- FanGraphs Baseball - https://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

The Cardinals as an Object Lesson

The St. Louis Cardinals are often referred to as a “model organization”, and for good reason. Despite playing in one of the smallest markets of any team in Major League Baseball, they have built a sustainable model of success, flowing through nearly every aspect of the game. They draft and develop talent exceptionally well, leading to a seemingly never ending pipeline of young talent flowing into the big leagues. They manage their financial resources very well, and consistently add quality veterans at prices that won’t prohibit them from making other necessary improvements. They have a formula in place that has allowed them to win in both the short and long term, and have shown that it doesn’t take a $175 million payroll to be one of baseball’s elite franchises.

But, of course, they aren’t perfect. No organization is. So, while the Cardinals 2013 season was a remarkable success, and should be viewed that way no matter how the season ended, there may be a few things that can be learned from their final series loss to the Red Sox.

1. Trust your bullpen.

Much was written about the Cardinals starting pitching in the postseason, with Michael Wacha looking like a legitimate #2 starter behind legitimate ace Adam Wainwright, as those two carried the Cardinals in the early rounds of the postseason. However, by the season’s final week, the Cardinals simply had shifted too large of a burden to their starters, and did so at the expense of their bullpen.

Wainwright, Wacha, Lance Lynn, and Joe Kelly combined to pitch 32.2 of the 52 innings — a total of 63% — thrown by Cardinals pitchers in the World Series. In those nearly 33 innings, they combined to allow 19 earned runs, resulting in a 5.23 ERA. The Cardinals bullpen, meanwhile, posted a 2.89 ERA in their 18.2 innings of work. Cardinals starters ran a 36/17 K/BB ratio; Cardinals relievers were at 23/4.

Trevor Rosenthal, probably the most dominant arm on any team that played in October, was asked to get fewer outs than Lance Lynn, the team’s #4 starter. Randy Choate, one of the game’s premier left-handed specialists, got just two outs the entire series, despite the fact that the Red Sox entire offense was essentially one left-handed monster with significant platoon splits. Kevin Seigrist and Carlos Martinez watched as Matheny stuck with his starters in situations where a reliever would have had a significantly better chance of getting a high leverage out.

Relief pitchers, even the non-closers, perform better than all but the very best starting pitchers. Platoon advantages, funky arm angles, unseen release points – these are real advantages that should be exploited. Instead, the Cardinals asked their less effective starting pitchers to win this series against an elite offense. We shouldn’t be too surprised that it didn’t work.

2. Don’t let your weakest link be too too weak.

We can’t know what the trade deadline asking price was for Alexei Ramirez, Erick Aybar, or various other shortstop alternatives — and given the fact that there weren’t many shortstops of significance traded in-season, maybe the prices really were insane — but a team just shouldn’t try and win the World Series with a platoon of Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso. It’s unrealistic to think that every team can have average or better players at every position on the diamond, but you don’t have to have a good player to avoid having a total hole.

The Cardinals ended up leaning far too heavily on players who simply aren’t viable Major League options. Kozma and Descalso combined to go 1 for 20 in the World Series, which, given their combined .258 wOBA on the season, shouldn’t have been too huge of a surprise. And exacerbating the problem was the fact that the Cardinals bench was basically useless, providing no opportunity for a pinch-hitter to at least provide a high leverage upgrade when necessary. NL teams already have to factor in pinch-hitting for their pitcher, so carrying a total zero at another position simply put them at too large of a disadvantage against a team with no real obvious weaknesses.

Even if the asking prices for Aybar or Ramirez were simply not in line with the value that either could provide, the Cardinals should have been able to do better than Kozma and Descalso. Jose Iglesias was acquired by the Tigers for one toolsy-but-questionable outfield prospect. The A’s got Jed Lowrie last winter without mortgaging their future. The Diamondbacks flipped an overrated young arm to get Didi Gregorius, who they still control for another six years. Maybe Rafael Furcal‘s injury wasn’t known heading into spring training, but Pete Kozma should not have been Plan B. And there was plenty of time to acquire a real replacement shortstop after Furcal hit the DL. They could have done better. They should have done better.

3. Don’t count on clutch.

The Cardinals success at hitting with runners in scoring position during the regular season has been well documented. By our calculations, the way they sequenced their hits earned them something like an additional 70 runs over the course of the season, which translates into seven extra wins. The Cardinals had a good offense that looked like a great offense because of how they bunched their hits together.

No matter how you want to describe the reasons for why that happened, the reality is that these kinds of things have little to no predictive value, and not surprisingly, the Cardinals didn’t hit .330 with runners in scoring position in the playoffs. In fact, based on the box score totals, the Cardinals went just 9 for 47 — a .191 batting average — with runners in scoring position in the World Series. In last night’s final game, they stranded two runners in the second, two runners in the fourth, two runners in the fifth, and three runners in the seventh. The Cardinals were eliminated primarily because they didn’t get enough clutch hits.

Stringing your positive events together is fantastic, and helps you win games. But if it’s the thing that your team is best at, well, that’s probably not a great sign. At the end of the day, sequencing is still mostly random, and betting on being able to pile all your hits together at the same time is not a very good strategy.