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2012 Preview: St. Louis Cardinals


St. Louis Cardinals

What They Did:      90-72, 2nd Place NL Central.  Won 2011 World Series.

      Actual Runs:      Scored 762 runs, Allowed 692.

                               Expected wins based on RS and RA:  88.1 (1.9 below actual)

           Restated:     Scored 771 runs, Allowed 684

                               Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA:  89.8 (0.2 below actual)

The St. Louis Cardinals took a remarkable two-month path from 9 ½ games back in the wild card race to celebrating in a champagne-splattered clubhouse on October 28.  The incredible comeback(s) in Game 6 of the World Series, overcoming three different one-game deficits across two different series in the National League playoff series, etc.; none of that would have been possible without first making up a 9 ½ game deficit in the NL wild card race with just 30 games left to play.  It’s been written often that the Cardinals' chance of overtaking the Braves in the last 30 games stood at less than 1%.  From a theoretical standpoint, assuming the outcome of each game was a 50/50 proposition, that’s correct; the odds were 7 in 1,000 or 99.3% against.  These are the same odds that, after two people each flipped a coin 30 times, one person would get ten more heads than the other.

There’s one problem with that assumption; unlike the two coin flippers the Cardinals and Braves were not contestants of equal skill over those last 30 games.  In doing research for my book, which involved taking a look at every game played during the season, I discovered the Cardinals were routinely sending the strongest team in the National League out on the field each night over those last thirty games, at least according to my model.  In fact, over that period, I estimated that St. Louis only twice sent onto the field a team which would have won less than 90 games had it played an entire season – both of which were Kyle Lohse starts that also featured the resting of other regulars as well.  The Braves on the other hand, thanks to injuries and especially on the five occasions Randall Delgado took the mound, were often sending a sub .500 team onto the field.  Over thirty games, against average competition (.500 teams) the Cardinals would have been expected to pick up 2 games based on fielding a superior team.  But they weren’t playing .500 teams, or even the same competition as the Braves.  The Braves had the much tougher schedule exemplified by the last three games of the year when they hosted the 100+ win Philadelphia Phillies and the Cardinals played the 100+ loss Houston Astros.   When the Braves played the Cardinals three times during that stretch (in St. Louis where St. Louis swept the series) I calculated the Cardinals had a greater than 60% chance of winning each game.  Put it all together and the Cardinals had a 3 ½ game advantage based on talent and scheduling advantages.  That left six games to overcome.  Six games, in 30, is still a lot of ground to make up but I calculate the odds of success as a little over 7%.  That’s greater than 10 times more likely than is typically quoted and not as improbable as coming back from two, two-run deficits with two outs in an elimination World Series game.

Why was this the case?  The obvious reason, of course, is that the Cardinals were good – the Phillies did themselves no favor knocking eliminating the Braves in favor of playing the highest scoring team in the National League.  The other factor is that the Cardinals were healthy when it counted.  While the rest of the National League dealt with injuries or experimented with prospects, Tony LaRussa settled on his strongest line up over the last month of the season.  David Freese, John Jay, Alan Craig, and Yadier Molina,  all names casual baseball fans learned over the post-season, either cut back on rest days (Molina) or assumed control of a previous platoon to strengthen the Cardinals’ line up each game. 

Each one of those players and the rest of the starters will be back in 2012 . . .  with the exception of Albert Pujols.

A three-time MVP, Pujols may have had his worst season statistically last year but even that was good enough for a 5th place finish in MVP voting.  The Cardinals cannot possibly replace his production with one player.  However, there are a few factors which can mitigate the loss, and further, since the Cardinals start from a position of strength – the highest scoring team in the NL in 2011 – they can be a worse team offensively than last year and still maintain the mantle of highest-scoring team in the league.

Mitigating factor #1: By moving Lance Berkman to first base, new right fielder Carlos Beltran effectively replaces Pujols in the line up.  Beltran is a superb hitter having only slugged less than .500 once in the last six years, all of which, except for a half season, were played with the power-draining venue of Citi Field serving as his home field.

Mitigating factor #2: Matt Holliday played in the fewest games in 2011 than any season since his rookie campaign.  A full season of production from a man who has batted over .300, slugged over .500 and gotten on base at a nearly .400 clip in the two-plus seasons he’s been in St. Louis will pick up some of the slack from Pujols’ departure.

