The 2004 St. Louis Cardinals could have easily won 110 games.
Saying that any team in history could have easily won 110 games seems absurd, even if we were to refer to one of the handful of teams that actually did win 110 games. But the 2004 Cardinals won 105 games as the season actually unfolded. Before the season, the team traded J.D. Drew, a year away from free agency, to the Atlanta Braves, and with the Braves, Drew had the best season of his career—8.6 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, 8.3 WAR if you go by Baseball Reference.
The Cardinals also dealt Eli Marrero, who posted a .894 OPS while being used exclusively as an outfielder, but Marrero had previously played catcher with the Cardinals—while injuries probably meant he could not have been a full-time starter at the position, he would certainly have been a useful utility backup and pinch-hitter. And while the MLB players the Cardinals received in return, Jason Marquis and Ray King, were useful pieces that season, their combined 2.6 fWAR isn’t really comparable to the 10.3 fWAR of Drew+Marrero.
And yet, have you ever heard fans reflect on this trade in a negative, or even a remotely bittersweet, light? Instead, because the Cardinals also acquired a top pitching prospect from the Braves, the deal is considered one of the greatest coups of Walt Jocketty’s tenure as Cardinals general manager. That prospect, of course, was Adam Wainwright.
Adam Wainwright, along with Chris Carpenter, is one of the two greatest Cardinals pitchers of the 21st century. Only two other Cardinals pitchers are within one-third of Wainwright’s pitching bWAR since 2000, Carpenter and Lance Lynn, and Wainwright’s edge becomes even more overwhelming when considering that he is easily the most productive of the upper-crust pitchers in terms of non-pitching production—batting and fielding.
But while Wainwright and Carpenter are the two best Cardinals pitchers of the 21st century, saying this is a bit like saying Jimi Hendrix and Mitch Mitchell were the two most famous members of the Jimi Hendrix Experience—it is technically true, but it would also be misleading to imply that the two are on the same tier. By pitching bWAR, Wainwright has a 6.6 win lead, and incorporating non-pitching bWAR, the gap grows to 11.7 wins. This gap is nearly the entire Cardinals bWAR production of Woody Williams, #4 among Cardinals pitchers this century.
By FanGraphs WAR, the gap is even larger. At 42.4 fWAR, Wainwright is tied with Jim Edmonds for 9th in franchise history. Carpenter stands at 27.6. In some circles, Carpenter is more beloved than Wainwright—while Waino is noted for his warm and cheerful personality, Chris Carpenter evokes the Man Against the World archetype largely associated with Bob Gibson (don’t worry: Gibby will appear in this post beyond “guy mentioned as forerunner to Chris Carpenter).
But that’s more a matter of taste—it’s not like anybody who saw Wainwright’s nerves-of-steel curveball against Carlos Beltran in the 2006 NLCS is going to argue that, in a more subdued way, Wainwright is not also a tremendous competitor. Statistically, not even considering what it is to come, Wainwright has had the more productive Cardinals career.
Oh, and since I mentioned that curve, I won’t leave you...hanging.
Bob Gibson, unsurprisingly to anybody with even minimal knowledge of St. Louis Cardinals history, is the franchise’s leader in Wins Above Replacement among pitchers. He has more than double the franchise WAR, by Baseball Reference or FanGraphs, of any other pitcher. His case for the franchise’s greatest pitcher is fairly obvious, so we’ll save him for later and instead compare Wainwright, King of the 21st century, to the three other pitchers which comprise the franchise’s top five of the Live Ball Era, along with Gibson, in career WAR—Harry Brecheen, Dizzy Dean, and Jesse Haines.
First, here’s a rundown of the four hurlers by traditional Hall of Fame litmus tests—career WAR (both of the bWAR and fWAR variety), WAR7 (a measure of the player’s seven best seasons), JAWS (an average of the two measures), and, just because, what I am calling WAR3, a measure of each player’s three best seasons, so as to measure the peak of his peak.
Top Cardinals pitchers, non-Gibby division
There is some subjectivity here, beyond just whether or not to trust WAR metrics—do you prefer a long peak, do you prefer a high peak, or do you prefer straight longevity? That said, I’m somewhat comfortable eliminating Jesse Haines here—while Dizzy Dean only spent seven seasons with the Cardinals and thus his high WAR totals are a direct reflection of him being near the top of his game while in St. Louis, and Brecheen and Wainwright combined more longevity with very good peaks, Haines spent 18 seasons with the Cardinals and still cannot separate himself from these much shorter careers.
While Brecheen is a tad better than Wainwright by Baseball Reference WAR, Wainwright has a larger edge by FanGraphs. Even if one has a strong preference towards one version of WAR or the other, the two usually begin to look alike with larger sample sizes, and with career-long sample sizes, Wainwright is better.
Wainwright is in striking distance of Dizzy Dean, but while it would be fun to declare Wainwright better than the Hall of Famer, it is hard to go with the guy who holds a (slim) edge in only one of the eight metrics listed above. While Adam Wainwright may eventually surpass Dizzy Dean in Cardinals pitching lore, he just isn’t quite there yet.
But since they are so close, let’s compare them both to Bob Gibson.
Okay, that’s a bit abrupt. And certainly, the very notion of somebody being better than Gibson would offend some sensibilities because, well, it’s freakin’ Bob Gibson, man. He is the franchise leader in every relevant pitching statistic: wins, losses (hey, as many pitchers in MLB’s all-time top ten for losses are in the Hall of Fame as are in the top ten for wins, they matter!), innings, strikeouts...the man had a 1.12 ERA in 304 2⁄3 innings in a season.
But this was in 1968, at perhaps the nadir of offense in Major League Baseball. Granted, Gibson was the best pitcher in baseball that season, but he was also one of seven qualified starting pitchers with sub-2 ERAs. Only two of the 76 qualified starters had earned run averages above four (the highest belonged to Rick Wise, whom the Cardinals acquired three seasons later for Steve Carlton).
Luckily, Baseball Reference has a nifty Neutralized Pitching tool, which adjusts a pitcher’s season for era. While Adam Wainwright just avoided the “steroid era” and Dizzy Dean did not exactly pitch in 2000 Coors Field himself, each had a tougher challenge than Bob Gibson pitching in 1968 Busch Stadium. So here is a look at what Baseball Reference suggests would be each’s stats at 1968 Busch Stadium II in his best season by Baseball Reference WAR.
Adam Wainwright: 2.42 ERA at 2010 Busch Stadium III; 1.88 ERA at 1968 Busch Stadium II
Dizzy Dean: 2.66 ERA at 1934 Sportsman’s Park; 1.90 ERA at 1968 Busch Stadium II
Bob Gibson: 1.12 ERA at 1968 Busch Stadium II; (just because I feel like throwing a bonus fun fact in here) 2.47 ERA at 2000 Coors Field
As you can see, while Gibson got a substantial boost in raw numbers from when he played, even when adjusting for context, he was still, relative to his era, the best pitcher of the three.
One could more easily make the case for Adam Wainwright being superior to Bob Gibson than Dizzy Dean being superior to Bob Gibson on the grounds of human micro-evolution being such that what Adam Wainwright is doing is against superior athletes to those faced by Bob Gibson. I’m not going to be the one to make that case, personally, but I at least understand the logic of it.
Regardless, the physical improvements of athletes over 70-80 years is enough for me to list Wainwright ahead of Dizzy Dean as a tiebreaker for the more talented pitcher, while giving Dean a slighter edge for better pitcher in his time. And even if you don’t want to make that claim, Adam Wainwright is certainly in the first or second (if you put Bob Gibson in his own class, which is fair) tier of Cardinals pitchers.