“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” – Joseph Campbell
If someone tells you the Washington Nationals had a storybook season, they’re wrong. The tale of the 2019 Nats is one of science, not magic, one in which they had a team led by superstars and were designed to roll over the opposition in the playoffs. Robbed by fate of the Bryce Harper Hollywood ending in 2018, the Nats moved on from their franchise player, and even at the lowest point of the season, they always projected to have an excellent chance of making the playoffs. Facing teams with better regular season records, Washington leveraged the club’s strengths to even the odds and grabbed the franchise’s first championship. Read the rest of this entry »
“Clunk! Clang!” – Anonymous Garbage Can
In terms of winning baseball games, the Astros executed a model rebuild. When Jeff Luhnow took over after the 2011 season, Houston was a craggy mess. The team hired Ed Wade after the 2007 season to help transition from the Killer B’s era squads, but Wade’s drafts didn’t bear fruit for a long time, and at the major league level, his imagination appeared to find its limit at signing a lot of declining veterans. Luhnow’s task was to tear the team down to the foundation, and then build it back up into something that looked like a modern roster led by a modern front office. That task, he accomplished.
Flags fly forever, and Houston secured their first World Series victory in 2017. That 2017 World Series was one of the more entertaining ones in recent memory, the perfect topper to the second 100-win season in team history. As importantly, the Astros were determined not to fall into the complacency trap that tends to snare the champs. Once a team wins baseball’s biggest prize, the natural impulse seems to be towards conservatism, to simply keep the band together and try to crank out albums identical to its prior hits.
But the post-2018 offseason was defined by a big move. Houston acquired Gerrit Cole from the Pittsburgh Pirates for a package led by Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz. And it paid off wonderfully as Cole, no longer fettered by Pittsburgh’s increasingly dated philosophy of inducing grounders with his hard stuff, flourished in an environment that encouraged him to attack batters directly. Cole went from striking out 23% of batters faced to 35%, an improvement much greater than can be explained away by the overall increase in strikeouts around baseball. Houston’s other big pitcher pickup, Justin Verlander, continued to dominate in his post-Tigers career; the Astros had two Cy Young contenders on the roster that they did not have in July 2017. Read the rest of this entry »
“The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.” – Molière
Injuries are one of baseball’s most common complaints. If there has ever been a contender that fell short without blaming injuries as one of the reasons, I certainly don’t remember them. What’s rarely admitted to is the fact that almost every team suffers these setbacks, and that it’s the teams that get to play with their entire on-paper roster from the preseason that are the extreme outliers.
The 2019 Yankees didn’t need many excuses for their final results. Despite losing most of the desired starting lineup and their best pitcher from 2018, the team won 103 games, three more than the previous year. As an Oriole fan who grew up in Baltimore, the Yankees being so darn good despite all of their setbacks is irksome. As a baseball analyst, I can’t help but admire what they accomplished. Read the rest of this entry »
“I been shaking two nickels together for a month, trying to get them to mate.” – Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
There is only one truly poor team in Major League Baseball, and 29 others that just cosplay as Dickensian street urchins. When the Chicago Cubs weep about how there’s just no money in this baseball thing, it’s impossible to take their statements at face value. When the Tampa Bay Rays do it, I take it a lot more seriously.
“Build it, and nobody will come.” Unlike their cross-state rivals, the Miami Marlins, the Rays have been able to build teams that win consistently. They drew moderately well in their debut season, but a decade of losing, in large part due to an incompetent Chuck LaMar-led front office, got things off to a rocky start. Winning 97 games and an AL pennant in 2008 couldn’t raise the team’s attendance to two million, and winning at least 90 games in five of six years appeared to do nearly nothing to bring fans to the ballpark. Tampa Bay drew fewer fans in 2018 and 2019 than they did in their 68-94, last-place 2016, the team’s worst year since they exorcised the Devil from their nickname. Read the rest of this entry »
“Success is a science; if you have the conditions, you get the result.” – Oscar Wilde
Sometimes, the path to success is circuitous. Success in baseball is a zero-sum game, and your fortune is inevitably linked to the demise of your competitors. Those competitors strive to not make it easy, at least in those seasons where they haven’t decided to suddenly get their team payroll under, I don’t know, let’s say $208 million. Trials and tribulations make stories more interesting; Frodo and Sam going on a casual, uneventful stroll to Mt. Doom would make for painfully dull books and film adaptations. Read the rest of this entry »
“I am, as I’ve said, merely competent. But in an age of incompetence, that makes me extraordinary.” – Billy Joel
The Cardinals are never really thought of as a small-market franchise, but in terms of the size of its media market — which is where the money comes from — St. Louis ranks between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Yet historically, the Cardinals have been able to punch above their weight, and built a fanbase much larger than you would expect from the size of the city.
