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Quantifying the Best Cardinals Teams of the 2000’s

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Developing a ranking-system to determine the best Cardinals teams of the century.

NLCS: Astros v Cardinals Game 6 Photo By Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Happy New Year, VEB!

Last week, in anticipation of the close of the decade, I offered a highly subjective and scantily researched list of bests. One of those categories included best team of the decade. As I perused the Cardinals’ franchise page at Baseball Reference, I quickly determined that there was no easy way to evaluate one team’s seasons against each other. While I could sort by production stats, win totals or postseason performance, I could not find some sort of quantitative and cumulative measurement of a team’s season.

That left me in something of a pickle. While a subjective, gut-feeling ranking might work for a fun new decade list article, there should be some way to quantify team evaluations. So, I considered the challenge statistically. Something like total WAR produced might tell us how productive a team was, but it does not factor actual wins in the standings or postseason performance. It might provide the most productive team analytically, but there are no banners flying for most wins above replacement in a season. I quickly eliminated stats like WAR from my consideration. Ranking clubs based on regular season wins would be a possibility, but it eliminates the whole reason why the regular season is played: to reach the postseason and win the World Series. Likewise, sorting clubs by postseason success alone doesn’t factor in the path the club took to reach a championship, and that should matter.

What I concluded is that there should be some kind of formula that quantifies a season’s performance using a weighted combination of win totals and postseason performance. I’m sure that someone out on the web has already produced such a formula — and produced it better — but for me, the exercise of developing this tool internally helped me consider all aspects of what makes a team great. Instead of searching for an existing tool, I just made my own that fits my own personal biases of team greatness. After several attempts to develop a formula of evaluating seasons against each other, here is the simple system that I created:

Team Evaluation Key

81-84 1 Wild Card 1
85-89 2 NLDS 2
90-94 3 NLCS 3
95-99 4 World Series 4
100+ 5 Championship 5

Pretty simple, right? As you can see, I highly value balance between regular season performance and postseason success, and this formula tries to reward teams for excellence over the entire scope of a single baseball season. While a team like the 2006 Cardinals will earn significant points through its World Series win, doesn’t it need to be penalized for having a sub-par regular season? Likewise, the 2015 Cardinals won 100 games before getting ousted in the Division Series. The 100 wins are incredible, but an early postseason exit was nothing to celebrate.

The formula I developed tries to represent this kind of balance, equalizing the regular season and postseason on a simple 0-5 point scale. Any regular season win totals below 81 wins were worth 0 points, as is a team that doesn’t reach the playoffs. 81-84 wins were given just one point, along with a club that lost in the Wild Card round. 85-89 wins were worth the same as reaching the Division Series, and so on. The peak that a team can reach is winning over 100 games and a World Series championship: 10 points total.

After completing the formula, I did discover two problems with the results. The first was that assigning point values by win total did not consider a club’s place within the division. I briefly considered adding a point tier for placement by division finish — also on a 0-5 scale in the 5 team NL Central. This didn’t work at all, as it dramatically imbalanced the equation in favor of the regular season, essentially doubling the value of the regular season over the postseason. Plus, does a team who finishes third in the division really deserve 3 points, the same points as reaching the NLCS? No way! My solutions to this was to only reward a club for winning the division. In my final formula, clubs that won their division receive a +1 bonus in their final point total. Clubs that did not win their division, regardless of how they finished the postseason, receive no bonus.

The second problem arose because the values were weighted so evenly and the Cardinals’ performance throughout the 2000’s was so consistent. Even adding in the division championship bonus, there were a large number of ties in total points. This is a rankings list, so I needed a viable tie breaker. For me, with all else being equal, postseason success was the obvious choice. So, my final rankings are sorted first by total points awarded and then by the number of postseason points. Now, if two teams finished with the same number of total points, the team with the greater postseason success would be ranked higher. This simple procedure produced an satisfying result.

Enough explanation. Here are the Cardinals seasons since 2000 ranked using my quantitative method, and presented with a sorting option so you can play with the results yourself:

Ranking the Best Teams of the 2000’s

1 2004 105 5 WS 4 1 10
2 2013 97 4 WS 4 1 9
3 2005 100 5 NLCS 3 1 9
4 2011 90 3 CHAMP 5 8
5 2002 97 4 NLCS 3 1 8
6 2000 95 4 NLCS 3 1 8
7 2015 100 5 NLDS 2 1 8
8 2006 83 1 CHAMP 5 1 7
9 2019 91 3 NLCS 3 1 7
10 2014 90 3 NLCS 3 1 7
11 2009 91 3 NLDS 2 1 6
12 2012 88 2 NLCS 3 5
13 2001 93 3 NLDS 2 5
14 2008 86 2 - - 2
15 2003 85 2 - - 2
16 2018 88 2 - 2
17 2010 86 2 - 2
18 2016 86 2 - 2
19 2017 83 1 - 1
20 2007 78 0 - 0

#1 - #3. THE ELITE (9-11 POINTS): 2004, 2013, 2005

NLCS: Astros v Cardinals Game 7 Photo By Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

#1. 2004. 10 points. Anyone want to argue with a chart that names 2004 as the best team of the last two decades? It was only a disappointing World Series loss to the Red Sox that kept this club from a perfect ranking. The 2004 Cardinals win 105 games and included five current and potential Hall of Famers in Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, Larry Walker, Yadier Molina, and Manager Tony LaRussa. The club also featured Cardinals Hall of Famers Ray Lankford, Chris Carpenter, and Jason Isringhausen. It’s the best team that I’ve ever watched. It deserves the top spot subjectively and objectively.

