You’d think it would be easy to judge a lineup. Simply looking at runs scored is a great starting place. Of course, that’s only a small step. Plenty of good teams have fallen arbitrarily short of what they should have scored, and sometimes bad teams overperform. Some teams have pop but can’t reach base while others flood the bases with walks without the big bopper to drive them home. And what of the depth of a lineup? Let’s blend all of this together and see which Cardinal lineups since integration (1947)* rank best.
*Yes, I know the headline says “Post-World War II” but it just reads easier. My apologies to the 1946 squad for their exclusion.
Based on that introductory paragraph, we’ll use four criteria to grade Cardinal lineups. First, we’ll use league-relative walk percentage and isolated slugging (BB%+ and ISO+, respectively). That’s a good first step- which teams walk a lot and hit for power? Here’s how that looks for all Cardinal teams since 1947. Some contenders for best (and worst, if you’re interested) immediately emerge. Not all teams are marked but I’ve labeled several:
Teams in the top right boast a lot of overall productivity while teams further to the bottom left are toothless.
Now let’s add in our two other categories- non-pitcher wRC+ and lineup depth. To gauge lineup depth, I collected the top eight players in plate appearances for every team, and included any ninth-ranked player with 350 or more plate appearances. From there, I found the standard deviation in wRC+ for those eight (or sometimes nine) players, and compared it to the league average standard deviation for that respective season. That gave me a league-relative standard deviation in lineup wRC+ for each team, which I’m using as my gauge of a team’s lineup depth. One caveat here- the higher the standard deviation is relative to the league, the less balanced a team is. What you want in this graph is to appear in the bottom right. You’ll see all teams since 1947 (Cardinal or otherwise) marked in gray, and Cardinal teams in red.
Combining our four data points, ideally we want teams that are highly productive, walk a lot, hit for power, and have less variance in production from hitter to hitter in the lineup. I’ve also created a weighted formula for this. Overall production is much more important than these other categories and the formula reflects that. Note that the formula is arbitrary- this isn’t fancy math here, just me spitballing what I think is most important. Without further adieu, here are the best Cardinal lineups since 1947.
The 2011 squad boasts the highest non-pitcher wRC+ of any Cardinal team since 1947, and it’s not particularly close. They come in at 119, and the four teams tied for second best come in at 114. It’s so much more than that for this squad, though. Their walk percentage was 8% better than the league, and their isolated power was 10% better. They were admittedly a little top-heavy, but less so compared to a lot of their St. Louis peers. This team is obviously fondly remembered for their October glory, but it’s easy to forget just how much of a buzzsaw the lineup was. They came at you with Lance Berkman (163 wRC+), Matt Holliday (154), Albert Pujols (147), David Freese (123), Yadier Molina (126), and even Jon Jay (115). Colby Rasmus contributed a 110 wRC+ in his 364 plate apperances before being traded. Allen Craig (154) was a bench contributor.
The top-heavy part comes in when you consider the bottom of the lineup- Daniel Descalso (89), Skip Schumaker (92), and Ryan Theriot (87). In fairness, late-season addition Rafael Furcal piled up a 106 wRC+ in 200+ plate appearances, taking time from that trio.
The 1963 squad lacked name recognition and they failed to win the pennant that year, but still carried a tremendous lineup. They were led by an all All-Star infield featuring: Dick Groat, a second place MVP finisher, with a 132 wRC+; Ken Boyer (125); Bill White (136); and... well, Julian Javier was an All-Star for other reasons than his 87 wRC+. They were surrounded in the lineup by Curt Flood (108), George Altman (106), and the end of Stan Musial’s career (97). They could have walked more, but they were balanced from top to bottom, hit for plenty of power, and were highly productive overall. They aren’t thought of as an all-time great team but they’d get their glory with a World Series championship a year later.
The fascinating part about the 2000 lineup is that they make this list despite their best hitter- the 195 wRC+ Mark McGwire- not registering as one of the nine most used players that year. Because of that, their lineup seems a lot more balanced than it was when Big Mac was healthy. Still, they rank high across the board with extraordinary balance between walks (109 BB%+) and power (112 ISO+). Missing McGwire in the depth exercise makes them look deeper than they were (a little better than average), and their 112 non-pitcher wRC+ was very good. The primary contributors past McGwire were Jim Edmonds (149), J.D. Drew (126), Fernando Tatis (122), Ray Lankford (119), and Fernando Vina (105), with Eric Davis (113) pitching in off the bench.
You’re forgiven if you don’t think of this as one of the best Cardinal lineups. The team itself was mostly a punchline for the World Series winner in their own division, and didn’t even make the playoffs after a late season fade. Nor did they contain any MVP candidates, and most of this great performance was spackled together with players having career years. That shouldn’t overshadow how much damage they did at the plate. Lineup regulars included Matt Carpenter (136 wRC+), Aledmys Diaz (132), Stephen Piscotty (116), Molina (114), Jedd Gyorko (114), Holliday (109), Brandon Moss (105), and Randal Grichuk (102). Even the bench got in on the action, highlighted by Jeremy Hazelbaker (102), Greg Garcia (111), and Matt Adams (106). They were more pop than patience but they were better than average in both categories and exessively deep. On any given day, of the 11 or 12 hitters they sent to the plate, there was a good chance that all of them were better than league average.
I suppose it shouldn’t be surprsing that the follow-up to the impressive 2011 squad also had a great lineup. They were a little more balanced than the 2011 team, walked at about the same rate, and had less power. Even with those declines from 2011, their 114 team wRC+ is tied for second best among Cardinal teams since 1947. They did all of that despite losing Albert Pujols and (mostly) Lance Berkman. The 2012 lineup hit opponents with Molina (138), Holliday (140), Freese (132), an expanded role for Allen Craig (137), new addition Carlos Beltran (124), another 115 wRC+ season from Jon Jay, and Matt Carpenter’s 124 off the bench.
Honorable Mentions and Notes
The 1952 to 1954 teams all ranked in the top 25, although the presence of Stan Musial made them look more top-heavy than the more modern teams. Moreover, their ability to walk and hit for power were above average but not excessively so.
When I started this exercise, I never in a million years expected the 1994 team to enter the equation, but they perform well in most categories. They walked extremely well and had good lineup depth. They were stung by a lack of overall productivity (103 team wRC+). It also would’ve felt odd including their shortened season, which was also true for the 1981 team. In fact, the 1981 lineup ranked fourth overall but it didn’t feel right to include them.
The 1980s teams were transcendent in many ways, but their lack of power and wild variance in lineup depth kept them out of the top of this list. That doesn’t make them any less transcendent. It’s just that they excelled in all other facets of the game, and that’s what made them special.
The 2003 and 2004 teams were total buzzsaws, but the bottom of the lineup (and the bench) sunk them in this analysis. Other teams weren’t carrying around a 60-ish wRC+ catcher, for instance. Both of those teams had five players under 85 wRC+ racking up more than 100 plate appearances, and it drove down their overall productivity and balance.
The 2019 team was average in almost every way, though they did have a lot of balance. Or at least, there wasn’t a massive gap between their very best and very worst hitters. Obviously they were never a contender for this list. I only bring them up because their recency makes them a point of interest.
If you’re curious about the worst teams, the short list would be 1986, 1995, 1961, 1978, and 1966, with a dishonorable mention going to 2007.