One of the ways they’ve been able to do this is by building a consistent culture of winning. They don’t always make the playoffs, but the Cardinals are rarely a lousy team. There’s almost certainly no one alive who remembers a 100-loss Cardinals squad, unless I’m drastically underestimating the probability that one of the few remaining 116-year-olds was a Cardinals fan in 1908. The last time the team even lost 90 games was nearly 30 years ago, in 1990. And while I roll my eyes at the Best Fans in Baseball business, during the team’s three-year stretch without a playoff appearance from 2016-18, their longest drought in 20 years, attendance at Busch Stadium was practically unchanged.
Since John Mozeliak, now the team’s president of baseball operations, was named general manager after the 2007 season, the Cards have reached the Platonic ideal of Cardinalia. Only once has a Moz-led team finished below 85 wins, but even in the 100-win season, the team didn’t feel like an unstoppable juggernaut; no Cardinal that year garnered serious MVP or Cy Young support. Instead, the team projected steady competence.
The St. Louis Cardinals have been baseball’s most consistently above-average team in recent years. But how does one measure that above-averageness? I like to set 90 wins as kind of the benchmark for a very-good-yet-not-great team; like most humans, I’ve been programmed to like pretty numbers that end in zero. And since Mozeliak took over from Walt Jocketty, the Cardinals have been the closest to the 90-win mark year in and year out:
In a dozen years, the Cardinals missed 90 wins by a total of 42 wins. The 2019 Detroit Tigers missed 90 wins by a larger margin in a single year! And it’s not just chance either; in the 12 years of ZiPS projected standings, the Cardinals had the smallest difference between their 10th and 90th percentile win projections in six of 12 seasons. At the top end, only a single Cardinal since 2014 has been in the top five in the NL in WAR for a pitcher or a hitter: low-key NPB pickup Miles Mikolas in 2018. And by the same token, the Cardinals lows are quite high; only two teams in baseball received fewer replacement-level plate appearances or batters faced than the Cardinals:
After the 2018 season, their third straight year without postseason baseball, St. Louis had a new problem: how do you shake up this situation? And, from the point of view of the people paying the salaries, how do you make that happen without spending $300 million on a Bryce Harper or a Manny Machado? As with Matt Holliday and Jason Heyward, the Cardinals decided to aggressively acquire a star before signing him to a long-term extension. This worked well with Holliday, as the team was able to re-sign him after he hit free agency; they had less success keeping Heyward, a failure that, in hindsight, I’m sure they’re positively giddy about.
This time, the big move was Paul Goldschmidt, who had a year left on his contract. The price was steep, with Luke Weaver and Carson Kelly looking like real major leaguers, but it was a refreshing gamble from a team that tends to go the safe ‘n’ sensible route. Let’s name all the first basemen who were worth more wins from 2013-18:
So, the Cardinals expected they had secured their plug-and-play offensive powerhouse. The winter was quiet otherwise, with the team’s other big pickup being Andrew Miller, formerly of the Cleveland Indians. There was a real need for added bullpen depth, as the team’s relief corps struggled in 2018, ranking 26th in bullpen WAR. Miller was just as eager to wipe out memories from the previous season, one in which his ERA rose to 4.24 and his FIP to 3.51, both worsts since the Red Sox converted him to relief in 2012. The hope was that Miller, along with continued improvement from flamethrowing standout Jordan Hicks, would give the Cards a potent one-two punch in the bullpen.
ZiPS projected St. Louis to finish a close second behind the Chicago Cubs, with a mean projection of 86 wins. While a few years ago it looked like the NL Central would struggle against the Cubs juggernaut, that team’s frugal payroll strategy and weakening farm system left them more of a jugger-not. (Yes, I’m ashamed of that sentence.)
There was no concern about their first-base acquisition, with ZiPS projecting a .270/.379/.479, 4.4 WAR line for Goldschmidt, putting him behind only Freddie Freeman and Cody Bellinger. ZiPS thought the Cardinals had a two-win player at every single position in the lineup, plus Jose Martinez and Tyler O’Neill.
But ZiPS had concerns about the rotation. The computer projected Carlos Martinez to be the team’s best starting pitcher, but due to injury, he was ticketed for the bullpen. The system was skeptical of both Michael Wacha, who was coming off 2018 injuries, and Dakota Hudson and his big fastball but erratic command.
The season got off to an auspicious start before it even actually began when St. Louis was able to sign Goldschmidt to an extension a week before Opening Day. And while the Cardinals eventually won 91 games — an unsurprising result for the eternal 90-win team — the specific events that got them the NL Central title were far from anticipated.
