Baseball BeatApril 30, 2005
St. Louis Fans Let Their Cards Do The Talking
By Rich Lederer

Even though the St. Louis Cardinals had the best record in major league baseball last year, the preponderance of fans outside Missouri were in a show me state of mind. The Chicago Cubs were the consensus pick to win the National League Central and the Houston Astros were generally thought to be the next best team in the division.

Not only did the Cardinals win 105 games but they beat the Los Angeles Dodgers three games to one in the NLDS and staved off the Astros by winning the final two games of the NLCS. When the Redbirds were swept by the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, the disbelievers came out in droves once again to pronounce that the NL champs were nothing but a one-year fluke.

The team's starting pitchers weren't any good, the naysayers proclaimed. It didn't matter that the Cardinals had the best ERA in the majors last year. Chris Carpenter, Jason Marquis, Matt Morris, Jeff Suppan, and Woody Williams? C'mon, the team doesn't have an ace in its deck of Cards.

As far as the offense was concerned, everyone agreed that Albert Pujols was a stud but how many thought Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen were just good fielding, good hitting types who happened to string together career years? The fact that Pujols, Edmonds, and Rolen finished in the top five in the voting for Most Valuable Player was mentioned but not really glamorized.

Including the postseason, the Cardinals had more wins (112) and a better winning percentage (.633) than every other team in the majors last year. The sabermetric community even seemed skeptical despite the fact that the Cardinals had the best Pythagorean record (100-62) in the big leagues in 2005. The team scored 855 runs and only allowed 659. St. Louis also led the NL in Rob Neyer's Beane Count.

More people should pay attention to Neyer's concoction (derived by summing a team's ranks in home runs hit, walks drawn, home runs allowed, and walks allowed) as it relates to identifying the best teams in a particular year. The Beane Count nailed both World Series teams last year and singled out the New York Yankees in 2003 and the San Francisco Giants in 2002. The system missed out on the Anaheim Angels in 2002 and the Florida Marlins in 2003, teams that made their way to the World Series via Wild Card berths and hot streaks.

What is the Beane Count telling us this year? Well, Boston is leading the AL and St. Louis is atop the NL--just like in 2004. The Cardinals, in fact, have the best record in baseball this year.

We heard a lot about the Dodgers when they got off to a 12-2 start. We were also made aware of the Chicago White Sox when the South Siders had a 16-4 record. But who is touting the Cards and their league-best .714 winning percentage as the season concludes its first month?

How are the Cardinals doing it this year? Smoke and mirrors once again? I'm afraid not. The Redbirds have allowed the fewest home runs in the majors and the second lowest walk total in the NL. That's not a bad combo if you are trying to piece together a winning ballclub. In the meantime, Pujols, Edmonds, Rolen & Co. are tied for fourth in the league in home runs and ninth in walks.

Only three of the 13 Baseball Analysts panelists picked the Cardinals to win the National League pennant and just one, ahem, selected St. Louis to win it all. Now I know it is early, but I think it is high time the Cardinals get a bit more respect given that they have arguably been the best team in baseball now for over a year. Red Sox fans may have something to say about that but nobody else can even come close to making such a claim.

Let's give credit where credit is due by acknowledging that Walt Jocketty, Tony LaRussa, and Dave Duncan are right behind John Schuerholz, Bobby Cox, and Leo Mazzone when it comes to management expertise and success. Only the Braves and Yankees have won more divisional titles during the past five years than the Cardinals.

LaRussa has won 10 divisional titles since 1983, including four league championships and one World Series. He has managed three different ballclubs for 27 consecutive seasons. Duncan has been associated with six Cy Young Award winners throughout his career--Vida Blue, Jim Hunter, and Jim Palmer as a catcher; and Bob Welch, Dennis Eckersley and La Marr Hoyt as a coach.

Given the strength of the Red Sox, Yankees, Twins, Angels, and perhaps the Orioles and White Sox, the road to the World Series in the American League looks a lot more treacherous to me than the path the Cardinals need to navigate in the National League. I'll say it again, I think the Redbirds are the team to beat in 2005. If you are suspicious, let me (Beane) count the ways for you.


Let's give credit where credit is due by acknowledging that Walt Jocketty, Tony LaRussa, and Dave Duncan...

Hey, what am I, chopped liver? Was it a coincidence that the two teams in the WS last year had two of the best sabermetricians on the planet working for them?

Here were my pre-season picks in the NL Central for this year, BTW:

NL Central

STL 93-69
CHC 84-76
HOU 75-87
CIN 74-88
MIL 75-87
PIT 74-88

You can verify that from several sources, including Rob Neyer.

I also have the Cardinals as by far the most likely to win the pennant at 4-1 odds (20% chance), followed by ATL and LA at 8-1 (11.1%).

The Angels are the weakest of the likely contenders, and as I've said before (and I recall you also concurred), the Angels aren't going to win the division. Not enough offense, too little pitching, and for the first time in recent years, a weak bullpen.

Rob - Yes, you and I both were skeptical of the Angels' status as the heavy favorite to win the AL West this year. I picked the A's to win the division, but I wouldn't rule out the Angels at all. The division is about as even from top to bottom as any in baseball. As such, I think the Angels stand a reasonable chance of making the playoffs despite their shortcomings.

One of the team's shortcomings though is not a "weak bullpen." In fact, I would argue that the bullpen is not only the team's strength but one of the best in MLB. To wit, any team with Francisco Rodriguez (1-1, 5 saves, 1.74 ERA, 16 Ks/0 BB) as its closer and Scot Shields (3-1, 1 save, 1.23 ERA) as its number one setup man has to rank among the best.

Jake Woods (1-0, 2.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP) has been a good addition, and I still think Brendan Donnelly (8 Ks vs. 1 BB) is capable of getting batters out.

The Angels have other issues for sure, but I don't think the bullpen is one of them.

Rich: as of about a week ago, the A's were leading the Angels in bullpen ERA. It's a little closer now but the A's are still a point over the Angels in K/9. Esteban Yan is overpaid garbage, Kevin Gregg will never again see his 2004 April and May, Matt Hensley is filler, and Brendan Donnelly has seen his strikeouts plummet (off by half from his 2004 at 6.00). It's fair to say the Angels' bullpen was a strength; at the very least, it's become a question mark, and I don't think they've got what it takes to get out of the postseason, let alone the division.

Yes, the Angels have one of the best pens in baseball, regardless of how they have pitched thus far, at least as far as their 3 frontline relievers, K-Rod, Donnelly, and Shields are concerned.

K-Rod is the best closer in the AL, and Donnelly and Shields are closer quality.

Assuming you use those 3 guys in as many of the high leverage situations as possible, you have a monster pen.

I also picked the A's to win the division over ANA, but barely, 85 to 84 wins. OAK at 13-1 for the pennant and ANA at 15-1.

I had a lot of trouble making sense of the AL West coming into this season and I think it's just a really close division. Everyone may finish within 72-90 wins this year. I dont see a dominant team, though the Angels are the clear favorite, but I also don't see an awful team. Looks like a bunch of mediocrity from a division that is used to a lot of success.