What was the greatest outfield the Cardinals ever had?
I’m going to justify a probably wrong answer in the end, or at least use this misleading prompt as a way to talk about the outfield I want to talk about. But it is an interesting question. The Cardinals have had some great outfields. The Cardinals have had 21 seasons where their OF had 12 fWAR or greater, which is basically the equivalent of having three All-Star caliber OFers. Nine of those seasons have happened since 2000 and you can include four more seasons that have 10+ fWAR since 2000 as well.
Now, when these type of questions come up, I’m more interested in who actually played than the best possible combination, or this is a very short answer. For instance, Albert Pujols played significant outfield innings in his first three seasons, and along with Jim Edmonds, that means the top three OF seasons in Cardinals history are also his first three seasons. So Jim Edmonds, Albert Pujols, and who cares is clearly the right answer to my above question, BUT these OF fWAR totals do not take into account that Pujols also played 1B and 3B. So he accumulated roughly 60-70% of his value as an OFer, but these totals pretend that he accumulated 100% of them as an OFer.
That still probably doesn’t change the answer though. The 2001 Cardinals have the highest OF fWAR of all time, and it’s no wonder. You get prime Jim Edmonds, an elite season from J.D. Drew, and you even get good seasons from both Craig Paquette and Kerry Robinson. Plus Pujols played 45% of the time in the OF, but his entire 7.2 fWAR season is counted into the total 21.8 total. Removing 55% of Pujols’ WAR... still places this season above every other season that isn’t Pujols’ first three years. Since his next two seasons have similar issues, it’s safe to say that 2001 was the best Cardinals OF of all time.
But that’s not the outfield I want to talk about, as great as an outfield as that it is. The 2003 squad gets hit harder than the 2001 squad, because it’s more reliant on Pujols and Pujols had a better season by a lot (9.5 fWAR). The 2002 squad also features Eli Marrero, who did play mostly outfield, but also played some catcher, so they’d get a hit too. The 1948 and 1949 squads are basically Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter and (fill in the blank) and we’re arbitrarily looking for a more well-rounded outfield. Which admittedly you could say about the 2002 and 2003 teams too.
That leaves one more team to knock down. The 1985 team features prime Willie McGee, Andy Van Slyke, and Vince Coleman. There’s also basically an extra average player in the form of bench players Tito Landrum and Lonnie Smith, who get less than half a season combined and almost reached 2 fWAR anyway. But as far as a well-rounded top three, the 2nd and 3rd place finishers in 1985 both have less fWAR than the 2nd and 3rd place finishers of my mystery team. McGee has 7.1 fWAR which is more than double what the next place guy has, so this team seems oddly too reliant on the bench players. Like I’d take the top 3 of my mystery team over the top 3 of the 1985 squad.
And besides, my mystery team... also has Willie McGee. He’s just on the bench. I have severely limited the amount of teams you can guess at this point and you probably looked at the photo so if you can’t guess now, you’re even younger than I am. I am talking specifically about the 1996 Cardinals, which was also the Cardinal team that catapulted the Cardinals back into relevance with a NL Central division title and NLCS appearance. They did so largely on the backs of the outfield. The top three players, both from bWAR and fWAR, were the three starting outfielders. Has any Cardinal team ever been more reliant on its starting three outfielders? I really don’t think so.
The star of the team and this extended beyond 1996, which isn’t really true of the other two players, was Ray Lankford. Lankford has since made the Cardinals Hall of Fame, and it’s an inclusion nobody should take issue with. Lankford is why the Cardinals Hall of Fame exists. Clearly not a Hall of Famer, but should be recognized in some way. Anyway, in 1996, Lankford had his third best season as a Cardinal in 1996. Didn’t make the All-Star team, which he somehow only did once in his career. (He should have at least four appearances, including 1996)
Lankford represented the modern Cardinal system before it became a trend. The Cardinals drafted him, he rose through the system despite not being a high pick (3rd round is not too shabby though) and signed an extension before free agency. 1996 would have been his last year of a Cardinal before hitting free agency, but he signed a three-year extension before the season. Those three years were Lankford’s best years of his career, and like I said, 1996 was the worst. In the end, Lankford batted .275/.366/.486 for a 122 wRC+, but his real value was an admittedly anomalous +14 in CF. Wish we had UZR for Lankford, cause his defensive numbers are all over the map.
The second best player is a player all Cardinals fans should be annoying about to anyone who says Bo Jackson was the best two-way player ever, and that’s Brian Jordan. Now, maybe I’m wrong, but the impression I’ve gotten is that Jackson and Jordan were nearly equal players in baseball with Jordan getting the edge and Jackson was obviously better in football. But Brian Jordan was a way, way better baseball player than Bo Jackson. They were similar hitters, but Jordan was a CFer who had to play the corners, while Bo played the corners at a below average level despite his speed.