Imagine you woke up from a coma in November, were unable to access the internet, and asked me to tell you how the Cardinals did in 2019. Now, let’s say I was a bit of a jerk, and rather than just telling you the team’s record, I detailed the list below and made you guess how many wins the team ended up with:
At this point, the doctors would kindly-yet-firmly ask me to stop, as you cried out, “Sweet mother of mercy, are we the Orioles now?”
But nope! 91 wins.
St. Louis needed a lot of quality production to win the division, even as one of the baseball’s weaker ones, but it was largely from unexpected places.
Jack Flaherty becoming a serious Cy Young candidate was a monster addition to the roster. I still like Luke Weaver, but appears the Cardinals picked the right young starting pitcher to send to Arizona.
And despite the setbacks to Miller and Hicks, the bullpen was a real plus for the team in 2019. Martinez may not have made it back to the rotation, but he stayed healthy after his May return and earned his 2.86 FIP. Giovanny Gallegos — one of ZiPS’s favorite little-known pitchers entering the season, who was projected for a 137 ERA+ (24th among all pitchers in baseball) — actually beat that lofty forecast. Fringe prospect Tommy Edman came up midseason, hit .304/.350/.500 while playing multiple positions, and finished the year worth more wins than Goldschmidt, Marcell Ozuna, or Carpenter.
The Cardinals rode into the playoffs and advanced to the NLCS after beating the Braves in an exciting five-game series, capped off with a 13-1 shellacking in Game 5 so forceful it might have knocked Atlanta out of the 2020 playoffs as well. But what the team did to poor Mike Foltynewicz didn’t continue against the Nationals, as the offense was shut down by Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez.
It has been an exciting winter around baseball so far, but a very quiet one in St. Louis. The team extended a qualifying offer to Ozuna, but they don’t appear to be among the leaders bidders for his services. The team’s luxury tax number is around $179 million, and they have shown little inclination to push towards the $208 million limit. It’s likely the Cardinals will make a few lower-key free agent signings in the next two months — their signing on Tuesday of Korean left-handed pitcher Kwang-Hyun Kim is a start — but with the club having few gaping holes, it’s unlikely there will be any serious upgrades among those.
While that sounds like horrible news for the Cardinals and their fans, it’s unlikely they’ll will be punished for not being more financially aggressive. The Brewers, two games behind the Cardinals in 2019, have shown no movement towards a big-spending winter. And if the Cards and Brewers are being thrifty, the Cubs are being an unrepentant Ebenezer Scrooge, focusing less on how to get more outfield offense and more on finding trade partners for Kris Bryant. Pittsburgh is rebuilding, and while the Reds will likely improve to relevance — and have the best pitching staff in the division — the lineup is still a work in progress. Even treading water, St. Louis still looks to have one of the fastest boats in the division.
How about some good ol’ fashioned fan service? If the season had lasted two months longer, it might have been Flaherty who ended up with the Cy Young award. He was a monster after the All-Star break, putting up a comically low 0.91 ERA and 2.22 FIP in the second half. Much of St. Louis’s late-season surge was due to the fact that Flaherty didn’t have a single bad game after early July. His improvement was largely the result of him developing a better feel for the rest of his repertoire. As he threw fewer fastballs, he saw both an uptick in velocity and an greater ability to get hitters to offer at pitches out of the zone. Being less fastball-reliant made Flaherty the best version of himself.
My colleague Craig Edwards went into greater detail the change in Flaherty’s approach that helped him get into baseball’s elite tier.
As far as regressions go, that’s a fairly mild one. 4.4 WAR is within a win of both Jacob deGrom and Scherzer, both pitchers who are rumored to be at least adequate at this baseball stuff. Jack Flaherty is a legitimate ace, even when his career .254 BABIP inevitably rises.
“This is an unfair thing about war: victory is claimed by all, failure to one alone.” – Tacitus
Fair or not, among the general public, success in baseball means winning the World Series. The baseball-cultural definitions of dynasty and success have not evolved as the playoff system has grown larger and less designed to crown the best team. After seven consecutive division titles and no World Series championships, the Dodgers are perceived in large swathes of baseball fandom as being failures. As baseball is no fairer than the rest of life, the fact that the playoff system will naturally create a lot more failures than successes hasn’t shielded the team from criticism.
