The case to abolish the 2nd wild card

Prognosticators have been lumping the Cardinals in the 2016 wild card hunt dating back pretty much to last October, and despite a couple of minor rough patches for the Cubs that have temporarily given St. Louis and Pittsburgh a glimmer of hope, the NL Central has, to date, sorted out largely as expected, with Chicago pitching and slugging their way to the best mark in baseball with just over a quarter of the season left to play.

As a fan of the Cardinals, it’s been a maddeningly frustrating season. The offense, aided by baseballs that may or may not be juiced, has scored 4.93 runs per game in the 2016 campaign, a significant improvement over the 3.99 they averaged a year ago, despite no major free agent additions among position players. And while it should be no surprise, given the league-wide increase in offense, that the pitching staff and defense aren’t performing as well as the 3.24 runs per game allowed in 2015, they’re allowing 4.40 per contest this season, and are likely just 2-3 games away from surpassing the 525 runs allowed all last year.

Yet for all the defensive miscues and lapses, pitching woes, and general lack of run production against superior teams, at the start of play today, we, as Cardinals fans, can take solace that our Birds find themselves a half-game ahead of Miami for the NL’s second wild card. With a couple of good series, or a swoon by the Marlins, Dodgers, or Giants, St. Louis would have themselves in position for the winner-take-all wild card game come October. And I’m not so sure I like the idea of that.

Baseball’s postseason has always been more exclusive when compared to the other major professional sports leagues in the US. The NHL has allowed more than half of its teams to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs dating back to the 1920s; the NBA has, likewise, allowed over half of competing teams to qualify for the playoffs throughout its entire history. Even the NFL, which has had a 12-team playoff  since 1990, when 28 franchises comprised the league, allows a slightly greater proportion (37.5% to 33.3%) of teams to compete for the Lombardi Trophy.

Because it allows so few contenders to compete for the Commissioner’s Trophy every October, it’s evident that MLB values the emphasis on and importance of its grueling six-month long regular season. The scenario from 2015, in which the teams with the second- and third-best records in MLB as a whole qualified for the NL’s two wild card spots, was an aberration and highly unlikely to occur again for some time. This season, it’s entirely possible that one of the wild card teams will finish with fewer than 85 wins–the Marlins’ .517 winning percentage works out to 83.75 wins over 162 games, while the Cards’ .521 comes to 84.4 wins. In the AL, the Red Sox are on pace for a slightly more respectable 88 wins, but even the Yankees, who were cast as sellers leading up to the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline, are within 3 games of the second wild card.

Of course, any number of teams can catch fire in September and ride their hot streak to a wild card berth, but that scenario downplays the importance of the marathon that is baseball’s regular season. While I would love for the Cardinals to get hot over the final seven weeks, objectively speaking, it devalues what began back in April and raises the question as to why baseball even plays as many games as it does in the first place.

I created a table comprising the number of wins for wild card teams from the beginning of the wild card era (1995) through last season, including the teams that would have qualified for the second wild card from 1995 through 2011, had such a double-consolation prize existed. In both leagues, the second wild card (or wild card runner-up) has averaged about 89 wins. To get there, the Cardinals or Marlins would need to play their final 45 and 46 games, respectively, 11 and 12 games above .500, which doesn’t seem all that impressive until you consider they’re both currently only a few games above average.

Overall, I’m fine with rewarding the best team to not win their division with a chance to vie for the trophy. Over the course of 21 seasons, the 42 teams to have won the (first) wild card averaged better than 93 wins, and at least one wild card team regularly outpaces an inferior division champion over the 162-game schedule. Meanwhile, not making it to 90 wins doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy (sorry, fans of perennial cellar-dwellers!); of the 42 second wild cards or wild card runners-up, only 16 of these teams have won 90 or more. Given that teams have six months over which to prove their title-worthiness, it seems absurd to give them a chance to upset a superior club in the one-game playoff.

