Growing up in the Midwest and coming of age as a baseball fan in the early 2000s, it often felt to me that St. Louis was marginalized by national baseball media.
This doesn't mean St. Louis actually was being marginalized by national baseball media. ESPN's baseball coverage gravitated largely towards the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Barry Bonds. This meant not a lot of time was devoted to the Cardinals, but to be fair, there also wasn't tons of press for 26.96 other teams, either.
I mostly accepted that the Cardinals were not the story in Major League Baseball. The Yankees are the preeminent franchise in the sport and were in the midst of one of the most successful periods of their illustrious history; the Red Sox were engaging in an arms race with their bitter rivals while attempting to end a generations-long title drought; Barry Bonds was putting up unimaginable statistics in a four-year stretch from 2001 through 2004, in which he eclipsed the career WAR totals of nineteen Hall of Fame position players (I've listened to this near-hour long recitation of Bonds fun facts no fewer than seven times).
The Cardinals may not be the Yankees or Red Sox in the national consciousness, but this didn't stop the club from compiling more than a few votes for the three major National League awards: MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year. But should they have had more? Were they perhaps overly represented? What factors have contributed to Cardinals faring better or worse than their numbers suggest they should have?
For this exercise, I looked at players who earned votes for the major NL awards since 2000 on the Cardinals and compared how they finished in the vote with their rank in Baseball Reference WAR. I don't have a strong personal preference for Baseball Reference or Fangraphs WAR, but since Baseball Reference's calculation is more frequently cited, it is probably a more fair approximation of voting patterns.
I limited it to "since 2000" for a few reasons: simplicity, but also because it limits results to an era where sabermetric principles dictate voting patterns more than in the past. Sure, Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera is still a contentious debate, but an absurdity like Juan Gonzalez beating out Alex Rodriguez for the 1996 AL MVP is seemingly a thing of the past.
Additionally, for MVP, I looked exclusively at position players who received votes, since pitchers across the board are disproportionately side-stepped in MVP balloting. I didn't feel it would be fair to point out a pitcher being underrated in MVP voting for the Cardinals when this is almost certainly driven more by his position than his team. Position players are ranked among other position players only, including in MVP voting ranks. Here is some of what I found.
The most overrated and underrated players in awards voting
- Since 2000, there have been 12 occasions of a Cardinal not receiving a vote for an award in which he "deserved" votes. Most recently, Randal Grichuk "deserved" votes for 2015 Rookie of the Year in that seven players received votes for the award, and Grichuk ranked 6th among NL rookies in bWAR. Of those 12, only one player achieved this level of underappreciatedness (which is totally a word, no matter what SpellCheck is telling me right now) more than once, and he did it three times: Scott Rolen. In 2002, 2003, and 2006, Rolen finished 7th, 17th, and 8th in NL WAR and was not among the 19, 27, or 21 position players to receive MVP votes.
- Jim Edmonds was the 21st century Cardinal to receive MVP votes who finished the furthest from his deserved finish, finishing 22nd in position player MVP votes while finishing 7th in WAR in 2003. Number two on this list? Also Jim Edmonds, who in 2002 finished 13th while deserving to finish 5th. Both Rolen and Edmonds were undervalued in 2002 and 2003, though a large factor in this is almost certainly Albert Pujols, who finished 2nd both years (deservedly in 2003, though in 2002 he only ranked 13th in position player WAR in the NL).
- On the other end of the spectrum lies Allen Craig, who twice received MVP votes he did not deserve. In 2012 and 2013, Craig finished 15th and 16th, respectively, among position players in MVP voting. His WAR rankings in these years were 55th and 68th. Judging, however, by the position players on the Cardinals who outperformed him and did not receive votes (David Freese and Jon Jay in 2012; Carlos Beltran in 2013), it seems that Craig succeeded with voters because of more traditional metrics: he led the 2013 club in RBI and was a better hitter (though a much worse fielder) than Freese or Jay in 2012. Raw offensive numbers still play in an advanced stat era.
