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When Tony Womack defied the odds

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For one glorious year, Tony Womack had maybe the least likely season ever seen.

Giants v Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The best Cardinals team I’ve ever watched is clearly and unequivocally the 2004 Cardinals. The team went 105-57. And there’s an argument to be made it’s the best Cardinals team period. Two other teams won 105 games and one other won 106 games. All three of those teams played during World War II, which at least kind of muddies the argument for those teams. Cardinals invented the farm system and benefited immensely from that when tons of players went to fight in the war. But I digress.

The Cardinals 2004 team was clearly three superstars and 22 other guys. Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, and Scott Rolen combined for 25.1 fWAR. The rest of the team combined for 24.9 fWAR. The Cardinals somehow won 105 games with a starting pitching staff that ranked 18th in the majors in fWAR. Just six other players on the Cardinals had 2.0 or more fWAR in 2004 besides the MV3. Comeback Player of the Year Chris Carpenter had an unlikely resurgence, hence winning that award. Woody Williams had already surprised the year before, so his 2004 was more predictable. Jason Marquis only qualifies because he got a boost from his bat, or he wouldn’t be one of these players. Edgar Renteria actually had a significantly worse year than his previous two years and Reggie Sanders stayed consistently solid. Larry Walker was obviously better than a 2 WAR player but didn’t receive near the PAs.

And then there’s the other guy, Tony Womack. Womack may have one of the greatest, inexplicable, unexplainable good seasons I’ve ever seen or will ever see in my life. If you’ve never looked at Womack’s career outside of being a Cardinal or haven’t looked at his stats since you became aware of sabermetrics, you may not be able to fully grasp just how utterly out of nowhere Womack’s 2004 was.

But I’ll say this and I am not in any way exaggerating this point when I say it: Tony Womack was a terrible baseball player. If you were to construct a baseball player to purposefully fool front offices before everyone used sabermetrics, Tony Womack would be what you would produce. Tony Womack had a .273 average, which can and obviously did fool teams into thinking he was alright on offense. The problem was that he never walked and also he had zero power. During the Steroid era. And he also wasn’t good on defense. Womack did one thing really well and that’s steal bases. And he wasn’t one of those guys who’d steal 40 and get caught 20, no he actually did manage to not get caught stealing all that often.

People were clearly fooled by this guy. Womack emerged first in 1997 as a second baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was a late bloomer at 27-years-old, but was the starter for most of the year. And he got a couple Rookie of the Year votes. He had -0.9 fWAR and -0.9 bWAR. Yes, he was below replacement level. It was primarily his defense, but he also wasn’t a good hitter with an 82 wRC+. He just so happened to steal 60 bases and only get caught 7 times. I told you. He was really good at stealing bases! He was traded after two years to the Diamondbacks, played one year mostly in the OF, and then got moved to SS, which is where he remained until 2003.

His 2003 season is a sight to behold. While I said teams were fooled by him, nobody was fooled by his 2003. He batted .226/.251/.307, which was good for a 35 wRC+. He ended up getting traded twice before the season was over. He had undergone ligament replacement surgery in October that year, so clearly injuries affected him, but this is still a player that was never good to begin with. Going into the 2003 season, he was a career 2.5 fWAR player across 3,988 PAs, or a 0.4 fWAR player per 600 PAs. After his 2003 season, he was a 1 fWAR player in 4,352 PAs. Yes, injuries clearly affected his 2003 play, but also he was going to be 33 in 2004.

The Boston Red Sox signed him in early February 2004 for what seems to be league minimum, which makes sense. The Cardinals were late in spring training with the planned 2B options being either Marlon Anderson, who actually didn’t seem like a terrible bet coming off a 2.2 fWAR season in 2003, or Bo Hart, who ended up with an 88 wRC+ even with his unbelievably hot start. So they traded 29-year-old reliever Matt Duff, who hadn’t appeared in a game since 2002 and who had 7 very bad appearances in the bullpen for the Cardinals. I’m not sure why the Red Sox didn’t just release him with that return, but it makes sense he fetched so little.

And then, Tony Womack quickly impressed Tony La Russa in the short amount of spring training left and was the Cardinals Opening Day starter. Again look at Marlon Anderson’s 2003 and look at Womack’s 2003. This is an absolutely bonkers gamble that had no right working out, but guess what happened? Womack had more fWAR in 2004 than he had in his entire career combined and that’s true even if you take his pre-2003 fWAR too. He had a 2.8 fWAR season, which was fourth on the Cardinals among the hitters.

Is there an equivalent to this? Players who come out of nowhere normally are career minor leaguers, which isn’t quite the same thing. Those guys never got a shot and the stars aligned perfectly to allow them to break out. Womack got many shots. The verdict was out. He wasn’t good. He was 33-years-old. What a hell of a time for a guy to have a career year.

And this was a one-time thing. The Yankees signed him in the offseason for 2 years, $4 million and he flopped hard. He returned to the trajectory he was on prior to 2004 and had a -2.3 fWAR season in 351 PAs. Yes, -2.3 fWAR season. Seriously, Tony Womack’s 2004 has to be up there for most unlikeliest season of all time. I don’t think I’ll ever get over this.

And no, Tony Womack wasn’t the reason the 2004 team was great. He may be a reason why the 2004 squad is the best Cardinals squad ever though. Because without his 2.8 fWAR and 3.1 bWAR, the Cardinals wouldn’t win 105 games and they probably would have spent the deadline trading for a different 2B, not Larry Walker and his 1.2 fWAR. Imagine that alternate history. I’m not even sure they’d win 100 games. I mean he was the team’s leadoff hitter and had a .349 OBP.

So there you have it. Thanks the one of the most unlikeliest seasons of all time, the Cardinals won 105 games and maybe had their best squad ever and certainly had the best team to never win the World Series.