullpen was mostly great throughout. More than anything, though, we got to see what so many of us have been hoping to see from a Cardinal team the last few years: we saw a Redbird team that finally does the small things right. The 2019 Cardinals were one of the best baserunning teams in all of baseball (third best, to be exact, with 14.4 runs added on the bases), even with Harrison Bader having an oddly unproductive season on the bases despite his tremendous speed. The 2019 Cardinals were a top five team in baseball defensively this year as well, despite struggling to find consistent production in the outfield for much of the season. Not playing Jose Martinez could have made the club even better defensively, obviously.
Under Mike Matheny, these were the things which so often tripped the Cardinals up, along with an often-shaky bullpen. Under Mike Shildt, the Redbirds were crisp and efficient, playing airtight defense and stealing the third-most bases in baseball at an 80.5% rate of success. The offense was often frustrating, yes, but even when the big things weren’t going great the little things always popped up to help out.
The 2019 Cardinals will not, I should say, be all that similar to the 2020 Cardinals, pretty much no matter what happens from this point forward. This is obviously not a tear it down and try again sort of roster, but I do expect a pivot in certain areas this offseason simply because of needs, and wants, and what is coming along from the pipeline. So whatever happens, I think much of the roster next year will look substantially different from what we’re seeing now.
But for now, it is now. And now is pretty good. The Cardinals finish the 2019 season at 91-71, 20 games over .500, which is not world-beater territory, but still quite good. Their Pythagorean record is 92-70, so we’re not watching an illusory club pulling a rabbit out of a hat every night. They conquered Wrigley Field, held off the bizarre charge of the light brigade Brewers, and weathered their own storm in May, when it seemed nothing would ever go right again. This team came out in the end as division champs, with most of the arrows pointing up.
Today is the last day of September. Every year the baseball season ends right around now. Some years things are good, other years I’m already writing a eulogy for the club. The last few seasons it has been the latter. This year, not so much. I don’t know what the future holds for this team, how they will fare in the postseason tournament. But all in all, 2019 was a good year. September is coming to an end, and the Cardinals are still playing. This flawed, occasionally maddening roster produced 90+ wins and a postseason berth. This is a moment to savour, ladies and gentlemen. It’s been awhile, but we’re back at a good place.