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Cards’ April wrap-up

As the first calendar month of Major League Baseball’s comes to a close, we’ve begun to accumulate enough data to make spring training projections look silly. While the NL Central has already begun to pan out the way most experts projected–the Cubs leading the way, the Cardinals and Pirates in contention, and the Reds and Brewers bringing up the rear–the reason for the Redbirds’ moderate success appears to be the polar opposite from projections made in March.

The 2015 Cardinals allowed 525 runs all season, an average of about 3.24 runs allowed per game; the pitching staff’s ERA was 2.94 (478 earned runs allowed on the season), best in the majors by over a quarter of an earned run per 9 innings. Conventional logic dictated that, with Adam Wainwright, who lost most of last season due to injury, essentially replacing John Lackey, who departed for Chicago’s north side, and Mike Leake coming on board to fill in for the injured Lance Lynn, the Cardinals would still have the best starting rotation and one of the best overall staffs in the majors.

Unfortunately, this year’s team has already allowed more runs (92) through 22 games than last year’s did (91) in its first thirty. The team’s two youngest starters–Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha, both only 24–are a combined 6-1 with a 2.51 ERA. The perennially-injured Jaime Garcia also showed why the Cardinals picked up his option for this season in his one-hit shutout of the Brewers in his second start of the season; he has posted a decent 3.73 ERA thus far. Instead, it’s Wainwright and Leake, far and away the most experienced starters in the rotation, who have dragged the rotation down thus far. Waino’s 7.16 ERA is particularly disconcerting in light of the 1.44 he posted before tearing his left Achilles running out of the batter’s box last April.

Given the problems of the pitching staff relative to last year–they are currently fifth in the NL in ERA and tenth in strikeouts–and the prevailing offseason concern that general manager John Mozeliak didn’t do enough to shore up 2015’s painfully average offense, the offensive output thus far has been a pleasant surprise. Mo’s moves, or lack thereof, were predicated on the following expectations:

  • Continued improvement over with regular playing time for Randal Grichuk & Stephen Piscotty. Piscotty is hitting .297 (.305 last year) with 4 HRs; his OPS is up vs. 2015, as well. Grichuk’s average is down significantly (.189 vs. .276) and, as a result, his on-base and slugging percentages have suffered.
  • A power surge for Matt Holliday, who only hit 4 HRs last season after playing in only 73 games due to two stints on the DL. Holliday has already gone deep three times this season, but his average is a little lower (.253 vs. .279) than last year.
  • Ditto for Matt Adams, who mashed 17 HRs in under 300 ABs in 2013, then managed two fewer while exceeding 500 ABs in ’14; missed over 100 games last season due to injury. He’s been used off the bench for the most part this season, and has only hit .244 with 2 HRs and 17 strikeouts in 45 ABs.
  • Better consistency from Matt Carpenter who, despite hitting 28 HRs and leading the league in doubles last season, went through a couple of slumps and power outages when shuffled around in the lineup. Marp’s average (.230) is well below that for his career (.286), but his on-base percentage would be a career high if today were October 2nd. While his slugging percentage is down versus 2015, his OPS is above his career average.
  • While 2B Kolten Wong has essentially been a singles hitter thus far in his career, he has provided some offensive and defensive stability at a position which the franchise has had little for quite some time. Unfortunately, he’s yet to contribute any extra-base hits in 51 ABs this season, and his four errors are tied for fifth in the NL.
  • Typically-excellent defense from Yadier Molina, and an uptick in batting average and, more importantly, power numbers. Sure enough, he’s been solid behind the plate thus far, and he’s hitting .341, albeit with 0 HRs. Still, Yadi’s on-base and slugging percentages, as well as OPS, are much improved over 2015.
  • A little more rest throughout the season for Jhonny Peralta, whose average was above .300 at the end of April and May, and even as late as mid-July, but fell off to .275 by the season’s end. So, Peralta got hurt in spring training. The Cardinals signed Ruben Tejada, whom the Mets had just released, to fill in. Then he got hurt, so manager Mike Matheny was forced to turn to Aledmys Díaz, a Cuban defector signed by St. Louis in 2014. Through twenty games played, Díaz’ .423 average leads baseball by a wide margin. Tejada has since returned from the DL, which will be advantageous as Díaz has provided suspect defense at short, committing 5 errors already.
  • Given Brandon Moss’ career numbers entering the season, a batting average above .250 is probably out of the question, so he was expected to provide some power off the bench or when filling in for Adams at first. Sure enough, he’s hitting .226 so far, but with 5 HRs in only 62 ABs, so he’s actually surpassed Adams a little in the pecking order; Adams is linked to trade rumors that have persisted since the offseason.
  • Did I mention more power off the bench? Led by Tommy Pham, and the odd man out between Holliday, Adams, Piscotty, Grichuk, and Moss on a given day. So Pham got hurt in game #1… enter Jeremy Hazelbaker, who’s hit .317 with 5 HRs in 63 ABs in his first action in the majors.

