Baseball, perhaps more than any other sport, is defined by numbers. Record-breaking numbers, uniform numbers, milestone numbers — they’re all part of what makes the game so enduring and endearing.
One of the sport's hallmark numbers has defined the very best teams dating back decades: 100 wins in a season.
The threshold long has been a stamp of dominance, but in these days of competitive balance and unprecedented parity, the 100-win season is becoming increasingly rare. The St. Louis Cardinals enter play on Wednesday on the brink of becoming the first to reach the mark since the 2011 Phillies. The current three-season drought is the longest of its kind since both leagues went to the 162-game schedule in 1962 (excluding strike seasons).
The age of the “super team” reached its peak in the early part of last decade, when a whopping 11 teams topped 100 wins between 2001 and 2005. Since then, only three franchises have done it, with the 2008 Angels and 2009 Yankees joining the aforementioned 2011 Phillies. The greatest number of teams with 100-plus wins in a season: three. It’s happened multiple times, but not since 2003, when the Yankees, Braves and Giants either matched or surpassed the 100-win mark.
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The Cardinals’ chance to achieve the mark becomes more impressive when you consider the incredible confluence of factors typically required to achieve such a high level of greatness. To hit the magical 100-win mark, simply having the most talent or a superstar-led team simply isn’t enough. Because of the game’s inherently unbalanced schedule, it helps to be in a division with four other mediocre teams. Ideally, you also want something to play for down the stretch after clinching a playoff spot — homefield advantage, for example. And you can’t discount good old-fashioned luck, which may be the biggest factor of all.
The Cardinals have the latter two going for them. They began the week still fighting to nail down the division title, and having registered four more wins than their run differential would suggest. They haven’t exactly enjoyed the luxury of the first two factors, though: They don’t have an MVP or Cy Young candidate, and they play in baseball’s toughest division, where two other teams already have cleared the 90-win plateau.
Still, thanks to perhaps the deepest roster in the majors, metronome-like consistency, and a little bit of #CardinalsDevilMagic, St. Louis is winning games at a historic pace and appear primed — once again — for a legit postseason run.
You’d think this degree of dominance would make the Cardinals the overwhelming favorite to win the World Series, right?
Honing in on the Wild Card era (since 1995), when the postseason became a bonafide tournament that demands champions win three rounds, 21 teams have finished with at least 100 regular-season wins. The only two to win the World Series were the 1998 and 2009 Yankees. (And you have to go back more than a decade more to find a National League squad that turned the trick: the 1986 Mets.) Meanwhile, there were four other regular-season juggernauts that came this close to the final prize, only to lose in the World Series: the 1995 Indians, 1999 Braves, 2003 Yankees and — most recently — the 2004 Cardinals.
That leaves 15 other clubs since 1995 that hit the century mark, but failed to play in the Fall Classic. The carnage is highlighted by the 2001 Mariners, who set a major-league record with 116 wins but couldn’t even capture the American League pennant, losing in the ALCS to a Yankees team that tallied 19 fewer regular-season wins. Also included in this group of 100-win teams to not make the World Series are four (four!) Braves teams (1997, 1998, 2002, 2003).
The most damning evidence that reaching triple digits in wins doesn’t guarantee any reward in the postseason? Nearly half (10) of the 21 100-win teams since 1995 didn’t even advance past the Division Series round.
So will the 2015 Cardinals be one of the rare few that can translate regular-season success into postseason triumph? Or are they destined to join the majority of 100-win in the annals of postseason futility?
Entering the season, few predicted the Cardinals — or any team — would top 100 wins. The projections at both Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs pegged the Cardinals for 89 wins, and the only teams expected to win more than 90 games were the Dodgers and Nationals (though neither were expected to surpass 100). Grantland’s Ben Lindbergh conducted an in-depth exploration of “standings compression,” noting that the range between the best and worst projected records has never been smaller.
It therefore qualifies as a mild surprise that the Cardinals could end baseball’s 100-win drought, although their path to the top hasn't resembled that of a traditional superpower. While reaching 100 wins is indeed a significant accomplishment, the Cardinals have hardly set the benchmark for across-the-charts dominance. Their run differential is equivalent to that of a 94- or 95-win team.
What’s more, St. Louis’s offensive production has been mostly mediocre, ranking in the bottom half of baseball in runs, slugging and OPS. The Cardinals don’t have a single position player ranked in the top 10 in WAR. But they do excel in run prevention, leading the majors in ERA, and they have been perhaps the most clutch pitching team, stranding nearly 80% of baserunners. They lack a true ace (no St. Louis pitcher is ranked in the top 20 in WAR), though they boast perhaps the best top-to-bottom rotation in the league, along with a more-than-solid bullpen.
The Cardinals’ formula for success doesn’t seem to jive with the two 100-win teams from our sample to win the World Series, both of which were offensive powerhouses with excellent pitching staffs. Then again, in an era of unprecedented parity, it’s possible to poke holes in the success of just about any playoff team. These Cardinals already have bested their preseason predictions while surpassing the expectations of even the most optimistic fans, so what’s stopping them from extending their run of clutch pitching and just-enough-offense for another month?
The harsh truth is that — unlike .400, 56, 755, or any number of other pantheon-worthy feats—100 is just a number. An exceedingly rare milestone, to be sure, but one with little in the way of predictive power. Smart baseball folks can, and will, attempt to project what might happen in October, wielding numbers to assess a team’s strengths and weakness, and guessing whether all that will translate into playoff success. But if recent baseball history has taught us anything, that old Socratic adage rings as tried and true as ever: The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.
As has been noted most famously by Oakland GM Billy Beane, the baseball playoffs are a crapshoot. Getting there is the hard part, sure, but mostly every team that makes it has a roughly similar chance as the next one of winning at all. Never has this felt more true than it does this season, so it’s up to St. Louis to prove that pulling off such an incredibly rare regular-season feat can translate into postseason glory.