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Historical Comps for the 2020 Cardinals

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Which teams are most similar to this year’s Cardinals?

Los Angeles Dodgers v San Francisco Giants Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Last year, I mentioned that I have a pet project I perform each spring. I collect various pieces of info about each team as it enters the regular season, and then use that info to find historical comps. If you’d like to learn more about the methodology, the best place is last year’s article. Today, I’ll find comps for the 2020 Cardinals.

Note: Apologies for not writing something more topical. This was written a few days prior to the COVID-19 announcements, and we’ll have more pertinent coverage in the coming days.

As a refresher, here are 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 last year. 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?

Each team gets a percentile rank in those categories, and then their distance in each category from the 2020 Cardinals is calculated. Those distances are added and the teams with the smallest total distance are the most comparable.

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.

Last spring, I identified the 1993 White Sox as the most similar to the pre-2019 Cardinals. That White Sox squad broke a pattern of 85ish-win perma-contention, won 90+ games, and captured a division title before they were ignominously dumped in the LCS by the eventual World Series champion. That turned out to be eerily prescient. I promise you that it doesn’t always work out that way.

With all of that in mind, this graphic shows the 10 most comparable since 1988. I’ve also added a bonus squad- the 16th most comparable- for reasons I’ll make apparent later.

Let’s examine how and why some of these teams matched this year’s Cardinals. I’m going to focus on the top five, but skip over the #5 2017 Mets since their distance is over 5% in all categories but one. Instead, I’ll throw in that mysterious #16 team.

1. 2005 Los Angeles Dodgers (71-91, pythag: 74-88)

The 2005 Dodgers are technically the closest to this year’s Cardinals, but there are several caveats. First, they only barely edged out the 2009 Angels in proximity to the Cardinals, by just 0.4 total percentile. Second, it doesn’t hold up well on scrutiny. The Dodgers circa 2005 were a team in transition. Frank McCourt had just purchased the team in 2004, team payroll decreased relative to the league, and their off-season featured a flurry of players coming (Dioner Navarro, Derek Lowe, J.D. Drew, Jeff Kent) and going (Adrian Beltre, Shawn Green, Steve Finley). You may have noticed that the Cardinals offseason this year was considerably quieter. The two teams are similar in that they’ve each had a moderately successful three-year run, closed out the previous season with a playoff berth keyed by lots of under-25 talent, their net value gained and lost in free agency was well below average, and had payroll above league average.

The 2005 season started out well enough for the Dodgers- they entered the year with massive expectations and were in first place in mid-May at 21-15- but they faded. They went 50-76 the rest of the way, a slide that cost general manager Paul DePodesta his job. I understand how the Cardinals registered as a historical comp with the 2005 Dodgers, but it’s hard to imagine a season this disastrous.

2. 2009 Los Angeles Angels (97-65, pythag: 92-70, lost ALCS)

The fascinating part of the Angels landing here is that their three-year pythagorean record entering 2009 was very similar to the Cardinals from 2017-2019, but the Angels consistently overperformed during those three years. They won 5, 4, and 12 more games than their pythagorean record from 2007 to 2009, compared to the Cardinals with -4 in 2017, equal to their pythag. in 2018, and -1 in 2019. Their 25-and-under production and payroll are each within 5% of one another, and their prospect prestige (BA bump) is very similar as well. The biggest difference is that the Halos circa 2009 lost more production, with Jon Garland, Garret Anderson, mid-season acquistion Mark Teixeira, and Francisco Rodriguez all leaving in free agency, with only Bobby Abreu coming in to balance the ledger. Those are bigger losses than the Cardinals losing Marcell Ozuna and Jose Martinez and adding Kwang-Hyun Kim and Brad Miller. Much like the Cardinals, the Angels’ under-25 production from the previous year was spread around rather than concentrated in a single player. Howie Kendrick, Casey Kotchman, Erick Aybar, Ervin Santana, and Jered Weaver all contributed.