St. Louis Cardinals Jeremy Hazelbaker

Overall, the offense has improved significantly. They are currently 2nd in the NL with a .275 average, have scored the most runs (135), and are behind only Colorado and Arizona in HRs. They’re currently on pace to mash 229 HRs, only twenty off the NL mark set by the Astros (including Jeff Bagwell and Ken Caminiti, and a nifty little short porch in LF in Enron Field’s inaugural season) in 2000. On April 27, they scored 10+ runs for the sixth time, a mark which wasn’t achieved until July 18 last season.

What I do find troublesome is the offensive output in games against good teams. Don’t get me wrong, you’re generally going to score more runs against bad teams than against good ones, but this iteration of the Cards has been quite extreme. In 16 games against the Braves, Brewers, Reds, Padres, and Diamondbacks, they’ve pushed 124 runs across the plate, or 7.75 per game. They’re 11-5 against these teams with sub-.500 records.

However, may recall the opening-series sweep in Pittsburgh, in which El Birdos scored precisely one run in two of the three games and seven total. Two weeks later, at home against the Cubs, they managed all of six runs in three games, with five coming in the third game to avoid the sweep. And now, having lost the first two (again, at home) in the current series against the Nationals, they’ve only managed five runs. So, in eight games against teams above .500, they’ve scored 18 runs, or 2.25 per game. That wouldn’t be enough even with last year’s pitching staff, so it’s no surprise the Redbirds are 1-7 against the Pirates, Cubs, and Nationals.

Ultimately, while the pitching staff and defense do need to improve (for what it’s worth, they’ve allowed 4.5 runs per game against the three aforementioned postseason-bound clubs and 4.2 per against the five lesser teams they’ve faced thus far), the offense is only halfway to goal of improving. They’ve bailed out the pitching staff in several games, the reverse of the situation countless times last season. The 2016 lineup has proven it’s capable of hanging a crooked number against inferior pitching; now it must show it can manage to scratch runs across against the better pitching staffs the league has to offer.

Here’s to hoping May and beyond offer a *little* better than .500 baseball.

Opening week not-so-fun facts: Cardinals edition

Given the cataclysmic, apocalyptic season-opening sweep the Cardinals suffered at the hands of the Pirates, here’s some crummy tidbits:

  • The Cards’ first 3-game losing streak last year was May 21-23, with the first coming in New York against the Mets and the next two in Kansas City (the first of which was a 1-run loss in a rain-shortened affair).
  • Their first 3-game losing streak against a single team? July 10-12 in, where else, Pittsburgh. St. Louis won the first of a four game set, but dropped the last three; the final two, incidentally, went to extra-innings and were lost in walk-off fashion with a 6-5 scoreline.
  • They lost three more in a row at Cincinnati in August, but that, too, was part of a four-game series. But they were not swept in a single three-game series until October 2-4 in Atlanta to close out the regular season last year, which means six consecutive regular season losses. Good thing they won their NLDS opener against the Cubs, otherwise that would be 9 straight between the regular season and postseason!
  • Unfortunately, the Cardinals last started 0-3 in 2007; that remains the club’s only sub-.500 finish this millennium.