Mitigating factor #3: Full seasons of playing time for David Freese, John Jay, Rafael Furcal, and hopefully a lot more than 200 at bats from Allen Craig.  Craig, and I’m sure this will stun even Cardinal faithful, had the highest slugging percentage on the team last year.  His .555 mark topped Pujols’ .541.

Mitigating factor #4: The Cardinals have the easiest schedule in baseball.  Of course, some of that has to do with St. Louis not having to play themselves, but there are other factors as well.  While the Cardinals get to play Kansas City six times in interleague play, every other team in the division plays a team in the AL East except the Astros, who get the Texas Rangers six times.  Compared to an average MLB team facing .500 teams over the course of the season, (the Atlanta Braves, for instance) St. Louis’ schedule is worth four wins.

On the other side of the ledger, the starting rotation will benefit from the return of Adam Wainwright.  A 19- and 20- game winner in 2009 and 2010 respectively, Wainwright missed all of 2011 recovering from Tommy John Surgery.  He’ll take the place of Kyle McClellan whose 4.19 ERA in 2011 is more than a full point higher than Wainwright’s career ERA of 2.97.  The Cardinals’ starting rotation is not a strength, not with Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook scheduled to make close to sixty total starts, but Wainwright, even if he doesn’t approach his top-3 Cy Young Award finishes in 2009 and 2010, adds a third high-quality arm to the mix that includes Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia.

It’s possible to quantify the loss of Albert Pujols to the Cardinals run scoring abilities.  Baseball analysts have tools that can very accurately measure a player’s contribution to his team’s runs scored and, as a result, that team’s final record.  On the other hand, that same calculation on the effect of a manager and a pitching coach is merely guesswork.  For the first time since 1995, Tony LaRussa will not take the walk to home plate on Opening Day to submit the Cardinals’ line up.  Dave Duncan has been the pitching coach for every Tony LaRussa-managed team, across three different franchises, since 1983.  Duncan didn’t retire with LaRussa but he has taken an indefinite leave of absence from the Cardinals to spend time with his ailing wife, who is battling cancer.

Duncan, who stressed the importance of inducing ground balls to his staff, seemed to make every marginal cast-off who came to St. Louis a better pitcher.  LaRussa, whose likeability factor always seemed very low among competitors, fellow managers, the press, etc., had an unquestioned legacy even before leading the Cardinals to a second World Series title in six years.  The effect of the departure of both men can’t be readily quantified, but I think it’s safe to say, there is a loss of some value.  I doubt it’s as much as the Saints losing Sean Payton for a year, but it will still be interesting to see how much commentators point to the change in on-field coaching should the Cardinals get off to a slow start.

The Cardinals, even with the loss of Pujols, still have a very potent line up and by my calculation will battle the Marlins to lead the league in runs scored.  The rotation has its weakness for sure, especially if McClellan is forced back into a starting role should Wainwright not come back from his injury or if Chris Carpenter’s injury-plagued Spring Training continues into the regular season.  However, the bullpen actually had a below-average year in the 2011 regular season before emerging as a strength in the post-season, so there is ground to be gained there as well.  The Cardinals got star performances in October from three different under-30 players in Freese, Molina, and Craig and along with the arrival of Carlos Beltran and a favorable schedule, St. Louis is a team well positioned to defend its crown this October.

Oddsmakers’ expectations:  It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the departure of Albert Pujols and the retirement of Tony LaRussa might cause oddsmakers to overreact in setting the Cardinals’ market for the 2012 season.  No matter whose calculation (FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, etc.) you look at Pujols provided about five wins of value to the Cardinals in 2011.  Beltran has only had one year below three wins of value since coming to the National League.  The Cardinals played like a 90-win team last year (see box at top of preview) and that’s how many games they actually won.  The schedule is easy, new players are emerging, and the line up is still very potent.  I like St. Louis to pretty easily exceed its total wins over/under of 84 ½.  I’m surprised, based on odds to win the NL Central, to see the Cardinals expected to finish in third place at some venues.  I believe they will comfortably capture the division crown.

2012 Outlook:

92-70 – First in NL Central

767 Runs Scored       662 Runs Allowed


Mop Up Duty:

Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball*  (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.

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