Searching for and appreciating the “Cinderella” team is a pervasive feature of American sports. Our love of the Cinderella might come from some uniquely American fascination with heroes rising from nothing, or from a basic human desire to recognize and value unexpected outcomes. Whatever the cause, we pay special attention to moments (the Miracle on Ice; the 1966 Texas Western basketball squad; the 1955 Dodgers or 1969 Miracle Mets or 2004 Boston Red Sox) where teams seemingly overachieved or overcame great adversity to come out champions.
Generally, there are three ways of thinking about Cinderellas:
1. A team winning after a long period of failure.
2. An objectively untalented team winning despite their flaws.
3. A team succeeding despite having the odds stacked against them, such as a talented team overcoming objectively more talented opponents.
Of these three definitions, the first can be easily dismissed. The failure of the 1975 Red Sox to win the World Series had no tangible impact on the probability of the 2004 team’s victory, given zero overlap between the owners, management, or talent. Good teams are good, regardless of past events, just as St. Louis’ ten titles should not make us any less surprised by their success in 2011.
Were the 2011 Cardinals a Cinderella? To think about this, I focus on champions in the Division era to simplify the discussion.
The 2011 Cardinals are far from the least talented team to win the World Series. They had a powerful core lineup of Pujols, Berkman and Holliday and an elite catcher in Yadier Molina; all four produced at All-Star levels (bWAR 3.9+). While their pitching was suspect, they had a strong front end starter in Chris Carpenter, pitching 237 innings to a 3.45 ERA despite an 11-9 record, and an excellent relief season by Fernando Salas (2.3 bWAR). Overall, the 2011 Cardinals produced 40.9 bWAR, the median among Division era champions. In contrast, the 2006 Cardinals produced 28.5 bWAR; Pujols had an even better year (8.3 bWAR) but less help (only Scott Rolen produced 4+ bWAR), while Carpenter finished third in Cy Young voting but was the only pitcher to produce 2+ bWAR.
Least “Talented” Teams to Win the World Series (bWAR)
2008 PHI 36.7
2003 FLA 36.2
2000 NYY 35.7
1997 FLA 33.9
2006 STL 28.5
We may prefer, however, to judge a winner by their competition. The 2011 Cardinals (40.9) were better than the 1997 Marlins, but they also faced much better competition in the 2011 Rangers (50.4 bWAR). Fangraphs’ final power rankings had the Rangers as the most talented team in MLB in 2011, and their 96 win total was one shy of New York. In contrast, the 1997 Indians (86-75) benefited from a weak division (they were the only Central team with a winning record) and had the lowest win total of any AL contender. Factoring in the World Series opponent, the 2011 Cardinals were distinct underdogs, though not especially so compared to several other clubs.
bWAR Differential by World Series Opponent
2011 STL -9.5
1995 ATL -12.7
2003 FLA -12.8
2006 STL -22
Still, sometimes the challenges faced in the playoffs on the way to the World Series are the real test. Despite sneaking in as the Wild Card and being underdogs against the Yankees, the 91-win 2003 Marlins were evenly matched against the Giants (36.5) in the LDS and slight favorites against an 88-win Cubs team in the LCS (32.5). Meanwhile, the 2011 Cardinals had to beat the top two teams in their own league (by WAR and wins) before they could even face the Rangers; notably, they defeated a strong Phillies team (52.1) favored to win it all. While you could argue that some teams (the 2003 Marlins or 2004 or 2007 Red Sox) had more improbable comebacks by facing elimination in a particular series, I am more interested in the match up than the process; just looking at WAR, these “comeback” teams were favored to beat their LCS opponents.
WAR Differential, All Playoff Rounds
1998 NYY 71.1 (Taking care of business.)
2007 BOS 42.7
2010 SFG 2.1
1995 ATL 0 (The playoffs are a crap shoot.)
2003 FLA -9.4
1997 FLA -11.3
2000 NYY -13.9
2011 STL -21.9
2006 STL -29.2 (Do you believe in miracles?)
Considering strength of competition throughout the playoffs the 2006 Cardinals were the most unlikely champions, sneaking past a much better Tigers team (50.5 bWAR, equal to the 2011 Rangers), as well as a more talented Mets squad in the LCS (34.6).
Of course, the story doesn’t begin with the postseason. If you believe that the playoffs are a crap shoot (the average champion had a +8 differential across all playoff opponents, +4 without the ’98 Yankees), then making it at all might be the most important step. At the end of August, the 2000 Yankees had a five game cushion in the AL East and would win by 2.5 despite going 13-17 in September. The 83-win 2006 Cardinals were in the driver’s seat on September 1, five games ahead in a weak Central. And while the 1997 Marlins were the Wild Card, they were still 80-55 August 31st, 5 games ahead of Los Angeles in the loss column and 7 in front of the Mets. In contrast, the improbability of the 2011 Cardinals’ run TO the playoffs is well documented, sitting 7.5 games behind the Brewers in the Central and 9 behind the Braves for the Wild Card on September 1. Only stellar play (an 18-8 September) and an Atlanta collapse (9-18) allowed them to qualify on the final day of the regular season.
Relying on season-long performance to derive a probability of success is problematic. It doesn’t take into account that the Cardinals were a much better team in the second half after the Rasmus trade, and it does not account for Josh Hamilton playing at 50 percent. It doesn’t account for “bad” match ups for a team, such as a lefty heavy lineup facing a team with good LHP. And it doesn’t account for “cutting down the lineups” or the possibility that strong relief pitching might be more important to playoff than regular season success.
Caveats aside, the 2011 Cardinals are far from the worst modern champion. They are, however, arguably the most unlikely, given their low odds of making the playoffs and subsequently overcoming three opponents who were stronger over the regular season, two of them substantially so. If you are looking for a Cinderella story in modern baseball, you may have to look no further than the 2011 “Cardiac Cardinals”.