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On the bigger picture

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In which I explore some numbers and thoughts and am not entirely sure what to make of them

Milwaukee Brewers v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

I’ve noticed lately that the posts and comments on this site have increasingly shifted away from the immediate action on the field. This, of course, is understandable: the Cardinals are 25-34 since May 30, a 68.6-win pace. (And that includes an 11-10 record since the All-Star break.) Even if you look at the season as a whole, this team is sitting on a -45 run differential. FanGraphs puts St. Louis’ playoff odds at 1.4%. I could rattle off more numbers, but I think you get the point I’m trying to make. For a variety of reasons (a barrage of rotation injuries, underperforming players throughout the lineup, etc.), the 2021 Cardinals have not been a good baseball team.

Then there’s the fact that the Cardinals, who haven’t entered play multiple games above .500 since June 11, are a franchise with just one losing season to their name this century. From a fan’s perspective, being the model of consistency this organization prides itself as will inevitably accentuate the bad times.

But I would assert that this year feels substantially different than the usual “the trade deadline is approaching so it’s time for bloggers to zoom out” phase. I want you to think about the last time you felt the Cardinals were legitimate World Series contenders. Maybe it was after the 2019 NLDS; after all, they were one of the last four teams standing. Personally, I recall viewing that club as winners of a fairly unintimidating NL Central who, despite their shortcomings, managed to Devil Magic their way past the Braves. I think the Nationals’ subsequent mowing down of the Cardinals in a sweep confirmed that assessment. If not then, maybe you go back to 2015 when St. Louis allowed 70 fewer runs than anyone else in baseball. Or maybe that pitching staff fizzling out towards the end of the regular season on top of spotty run support limited your expectations, in which case the 2014 team almost surely doesn’t fly either and your answer is 2013. This exercise is admittedly a bit complicated for me because I wasn’t nearly as knowledgeable about advanced metrics during the 2011-15 run as I am now, but I would probably go with some point in 2015. (That said, I do believe my prediction for that NLDS was Cubs in four; my faith waned significantly in September, especially post-Martínez going down, Wacha running out of steam, etc.)

I raise this question not because I’m particularly concerned with the specifics (e.g. how good were the 2015 Cardinals actually?) but to illustrate that the answer is six years ago, if not longer. In that time, I feel as though an apathy of sorts has crept over the fanbase. To be fair, I’d argue there are very valid reasons having nothing to do with baseball that partially explain this in the context of 2020-21. Also important, however, is the shifting landscape of baseball across the league. For example, if you look at the five seasons from 2005 to 2009, only one team (the eventual World Series champion 2007 Red Sox) boasted a Pythagorean record of at least 100 wins. (I’m using Pythagorean records as a more accurate indicator of a team’s “true talent level.”) From 2015 to 2019, 10 such teams existed. And it’s not just that more juggernauts emerged, but also the degree to which they dominated. The ‘07 Red Sox’ Pythagorean win-loss was 101-61. Of the aforementioned 10 teams, nine posted at least 102 estimated wins, including five(!) with 107+(!!). Some of this is due to a consolidation of talent and talking points regarding superteams in MLB that you’ve likely heard before. On the flip side of the coin, of course, is the rising popularity of all-out tanking, a trend that is similarly reflected in the data. (See: five teams with 65 or fewer Pythagorean wins from 2005-09 versus 14 from 2015-19.) While I’m not going to go so far as to compare the state of MLB to, say, the NBA during the height of the Warriors’ recent dynasty, parity in terms of genuine World Series contention is on the decline. In the 2005-09 time span, World Series teams averaged 92.3 Pythagorean wins. (If you’re curious, that ticks up to 93.4 if you boot the 2006 Cardinals.) By comparison, that figure was 98.5 in the 2015-19 window—and 100.8 if you omit the 2015 World Series.

That takes us back to the modern Cardinals. From the start of 2016 through the present—the supposed dark ages—St. Louis has the ninth best run differential in the majors. The other teams that high on the list account for all 10 pennants since then. Those numbers would, in theory, suggest that the Cardinals surely must have had at least one season as a true contender. But as recent memory tells us, not necessarily. That’s because the run differential gap between the Cardinals and even the second closest team, the Nationals, is +259 vs +489. All the way at the top are the Dodgers at +1,051 and Astros at +915.

Team Run Differentials, 2016-Present

Team Runs Scored Runs Allowed Run Differential
Team Runs Scored Runs Allowed Run Differential
LAD 4117 3066 1051
HOU 4220 3305 915
NYY 4117 3493 624
CLE 3907 3256 651
BOS 4283 3706 577
CHC 3944 3377 567
WSN 4010 3521 489
TBR 3710 3397 313
MIL 3679 3537 142
OAK 3821 3609 212
STL 3748 3489 259
ATL 3886 3767 119
MIN 4003 4024 -21
SEA 3681 3911 -230
NYM 3575 3666 -91
SFG 3483 3595 -112
COL 4073 4217 -144
TOR 3760 3870 -110
ARI 3803 3873 -70
LAA 3729 3904 -175
PHI 3575 3934 -359
CHW 3627 3895 -268
TEX 3755 4171 -416
SDP 3467 3828 -361
CIN 3675 4046 -371
PIT 3471 3971 -500
MIA 3344 3892 -548
KCR 3411 4029 -618
DET 3444 4192 -748
BAL 3570 4347 -777

But when you look at the teams who have been “more successful” over the past five years, you also have to consider how they got to that situation on the proverbial win cycle. Front offices for organizations like the Dodgers and Yankees are praised for their shrewdness, yes, but it’s also worth noting that they have more resources to work with than Mozeliak and Co. The Red Sox endured back-to-back last place finishes in the AL East before reloading. The Rays also spent a year in last and two straight before that in fourth. The Cubs and Astros played some truly abysmal baseball during their full-scale rebuilds. Picture what Cardinals fans watched for six-ish weeks, but for multiple years on end.

