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Retrospective: Why Were the 1997 Cardinals so Bad?

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Despite some impressive pieces on the roster, the 1997 squad only won 73 games. What happened?

Los Angeles Dodgers vs. St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals may finally- finally- resume play this weekend. They may not- this article is publishing at 9 am on Friday, after all. We’re all way past the point where we are the metaphorical Charlie Brown trying to kick the football as Lucy cruelly pulls it away. Instead of talking about the 2020 Cardinals and their stale-as-bread five game sample, today I want to revisit something I mentioned in last week’s article. Why were the 1997 Cardinals so bad?

I realize the 1997 Cardinals don’t have much to do with baseball today, but the 2020 Cardinals really haven’t either.

It’s a forgettable team, so I understand if you don’t remember much about them. They had a lot going for them. Let’s recap- release the bullet points!

  • As we saw last week, they had arguably one of the five best Cardinal rotations since World War II. The pitching staff had the fourth best fWAR that season. The rotation specifically was second best in baseball, trailing only a legendary Braves staff.
  • They were a playoff team the year before, just one win away from a National League pennant.
  • They acquired Mark McGwire, who would finish the season with 58 homeruns, at the trade deadline.
  • The best team in the National League Central, the Astros, only won 84 games.
  • They could run well (fourth best BsR in baseball) and played great defense (third best DEF, or defensive runs above average).
  • Including McGwire, they had three 5+ fWAR players (McGwire, Ray Lankford, Andy Benes); a 4.6 and 3.5 fWAR pitcher (Matt Morris and Alan Benes, respectively); and Delino DeShields amassed 3.9 fWAR at second base.

That’s not a legendary team, exactly, but surely such a team would compete for a playoff spot. Given that the division winning Astros only won 84 games, you’d assume the Cardinals detailed above in glorious Technibullets would walk away with the division. Indeed, they were in first place- albeit with a 41-43 record- as late as July 4th.

Instead, they finished with 73 wins, just five games out of last place. They finished behind a mid-90s Pirates team in the standings, which... let me tell you, that’s as low as it gets. All the career years from the Al Martins and Joe Randas of the world can’t hide that shame. How on earth did a team with all of those positive aspects sink so low?

St. Louis Cardinals Brian Jordan (L) has his right Photo credit should read DOUG COLLIER/AFP via Getty Images

Injuries

We’ve seen lots of teams get overwhelmed with injuries to a far greater degree, but the Cardinals in 1997 saw their share. Staff ace Andy Benes (68 FIP-) missed most of the first month of the season. His brother Alan (82 FIP-), the #5 prospect in baseball the year before, was shut down on July 31st and wouldn’t pitch again until 1999 when he made just two appearances. Todd Stottlemyre missed all of September. Replacement starts went to Manny Aybar and Rigo Beltran. Donovan Osborne, the presumptive #3 starter, fought injuries and ineffectiveness all season. His replacement starts went to the burnt shells of Fernando Valenzuela, Danny Jackson, and a whole host of mediocre farm products.

The most impactful injuries happened to Brian Jordan, who had two prolonged stints on the DL. He was a breakout star the year before with 5.3 fWAR, but injuries limited him to just 161 plate appearances and 0.8 fWAR. His playing time went to late career Willie McGee, and the last remnants of the careers of Danny Sheaffer and Phil Plantier. Like Stottlemyre and Alan Benes, Jordan was on the DL throughout September. It didn’t matter what McGwire did. It was going to be hard to overcome the loss of two very good starting pitchers and an All-Star quality outfielder.

Dennis Eckersley St. Louis Cardinals Photo by St. Louis Cardinals, LLC/Getty Images

The Bullpen and Its Causal Chain

The bullpen was something of a dumpster fire. Their FIP and fWAR were respectable, each in the upper half of baseball that season. However, they saved their worst for the worst possible times. They had the seventh worst Win Probability Added. They were tied for the eight most meltdowns. Dennis Eckersley was at the end of the line for his career and had a -0.42 WPA. As The Closer™, he saw the highest leverage innings on the team by far despite the negative WPA. Tony Fossas was fifth on the team in leverage and had a FIP close to 5. Those two alone harmed the team’s chances.

The bullpen’s struggles had a ripple effect. One of the reasons the team finished so low in the standings is that they underperformed their pythagorean record. They were the third biggest underachiever in 1997, falling shy by 5.9 wins. A poorly leveraged bullpen is one way to do that (at least as of 2007).

They were also a disaster in close games that year. Granted, one-run records aren’t exactly predictive, but they can be descriptive. The Cardinals finished 20-33 in one-run games, a league worst .377 winning percentage. Clearly the poorly leveraged bullpen was a root cause.

Ron Gant #5

The Rest of the Offense

Lankford was a beast with a 156 wRC+, and McGwire’s was 172 after he was acquired. Delino DeShields had a respectable 111, and McGee posted a BABIP-driven 101. After that, the rest of the offense was atrocious. Even with All-Star quality bats like McGwire and Lankford, the team’s non-pitcher wRC+ was 91, tied for fifth worst in the league.

When he was healthy, Jordan only mustered a 57 wRC+. Gary Gaetti had 554 plate appearances, Ron Gant had 562, and Royce Clayton had 619. Their wRC+, respectively: 83, 82, 81. Only five players with 120+ plate appearances on the entire team had a wRC+ over 100- Lankford, McGwire, DeShields, McGee, and Plantier’s small contribution. All others were at least 10% below league average. Sheaffer was a paltry 55 and fellow bench bat David Bell was somehow worse with 43.

So solves one of the forgotten mysteries of recent Cardinal history.