Old Birdos

Unless you’ve been living under a rock since the Cubbies eliminated the Cardinals from the 2015 MLB postseason, you’re probably aware that Jason Heyward recently departed St. Louis in free agency for a certain *hated* rival. Chicago formally introduced the J-Hey Kid on December 15; he wasted no time in taking a veiled swipe at his former employers, noting the aging core players in St. Louis as a big reason in his decision to pack his bags and head north.

As you might expect, Cards manager Mike Matheny took exception to this characterization of his ballclub. But while it might seem, at first glance, that the Cardinals stars–Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina–are ancient compared to the Cubs’, was there really that sizable a gap last season, and did it really get worse this offseason?

According to Baseball-Reference.com, the Cardinals entire 2015 roster, whether participating in 155 games like Jhonny Peralta or 1 like Marco Gonzales, Nick Greenwood, and Dean Anna, had an average age of 28.4 years–27.8 among pitchers and 28.5 among position players. The Cubs were an average of 26.5 years old among position players and 29.5 years on the hill, for a total average of 26.7 years, or 1.7 years younger than the Cardinals.

To get a little closer, though, to Heyward’s actual meaning, I should really look at players who started more often than not. The Cards’ most common lineup, which, admittedly, only appeared in a grand total of 8 games:

  1. Matt Carpenter – 29 years old
  2. Jason Heyward – 25
  3. Matt Holliday – 35
  4. Matt Adams – 26
  5. Jhonny Peralta – 33
  6. Jon Jay – 30
  7. Yadier Molina – 32
  8. Kolten Wong – 24
  9. (pitcher)

Together, these eight position players average 29 years and 3 months.

The Cubs:

  1. Dexter Fowler – 29 years old
  2. Kris Bryant – 23
  3. Anthony Rizzo – 25
  4. Starlin Castro – 25
  5. Miguel Montero – 31
  6. Jorge Soler – 23
  7. Chris Coghlan – 30
  8. (pitcher)
  9. Addison Russell – 21

Twenty-five years and 10 1/2 months. Even when accounting for any and all position players who appeared in more than 81 regular season games, which replaces Matt Holliday with Randal Grichuk for St. Louis and adds Chris Denorfia to Chicago’s list, the Cubs still hold an advantage of about a year and a half.

When you start to look at pitching, however, the Cardinals seem to be more in-tune with any sort of “youth movement.” After Adam Wainwright tore his Achilles in the third week of the regular season, John Lackey, 36, led a group significantly younger starters for the bulk of the season. Lackey, together with Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn, and Jaime Garcia, were an average of 27 years and 7 months.

Furthermore, occasional starters Tyler Lyons and Tim Cooney were 27 and 24, respectively. Additionally, four Cardinal relievers appeared in at least forty games on the regular season; three of the four (Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist, and Seth Maness) were no older than 26 at any point during the season.

The Cubs’ pitching staff, meanwhile, was *significantly* older, especially in the more prominent roles. The four starters who barely missed a start the entire season–Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Jason Hammel–were an average of 29 years and 3 months old in 2015. The fifth most-used starter, Dan Haren, was the oldest starter in the rotation following his trade from Miami before the deadline; he pitched for St. Louis over a decade ago!

Moreover, the six relievers to accumulate at least forty appearances on the season were an average of two months shy of 29; technically, that’s only slightly older than the Cards’ pen, but if we throw out crazy outliers like Randy Choate, who’s old enough to be Kris Bryant’s father, the Cardinals are overall younger on the pitching staff.

The other means by which to view Heyward’s recent comments are to look forward to 2016: how old are the projected lineups for each ballclub? Because, after all, that’s more or less what he was looking at, whether intentionally or no.

The Cardinals’ current projected lineup (as of December 21), according to RotoChamp, reads as follows (ages are as of Opening Day 2016):

  1. Matt Carpenter – 30 years old
  2. Stephen Piscotty – 25
  3. Matt Holliday – 36
  4. Randal Grichuk – 24
  5. Jhonny Peralta – 33
  6. Brandon Moss – 32
  7. Kolten Wong – 25
  8. Yadier Molina – 33

Twenty-nine years and nine months… ever so slightly older than 2015’s most commonly-used lineup. But, technically, slightly younger without Heyward; since Holliday was going to start irrespective of Heyward’s presence, Piscotty or Grichuk, both of whom are younger, vaulted in to the starting lineup with #22’s departure.

