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The greatest Cardinals one-man teams

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The Cardinals are in an era in which their production is relatively evenly distributed. This hasn’t always been the case.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Scott Kane-USA TODAY Sports

The phrase “replacement level” can be somewhat tricky for those who are not immersed in baseball statistics to grasp, since the term did not really exist in earnest until the 21st century. Perhaps generations from now, Wins Above Replacement or its inevitable successors will be part of baseball’s zeitgeist alongside ERA or RBI, but this is not yet the case.

Frequently, in baseball analysis, we consider a player’s WAR, but we do not consider his direct impact on his team. One could look at the percentage of a team’s WAR that a player contributed, but I’d prefer to look at percentage of WAR over a team’s actual wins—I consider it a perfectly honest assessment to stick with an estimate (WAR) for players, since a more tangible metric does not exist, while considering a more tangible metric (actual wins and losses) for a team.

Rather than consider percentage of overall wins (for instance, a 4 WAR player on an 80 win team being worth 5% of his team’s wins), I want to examine a player’s contribution to a team’s (actual) wins above a replacement level team. I’m going to stick with what FanGraphs estimates is the winning percentage of a “replacement level” team, which is 29.7%, or a 48 win pace over a 162 game season.

This is a historically bad season—just two teams have lost games at this poor of a pace in the 162-game era (which began in 1961). A vast majority of teams win far more than 48 games in a season by virtue of having many players who are above the “replacement level” threshold. Some teams, however, are much more top-heavy than others.

Last season, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim won 74 games, finishing in 4th place in the American League West, 21 games behind the first-place Texas Rangers, but about 26 games ahead of “replacement level”. Mike Trout, baseball’s consensus best player and baseball’s Wins Above Replacement leader for each of his five MLB seasons, was worth 10.6 WAR, according to Baseball Reference’s measurement. Mike Trout was worth nearly 41% of his team’s total Wins Above Replacement. The WAR leader for the St. Louis Cardinals, Carlos Martinez, was worth just 14% of the team’s total WAR.

A common argument in discussions for Most Valuable Player voting is that players such as Trout, undeniably great but on teams which ultimately are not competitive, should be excluded, since he did not contribute directly to a playoff run. But this argument could also be turned around in Trout’s favor—the 2016 Boston Red Sox, for instance, would have still been a winning team without MVP runner-up Mookie Betts, but without Trout, a mediocre Angels team becomes somewhere in the neighborhood of the worst team in baseball. Draft pick tanking considerations aside, Mike Trout deserves a ton of credit for single-handedly making the Angels quasi-respectable.

It takes a rare convergence of a mediocre team and a transcendent talent for a player to be worth such a significant share of his team’s Wins Above Replacement. Those familiar with Cardinals history—that during the first nearly quarter-century of the World Series era, the Cardinals were a consistently lousy team, amassing just three winning seasons in the first eighteen years of the period—should not be particularly surprised that the lion’s share of high-WAR percentage players in franchise history came during this time.

Initially, I thought the 1908 Cardinals dominated this category. They were a horrible team, going 49-105 and finishing in last place (I’d give some historic perspective about other baseball happenings of 1908, but I’m afraid that nothing outside of the Cardinals’ statistics could be found), and commensurate with the era, in which the gap between the best and worst players is generally considered far greater than the talent gap today, 22 of the team’s 30 players were below replacement level.

My new hero, catcher Doc Marshall, had 15 plate appearances, produced one hit, and still managed to be pictured on Baseball Reference among the team’s Top 12 in WAR. But three players—Bugs Raymond (who, if I were smart, I’d fork over the five bucks it currently would cost to sponsor his Baseball Reference page), Red Murray, and Ed Konetchy, who I can admit is the only one of these three players I’d heard of before starting this post—finished the season with more Wins Above Replacement than the team. Raymond’s 5.2 WAR was 159% of the total actual wins the Cardinals finished above a theoretical replacement level team.

But it turns out the 1903 Cardinals had six players with more WAR than the entire team, a fact I overlooked because initially I sorted for players with 3 or more WAR, since surely no team was so bad that a sub-3 win player was worth more than a team. One 1903 player, Chappie McFarland (that’s Chappie), pulled it off with 1.3 WAR. Greg Garcia was worth more than that last year. Randal Grichuk was worth more than double that last year. And let us never speak of the 1903 St. Louis Cardinals ever again.

In the live ball era, no Cardinal has come particularly close to being worth 100% of his team’s surplus wins. The franchise record over the last 100 years came courtesy of Rogers Hornsby’s legendary 1924 season, in which he amassed 12.1 WAR, a single-season franchise record (the statistic most associated with Hornsby’s 1924 is .424, his record batting average), good for 62.8% of surplus wins for a sixth-place club that went 65-89. Because some things are eternal, Hornsby did not win National League MVP, with the award instead going to Brooklyn Dodgers ace Dazzy Vance.

Hornsby is the most recent Cardinal to clear 50% of team wins; in the more modern era, 25% has been a rare but attainable mark, occurring on 12 separate occasions since World War II. A third of those times came courtesy of Stan Musial, who was a veritable one-man team in 1948 (28.5%), 1951 (26%), 1954 (26.3%), and 1955 (27.4%). In addition to these outstanding performances from the greatest hitter in Cardinals history were two such seasons by the greatest pitcher in Cardinals history—Bob Gibson, who was overwhelmingly the team’s top player in 1969 (26.7%) and 1970 (31.9%, the most recent season to surpass 30%).

The sub-.500 1959 team was not a legendary Cardinals squad, but two players, Ken Boyer (29.3%) and Larry Jackson (28.5%), did an admirable job of carrying the team. And in each of the previous four decades, a different Cardinal had a lone season of carrying his team to this degree: Ted Simmons (26.3% in 1978), Keith Hernandez (25.5% in 1980), Brian Jordan (26.1% in 1995), and most recently, Albert Pujols (29.1% in 2007).

The names listed above probably evoke some level of nostalgia—the list includes the four greatest players in franchise history, two more top-ten all-time Cardinals in Boyer and Simmons, and several other players who were stalwarts for their respective Cardinals eras.

But they did not play for great Cardinals teams. The Cardinals did not make a single playoff appearance in the seasons listed above, and a few of the seasons brought winning records. Not that an organization or its fans are generally confronted with a choice on the matter, but as great as these seasons are, and as much as they can be lost to history, recent Cardinals history, in which no player has been worth more than 17.3% of his team’s wins above replacement (Yadier Molina, in 2012) in the Mike Matheny era, has still been a more aesthetically pleasing brand and a more viable recipe for success.