All of this underscores the boom or bust nature of how many teams operate nowadays. The economics of baseball is such that slashing payroll, being awful and stockpiling high draft picks, then hopefully turning things around is (presumably, I obviously don’t have access to The Books™) a viable business model for owners. Absent being both an extremely wealthy and smart franchise, virtually every club to reach elite status as of late has had to, at some point and to some degree, take one step back to take two steps forward later on.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals have seemingly refused to take any steps back, which gets to the heart of what I want to discuss. I don’t think there’s any disputing that the Cardinals have taken a dip in terms of on-field success. Did they lose their edge with regards to player evaluation and/or development? I don’t know if I can give a thorough answer to that question, and, to be candid, where my qualifications particularly diminish. John LaRue explored this subject in more detail last month, concluding that “few teams do more with less.…As it is, they’re an eerily consistent organization when it comes to overall talent.” That’s a key, but sometimes understated point: as primitive as it sounds, when you win a lot, maintaining a great roster through the draft becomes more difficult as a result of lower picks and signing bonus pools.

These types of “natural constraints” on perennial winning intersect with what I think this community generally agrees are ownership constraints imposed on the front office. This includes material limitations (the Cardinals aren’t going to have a Dodgers-level payroll) as well as philosophical ones that I presume are ownership-driven (never giving up on a season/whatever you want to call it, heavily paying aging veterans, etc.). Most of the latter can be chalked up as risk aversion: a risk-averse Cardinals organization is a profitable Cardinals organization, one that sells tickets and marches to the (steady) beat of its own revenue drum. I don’t say this to kickstart a rant villainizing owners (not that I’m going to defend them, as anyone who knows me is well aware) but because there are questions about whether or not this type of risk aversion can uphold a sustainable product on the field. Some might argue we’re already witnessing this. They’d point to the fact that, excluding the abnormal postseason last year, 13 teams have reached the playoffs multiple times since 2016. The Rays are on track to become #14, and the Mets and Blue Jays (both within three games in the standings) could make it over half the league come this October. The Cardinals, despite their aforementioned run differential, will find themselves in the other group barring a late-season comeback. Those numbers, needless to say, are a reflection of how many fans feel right now: stuck. The Cardinals aren’t contenders right now. I think the moves we saw at the trade deadline are implicit recognition of as much.

This reminds me of A.E. Schafer’s piece advocating for the Cardinals to sell at the 2016 deadline, which, in a way only RB could, uses soil depletion and crop rotation as a metaphor to describe a need for talent replenishment. I’ve heard many fans say that this was always supposed to be a transition year anyways, an awkward in-between phase while we wait for the Matthew Liberatores and Nolan Gormans of the organization to take over. Then again, how many teams eyeing 2023 or so as the opening of a new window kick off a transition year by going out and getting Nolan Arenado right before his age-30 season? It’s also possible the Cardinals just saw the Arenado deal as too good to pass up on. Either way, the natural question that arises when pondering such a transition is: do the Cardinals have enough talent on the way to be a genuine contender—or at least enough to where you can say, “we’re moves X and Y away from being one”? I could understand someone looking at the 2021 team and deeming it a borderline playoff squad if not for almost the entire rotation breaking, so they very well could be roughly a “wait for the young guys and flex a little payroll muscle” away. I could also understand someone arguing that the current Cardinals farm system is middle of the pack rankings-wise, so we shouldn’t bank on it pushing St. Louis over the top while players like Arenado and Goldschmidt regress. Plus, if recent history is any indication, the bar a team must clear to truly contend may be rising beyond what the Cardinals could reach in their present/near-future state.

Perhaps a question that needs to be asked first, though, is whether or not I want the Cardinals to conform to what it is becoming to constitute a Capital-C Contender. It might seem out of a place in a piece chock full of stats—and painfully over-romanticized in any setting, to be honest—but I can’t be the only one who views baseball as the oddly comforting soundtrack to their summer nights, an unshakable part of me always optimistic in the coin-lands-tails-four-times-in-a-row-level chances that a special run happens. You don’t get that when your team is 20 games out by the Fourth of July. At the same time, there’s a part of me that longs for the energy of a pennant race when your favorite team is awesome and dominant. Then the other part of me comes back and notes the many “budding dynasties” that never came to fruition, their window coming and going with maybe a pennant if things broke their way that one year. That side gets a reply: stop making excuses for a Cardinals organization that lost its cutting-edge ways and fell behind. I know I’m supposed to have a definitive claim, a “here’s what I believe and these are my main reasons why” if for no other reason than to give you, the reader, some sense of closure.

I apologize, but all I can tell you is how I feel: conflicted.