RotoChamp is currently projecting the following lineup for Chicago:

  1. Ben Zobrist – 34
  2. Jason Heyward – 26
  3. Anthony Rizzo – 26
  4. Kris Bryant – 24
  5. Kyle Schwarber – 23
  6. Jorge Soler – 24
  7. Miguel Montero – 32
  8. Addison Russell – 22

About two years younger than the Cards’ projected lineup. But what stands out to me, more than anything else, is the acquisition of Ben Zobrist. Pretty old for a “youth movement”-oriented team, no?

RotoChamp also projects likely or possible starters. Wainwright, 34; Wacha, 24; Martinez, 24; Garcia, 29; Gonzales, 24; and Lyons, 28, populate the Cardinals’ rotation. Together, they’ll be an average 27 years and two months old come Opening Day.

The Cubs, meanwhile, got older when they acquired John Lackey, 37, after he chose not to re-sign with the Cardinals. He’s joined by Arrieta, 30; Lester, 32; Hendricks, 26; Hammel, 33; Trevor Cahill, 28; and Adam Warren, 28. This projected rotation will be over an average of 30 years and six months old on Opening Day–more than three years older than the Cardinals starters!

Ultimately, it’s not terribly difficult to understand why Heyward chose the Cubs. When it comes to the age of core players, there’s substantially greater hype surrounding Cubs position players like Bryant, Rizzo, Schwarber, and Russell when compared to the Cardinals trio of Wong, Piscotty, and Grichuk. But let’s not forget the tear the Cardinals starters, even without Adam Wainwright, were on for the first few months of the 2015 season.

Perhaps even more important is the common knowledge with any sport involving free agency. Once a team loses that ability to almost unilaterally control the contract to which younger players are entitled, it’s faced with a tough decision: pay the player what he wants, or let him walk in free agency. Prior to that, some players are able to state their case at an arbitration hearing and their team is almost always required to pay more than they were paying under the player’s initial contract.

For the Cubs, unless they sign both players to contract extensions first, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant are arbitration-eligible in 2018, while Kyle Schwarber joins them the following season; all three are currently slated to become free agents in 2022, following Rizzo (’20) and Soler (’21). While those events may seem like the distant future, it perhaps does lend a clue as to why Jason Heyward’s 8-year $184 million contract includes opt-out clauses (for the player) following the 2018 and ’19 seasons. It’s one way to lock him down for a seemingly reasonable price for the next few years, but part of me wonders if the Cubs hope he performs well enough that he does elect to void the remainder of his contract around when they’ll likely need to empty their pockets for the aforementioned “core.”

And, of course, Cardinals fans also have prior history to fall back on. The team, despite several roster turnovers, has generally exceeded expectations for a market on the smaller end of the spectrum over the past two decades, and there’s no reason to believe that will suddenly cease. Likewise, we can only hope Cubs fans’ hubris over their young players leads to a karmic repeat of the era of good feelings that Kerry Wood and Mark Prior ushered in and Dusty Baker quickly dashed a decade ago.

Happy 30th anniversary, Don Denkinger!

Even though I have no recollection of anything that happened in 1985, that year’s Fall Classic is definitely a sore subject among St. Louis Cardinals fans, especially those old enough to remember how it unfolded.  To make matters worse, their sole World Series championship is literally the only thing that Kansas City Royals fans can brag about when talking baseball with their brethren to the east.  And I don’t mean “literally” in the same sense as when someone claims they can “literally drink an ocean.”  This one is real, because what else do they have?  Titles #2-11?  Hall of Famers?  Stadium location?  Attendance, ownership, etc., etc., etc…

I also hope this doesn’t come across as sour grapes, the way Cardinals fans joke about Cubs fans blaming their team’s epic collapse in the 2003 NLCS on Steve Bartman.  Perhaps I’m a homer, but game 6 of the 1985 World Series is a wee bit worse because it was an umpire and not a fan of the team getting screwed; because if it occurred in exactly the same fashion today, the game’s outcome would have almost certainly been different.

