Given how dominant the 2004 Cardinals will forever be in our memories, it’s easy to forget that they looked anything but immortal in the early goings. In fact, the club that ultimately finished the year 105-57 began with just a 23-22 start.
Through play on May 26th, St. Louis was fifth in the NL Central. Their +14 run differential after 45 games translated to a Pythagorean win-loss record of 24-21, suggesting that even their underlying numbers weren’t particularly impressive–let alone those of an all-time great Cardinals team.
Every team in baseball had already fallen off a 105-win pace by that point in the season. The Cardinals were 6.2 wins behind schedule, the furthest they would ever veer off course from 105 wins. So how did they regain ground? I plotted two graphs below. The first shows the Cardinals’ actual win total after each game (the blue line) versus a 105-win pace through that same game (the red line). The second displays the difference between the two paces, with a positive number indicating a team playing at above a 105-win pace.
In a pandemic-less year, you probably would have read an article or 12 referencing the concept of “banked wins” by now. Essentially, a team with a .500 talent level that finishes April five games above .500 will now be expected to finish the year five games above .500 because, assuming they go .500 the rest of the way, they “banked” five extra wins. Conversely, a team that starts off below a desired pace not only has to play at said pace, but above it to make up for the wins they failed to bank earlier in the season.
Post-May 26th, the 2004 Cardinals couldn’t play at a 105-win pace if they wanted to win 105 games. They needed a 114-win pace. From then until the end of June, St. Louis posted a 23-10 record.
Good news: 23-10 is a very good record.
Bad news: 23-10 is “only” a 113-win pace. The Cardinals were actually losing ground.
This marks the mathematical nadir in our quest to reach 105 wins. Entering July, the Cardinals found themselves at 46-32, needing a 59-25 record–or .702 win percentage–in their final 84 games. Picture five wins in a seven-game week…for 12 straight weeks with virtually no margin for error.
Now the part we all know and love: when everything went nuts. From the start of July through September 5th, St. Louis–already boasting the best record in the National League–went 46-12. A 128-win pace. The stretch featured an eight-game win streak, a five-game streak, another five-game streak, a seven-game streak, a four-game streak, and a nine-game streak. The Cardinals won 17 of 19 series, completing nine sweeps without ever being swept. St. Louis beat Pittsburgh four times in three days at one point, then went on the road and swept the Pirates the very next week before heading back home to sweep the Padres and (eventual NL West champion) Dodgers back-to-back-to-back.
During that span, 20 MLB hitters (minimum 200 plate appearances) produced a 150 wRC+ or better. Barry Bonds led baseball with a 243 wRC+, but Jim Edmonds was right behind him at #2 with an equally absurd 240. The Cardinals also had #3 (Albert Pujols) and #17 (Scott Rolen) while the only other other team that even had two players on the list was the White Sox (Carlos Lee at #16 and Aaron Rowand at #18). Oh yeah, St. Louis also acquired #15 (Larry Walker) that August.
On the pitching side, the Cardinals were one of just three teams to have multiple starting pitchers (minimum 50 innings) with sub 3.30 ERAs (Jason Marquis at 2.48 and Chris Carpenter at 3.27. Out of the bullpen, the Cardinals’ had three of the 13 relievers with an ERA below 1.60 (minimum 20 innings) in Steve Kline at 1.31, Julian Tavarez at 1.54, and Cal Eldred at 1.59. That list doesn’t include closer Jason Isringhausen and his 2.43 ERA in the same duration. For context, the leaguewide ERA from July 2nd to September 5th was 4.56.
The Cardinals cooled off down the stretch to the tune of a 13-13 record over their final 26, but they had already built a 3.9-win cushion to surge ahead of pace. A five-game win streak brought their record to 103-52 with seven game remaining. The ensuing four-game skid–the longest of the season–put the prospect of 105 wins in jeopardy before the Cardinals took two of their final three against the Brewers to lock down wins 104 and 105.
- The 2004 Cardinals were stupid good.
- I miss baseball.
- I especially miss stupid good Cardinals baseball.