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Cardinals win without MVP, Cy Young Candidates

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The Cardinals have the best record in baseball, but are unlikely to produce any contenders for the major awards at the end of the season.

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Most Valuable Player Award in the National League is likely to go to Bryce Harper. The Cy Young Award is likely to be a battle between Zach Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, and Jake Arrieta. The Cardinals do not have any players who merit serious consideration for MVP.

Maybe if Matt Carpenter had not struggled in the months after his bout with exhaustion, he might be up closer to the top. Maybe if Yadier Molina could have put together one more good-hitting season. Maybe if Jason Heyward had gotten off to a better start, he might be higher than 10th in fWAR (8th per Baseball-Reference). Nobody on the team has the gaudy home run or RBI totals that grab attention. The Cardinals pitching has been phenomenal all season long, but it has been a group effort. They have four pitchers in the top 20 of fWAR (Garcia is 23rd), but Carlos Martinez's Cardinals-leading 3.1 does not crack the top ten. John Lackey leads the team in innings and is sixth in the NL in bWAR, but his peripheral stats (FIP) are the worst of the five members of the rotation.

At this point, trolling the other fans and filling this piece with cliches that make a lot of the country nauseous is one way to go. I could talk about how the Cardinals hustle, hit the cutoff man, bring their lunchpails with them to work, are more than the sum of their parts, put in a hard nine, play together, play like kids out there, are business-like, aren't afraid to get their uniforms dirty, respect the game, outwork the other team, are gritty and scrappy and plucky, never give in, never take a play off, never take the game for granted, get better when the game is on the line, give it their all, do the little things, and make their own luck.

The Cardinals do a lot of those things, but so do most other teams. The difference for the Cardinals is that they have a lot of good players. Even if they do not have any single player with otherworldly numbers this season, the Cardinals have excelled because of an incredible collection of talented ballplayers. I spend a lot of time getting into the minutia of statistics. I look for a run here or a run there where the Cardinals have taken advantage, fallen behind, or where they might be able to get a little bit better.

There is a lot of analysis out there that tries to explain just how they Cardinals have been this good. Many of those pieces are excellent, presenting sound statistical information, but often we try to find an answer for the last 10% of a question without recognizing the obvious for the first 90%. We can ask if the Cardinals are clutch, if they change their approach when pitching with runners on, if Yadi gives them a little something extra that we can't see, if the team has just been a bit lucky in certain situations, if the team is better conditioned, eats better, if the scouting department and minor leagues are slightly better at identifying and growing players than other teams, if the pitching is suited for the ballpark and defense, if the bullpen is ideally suited to hold on to small leads, if an average offense with great pitching is better than the reverse.

Those are all questions we ask in trying to figure out how the Cardinals have been this good. They don't address the obvious part of the question, perhaps because it is so simple: Why are the Cardinals good?

The Cardinals are good because they have good players. Every team has good players, but the Cardinals have more. Overall, the Cardinals are fourth in the NL in WAR, behind the Dodgers, Mets, and Cubs. They are not that far behind, especially when we are talking about almost an entire season's worth of games, but they are behind. Those numbers say they are good. All teams have injuries, and the Cardinals are not alone is losing some important players. Some might chalk the Cardinals great record despite the injuries to perseverance and a "next-man-in" attitude, but "next-man-in" is not an attitude, it is a matter of having more good players.

The graph below shows the number of players on each team in the National League that have accumulated at least one win above replacement (WAR) this season, per FanGraphs.

NL one-WAR players

The Cardinals depth has given them more positive contributors, along with the Dodgers, than every other team in the National League. It is not a coincidence that most of the teams that rate highly on this list are good teams. The Cardinals have quantity, but merging quantity and quality can be difficult. A one-win player might be fine filling in, but they does not say a whole lot about the overall quality. One-win players with a decent amount of playing time are below average. Raising the bar to two wins, we can see how many players teams have that are at least average, combining quantity and quality.

2-WAR players per team

The Cardinals are good because they have good players. Consider that the second graph does not include Yadier Molina, Jhonny Peralta, and Matt Holliday. It might actually understate the number of quality players that the Cardinals have on their team. We can talk about the little things that make a difference, or an attitude, or a manager, or an organizational philosophy, but ultimately, winning and losing comes down to the players. The Cardinals are a really good team with really good players, and that is why their record is so great and why they keep going to the playoffs. A lot of factors go in to putting those players out on to the field, but if you want the most direct line of causation to wins, start with the players.