A little love for the 80s, a lot of love for the 60s, and putting a cherry on a boring 2021
There have been some great conversations on social media recently putting the current iteration of the Cardinals in historical context. First came VEB writer emeritus Alex Crisafulli commenting on the Seeing Red Podcast’s ranking of 21st century Cardinal seasons. Then Zach Gifford, upon seeing a graph gauging how clutch teams are, mused:
not only does this chart say the cardinals are mediocre, it also says they’re boring – of course it does https://t.co/WdxNjvWzan
— Zach Gifford (@zjgifford) September 8, 2021
That assessment feels right. They seem like a boring team. Because we’re sort of playing out the string on a season that probably won’t end with meaningful baseball in October, let’s put that notion to the test. A fringe benefit is that we can also see which Cardinal teams have been the most exciting. Let’s get to work on quantifying “exciting,” a wildly subjective term.
I approached it asking myself, “What would make me want to watch a team?”
Winning Percentage. Obviously? Even an otherwise boring team that wins at a high rate will make fans watch. Each Cardinal team’s winning percentage will provide the baseline (winning% squared x 20).
Post-season Success. Nothing is more exciting than October baseball. The deeper into October, the better. We’ll give 10 points for a World Series title, 7 for a pennant, and 5 for simply making the playoffs.
Transcendent Talents. A crappy team can keep you glued to the TV if they have an amazing player. We’ll award 3 points for an MVP or Cy Young winner, 2 for a second place finish, and 1 for third.
Style of Play. Some brands of baseball are more fun to watch. Specifically, it’s more fun to watch a team that puts the ball in play (no strikeouts or walks), steals bases, and/or hits a lot of homeruns. Each Cardinal team with a league-wide finish in the top 5 of MLB in BIP%, stolen bases, or homeruns in their year will earn 3 points for each category in the top 5.
Late Wins and Losses. Few things are as exhilirating as erasing a deficit after the 7th inning, and few as dejecting as blowing a lead late in a game. One point is awarded for each late comeback, one removed for each blown lead, each after the 7th.
Winning and Losing Streaks. Once a team puts together a lot of wins, fans notice. A losing streak or string of them will suck the life out of a fanbase. One point is awarded for each winning streak of 8 games or more, and one subtracted for each 5 game losing streak. The losing streak bar is lower, but fans are fickle and it takes less to disinterest them than it does to engage them.
Rookies. Fans love to see young talent perform well. It helps you dream of the future. One point is awarded to each team whose rookie fWAR landed in the top 5.
Chasing (Team) Records. There’s something to be said for watching a player make a run at a franchise record. I’ve given one point each time a Cardinal team had a player in the top 5 in franchise history in 2B, 3B, HR, SB, batting average, or hits for position players; or strikeouts, wins, or ERA for pitchers.
The Bonus. I had to put my thumb on the scale for McGwire setting the homerun record (1998, 3 points), chasing it (1 point in 1997 and 2 in 1999), Gibson’s 1.12 ERA (3 points to 1968), and the MV3 (3 points to 2004).
Last but not least, we’ll look at Cardinal teams in the modern era. I’ve defined that as post-integration (1947 and later). With the methodology out of the way, here are the most exciting Cardinal teams:
1. 1985 (30.78 points)
Given everything I said above, you shouldn’t be surprised to see this squad at the top of the list. They had an MVP (Willie McGee), a Cy Young runner-up, led the league in stolen bases, (ironically given how the season ended) only blew one late lead all year while coming from behind a respectable seven times, and had a player with a top 5 finish for stolen bases. Throw in the pennant points and no team in the modern era was this thrilling to watch.
2. 1968 (30.17 points)
My thumb on the scale for Gibson’s 1.12 certainly gives this team a push, but it’s not like they need it. Only their previous year counterpart would be ahead of them without the bonus points. They were exciting to watch (top five in balls in play and stolen bases), had a franchise record chaser (Gibson), both a Cy Young winner and an MVP (both times, Gibson), won the pennant, and boasted a nine-game winning streak.
3. 2004 (29.40 points)
Again, my thumb on the scale- this time for the MV3- changes the order, but only a little. Without the bonus points, they’d be 4th instead of 3rd. Their 105 wins en route to the pennant helped, as did two winning streaks over 8 games. They had eight comeback victories to only three blown games. They just did everything well. There’s something heartbreaking about the three most exciting teams all being World Series losers. A victory for any of these three and they would have gone down as all-timers.
4. 1967 (28.87 points)
Like the next version of this team, they put the ball in play and stole lots of bases. Unlike the 1968 team, this version of the Cardinals won the World Series, racking up three extra points. Their 101 wins- nine of the comeback variety- were helpful as well.
5. 1964 (24.59 points)
I’m a little too young to have witnessed the 60s teams but this list should tell you why they’re the stuff of fables. Not only did they dominate. They were fun to watch when they did it. I’ll be honest, I fully expected the 80s teams to populate the top of the list. It turns out the 60s squads were even more exciting. The 1964 team isn’t even getting credit here for their improbable, mad-capped rush to the pennant memorialized by David Halberstam’s October 1964.
6 through 10
The 1987 squad (22.88) comes in 6th thanks to lots of stolen bases, 11 comeback victories, and Ozzie Smith’s and Jack Clark’s second and third place MVP finish. They’re followed by the 1949 Cardinals (21.77) on the back of Stan Musial and very few blown leads. The World Series winning 1982 team is eighth (21.45) due to their stolen bases, Cy Young votes for Bruce Sutter and MVP votes for Lonnie Smith, two long winning streaks, and of course their title. Ninth and tenth are the 2009 (21.31) and 2015 (19.62) Cardinals. Both earned lots of points for late-game heroics. The 2009 team had lots of Cy Young points from Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, while the 2015 team earned lots of value on their 100 victories. The 2011 squad comes in at 11th with 19.17 points.
The Five Most Boring
The 2008 team wasn’t that bad. They won 86 games in their first year after (finally) tearing down the first wave of the early 2000s success. But they also blew 14 games late, didn’t make the playoffs, didn’t steal bases or put the ball in play, nor did they hit a lot of homeruns. Albert Pujols’ MVP was nice, but not enough to keep 2008 out of the cellar. They’re followed in ignominy by the 1980 and 1990 teams- two of the worst Cardinal teams since 1980, each lacking an MVP or Cy Young contender and blowing plenty of games late. The 1988 team isn’t far behind- or ahead?- as the fourth most boring. Finally, the 2003 team lands as the fifth most boring. In their case, it’s more a matter of frustration, with five losing streaks of five games or more and ten blown leads.
As for the current team, if you feel like they’re boring, you’re right. They’re the ninth most boring Cardinal team since 1947. Their two comeback victories are the fewest in the sample other than the pandemic-shortened 2020 squad. They aren’t likely to earn playoff points, nor are they likely to receive any MVP or Cy Young points. They do put the ball in play (fifth highest BIP in the league), but it’s all pulled down by seven blown games and two separate losing streaks of five games or more.