It's easy to be lulled into taking for granted the annually strong performances we enjoy as fans of the Cardinals. The franchise's history is as rich as any outside of The Bronx, and one of the most remarkable features of that history is its consistency. Since 1920, the Cardinals have recorded back-to-back seasons under .500 just three times: from 1954-1956, 1958-1959, and the strike-shortened 1994 and 1995 seasons. We've had it really, really good.
And so after nearly a century of being at least pretty good almost all of the time, these last fifteen seasons perhaps don't stand out in the grand arc of the Cardinals as they would for most franchises, and indeed this has not been the best extended period in Cardinals history. However, it's been damned good, and we should throw these fifteen years a party. Let's.
A brief history of key acquisitions
Most of this post is just going to be a bunch of charts intended to make you smile like it's the first day of spring, which it is, but check out this short timeline of a quartet of acquisitions first. Think about it. Roll it around in your Cardinal loving brain for a minute.
-Six months later in June of 1999, the Cardinals, led by new scouting director John Mozeliak, selected Albert Pujols in the 13th round of the amateur draft.
-In June of 2000, the Cardinals selected Yadier Molina in the 4th round with the 113th pick.
Those 18 months saw the Cardinals acquire four players who would go on to produce 172.4 fWAR over 36 player seasons, while ranking first, second, third, and sixth among Redbird position players over the next fifteen years and laid much of the foundation that a decade and a half of outstanding baseball was built upon.
Thanks, Walt. Thanks, Mo.
Five other players cleared 15 fWAR for the Cardinals in these fifteen seasons:
-Matt Morris, selected in Walt Jocketty's first draft as the Cardinals' GM in 1995.
-Chris Carpenter, signed as a free agent prior to the 2003 season.
-Matt Holliday, who came in a trade with the A's in July of 2009.
51 players seasons from 21 players above. Some of the transition and variety can be seen below.
These players led the team to regular season dominance:
One of my favorite stats from the 2014 season is that the Cardinals won 90 games, and it slightly dropped their average number of wins since 2000.
and NL Central Sovereignty:
Won mostly through hitting:
Overall, the Cardinals had a .270/.339/.424 slash line over these fifteen years. All numbers are second in the league behind Colorado, which falls far behind when adjusted for their ballpark. The Cardinals had the highest contact rate (81.4%) in the NL and the lowest strikeout rate (16.6%), which were some of the factors that allowed them to lead the league offensively despite only hitting an average number of home runs (seventh) and walks (sixth). They were third in doubles behind Colorado and Arizona.
But also successful Duncanite pitching:
The Cardinals were not nearly so dominant on the mound as at the plate, but they allowed the fewest walks (7.9%) and had the highest groundball rate (46.7%) over this period. Not surprisingly, they were 13th in K% (17.3). Their HR/9 was fifth in the NL at .97.
The Cardinals managed a 3.93 ERA, fourth best in the league from 2000-2014, and the staff's groundball inducing ways was likely part of what allowed them to beat their 4.15 FIP by .22 in ERA, the best margin in the league. The Braves were second at .20 and were also second in GB%.
A pair of rings:
Are there lessons?
It's tempting to look back on what has gone so well to try to figure out what to do in the future, but the biggest takeaway is that the Cardinals have been on an extraordinary fifteen year run because they've done lots of things well. Of the players who have provided several star quality seasons, two were drafted, three were traded for mid-career, one was a scrap-heap reclamation product, and another was traded for as a prospect. The organization has done well in getting good value around its stars, both through free agency and internal development. Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan's coherent pitching philosophy worked well for the club as well.
Something else that stands out, though it's not represented in the charts above, is that the Cardinals did not make any huge mistakes in contracts. Their big bets on Albert Pujols in 2004 and Matt Holliday in 2009 both worked out very well, and Jim Edmonds also provided great value on a pair of contracts in his career with Cardinals. Judgments on what will likely be Adam Wainwright's and Yadier Molina's final large contracts are still in question, though they do not appear to have the potential to be crippling to what the team would like to do going forward. On the other hand, what happens with Jason Heyward in the next year could offer franchise-altering upside and downside.
The arc of the period we're celebrating shows a lot of year-to-year continuity among roster fixtures mixed with some clear core transitions and a host of brief actors, both minor and major. Seeing the name "McGwire" as a key player in 2000 is a good reminder of how much the game has changed over the course of these fifteen seasons. The Cardinals have sustained success not just amid core player transitions, but also transitions within the game itself. John Mozeliak's term for his operating philosophy in free agency is opportunistic, but it's probably fair to consider the entirety of the organization's methods as opportunistic; and, given the flexibility that term suggests, it seems like that has been a fair description for how the Cardinals work for the full length of this wonderful period of sustained success.
More transitions are ahead. The NL Central as a whole seems to be improving, and the Cardinals can't expect another Albert Pujols to materialize fully formed out of the 13th round again anytime soon. It will be interesting to see how the organization continues to adapt in order to meet the standards it has set for itself. But, regardless of the future, the last fifteen years should be recognized and remembered as a golden age of the St Louis Cardinals.