Despite a mediocre offense and more than their share of key injuries, this year's Cardinals could be something that has become increasingly rare in MLB: a Superteam.
The Superteam is back. The longest drought without one in the 55-season history of the 162-game schedule may be about to end. In this age of parity, which last year featured a World Series in which neither team won 90 games, the St. Louis Cardinals look like the rare Superteam—one that wins 100 games, which would make them the first to do so since the 2011 Phillies.
Wait. The Cardinals? A Superteam? The team that may not even have a pitcher or hitter finish among the top five in Cy Young or MVP award voting? The team that has lost its ace pitcher (Adam Wainwright), its first baseman (Matt Adams), its No. 3 hitter (Matt Holliday) and its key setup reliever (Jordan Walden) for massive chunks of the season? The team that might not have anybody drive in 90 runs? The team that’s been outscored by the last-place Milwaukee Brewers?
Yes, those Cardinals. Through 111 games, St. Louis is every bit a Superteam. Heading into a big showdown series against Pittsburgh—the Cards have a five-game lead over the Pirates in the NL Central—that begins tonight, the team is on pace for 104 wins. (A true Superteam also wins the World Series, not just 100 games; but more on that distinction below.)
Here’s why we just might be looking at a historically important team, especially if you let ERA be your guide:
• St. Louis has the majors' best pitching staff in more than four decades. Its ERA (2.60) is the third-lowest since the mound was lowered in 1969, trailing only the 1972 Orioles (2.53) and 1972 Athletics (2.58).
• It has the best rotation (2.77) since the 1985 Dodgers.
• It has the best bullpen (2.26) since the 1972 Pirates, the only 'pen better since the mound was lowered.
The Cardinals are a terrific reflection of both their player development system, especially their coaches; and with 13 homegrown players, St. Louis is the only team in baseball with the majority of its active roster a product of the farm system—but also of their manager.
Mike Matheny was working the Gold Glove Awards Presentation after the 2011 season as a member of the media when he received a text from Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak. “We want you to come in Friday morning to interview for the managing job.” Matheny had never managed before, so he spent the next 36 hours studying for his interview, which included hunting down top executives he knew from businesses outside of baseball about how to interview well.
"In a way," he said, "I had an advantage, because it wasn’t something I was supposed to get. I had no expectations."
The interview lasted three hours. Part of it involved Cardinals executives running Matheny through a series of hypothetical in-game strategy scenarios. Matheny sometimes replied that he would rely heavily on his staff.
"We have good people in this organization," he said, "and so why not use them and their expertise?"
Matheny got the job. All he has done since then is win 58% of his games and reach the postseason every year. His worst finish came last October, when St. Louis lost to San Francisco in a five-game NLCS. He is trying to become the first manager to win the World Series on his first MLB job since Ozzie Guillen of the 2005 White Sox. Just don’t expect Matheny to take credit for what he and his team have done.
"It’s too fragile," he said. "Right now, from anyone’s perspective or my perspective or especially the team’s perspective, if they ever see me acting or talking like we’ve accomplished something … I don’t want any part of that.
"I’ve been lucky enough to be part of an incredible situation. What we’ve got, besides the talent, obviously, are genuinely good guys who put the team first. That can be rare. I can move guys around the batting order and not have to worry about how somebody is going to take it. What I do best is I know when to get out of the way."
Matheny plays a more important role than he would ever acknowledge, especially because his team plays so many close games. The Cardinals have played 62 games decided by one or two runs; only the Braves, Mariners and Rays have played more such contests.
Playing so many close games has prompted Matheny to use his bullpen more aggressively than most managers. Indeed, no manager has used his relievers more often on no days of rest than Matheny. It’s the main reason why Mozeliak added veteran relievers Steve Cishek and Jonathan Broxton last month and recently recalled an eighth pitcher for the bullpen, Tyler Lyons.
"We can’t keep up that same pace," Matheny said. "We were putting a heavy load on [Kevin] Siegrist, [Seth] Maness and [Trevor] Rosenthal. We need to shut down guys once in a while."
Matheny’s game management becomes important because the Cardinals don’t have a thunderous lineup. It’s a middle-of-the-pack offense without much speed. Leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter is the team's best offensive player, but his team-high 60 RBIs have him on pace for 88, which would leave St. Louis as the first team to win 100 games with no players driving in 90 runs since the 1969 Mets, when Tommie Agee led New York with 76 RBIs.
The Cardinals are pushing 100 wins mostly because their pitching has been extraordinary—and in one very defined area. St. Louis pitchers are rather ordinary when the bases are empty, but as soon as runners get on, they turn into monsters. Check out how good they are at getting outs when they need them:
|Bases empty||.257||23rd||10 points below MLB average|
|Runners on||.212||1st||30 points better than next best (Tampa Bay)|
|RISP||.194||1st||29 points better than next best (Baltimore)|
|2 outs, RISP||.168||1st||26 points better than next best (Kansas City)|
No other club is close to the Cardinals when it comes to the key moments of run prevention: when the opponent has scoring chances. Credit has to go not only to the pitchers, but also to veteran catcher Yadier Molina, whose skills at framing and calling pitchers are most valuable in those pressure situations.
This decade has been marked by one of the most level playing fields in the game’s history. Starting with the 1960s, and halfway through this decade, the number of 100-win teams by decade looks like this: 10, 13, 7, 10, 13, 1. Rarer still is the 100-win team that wins the World Series. It’s happened only twice in the past 28 years: the 1998 Yankees and the 2009 Yankees. (It happened 11 times in the 28 years before that window.)
Matheny knows all about the gauntlet of expanded postseason. In 2012, needing one win for the National League pennant, St. Louis lost three straight to San Francisco while getting outscored 20–1 and seeing each starting pitcher knocked out before the fifth inning. In '13, St. Louis led Boston two games to one when it entered the sixth inning tied in both Game 4 and 5, only to lose them both. In '14, the Cardinals’ bullpen lost NLCS Games 3, 4 and 5 to the Giants.
This St. Louis team may not have Wainwright at the front of its rotation, but it does have Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez throwing like aces—the team is 33–8 when they start, and they get the first two games against the Pirates this week. The Cardinals also have a healthy Jaime Garcia throwing a ferocious sinker (batters are hitting .160 against it), workhorse pitchers Lance Lynn and John Lackey and that deep bullpen. If St. Louis can hold Pittsburgh at bay, it may be able to buy some rest in the final week for Wacha and Martinez, not to mention those busy relievers.
Of course, the expanded playoffs become a minefield even for Superteams. The Cardinals know best what happened to the last Superteam, the 2011 Phillies. That Philadelphia club had a profile much like these 2015 Cardinals: it boasted the league’s best pitching staff (first in ERA) and a middle-of-the-road offense (seventh in runs). They Phillies never made it out of the Division Series. The Cardinals pushed Philadelphia to a fifth game in the NLDS. The Phillies sent their best pitcher, Roy Halladay, to the mound. The Cardinals won the game, 1–0, scoring the only run two batters into the game and seeing Chris Carpenter make that lone run hold up.
St. Louis went on to win the World Series that season, the most recent of the franchise's 11 titles. If the Cardinals do so again this year after finishing with 100 wins, there will be only one word to describe them.