Cardinals are relatively successful in Rookie of the Year voting
- This century, ten Cardinals have received Rookie of the Year votes. Six of the ten "deserved" it by WAR. Rick Ankiel and Albert Pujols finished in 2000 and 2001 exactly where their WAR suggested they should: 2nd and 1st. The other four finished somewhat higher than they should have, though not to such a large degree that it warrants much hand-wringing: Colby Rasmus finished 8th instead of 9th, Jaime Garcia finished 3rd instead of 5th, and Shelby Miller and Kolten Wong finished 3rd instead of finishing 6th.
- The other four Cardinals to receive Rookie of the Year votes, however, were a different story. Now, each received merely a single third-place vote and none were serious threats to actually win the award, but none of 2001 Bud Smith, 2002 Jason Simontacchi, 2012 Matt Carpenter (yes, he's terrific now, but Pete Kozma was a more productive Cardinals rookie in 2012), and 2015 Stephen Piscotty (whom I'm on the record of loving, but who was inarguably less productive than Gene Collier ballot omission Matt Duffy) deserved even that much.
- In spite of the club's disproportionate success with the award, two Cardinals "deserved" Rookie of the Year votes but did not get them. One is the aforementioned 2015 Randal Grichuk. The other, shockingly, is 2011 Allen Craig. You see, before voters were overrating the significance of Craig's RBI totals, they were neglecting to recognize his value on a team in which he constantly took a back seat to Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, and Lance Berkman. I guess it balanced out.
How Cardinals fare in Cy Young voting
- When it came to evaluating Cy Young Award balloting, I began to regret using Baseball Reference WAR as opposed to Fangraphs WAR. While the formulas are not the same for position players, they differ to their fundamental cores for pitchers--Baseball Reference focuses primarily on run prevention (think of ERA as the basic rate of evaluation) while Fangraphs focuses primarily on peripheral statistics which are mostly independent of his surrounding defense (think FIP).
- I initially assumed that most writers still preferred ERA to FIP. Not that a lot of strikeouts aren't still exciting, but 1.12 is an iconic baseball number while 1.39, the FIP that Pedro Martinez tallied for the Red Sox in 1999, is not. But in the 21st century, ten Cardinals are deemed by bWAR to be worse than their Cy Young finish indicates. The only Cardinal to receive Cy Young votes whose bWAR rank is higher than his actual finish was John Lackey last season, and his ranking in fWAR suggests Lackey shouldn't have received votes at all.
- Lackey aside, Cardinals Cy Young candidates generally performed better by fWAR rank, but not by much. None of the eleven vote-getters finished higher in fWAR rank than in Cy Young voting, and only two (the 2009 and 2013 versions of Adam Wainwright) finished where they were deemed to belong.
- Two Cardinals had pitching seasons that did not garner Cy Young votes that at least one WAR measure believes should have. In 2011, there were 12 vote-getters, and Chris Carpenter ranked 12th in bWAR and 8th in fWAR in the NL. His absence from ballots is perhaps explained by his league-leading innings total: while his ERA and FIP were very good in and of themselves, it was by pitching a ton that his WAR total grew, and that's not quite as exciting for voters. In 2012, Adam Wainwright finished 7th in fWAR while nine players received votes.
So, do the Cardinals face "flyover country" biases?
It certainly doesn't appear so. Now, there are absolutely cases in which voters appear to be wrong. 2007 Albert Pujols led the league in WAR and yet finishing ninth in MVP voting. In 2008, Ryan Howard garnered 12 first-place votes with 1.8 WAR while Albert Pujols had 9.2 WAR, and that happened while Howard's own Phillies teammate, Chase Utley, was worth 9 wins himself.
But as far as any kind of systemic, inherent regional discrimination, there isn't much beyond agenda-driven, cherry-picked speculation to suggest it. If anything, the overwhelming success of the Cardinals since 2000 appears to have given Cardinals players an even larger platform to make their cases for major awards.