The Contradictory Identities of the Cardinals

It is perhaps no longer appropriate to talk about the 2013 St. Louis Cardinals as a current baseball team. As of late Wednesday night, there are no current baseball teams, with all teams now to be referred to in the past tense. In the end, the Cardinals came up just short of the Red Sox, and though they lost the finale by five runs, they did manage to strand runner after runner against John Lackey and bits of the Boston bullpen. It was a theme for the Cardinals in the World Series — though they didn’t perform much worse than Boston at the plate, their timing was worse, and as Dave noted earlier Thursday, the Cardinals were let down by a lack of timeliness that had driven them all regular season long.

Oddly and interestingly, some semblance of Cardinals magic was with them in October. In the playoffs, with runners in scoring position, the Cardinals batted just .259 with a .701 OPS. Those numbers aren’t particularly good, but in the playoffs, with the bases empty, those same Cardinals batted a woeful .190 with a .522 OPS. On the one hand, the Cardinals weren’t automatic in run-scoring situations, like they were during the year. On the other, they still significantly elevated their performance, and this gets to a subject most perplexing.

Between 2012 and 2013, the Cardinals were perhaps the most consistent team in baseball, in terms of roster construction. At least, if nothing else, with the position players. Very little about the Cardinals’ position-player makeup actually changed. The two versions would’ve been even closer were it not for Rafael Furcal‘s injury problems. Of all the Cardinals’ 2013 plate appearances, 97% went to players who were there in 2012. The only major guys missing were Furcal, Skip Schumaker, and Tyler Greene. Lance Berkman was gone, too, but in 2012 Lance Berkman hardly played.

Two years ago, the Cardinals scored 765 runs. This year, they scored 783. Two years ago, the Cardinals’ non-pitchers posted a 115 wRC+. This year, they came in at 113. In the big picture, the team performances were consistent. When you drill down a little, however, the identities are difficult to reconcile. Two very similar versions of the Cardinals were two very different versions of the Cardinals.

Obviously, the thing that stood out most about this year’s team was the unbelievable, record-setting performance with runners in scoring position. Over a sample of more than 1500 plate appearances, the Cardinals’ non-pitchers posted a league-leading 149 wRC+, besting the runner-up by 33 points. No team ever has matched that level of timely productivity, and it allowed the Cardinals to outperform their overall metrics. There were indications the Cardinals’ hitters actually changed their approaches. Around midseason, it was easy to be skeptical, it was easy to call for regression, but the team never slowed down, and it’s enough to make you think.

Yet in 2012, over a sample of more than 1500 plate appearances, the Cardinals’ non-pitchers posted a 115 wRC+. That was very good — second in baseball, in fact — but then, the Cardinals overall were very good, and this performance wasn’t out of line. Between seasons, the Cardinals were very different levels of clutch.

It should follow, then, that the performances were also different with the bases empty. In those situations in 2012, the Cardinals put up a 113 wRC+, just a hair out of first. The bases-empty performance was perfectly consistent with the scoring-position performance. Nothing about those Cardinals looked weird. This time, though, over more than 3200 plate appearances with the bases empty, the Cardinals put up a 91 wRC+ that ranked them between the Diamondbacks and the Yankees in 25th. Once again, these were mostly the same players, performing both very similarly and very differently.

And there’s one other thing, something that came up during the World Series when St. Louis didn’t have an answer for Jon Lester. This past season, the Cardinals were just dreadful against left-handed pitchers. They put up a 93 wRC+, same as the Twins, Phillies, and Nationals, at the top of baseball’s bottom third. Look just at that number and you figure the Cardinals could be exploited, and we’re talking about a sample of more than 1500 plate appearances. A bit big for random noise.

But then again, you look to 2012. In 2012, in more than 1600 plate appearances against lefties, Cardinals non-pitchers posted a league-leading 124 wRC+. They were five points higher than the second-place Angels, looking not unlike an absolute juggernaut. Look just at that number and you figure the Cardinals were a terror to southpaws, and between the last two years, the Cardinals hardly changed. It’s just that the numbers did, somewhat extremely.

So should we think of the Cardinals as having been clutch, or not? Should we think of the Cardinals as having had problems with lefties, or not? Obviously, if we’re just describing the 2013 Cardinals in hindsight, then they were both clutch and weak against southpaws, but if we’re trying to retroactively assign a “true talent” to the entire team, then it’s more complicated. Many of those exact same players, just one year earlier, did similar things at very different times, and the picture gets messy. If it’s your intention to explain why things happened the way they did in 2013, you also need to explain why those same things didn’t happen the season prior.

At this point I suppose it hardly matters. The Cardinals are about to change, probably getting a real shortstop, probably replacing Carlos Beltran, and maybe getting a new center fielder. The 2014 Cardinals identity will be different from the 2013 Cardinals identity, and next year’s team could most certainly challenge for another title. But these are interesting facts to think about, if only for the mental exercise. I don’t know what the big lesson might be, except that samples of even one or two or three thousand plate appearances can mislead. One season can tell you only so much, especially if you’re looking at the splits. Specifically, it no longer matters what we ought to make of the Cardinals. Generally, we could take something from this to apply to future thought processes. The same Cardinals were different from season to season. Different in unusual, unpredictable ways. The Red Sox might want to think about that, as they prepare for a post-title offseason. Every team in baseball might want to think about that, because man makes plans and so on and so on. Right when you least expect it, baseball will get you, so you should probably never not expect it.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Jeff, I hope you still find things to write about during the offseason. Even if it’s just volcanoes. Thanks.