So after winning 106 games, the Dodgers find themselves in the awkward position of having to explain to fans that there’s no dark, underlying reason that caused them to win only two games in one particular five-game stretch in early October. There are no more key teaching moments in the NLDS loss any more than there were in any of the other 30 five-game stretches in 2019 during which the Dodgers won two or fewer games. Read the rest of this entry »
“If you don’t take an opponent serious, they surprise you.” – Canelo Alvarez
Coming into the 2019 season, the Cleveland Indians did not take the threat posed by the other teams in the AL Central very seriously. The Minnesota Twins made them regret it. With the most home runs in baseball history, the Twins sent Cleveland reeling and won 100 games for the first time since 1965. While the Twins benefited from baseballs being designed in a perfect, Flubber-y way for their lineup, every good success comes sprinkled with a dash of good fortune.
Surprise is nothing new for the Twins. The 2017 team, still in the middle of its rebuild, shocked the American League by winning 85 games a year after going 59-103. That 26-game surge wasn’t caused by making dollars rain in free agency, but instead was mostly the work of the players the Twins already had. They even shocked themselves, and after losing six of seven games to enter the trade deadline below .500, they were sellers rather than buyers. Gone were the team’s closer, Brandon Kintzler, and Jaime García, a player they acquired just a week prior. Then they went 20-10 in August, enough to sneak into the second Wild Card spot. But the Yankees’ David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle shut down the offense for five and two-thirds innings in the Wild Card game, forcing Minnesota to make a characteristically quick postseason exit.
Regression to the mean is a cruel thing and the 2018 Twins, without wholesale changes, fell out of the playoff race quickly. An 11-3 run to end the season got the team’s record near the .500 mark, but it only shaved the edges off a disappointing season. Miguel Sanó and Byron Buxton, two hitters the team intended to build around, were injured and ineffective, and there weren’t enough pleasant surprises elsewhere. Brian Dozier’s OPS fell under .700, and with the exception of Zach Duke, none of the low-key offseason signings (Lance Lynn, Addison Reed, Logan Morrison) proved effective. The team became sellers at the deadline, trading Duke, Lynn, Dozier, Fernando Rodney, Eduardo Escobar, and Ryan Pressly. Read the rest of this entry »
“Don’t let yesterday use up too much of today.” – Will Rogers
The successes of the Moneyball era sowed the seeds of Oakland’s later struggles. While the modernization of baseball’s front office structure was an inevitable process, the success of the Moneyball A’s and the fame that resulted from their efforts likely sped up this evolution. How many movies about a company’s improvement in personnel management get made into a film starring Brad Pitt?
But as more franchises cast off the shackles of baseball beliefs from the 1940s, the A’s quickly found themselves less able to easily leverage knowledge as a considerable advantage over other teams. I tend to believe that teams’ overwrought claims about the Dickensian workhouse state of their finances are unadulterated nonsense, but I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the A’s are one of the poorer organizations in the league. Adding plodding, OBP-heavy Ken Phelps All-Stars and grabbing pitching prospects on the cheap was never going to be a sustainable strategy long-term in a world where the Yankees and Dodgers are rich and smart.
Instead, the A’s have been forced to reinvent their win conditions repeatedly. In their latest iteration, the team has relied on churning out defensive superstars, whether by drafting them (Matt Chapman), helping them improve (Marcus Semien), or by finding under-appreciated defensive talent just as they once drooled over walks (Ramón Laureano). Read the rest of this entry »
“I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays.” – Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
From the point of view of the 2010s Cubs, one could argue that their true antagonist has been the Milwaukee Brewers rather than their historical rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals. In two consecutive Septembers, it was Milwaukee that twisted the knife, first by catching up and taking the division on the back of an eight-game winning streak in 2018, and then by winning 11 out of 12 in 2019 to leave Chicago choking in the dust. They even managed that last one without Christian Yelich, a feat not unlike the magician’s grand reveal at the end of a particularly exciting illusion.
As far as rebuilds go, the mid-decade one by Milwaukee was not too traumatic. In 2014, the Brewers burst out of the gate unexpectedly, winning 10 of their first 12 games, giving them first place in the NL Central. Despite projected win totals in the mid-70s, Milwaukee’s 20-8 April gave the club enough of a cushion that when the inevitable regression toward the mean occurred, it didn’t fall out of first place until the start of September. Four months of below .500 ball (53-55) eventually did them in, and a rough September dropped their final record to 82-80.
After struggling in 2015, the Brewers had the courage to do what a lot of teams in a similar position do not: rebuild before the roster was devoid of talent. Philosophically, rebuilding from a situation in which you’re not completely out of options ought to give a team more flexibility in the rebuild and a less painful fallow period. While I’m no expert in home repair, I would guess that it makes sense to replace the roof before you’ve got six inches of water in your kitchen. Read the rest of this entry »