To set the stage: the Cardinals held a 3-2 advantage, despite having only scored 11 runs all series, heading in to game 6 at Royals (now Kauffman) Stadium.  One more win would clinch St. Louis’ 10th World Series title and 2nd in four seasons.

Danny Cox of the Cardinals and Charlie Liebrandt of the Royals had been dealing all game long.  Cox scattered 7 hits and allowed 0 runs in 7 innings; his pinch-hitter, Brian Harper, gave the Cardinals a 1-0 lead with 2 outs in the top of the 8th.  Ozzie Smith subsequently walked to load the bases against KC, who pulled Liebrandt in favor of closer Dan Quisenberry.  “Quiz” got Willie McGee to ground out to keep the deficit at 1 run.

Ken Dayley, on in relief of Cox, retired the Royals without much ado in the bottom of the 8th.  Quisenberry, similarly, allowed one man aboard in the top of the 9th, but the Cardinals failed to widen their lead.

Manager Whitey Herzog turned to late-August call-up (and future closer) Todd Worrell over Jeff Lahti, who had pitched 2 innings in a 6-1 loss two nights prior.  At the start of the inning, the Cardinals had about an 80% chance to hold the Royals lineup in check and win the game and the championship.  The Royals’ first batter, Jorge Orta, hit an 0-2 bouncer to the middle-right side of the infield; Jack Clark fielded the ball and threw to Worrell, who was covering first for Clark.  Replays immediately indicated Worrell had beaten Orta by a half-step. None of that mattered, as first-base umpire and crew chief Don Denkinger called the Royal safe and further denied any pleas by the Cardinals to overturn the call, which he believed at the time to be correct.

It is likely that the Royals mathematical chances of winning, with 0 runners on base, 1 out, and a 0-1 deficit in the bottom of the 9th, would have sunk from 20% to around 12%.  Instead, with 1 on and 0 out, they leaped to 34%–still not great, but remarkably better than had the correct call been made.  Unfortunately, there’s no accounting for how the remainder of the inning would have played out had Denkinger not erred.  It’s one thing to say that the players may still have gotten the same hits, sacrifices, and outs they did, but there’s no way to know just how the blown call affected the Cardinal rookie.

Steve Balboni’s subsequent single put 2 on with 0 out instead of 1 on with 1 out.  The Royals actually had a 52% chance of winning the game after this play.  Had he singled with 1 out, they would still have likely had less than a 30% chance of winning.

With Orta on 2nd and Orix Concepcion running for Balboni at first, catcher Jim Sundberg laid down a bunt, but Orta was thrown out at 3rd.  “Big deal,” skeptics say.  “That erases the lead runner who benefited from The Call.”  The big deal is that I suspect the Royals would have been less likely to bunt with 1 on and 1 out than with 2 on and 0 out.  The former scenario would likely put a runner at 2nd with the team a mere out away from World Series ignominy; the latter, had it succeeded, would have put runners at 2nd and 3rd, still with 0 outs.

Even with the failed sacrifice attempt, the Royals still had the winning run on base (Sundberg at 1st) with only 1 out, rather than batting with 2 outs.  A double-play would still have won the game for the Cardinals at this point, but….

…okay, so Darrell Porter’s passed ball with Hal McRae at the dish wasn’t a great thing.  Prior to it, the Redbirds still had a 66% chance of winning; after it, they were more likely to lose (54%) than win.  It gifted the Royals the same result had Sundberg’s bunt been successful, albeit with a slightly slower runner (Sundberg) on instead of Orta.

With the tying run standing at 3rd base and the winner at 2nd, and only 1 out, it’s only logical for the Cardinals to intentionally walk McRae.  The only way he can score is if the Cardinals record an out in front of him, so putting him on base isn’t the end of the world.  A ground ball to any base, including home plate, becomes a force out; a game-ending and series-clinching double-play also becomes a possibility once again.

