The St. Louis Cardinals are not great this year. They were not great last year either. To the casual baseball fan, the fact that the Cardinals stood pat at the most recent trade deadline, then, is surprising. Why not selloff your best players for prospects to help you win in the future? While many gripe that this organization has been missing a certainty of direction for the last couple years, we wanted to look back at perhaps their largest trade of the last half decade, one that boosted them from greatness to new heights.
The St. Louis Cardinals finished in first place in the NL Central in 2014, with 90 wins and an appearance in the NLCS. While some might call this a successful season, a few indicators showed that there was room for improvement in the 2015 season. For instance, their Pythagorean record was 83-79, based on 619 runs scored and 603 runs allowed. This means that based only off of runs, St Louis’s total wins should have been seven less than they actually won. This discrepancy can be attributed to the Cardinals being lucky, and should not have been taken as reproducible for the 2015 season.
To determine where they could improve, we looked at their main position players, by most plate appearances, from the 2014 season. These players are:
To evaluate each player, we used a metric called WAR, or Wins Above Replacement, calculated with help from a package called openWAR. There are some major differences between openWAR and the other WAR implementations, such as those found on Fangraphs. First, openWAR is completely open and reproducible and secondly, openWAR is based on the plate appearance level, rather than on aggregate statistics. Essentially, this statistic is calculated by comparing how many wins a player could create for a team against those created by replacement players.
The heuristic used by openWAR for determining who is a replacement-level player comes from the roster limits inherent in MLB. For most of the season, there are only 750 roster spots, and most teams allocate those as 13 position players and 12 pitchers. Thus, we take the 390 position players and 360 pitchers with the most playing time and designate those players as MLB players. Everyone else is a replacement-level player.
The graph below shows the WAR for each replacement player, in blue, as well as the WAR for each of the 9 Cardinals players listed above.
The graph clearly shows two players with negative WAR, well below the average value a replacement player can provide. These two players are both right fielders, Allen Craig and Oscar Taveras. Although Allen Craig had been above average in terms of offensive production for the preceding three years, as determined by OPS+, he had a slow start to the season in 2014. Based off of this assessment, it would have been wise to trade him at the 2014 deadline, while his value was still high from his previous seasons. Luckily, the Cardinals did flip him at the trade deadline, to the Red Sox, for John Lackey and prospect Corey Littrell. While Oscar Taveras took over for most of the second half, his production was also below average, resulting in a negative WAR. With his tragic passing, this made the need for a productive right fielder an even greater priority for the Cardinals’ upper management.
An obvious recommendation, naturally, would be to focus on increasing production at the right field position in 2015. Management could either choose to trade for a right fielder, or promote one or both of the two players on minor league rosters, Randal Grichuk and Tommy Pham, with outfield experience. Interestingly, the Cardinals did both. The Cardinals traded for Jason Heyward from the Braves, sending over one of their starters, Shelby Miller, in return. Heyward had a Gold Glove caliber year for the Braves in 2014, as well as batting to an above league average OPS+ of 109 and a positive WAR. Shelby Miller, on the other hand, was by far the weakest pitcher on the staff when compared against such stalwarts such as Lance Lynn, Adam Wainwright, and Michael Wacha. Miller had the highest ERA, ERA+, FIP, WHIP, HR/9, and BB/9 while also sporting the lowest K/9 of the group. In giving up Miller, the Cardinals invested in a position in dire need of shoring up. In addition, the Cardinals gave both Grichuk and Pham over 350 and 150 plate appearances respectively.
In 2015, Heyward had a 117 OPS+, Grichuk had a 134 OPS+, and Pham had a 123 OPS+. Perhaps as no surprise, the Cardinals increased their overall wins and Pythagorean record. Although they lost to the upstart Cubs in the NLDS, the Cardinals won 100 games and had a Pythagorean record of 96-66. This means that their winning record at the end of the 2015 season was not as heavily determined by luck, but instead on the skill and talent of the roster built by management. While no World Series rings were obtained, the 2015 roster was still one of their most elite in recent history!
What do you think? Was there a better and more complete roster in recent years than the 2015 Cardinals? Let us know in the comments below! Be sure to check out openWAR here. As always, our code can be found on Github.
The SaberSmart Team