As I sit here on my 24th birthday wishing I was getting mentally prepared for game seven of the National League Championship Series, I instead find myself looking back on the 2014 St. Louis Cardinals—a team that was as enjoyable as they were maddening. In March, if you would have told me the Cardinals would lose to the Giants after just five games in the NLCS, I would have laughed at you given the team's expectations coming into the season. Halfway through, though, when the Milwaukee Brewers just were not going away, I would have gladly taken a National League Championship Series appearance. However, when the Brewers fell off and the Cardinals outlasted the Pirates, my expectations returned to where they were preseason. When the offense decided it could hit home runs in the playoffs, my expectations peaked. Unfortunately, here we are: two days away from the start of the World Series, and the team representing the state of Missouri is not the St. Louis Cardinals.
There are over a million ways to reflect on a 171-game season. What I've quickly learned is that following the team as a blogger is so much different than following the team as a fan because you watch games and look at statistics in hopes of finding something worthy to write about. I cannot even begin to imagine how many highlight videos I've watched, how many times I've visited BrooksBaseball, or how many times I've been on Fangraphs this season. The following players, topics, and moments are what I chose to reflect on today.
How will I remember Wainwright's 2014? His one-hit complete-game shutout of the Arizona Diamondbacks on May 20th clearly stands out, but that's not what is going to stick with me for many years to come. Not even close. After two miserable starts in the playoffs, I, among others, was calling for Waino to "take a step back" as it just didn't seem like the team had its best chance to win with him on the mound. Man, I was foolish. The ace proved me wrong in a very big way.
Prior to game five, I noted that in order for Wainwright to be successful, he needed to throw 40-45% fastballs, implying good command of the pitches and also the ability to set up his devastating breaking ball. Per BrooksBaseball, 49% of his pitches were either his fourseamer (37%) or his sinker (12%), so it makes sense that he returned to form this time around. The life on his fastballs (max fourseamer: 93.9 MPH, max sinker: 94.0 MPH) was definitely a positive. Yet, one can be reasonably worried about the future of Wainwright's arm health. It popped up back in June and still managed to wreak havoc in October. Considering he has thrown the most innings in the majors since returning from Tommy John, it is imperative that the Cardinals construct a plan for managing his innings going forward.
Lynn topped 200 innings for the second straight season and outperformed his FIP (3.35) with an ERA of 2.74 (14th best in the MLB). Given some of Waino's up's and down's that correlated with his arm health, Lynn was the most consistent starting pitcher for the Cardinals this season, as he recorded 24 quality starts in 33 chances. He allowed more than three earned runs in only four starts this season. It may have taken 126 pitches, but the smile/smirk on Lynn's face after his first-career complete game shutout is definitely a must-watch moment from 2014:
Looking back on El Gallo's season (especially the postseason), I'm puzzled because I'm not entirely sure what his role was with the 2014 Cardinals. However, considering he very clearly has the best stuff on the roster, I hope the organization removes his training wheels and gives him a legitimate shot at the starting rotation next season. It is time to see if the 23-year-old righty is up for the challenge. After all, some of his pitches just aren't fair:
Statistically speaking, Holliday had a slight decline in 2014 (3.8 fWAR from 4.4 and 4.5 the seasons before). However, his ability to do the following makes him a legitimate threat every time through the order:
As an aside, I will discuss Matt Holliday in full in a post later on in the offseason.
Four years, $53 million for a 32-year-old, supposedly out-of-shape shortstop fresh off a Biogenesis suspension? I would be lying if I said I wasn't in the least bit surprised by this deal. Yet, despite what Jon Heyman may think, Peralta was simply fantastic in 2014, both at the plate and in the field. Sure, he struggled mightily at the plate in the playoffs, but I give him a pass considering he was the team's regular season MVP and there is zero chance they win the division without him. Plus, he suffered from the BABIP monster in game five of the NLCS, and if the Cardinals would have found a way to get to game six and beyond, I honestly think we would seen him return to usual form—smacking liners and lifting loud fly balls to the outfield.
