But is it really bad that this team won the World Series? I guess if you have a problem with Wild Cards winning the World Series in general, then yes. But I feel like thinking of them as a just-okay team that snuck in on the last day isn’t entirely representative either. For example, Bill at the Platoon Advantage said they would probably be among the eight worst World Series winners back on Tuesday (or, at least, he insinuated that they would be). Are they really?
Probably, though I would put them just barely on his list, at number eight. But even then, I think this was almost as solid as a Wild Card Champion can be without actually having a better record than a division winner. I guess that’s a lot of qualifiers, but still, just referring to this team as “the one that barely got into the playoffs” is selling them short.
They lost their ace for the whole year. Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman each had a 15-day DL stints, and Matt Holliday missed closer to 40 games. David Freese missed over 60 games, and even Allen Craig missed time due to injury (normally, losing a fourth outfielder wouldn’t be an issue, but Allen Craig is no ordinary fourth outfielder, and he was out at the same time as Berkman or Holliday, if I remember).
Every team has to deal with injuries, though. The Cardinals were rather lucky, though, in that not every team had a more-or-less fully healthy roster for the postseason. Even Matt Holliday managed a solid NLCS through his hand injury (and, again, Allen Craig is not your average fourth outfielder). Meanwhile, Stephen Drew missed the entire postseason for Arizona. Roy Oswalt, Rickie Weeks, Alex Rodriguez, and Josh Hamilton were all significant names playing through injuries (and Chase Utley was a mess of medical problems all year). Really, the Cardinals were one of the few teams not missing any important parts for the playoff run (and no, Delmon Young and Magglio Ordonez were not a major part of the Tigers’ run this year). One or two players won’t make a huge difference in a short series, but at the same time, missing one or two great players certainly won’t help your chances.
On the subject of other teams, there were two distinct classes of teams in the playoffs this year. The list, with ten teams and their win-loss record and expected win-loss record (Bill James’ Pythagorean Winning Percentage, as per MLB.com):
Team W-L XW-LYankees 97-65 101-61
Rays 91-71 91-71
Red Sox 90-72 94-68
Tigers 95-67 88-74
Rangers 96-66 98-64
Phillies 102-60 102-60
Braves 89-73 85-77
Brewers 96-66 90-72
Cardinals 90-72 88-74
Diamondbacks 94-68 88-74
Really, this year, it was more or the less Phillies, Yankees, and Rangers on one level, and everyone else on the other. So the Cardinals weren’t one of the Big 3, but they also weren’t exactly lagging behind the field either.
And possibly the biggest point, this wasn’t the same team that began the year. The biggest problem was obviously the bullpen; for example, they started the year with Ryan Franklin as closer, who went 1 for 5 in save opportunities with a 8.46 ERA. Let’s say you replace him with even a league-average closer (according to Baseball-Reference, the league average Save Percentage was 69%), that’s 2-3 wins that the Cardinals pick up. Really, the Cardinals bullpen was completely different later in the year, as they both brought in better pitchers and made better use of the relievers they had. The Cardinals’ bullpen ERA dropped from 4.00 to 3.38 after the All-Star Game. Using their first half/second half splits as a rough guide, the Cardinals relievers would have allowed 109.5 runs instead of 128. Using the 10 runs to a win guideline or the Pythagorean Win-Loss Formula, that adds 2 wins. This puts the Cardinals equal with the Brewers and 1 game behind the Rays, and that’s without even considering replacing Ryan Theriot with Rafael Furcal or Kyle McClellan with Edwin Jackson. Few playoff teams (outside of the Phillies and maybe the Rangers) addressed their needs midseason as well as the Cardinals. And this isn’t even going into other likely fluky things that may make the Cardinals look worse, like setting the record for most grounded into double plays. They may continue to ground into a lot of double plays (any time you get a lot of runners on base, it’s a threat), but I have a hard time believing their record-setting season isn’t somewhat due to bad luck. Small things like that may, again, make the overall product look slightly worse than it was.
The Cardinals were definitely lucky to win the World Series; any World Series winner needs some luck now to make it through three playoff rounds. But the Cardinals may not have been the worst team in the playoffs, despite their record. Of the rosters actually playing in October, the Cardinals may have had the fourth best. There’s a good chance that this team would have been roughly a 94 win team had it been together for the whole season. And, in the postseason, the difference between a 94 win team and a 100 win team is much smaller than you would think.