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Wednesday SOC: The Cardinals Lulled Us into Bad Analysis

The Cardinals’ history of making things go right led me to believe that nothing could go wrong.

St. Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Wednesday SOC: The Cardinals Lulled Us into Bad Analysis

Good morning, Viva El Birdos!

With the Cardinals mired in the worst season I’ve ever suffered through (and I’ve watched a lot of bad Cardinals baseball), I’m breaking with my usual patterns to bring you some stream of consciousness. That’s a go-to approach on quiet Saturdays, but with Labor Day weekend coming up, I guess I’m trying to speed Saturday along.

Let’s talk about what went wrong this season. Not with the players on the field, though we’ll get to that. Let’s talk about what went wrong with our analysis and our projections for this season.

I’ll be the first to admit that I got this season wrong. VERY wrong. In our season preview podcast, I think I predicted 95 wins for this club. 95 wins. The club might end up with 95 losses.

It’s pretty embarrassing for a site editor and analyst for the premier Cardinals’ blog to be off by THAT much. When I started writing here back in 2019, I used to end my posts by saying “I might be wrong.” Yeah… I might be wrong. I frequently am wrong. I’m not afraid to admit that.

But I’m not usually THIS wrong.

I’m actually surprised more of you haven’t thrown my wrongness in my face. That seems to be the way of the internet. It’s the only place where anyone keeps receipts.

Then again, most of you can’t do that, can you? Because you were right there with me. Maybe not with me all the way to 95 wins; I was certainly on the high side of the VEB 2023 zeitgeist. But our preseason polls show a strong site-wide belief that the ’23 Cardinals were going to win the division and probably push deep into the playoffs.

Among our other podcasters, I think the always-rational and stat-driven Adam Akbani was at the low end with something around 88 wins. Gabe was more optimistic than Adam. Then Blake, Heather, and I were ready to hang plastic sheeting around the clubhouse and start celebrating a division championship early.

So, the “us” in the title is a not-at-all subtle attempt at some blame-sharing. I feel pretty good knowing I’m not the only idiot around here.

As I often (annoyingly) tell my real-work staff and board, there is no such thing as failure if you learned something. The Cardinals’ season isn’t a failure if they learned some lessons about about roster construction. And maybe made some friends along the way. You and I need to learn some lessons about player and roster analysis.

This article is not so much about us being wrong. It is about me trying to get things right going forward.

I think the Cardinals lulled me into bad analysis habits that affected the way that I viewed this club. I think that I had convinced myself after nearly 20 years of experience with this franchise (probably going all the way back to 2006), that the “it” that frequently did in other teams just didn’t matter with the Cardinals.

Let’s talk about that “it” for a minute. “It” can vary greatly. It could be injuries. Developmental failures. Free agents or trades that backfire. Budgets. It could be a veteran who falls apart. It could be a rated rookie who just can’t cut it. “It” could be any combination of those things.

The Cardinals have faced their share of “its” over the last 20 years. But no matter what “its” showed up on any given season, the Cardinals always seemed to find a way to overcome them. For every “it” that went wrong, two other “its” went right. The club always found a way. An unexpected good would happen. Things would just work themselves out.

It was so common that we put a happy little name to the phenomenon: Cardinals’ devil magic. Other teams whined about it. We celebrated it. We also learned to live by it.

That was certainly true of the miserably managed Mike Matheny Cardinals in the early and mid-2000s.

It has been mostly true of the 2019 and on Cardinals, who slugged and/or gloved their way through annual pitching debacles to reach the postseason every year.

Those clubs should have made “Just get to the trade deadline!” their team motto. Mo could have printed it out and hung it in the locker room for the team to slap before taking the field!

I mean… really. That was the team’s strategy. They said it aloud and stuff.

Why in the world did I ever think that a team with that kind of strategy would win 95 games?

Because we’ve seen “it” happen and “it” not really matter so many times before. The Cardinals’ persistent ability to overperform, overcome, and find a way through regardless of process has affected the way that we think about the Cardinals.

It probably shows up the most when we engage with commentators and writers outside of our Cardinals-centered echo chambers. I would strongly encourage you NOT to go back to the beginning of the season and listen to the very entertaining podcast that we had with MLB writer Drew Silva.

Drew is a StL guy. A Cardinals fan. But he’s been a national baseball writer. Despite being a fan of the team, he looks at the Cardinals through the lens of all of MLB. His experience covering the entire league colors his analysis of the Cardinals.

I’ll readily admit that it’s the opposite for me. I tend to look at MLB through the lens of the Cardinals. I watch the Cardinals. I read about the Cardinals. I write about the Cardinals. Other writers handle series previews. Others do game recaps. Others write in ways that frequently involve other teams. My view is intentionally narrow. Cardinals’ payroll. Cardinals’ players. Cardinals’ transactions. Cardinals’ statistics. Cardinals’ history. Cardinals. Cardinals. Cardinals.

My experience covering the Cardinals colors my analysis of the Cardinals.

So, when Drew was on the podcast with us for the MLB preview episode, we talked pitching. Cardinals pitching. NL Central pitching. NL contender pitching. His national perspective came out.

Drew didn’t have many positive things to say about the Cardinals’ pitching staff. He cited major injury concerns. FIP vs. ERA. Regression to the mean. Lack of strikeouts and whiffs. He was very pessimistic about the rotation and was pretty adamant that, while the Cardinals should remain contenders in the NL Central, their rotation was not up to championship standards and could result in the club’s downfall.