#2. 2013, #3. 2005. 9 points. Similarly 2013 and 2005 round out the top three with 9 points each. 2005 was just behind 2004 in quality and they are penalized by only reaching the NLCS. 2013 was clearly the best team of this past decade, featuring the most talent of the post-Pujols/LaRussa era. Molina and Wainwright starred that season, and the club had excellent production from a host of young talent.

I know what some of you are thinking: how can clubs that did not win the World Series finish ahead of teams that did in a “bests” ranking? The main reason is that the two championship clubs of this century each displayed significant flaws that can’t be ignored. This reality — that the best Cardinals teams of the 2000’s were not champions — exposes an issue with the current era of Cardinals baseball. This 2000-2019 Cardinals included some of the best regular season teams in the history of the franchise, but unlike previous eras, those teams ultimately disappointed. Luck over a short-series ended up being a greater deciding factor in postseason success than regular season performance.

#4 - #10. THE GREAT (7-8 POINTS): 2011, 2002, 2000, 2015, 2006, 2019, 2014.

St Louis Cardinals Victory Parade Photo by Ed Szczepanski/Getty Images

#4. 2011. 8 points. With 8 points and a championship banner, 2011 tops a group of seven teams that were all great by one measurement of another. While 2011 provided moments that probably rank as the best in Cardinals history (thank you, David Freese), that club did not win its division, and its 90 wins would place it around 10th in regular season performance. No less than 26 MLB franchises would take 2011 as their best team of the last twenty years (or of their entire history). The Cardinals, though, have been so good over the last twenty years that 2011 can only rank 4th.

#5. 2002, #6. 2000, #7. 2015. 8 points. 2011’s championship separates it from this problematic larger group of good-great teams. The Cardinals had a number of 90-100 win clubs who won their division and reached the NLDS or NLCS and sorting between them required another level of tiebreaker. With win and postseason points equal, I chose regular season wins as the final tiebreaker. That elevates 2002 just slightly over 2000 and 2015. The difference between 2000 and 2002 was just two wins. Both teams reached the NLCS and featured a lot of the same talent. 2015 is the oddity in this section. It barely edges out the 2006 championship club because of its lofty win totals, but the early postseason exit doomed what could have been an elite club. For all intents and purposes, 2002 and 2000 are tied, and 2005 is just slightly below them.

#8. 2006. 7 points. 2006 stands as the opposite of 2015. This club somehow won its division with only 83 wins and did what far superior performs in 2004-05 could not: win the World Series. Of course injuries and other issues played a role in their low win total, but those things did happen, and so, they must be quantified and not excused. In some ways 2006 is probably best viewed not as a single season by itself, as this rankings list portrays it, but as the satisfying end to the entire Pujols/Edmonds/Rolen era. The MV3 finally got the championship they clearly deserved; it’s ironic that it came in the club’s worst season of the three, but that’s ol’ Abner for you.

#9. 2019. #10. 2014, 7 points. Perhaps this ranking helps explain the disappointment that Cardinals fans seem to feel with a 2019 club that won its division and reached the NLCS. All of that was only good enough to place the club just in the top half of Cardinal teams this century. 2019 and 2014 were very similar in many regards. Both clubs were built around run prevention, despite struggling to fill a final rotation spot, and featured disappointing seasons from key offensive staples (2014 Allen Craig and 2019 Matt Carpenter).

#11 - #13. The Good (5-6 points): 2009, 2012, 2001.

St Louis Cardinals v Washington Nationals Photo by Rob Tringali

These three clubs represent the final postseason performers of the decade before a significant drop off in total ranking points. Of these clubs, apparently 2009 was the best, edging out the others only because they managed a division win. The 2012 team reached the NLCS in Mike Matheny’s first season at the helm, which was a significant accomplishment considering it was the team’s first season without Hall of Famers Albert Pujols or Tony LaRussa.

2001 presents something of a flaw in this rankings system. The club finished the season tied with the Astros for the division crown, but a tie-breaker forced them into the Wild Card slot where they faced a Diamondbacks club led by Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, and Luis Gonzalez. The Diamondbacks would go on to win the World Series, and the 2001 Cardinals would be pushed below what are likely inferior teams on this rankings list.

#15 - #20. The Forgettable (0-2 points): 2008, 2003, 2018, 2010, 2016, 2017, 2007

MLB: Mets 4-1 Cardinals Photo by Albert Dickson/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

If anything, the clubs on this portion of the rankings list should help remind Cardinals fans remember just how special the 2000’s have been so far. Five clubs finished with 85 wins or more and just missed the postseason, meaning that 18 of 20 teams in 20 years finished with what 2/3’rds of MLB franchises would classify as a “good” season. 2017 was the worst season of the 2010’s, when the club finished just above .500. Only one club finished with 0 points — the rebuilding 2007 Cardinals — which brought an end to Walt Jocketty’s time as General Manager and Jim Edmonds’ trade to the Padres.