Following the United States men’s national soccer team’s 2-1 defeat at the hands of Belgium in the 2014 World Cup, former team member Landon Donovan was interviewed during ESPN’s post-game coverage. When asked about what the American team could do in order to improve their chances at victory against the more established powers of international soccer, Donovan noted that the United States developmental program needed to cultivate a player along the lines of Argentina’s Lionel Messi.
For those of you who do not follow soccer, Messi is a consensus top two player in the world and is generally accepted to be among the sport’s all-time greats (his picture is the first result if you do a Google search for “greatest soccer player”). There was a certain level of obviousness to Donovan’s sentiment that made it instantly hilarious—of course any team would be better off if a utterly transcendent talent appeared out of nowhere and was put on the roster.
As the St. Louis Cardinals approach the trade deadline, several enormous names have been floated about as potential targets. While the Cardinals’ current playoff status (which is to say, “not in them”) means fewer total rumors, as they appear to not particularly be in the market for pure rentals, it does mean that the ones which do exist can be a bit more whimsical than Zach Duke or Brandon Moss.
One of the more exciting names floated around has been Miami Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton. The superstar, acclaimed for dominating MLB’s Statcast leaderboards before Aaron Judge arrived (Judge was instantly compared to Stanton, the only player in the same tier of raw offensive power), is leading the National League in home runs and, despite a batting average on balls in play that is a bit lower than one might expect given his career BABIP and exit velocities, Stanton has a 144 wRC+, which currently stands at 16th in Major League Baseball.
Since Stanton’s rookie season in 2010, he ranks 8th among MLB players with at least 2,000 plate appearances. By any reasonable standard, Giancarlo Stanton is an elite offensive player. There is a very expensive elephant in the room with any discussion of Stanton—the $285 million remaining on his contract from 2018 through 2027, guaranteed unless Stanton opts out and followed by a 2028 team option which includes a $10 million buyout)—but if one believes that the Cardinals desperately need an impact, middle-of-the-order bat (while I don’t love this phrase, I prefer it to “need a #3 hitter”, based on the antiquated notion that the third spot in the order is where teams should put their best hitter), such a premium may be worth the cost.
The 2017 Cardinals have been frustratingly average; few if any teams can boast a 25-man roster with as little cumulative separation from average as the Cardinals. Offensively, the top qualified hitter (insert “Tommy Pham began the season in AAA so Matt Adams could be a backup outfielder” joke here) by wRC+ on the Cardinals has been Matt Carpenter; while Carpenter has been fine, his 118 wRC+ stands tied at a fairly pedestrian 54th in Major League Baseball.
The aforementioned Pham has been a revelation at the plate, but his 2017 is buoyed by a probably unsustainable BABIP and a track record that, while generally good and probably a bit overlooked, doesn’t suggest he’s this good—fine, worthy of a starting spot, but not the centerpiece of an offensive juggernaut.
The notion that adding a premium offensive player to a lineup will improve that team is self-evident, for the same reason that the obviousness of adding Lionel Messi to a soccer team being a good thing is so obvious I felt the need to mock a three year-old talking head interview from a non-professional for suggesting it. But how necessary is it?
In the last nineteen seasons of Major League Baseball, the seasons since the Arizona Diamondbacks and the franchise now known as the Tampa Bay Rays began their existences, the average ranking of the best hitter on a World Series champion, as measured by wRC+ among qualified hitters, is 13.68.
The worst of these seasons came courtesy of 2002 Anaheim Angels outfielder Tim Salmon and 2003 Florida Marlins first baseman Derrek Lee, who each ranked 32nd. This relative mediocrity is made more shocking by the fact that in the same season as Lee, the 43-119 Detroit Tigers, the team with the most losses in American League history, had a qualified hitter with a higher wRC+ than Lee—former Cardinal Dmitri Young, who ranked 27th.
Since 1998, two other World Series champions had their best hitter surpassed in wRC+ by a player on the worst team in baseball. With the 2009 New York Yankees, Mark Teixeira fell decimal points behind Adam Dunn, whose defensive ineptitude meant that he was worth only 1.1 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement for the Washington Nationals (Teixeira, despite also being hurt by the positional adjustment for first basemen, was worth 5.1 fWAR). And in 2000, Yankees catcher Jorge Posada ranked 25th in baseball with a 140 wRC+, while Chicago Cubs right fielder Sammy Sosa ranked 14th with a 154 wRC+.
The median of the nineteen World Series champion batting leaders was from the 2010 San Francisco Giants, whose first baseman, Aubrey Huff (can we discuss why it’s the Cardinals who get the “devil magic” designation for a minute?), ranked 11th. Somewhat amazingly, during this sample, no World Series champion had the MLB leader in wRC+, though 2007 David Ortiz rounds up to an equal wRC+ to Alex Rodriguez. No player has led the Majors in wRC+ in a World Series-winning campaign since Joe Morgan, the focal point of the Big Red Machine, led the 1976 Cincinnati Reds to a title.
Not surprisingly, teams with the best hitter in baseball are overwhelmingly successful—having the most lethal offensive threat in the game is a pretty good head start. Two players on losing teams led MLB in wRC+: 2016 Mike Trout, whose Angels won a sample-worst 74 games (in case you’re curious, 2016 Cubs top hitter Kris Bryant ranked 9th), and 2006 Travis Hafner, who apparently hit 42 home runs for the Cleveland Indians. I’d like to think I knew this at one point.
The top wRC+ player teams have averaged 89 wins. This is a good team, but not a team that could even loosely be considered a juggernaut, nor even a team that is guaranteed of a playoff spot.
That said, Cardinals fans may place additional priority on having an elite hitter because the last two Cardinals World Series champions had elite top hitters. The 2006 Cardinals were certainly not a great team but they did have a great hitter: Albert Pujols ranked second to Travis Hafner in wRC+. The 2011 Cardinals not only had #5 Lance Berkman, but also #10 Matt Holliday and #14 Albert Pujols.
Recent Cardinals champions have been built around dynamic, superstar-level hitters. And certainly, the Cardinals could improve their odds by adding one, the statistical fluke of the last 39 World Series champions not having baseball’s best hitter aside. But teams can win a World Series with Kendrys Morales as their best hitter. This does not in and of itself disqualify them. And the key to building a champion is not to necessarily fit a certain archetype, but to accumulate as much talent as possible.