Any attempts to predict the outcome of this game are surely absurd.  A error on the catcher with McRae hitting would still advance the game-tying run to 3rd, but McRae would be facing a 2-0 count with 2 outs.  It’s impossible to think any manager in his right mind would order an intentional walk in that situation.

Unfortunately, back in real life, Dane Iorg, whom the Cardinals had sold to the Royals in May 1984, singled to right field, and Concepcion and Sundberg, who narrowly beat the accurate throw from Andy Van Slyke, both scored and the Royals won the game.

So what of game 7?  After all, it’s not as though the game the previous night had eliminated the Cardinals.  They could still have won the ultimate game, albeit on the road.  I can recall two examples this millennium where teams that lost disappointing 6th games failed to show any backbone in the 7th.  The aforementioned ’03 Cubs seemed to lose any semblance of fight left in them after falling behind for a second time in the final game, in the 5th inning.  The ’11 Texas Rangers, after losing a wild game 6 (though not due to the actions of any umpire or fan), got 2 runs on 3 hits and 1 walk in the top of the 1st, then only managed 3 hits for the remainder of the game, en route to a 6-2 series-clinching win for the Cardinals.

Furthermore, though I’m no Dr. Phil, I suspect that Denkinger’s presence behind the plate for game 7 was more than a little unsettling for Cardinals pitchers.  That would be like putting Steve Bartman in center field and expecting Moises Alou to play nice all throughout game 7.

Ultimately, it’s not Denkinger’s fault the Cardinals lost the 1985 World Series.  Allowing six or more runs in three games, hitting .185, and scoring a mere thirteen runs (a record low for a seven-game series) will generally do that.  Still, as a fan, you can’t help but wonder, “What if?”

Cards/Cubs Rookies

One constant talking point in the National League Central throughout the 162-game schedule was the quality of the young players and rookies on the Chicago Cubs’ roster.  Kris Bryant, of course, was a focal point from Spring Training on, but Anthony Rizzo, Jorge Soler, Starlin Castro, and Addison Russell, all under the age of 26 back in April, saw regular playing time this season.  Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez, neither a regular starter during the season, both made immense contributions during the four-game NLDS.  Among pitchers, Kyle Hendricks made his mark, as well.  For the purposes of this discussion, though, I’m only going to look at players fewer than three full seasons under their belts; that omits Rizzo and Castro, both of whom have played since age 20 and were 25 in April.

The Cardinals also received important contributions during the regular season and in October from their youngsters, despite less acclaim from national media outlets.  Jason Heyward, who turned 26 in August, was in his sixth season, so is disqualified.  Kolten Wong was the Cardinals regular second baseman, and Randal Grichuk started regularly from mid-May to mid-August, between stints on the DL.  Stephen Piscotty, a late-July call-up, also received regular playing time with injuries to Grichuk, Jon Jay, and Matt Holliday.  St. Louis also received more significant contributions from young pitchers than did the Cubs.  Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, and Kevin Siegrist all have pitched fewer than three seasons, but Trevor Rosenthal, who has been a big-leaguer for about 3 1/2 seasons, is ineligible for this discussion.

For the purposes of statistical comparison, then, I’m looking at Bryant, Soler, Russell, Schwarber, Baez, and Hendricks for the Cubs; and Wong, Piscotty, Grichuk, Martinez, Wacha, and Siegrist for the Cards.

On offense, the Cubs received about 1.5 times as much contribution from their young players as the Cardinals–1700 ABs to 1100.  But, overall, the results aren’t that dissimilar, which is somewhat surprising given the hype surrounding Bryant and Russell, in particular.

If you don’t feel like following the link, let me break it down for you a little.  The Cardinals’ triumvirate strikes out significant less, though Kris Bryant (one shy of 200) hurt the Cubs the most there.  The Cubs’ players hit a homer about every 26 ABs; the Cardinals’, about every 32.  Overall, OBP and Slugging % were pretty similar, with Chicago leading the former category, and St. Louis, the latter.  The Redbirds also held the advantage in batting average, but overall, it doesn’t appear one set of players is more dominant than the other.