3. 2017 Chicago Cubs (92-70, pythag: 93-69, lost NLCS)

The biggest difference between these two teams is no surprise. The previous year’s pythagorean record for this year’s Cardinals was a solid, almost ho-hum division title and 92 pythagorean wins. For the Cubs circa 2017, it was their best season in franchise history. Even with 2016 in the equation, the three-year pythagorean numbers match. The Cubs’ farm system hadn’t started to atrophy just yet, ranking even higher than the current Cardinals’ four-year record. Overall, they’re reasonably close with the 2017 Cubs holding slight edges in most categories. They also had a relatively quiet off-season leading into 2017, losing a few key contributors (Aroldis Chapman, Dexter Fowler) and relying on internal options (and trade target Wade Davis) as replacements, which sounds pretty familiar. That said, the Cubs entering 2017 were ascendant, improving massively from 2014 to 2015 and again in 2016. The Cardinals have been more steady, both for better and worse. It’s not a bad match, but hardly perfect.

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

4. 2016 Washington Nationals (95-67, pythag: 97-65, lost NLDS)

You may recall this Nats squad as the one coming off of the DC Strangler episode in 2015. The previous year was a lost season that saw Matt Williams lose his job as manager. A season that began with World Series hope devolved into an 83-win goat rodeo. They also had quite an off-season exodus of talent. Jordan Zimmermann (3.1 fWAR), Denard Span (1.6), Ian Desmond (1.4), and Doug Fister (0.2) all left, though three of those four had been disappointments in 2015. Their most prominent additions were Daniel Murphy at second base and Dusty Baker as manager. Like the Cardinals, they had upper quartile performance from under-25 players. Unlike the Cardinals, the vast majority of that under-25 production was supplied by a single player- Bryce Harper in his 2015 MVP season. Each team had enjoyed a good three-year run, albeit with just one playoff appearance to show for it. It’s anecdotal, of course, but the Nats had a speedster middle infielder playing a utility role, including outfield play. You say 2016 Trea Turner, I say 2019-2020 Tommy Edman. This Nats squad was a decent stand-in for the Cardinals, but they only come within five percentile of each other in one category (three-year pythagorean record).

In many ways, this is the mirror to the 2017 Cubs. Whereas the Cards and Cubs are close, the Cubs best them in most categories. In this case, the 2016 Nats fall shy of the Cardinals in most categories.

16. 2013 Atlanta Braves (96-66, pythag: 98-64, lost NLDS)

Here’s the mystery team. The last time anyone saw the Braves in action in 2012, their burgeoning young core- Andrelton Simmons, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, and Craig Kimbrel, amongst others- was chased out of the playoffs in the Infield Fly Rule game. That team entering 2013 bears an uncanny resemblance to this year’s Cardinals, at least using our six categories. The two teams match within 5 percent in five categories, including a BA bump just .42 percentile apart. The reason they aren’t higher on the list of comps is a massive difference in payroll. Chipper Jones’ retirement took $13M of salary away, and their bucket of young talent allowed them to keep payroll down. They also moved a lot of parts around- losing Michael Bourn (5.3 fWAR in 2012), Martin Prado (4.5), and Tommy Hanson (0.2 fWAR in 2013 but 7.5 career through age 26) and picking up the Upton brothers (Justin, 2.5 and B.J., 3.4). Clearly their offseason was noisier than the Cardinals but they fit so well everywhere else. Admittedly, the Braves entering 2013 had edges over this year’s Cardinals in four categories (previous pythag., three-year pythag., under-25 production, and BA bump), but all of those are within 5 percentile of each other and the BA category is virtually identical. For my money, this is the best match.

With all of these comps, we can see that the Cardinals have a thumbprint. They’ve had above average on-field success both last season and over the last three years. Their payroll and Baseball America prestige are both solidly above average, but not in the upper stratosphere. Their under-25 production is in the upper stratosphere- top 10th percentile- and they’ve opted to combat their losses with internal solutions, which means their net off-season moves look uglier than most. That last part is apparent if you look at the red divot in the bottom right quadrant of our radar graphs above.

Here’s a breakdown of how the comps performed:

Closest Comps to the 2020 Cardinals

Category Pythag Playoffs
Category Pythag Playoffs
5 closest 0.524 3 of 5
10 closest 0.517 4 of 10
20 closest 0.536 8 of 20

The 11th through 20th closest is quite a group, with four of those ten making the playoffs and a fifth (the 2002 Mariners) just missing out with 92 wins. The second set of ten also features the World Series champion 2018 Red Sox (12th most similar) and World Series runner-up 2017 Dodgers (19th most similar).