Yeah I don’t know if this is common knowledge, but Jordan was basically Jason Heyward in RF for his time. From 1995 to 2001, Jordan was a +19.7 fielder in RF. He has very limited sample playing during the UZR era, but nothing in those numbers really makes it seem ridiculous either. In nearly 1,800 innings in LF, Jordan was a +5.6 fielder and in 562 innings in RF, he was a +13.1 fielder. And the youngest he was during the UZR era was 35-years-old, so +19.7 seems entirely plausible for his prime.
Jordan was a very up-and-down hitter, with frequent injury problems, but 1996 was one of his “up” seasons. Jordan batted .310/.349/.483 for a 117 wRC+ and 5.3 fWAR. Much like Lankford, his 1996 was not his best season either. That came two years later, where he was very hidden thanks to Mark McGwire hitting 70 homers. Ray Lankford has gotten his due at this point, and I’m not arguing for Jordan to make the Cardinals Hall (too many down years), but I think he is very underrated as a Cardinal.
Unlike Jordan and Lankford, both drafted and developed as Cardinals, the third guy was a free agent. He was also past his prime at 31-years-old, unlike the other two who were still in the middle of their prime with better seasons ahead. But he had one more very good season in him, which was obviously 1996. That free agent is Ron Gant. I’ll be honest. I have less to say about Gant. He had a not very good 1997, struggled with injuries in 1998 but basically returned to form, and then was traded for Ricky Bottalico and Garrett Stephenson.
The interesting thing about all three outfielders is that they all accrued their value in remarkably similar ways. Gant was a .246/.359/.504 hitter for a 125 wRC+ and 3.3 fWAR. So you have Lankford at 122 wRC+, Jordan at 117 and Gant at 125. Gant was also a +8 fielder in LF, which means all three were elite level defenders at their position (well Lankford is the most questionable of the three as far as “elite” goes, but it was still centerfield). Gant had less fWAR because he didn’t play CF and wasn’t on the same level defensively as Jordan. He also played in only 122 games.
However, despite the fact that all graded out as elite defenders and were around the same hitters overall, they all were very different hitters, which I find kind of interesting. Gant was high walk, high strikeout, high power hitter. He hit 30 homers, but also had a .247 BABIP. He walked 14.6% of the time. You could describe Lankford as all three of those things too, but he had a .324 BABIP, less walks, and as you can probably surmise, had less power. And they way both had power was different. Gant had 30 HRs, 14 doubles, and 2 triples. Lankford had 21 homers, 36 doubles, and 8 triples. You almost get an Adam Dunn vibe from Gant without the bad defense, whereas Lankford was a speedy power hitter who made good contact whenever he managed to put the bat on the ball.
And then there’s Jordan, who didn’t strike out much, didn’t walk much, and had average power for the time. Whereas both Lankford and Gant posted double digit walk rates, Jordan was much less patient with a 5.2 BB%. But he made it work because he didn’t strike out as much, with a 15% K rate. He also had a high BABIP at .337. Without a lot of power and without walking much, you can see how Jordan’s offense would fluctuate at the whims of BABIP for his career, since he ended up with a career .303 BABIP. Jordan also had twice as many doubles as homers, with 36 doubles to 17 homers, but weirdly only one triple.
And I didn’t even mention the stolen bases, which all three have in common as well. I was unfair to Gant with the Adam Dunn comparison, because Adam Dunn would never in a million years steal 13 bases like Gant did in 1996 (or have a career high of 34). Jordan stole 22 bases and Lankford stole 35 bases. Yeah with 35 stolen bases and 8 triples, it’s not hard to buy into Lankford’s defensive numbers to be honest. Lankford also only got caught 7 times for a 83.3% success rate. Gant did get caught 4 times for a 76.5% success rate, which I believe is still within the range of making a steal worth it. Jordan was with just 5 caught stealing for a 81.5% success rate.
Is there ever going to be a more complete, more satisfying outfield trio than those three? I’m sure their total WAR will be beat (and it’s 7th place all-time right now). And just for good measure, the fourth OFer was Willie McGee, whose fielding didn’t grade out that well at this point, but was a 103 wRC+ hitter. The other OF to get significant playing time was Mark Sweeney, who managed a 110 wRC+ in 209 PAs.
The 1996 team was basically the outfield and the starting pitchers, which had Todd Stottlemyre (3.1 bWAR), Donovan Osborne (2.6 bWAR), and Andy Benes (2.4 bWAR). It also features the last good season from Rick Honeycutt in the bullpen, who has a truly hilarious B-R photo that makes it look he just saw some shit he didn’t want to see. But offensively, it was the outfield, Gary Gaetti, and the combo seasons of Royce Clayton and Ozzie Smith. Which doesn’t sound like a great team, and well they won 88 games with a pythag of 86 so they kind of weren’t. But just imagine where they’d be without that awesome outfield.