Will he be able to stay at shortstop for three more seasons? Who knows, but in terms of UZR (12.0) and DRS (17), he was a top four defensive shortstop in all of baseball this season. The front-loading of his contract will come into play should his performance decline as he creeps toward 33 years of age. Nothing from what I saw this season worries me about this happening, but one can never be too sure when discussing the health of the human body.
Coming into 2014, there were two main knocks on Jay: 1) he's a singles-only hitter and 2) his below-average defense, particularly his route running and his poor arm. Well, Jay is still pretty much a singles-only hitter (ISO of .075), but his .372 on-base percentage was second highest on the team (behind Carpenter's .375), an always-desirable feature at the top of any lineup, and his wRC+ of 115 was nothing to sneeze at, either. Though single-season fielding metrics are not the most reliable at all, Jay had his best defensive season in center with a 6.0 UZR and 5 DRS. The main takeaway is that though Jay won't necessarily wow anyone with the glove—he’s very clearly not Peter Bourjos out there—he’s also not as bad as his 2013 metrics suggest. Of note, I cannot wait for the full arrival of MLB's Advanced Media replays (check out one below):
Due for second-year arbitration over the offseason, Jay will see a raise from the $3.25 million he made this season. If I were to pin a number on it without doing too much research, I would have it in the high $5 million to low $6 million range for Jay. Because of this, there is a real chance this was the last time we saw Jay don the Birds on the Bat, especially considering the "log-jam" of outfielders that all provide cheaper alternatives. Personally, I think this idea is silly considering Jay has already proven capable of being a solid MLB outfielder, while we still have no clue what to expect from guys like Randal Grichuk, Tommy Pham, and Stephen Piscotty, but trading away Jay while he's valuable seems to be a growing trend among Cardinals fans. We will see very soon.
Most people love him. Yet, some people dislike him—citing the weakness of the bench over the last two seasons. First, let's agree that very few teams have productive benches. Second, Mozeliak tried to improve the bench this season. Adding Mark Ellis, a ~2.4 fWAR per season player, to bolster the infield seemed like a really good deal at the time. Did it work out? No, it most definitely didn't, but it was a much more valiant effort than the addition of Ty Wigginton in December of 2012.
The trade for Justin Masterson obviously didn't work out either, but it was a risk Mozeliak had to take, given the state of the rotation and the organizational depth at the outfield position. The acquisition of John Lackey and Corey Littrell for Joe Kelly and an aching Allen Craig will go down as one of Mozeliak's very best moves, in my opinion. Kelly is one my all-time favorites, but it was a deal that had to be done, not really because of Kelly but because getting Craig's back-loaded contract off the books frees up some flexibility for Mozeliak moving forward.
Finally, there was no way I could make it through an entire season reflection post without at least taking a look at manager Mike Matheny. Nope, I'm not going to criticize his tactical decisions. Our staff (with Ben being the first to coin the term "Mathenaging," Bernie Miklasz, and Will Leitch have all already done a terrific job at that. My one complaint lies with the way he managed Oscar Taveras.
Taveras was considered the top two or three prospect in all of baseball over the last two seasons, mainly because of his supreme hit tool. When Craig was traded to the Red Sox, Taveras was inserted into the starting lineup and despite having a fairy-tale start to his big-league career, he began to struggle soon thereafter. Understandably, the manager gave some time to right-handed hitting Grichuk, another young outfielder. Grichuk experienced some immediate success, especially on defense, but this time, when he began to struggle, he didn't lose playing time. The hit tool of Taveras makes him a threat against both righties and lefties, but at the very least, I would have accepted a strict platoon, especially in the playoffs. Matheny didn't do this, though. He stuck with Grichuk (.158/.158/.316 in 36 postseason PAs), even with righties on the mound, and as early as April or May next season, we are going to see how silly this actually was.
Thank you, St. Louis Cardinals baseball, for another memorable season. Is it time for pitchers and catchers to report yet?