It's the offseason and there's not a lot going on. The recent free agent signings have been covered, and the Hall of Fame arguments for former Cardinals have been heard. So let's look at some Cardinals' history.
I care about this stuff. It means something to me that the Cardinals have won 11 championships even though just over half of those occurred before my parents were even born. I've been alive for three of them but was an unaware three-year old when they won in 1982. So prior to 2006, my brother, who's a Cubs fan (Yeah, I know. That'll happen when you grow up in Central Illinois.), had seen his favorite team celebrate as many World Series titles as I had seen from mine All of that great history was still there though. In reality, the fact that before the league was even integrated a bunch of now-dead guys outlasted another group of dead guys in the 1926 World Series should be completely meaningless and grant me zero bragging rights. Fair enough. But sports are rather meaningless anyway and in this giant meaningless realm of baseball, I contend that this stuff is important.
If I had my druthers the Cardinals would be the most successful franchise in the history of baseball but that won't happen any time soon unless the Yankees are contracted. Hopefully that's on Commissioner Manfred's short list of things to do. The Cardinals are, however, often cited as the "second" best franchise in MLB or the most successful franchise in the NL because their 11 World Series titles are second only to the Yankees' 27 (27!!!), and because they've been really good now for a really long time. It's getting harder to remember when the Cardinals weren't consistently in the playoffs and for fans who were born in 1989 or later it's nearly impossible because that period doesn't really exist in their cognizant lifetime.
That's because the wild card era, along with division realignment, began in 1995 and during that time the Cardinals have been pretty good. Not coincidentally I would argue, this period of success runs nearly parallel with Bill Dewitt Jr.'s ownership of the team. But how has the Cardinals' success during this span shaped their overall standing with the rest of MLB? And are they really the second best franchise in baseball?
Well, here are the overall standings in MLB from 1901 to 1994 (pre-wild card) sorted by wins:
(If you were curious, the Dodgers are "BRO.")
As you can see, the Cardinals had the sixth most wins. The Yankees, NY/San Francisco Giants, Pirates, Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers, and Tigers had all won more games. Through 1994, the Cardinals won nine World Series titles, which was second (tied with the PHI/KC/Oakland A's) to the Yankees (22). Their 15 pennants placed fourth behind the Yankees (33), Dodgers (18), and Giants (16). They also had 15 total playoff appearances (the Cardinals didn't lose in the playoffs prior to the World Series until 1996) which was fifth behind the Yankees (34), Dodgers (20), Giants (18), and A's (18).
As for the modern wild card era, here are the overall standings from 1995 to the present sorted by wins:
During the last 21 years, the Cardinals had the fourth most wins. If you expected that number to be higher, it's because the Cardinals did most of their damage from 2000 on. True, the Cardinals won the NL Central in 1996 and finished a game away from securing their first pennant since 1987, but that team was an outlier of the post-wild card/pre-2000 Cardinals. (If you don't remember the ‘96 NLCS, it was just like the '12 NLCS vs. the Giants only worse. The Cardinals were up 3 games to 1 over the Braves and were then outscored 32-1 the rest of the way. It was like watching a nightmare that lasted for several days.) For starters, the roster in 1996 looked entirely different from 2000 when the Cardinals won their next NL Central title. Ray Lankford and the Benes brothers were the only holdovers. The '96 team was also sandwiched between some very pedestrian Cardinals teams. Between 1995 and 1999, the Cardinals had a winning percentage of .482 - 18th in all of MLB - and were 28 games under .500. Looking back, '95-'99 seemed better than it actually was because of the '96 team and on account of Mark McGwire arriving soon thereafter and hitting balls to the moon.
So let's look at the standings from 2000 to the present, again sorted by wins:
The Cardinals are second only to, again, the Yankees and have 56 more wins than the next NL team. During this time, the Cardinals have won two World Series titles and only the Red Sox and Giants have won more (each with three). They've won four pennants, which is tied for the most with the Yankees and Giants. And they've qualified for the postseason twelve times, which ranks second only if you count the Yankees one-and-done appearance in the 2015 wild card game. The next closest is the Braves with nine playoff appearances (including their 2012 wild card loss to the Cardinals). In total, since 2000 the Cardinals have won 65 playoff games which is the most in baseball. The Yankees are second with 62.
The impact of the Cardinals success in the wild card era, and especially from 2000 on, is obvious. From 1901 until the present, the standings sorted by wins now looks like this:
The Cardinals improved their overall winning percentage by six points and by eight points if your dividing line is the year 2000. They are now fourth in total wins having leapfrogged the Pirates and Tigers. That's not surprising. The Pirates' streak of twenty straight losing seasons ended as recently as 2013. And last year notwithstanding, the Tigers' recent success has overshadowed just how dreadful they had been prior to 2006. From 1995 to 2005 they lost an atrocious amount of games, an average of 96 games per year, in fact (with 1995 adjusted for the strike-shortened year).
The Cardinals crept up on some of the winning teams as well. Between 1995 and 2015 the Dodgers were 223 games over .500 yet their 83 game cushion which they held over the Cardinals prior to 1995 was nearly cut in half. The Cardinals also gained 70 games on the Giants in spite of the Giants playing .525 ball.
And the aforementioned postseason success factors in, too. The Cardinals' World Series titles in 2006 and 2011 separated them from the A's and they're now alone in second place with 11. Their 19 total pennants are third behind the Yankees (40) and the Giants (20). Lastly, their now 28 total playoff appearances are third to the Yankees (52) and the Dodgers (29).
None of this is really news and most of us already knew we were living in the golden age of Cardinals baseball. Nonetheless, their success in the wild card era has had a large footprint on their place in the hierarchy of MLB. As a result, certainly an argument, albeit not a conclusive one, can be made that they're the second best franchise and the crème de la crème of the NL. Of course, in the grand scheme this means nothing. But as a Cardinals fan it makes me smile.