Pitching, on the other hand, swings quite obviously in the Cardinals’ direction.  Aside from the Cardinals’ pitchers pitching more games and winning them at a superior rate to Hendricks, most of the comparable “average” stats were similar (Hendricks led in FIP, WHIP, SO/BB ratio, and BB/9, but the Redbird trio held the advantage in ERA+, Hits/9, HR/9, and SO/9), but Cardinals fans should undoubtedly be excited that they have such a deep crop of young pitchers at their disposal for several years to come.

In their NLDS series, Wong, Piscotty, and Grichuk combined to go 10/38 (.263) with 5 HRs and 8 RBI.  The five Cubs, meanwhile, went 18/47 (.383) with 6 HRs and 12 RBI.  In fact, while the much-ballyhooed Bryant struggled through a 3/17 performance, Soler, Schwarber, and Baez (fewer than 200 games played between the three of them on the regular season) played a huge role in the Cubs’ victory, despite seeing comparatively limited action, going 12/20 with 5 HR and 9 RBI.

On the pitching side, Martinez was placed on the disabled list late in the season and missed the series.  Hendricks, though not credited with a victory because he was chased with two outs in the fifth of Game 2, did enough to keep his team in the lead before turning it over to the bullpen, which shut the Redbird bats down for the remaining 4 1/3 innings.  Conversely, Wacha and Siegrist greatly impaired the Cards’ chances: Wacha struggled with his command in Game 3, and couldn’t survive through five without surrendering the lead to the Cubs.  Siegrist started out well enough, striking out Chris Coghlan and Addison Russell to end the top of the 8th and preserve his team’s 1-0 lead.  But in Game 3, Siegrist, on in relief of Wacha, surrendered a crippling solo shot to Anthony Rizzo.  In Game 4, attempting to preserve a 4-4 tie in the 6th, he allowed the go-ahead homer to Rizzo, followed by another to Schwarber in the 7th, and was ultimately saddled with the loss in the deciding match.

Overall, not a spectacular four-game stretch for the Cardinals’ youngsters, especially compared to how their counterparts on Chicago performed, but it’s certainly far too soon to proclaim the Cubbies as the new standard-bearers for the NL Central.

Cards/Cubs HRs and Offense

One axiom in baseball is that, come October, quality pitching and defense, and not necessarily a powerful offense, win championships.  But it seems that, every year, we find exceptions to this oft-quoted aphorism.  The one that immediately leaps to mind is the number of home runs we saw in the National League Division Series between the Central champion Cardinals and second Wild Card Cubs.  Even discounting the postseason-record six Chicago hit in their victory in Game 3, both teams hit more than expected.

During the 2015 season, the Cardinals hit an unimpressive 137 home runs, good enough for 11th in the National League.  Their pitching staff was far more stingy, only surrendering 123–2nd in the Senior Circuit.  The Cubs, meanwhile, bashed 171 (5th) and allowed 134 (3rd).  Averaging all those numbers together, it would be far from unreasonable to be surprised by more than two home runs total per game.

All told, the Cardinals hit eight homers through the four-game series, with Stephen Piscotty contributing three.  The Cubs added ten of their own, with Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, and Jorge Soler knocking out two apiece.  Eighteen HRs over four games–4.5 per game!  Twelve of those came at Wrigley Field, which has acquired a reputation for becoming a hitters’ ballpark once the calendar changes to October, in Games 3 and 4.  The Cubbies were able to better take advantage, hitting nine of their ten in those two games.

Unfortunately for the Cardinals, their much-heralded pitching staff fell apart when it was needed most.  During the regular season, the Cardinals were 38-0 when scoring 6+ runs.  They lost the only game in which they managed that feat this series, losing 8-6 in Game 3.  Perhaps even more disconcerting is the fact that they went 68-15 on the season when scoring 4+, but only 1-2 in the NLDS.  Taking it one step further, just for the heck of it, when scoring 3+ runs in a game this season, they were a staggering 89-27 (the Cubs, by comparison, were 81-29 when scoring at least 3), but a mere 1-3 in the series.