Drew was no prophet. He just told it as he saw it and the view he presented was not that different from what many other writers and commentators around the league believed.

We argued with him. In a good-humored way. I won’t throw any other writers under the bus, but several of us talked a lot about the security the club had with 5 “league average or better” starters and good starting pitching depth underneath that.

You heard us make the arguments:
* Montgomery is primed to take a step forward.
* Did you see Matz’s peripherals last year? If he stays healthy, he should be a good pitcher.
* Mikolas is so steady and finally healthy.
* Flaherty has had plenty of time to recover from his injuries. He could be the ace they need!
* Sure, Wainwright is old, but he’s Adam freaking Wainwright.

Then there was Matthew Liberatore, who will surely take a step forward this season. And Andre Pallante, who was solid last season. And Connor Thomas’ projections look good. Plus, Gordon Graceffo will be ready by mid-season. They won’t even need Dakota Hudson or Jake Woodford!

Looking back on that, it doesn’t seem that crazy. All of those things could be true, from a certain point of view. (Read that with Alec Guiness’ voice please.)

And some of those things happened just as planned.

Montgomery did take a step forward.

Mikolas has been steady. Oh sure, his ERA and his FIP have flipped, but he’s at 2.7 fWAR on the season and he’s doing what I’ve always said he had to do: defy standard HR rates.

Flaherty didn’t reach the upper end of his potential, but he was solid before the Cardinals traded him away. If I look back through his career FIPs, I think 2019 overly colored my view of his upside and likely landing zone. It might not just be injuries and rust that have dragged him down. He might just be an above average pitcher who had one incredible peak season.

Matz? I took a chance on him and was just wrong. Matz has two seasons in his career where he’s surpassed 2.0 fWAR. He’s struggled to stay healthy. Even with solid peripherals, he’s been inconsistent. He has 4 seasons where his fWAR was under 1.0.

Wainwright? I did have a moment of clarity in the disappointing aftermath of the ‘22 Wild Card loss. I wrote about the impact that Wainwright’s likely return would have on the Cardinals’ rotation in ’23 and expressed some skepticism that he would be able to bounce back from his late-season injury and velocity woes. That kind of criticism was not well received. Neither was my assertion that the Cardinals would not sign another pitcher if they signed Waino. Neither were my posts about Wainwright’s incredibly low velocity this spring and the impact that would have on his season. Let’s face it… no one wanted to believe that Wainwright would be bad. Especially after we just watched Albert Pujols be brilliant.

I won’t get into the depth beyond the top five. They have not been very good. The peripherals for each of the players I listed above were more pessimistic than I was, and I was wrong to simply believe that Liberatore would improve and Graceffo would be ready just because.

I don’t mean to make this all about the pitching. This team doesn’t have just one “it” that’s dragging them down.

I did predict declines from Arenado and Goldschmidt, though not to the level that they’ve fallen. Same for Edman, who I really believed was a Gold Glove candidate at SS entering this season.

I was very optimistic about Nootbaar but overestimated his ability to translate a half-season of really great stats into a full year of really great stats.

I thought Carlson’s offseason strength work to improve exit velocity and rehab his injured wrist would work out for him and he would lock down the center field spot. He has raised his exit velocity totals but that had no impact on who he was as a hitter. Injuries remain a problem.

Even though I knew about their defensive struggles, I believed the club would get positive production from both Jordan Walker and Alec Burleson. I had high hopes for both players.

I have the benefit of hindsight, but looking back on all of that, I don’t see a team that should lose 90 games. I also don’t see a team that could have won 95 games either. Not even close.

I inflated the club’s likely win total by something like 10%. If I had done honest analysis on the Cardinals, I probably should have predicted something around 86-88 wins.

I inflated the production potential of most of the roster by something like 10%.

I overestimated the likelihood that something really good would happen – like Lars Nootbaar becoming an MVP candidate.

I underestimated the likelihood that something really bad would happen – like Adam Wainwright being one of the worst pitchers in MLB.

I assumed that players would defy their peripherals, take a step forward, or reach toward my view of their potential upsides. Especially the slew of young players the Cardinals were counting on.

Looking back, I think most of my arguments for those players were reasonably optimistic. Individually, that’s okay. It’s the full collection of individually reasonable optimisms across an entire roster that looks so foolish after the fact.

The Cardinals’ history of working through all the “its” that happen throughout a season lulled me into bad analysis. If you took this same Cardinals roster, put them in Brewers uniforms, and asked me to break them down and predict a record, I’m pretty sure I would have poo-pooed it just like Drew did this Cardinals team.

Perspective matters.

That said, it’s a lot more fun to write about the good things. I prefer to lean optimistic when I can. You all read this stuff. So do the players. So do the players’ families. I’m not all that interested in being the site’s negative Nancy.

But I’m also not interested in misleading you all with overly optimistic analysis that’s centered more on devil magic and pixie dust than real baseball acuity.

I’ll have to better recognize the narratives and biases that I’m bringing to the table. “They’re the Cardinals. It works out” is just not true anymore. The “its” can get them just like they can get other teams.

I’ll have to find that balance in my commentary on the Cardinals going forward.

The Cardinals will have to find it in their roster construction.

We all need to be better in 2024. But at least we learned something.

Have a happy Wednesday, Viva El Birdos!