It will take just an 18-16 finish for the St. Louis Cardinals to record the franchise’s first 100-win season since 2005. The Redbirds will go to the playoffs for the twelfth time in 16 seasons come October, where they will be the resounding favorites to represent the National League in the World Series for the fifth time in the 21st Century.
The Cardinals have made it look easy this year, slicing and dicing the National League with one of the best rotations in recent history and a lineup that scores just enough runs to win. The Cardinals’ starters — minus Adam Wainwright who threw just 25.0 innings before an Achilles injury — have a 2.80 ERA. The bullpen has a 2.33 ERA. Combined, the entire Cardinals’ pitching staff has a 2.65 ERA.
With a pitching staff like that, the Cardinals are able to win despite the fact that two of their best offensive players, Matt Holliday and Randal Grichuk, have missed significant playing time with injuries. When he has been on the field, Holliday has seen his power numbers trail off significantly. The Cardinals will most likely not have a player post a .300 batting average. No one will hit more than 30 home runs or drive in more than 100 runs. Overall, the offense ranks in the bottom ten in the league in runs, home runs, and OPS. In terms of slugging percentage, the Cardinals are surrounding in the rankings by teams like the San Diego Padres, Oakland A’s, and Philadelphia Phillies.
Not exactly the offensive stuff on which legendary teams are built.
The Cardinals had a fearsome offense at one point, with Mark McGwire, Ray Lankford, and Brian Jordan among other prominent names leading the charge in the late nineties. Those teams did not win. The Cardinals had no pitching, and had gotten away from their roots.
The Cardinals now operate under the “Cardinal Way,” a next-man-up sort of approach that starts with the way minor leaguers are instructed, carrying all the way up to the big leagues. They are taught a unified, focused approach and learn to trust and feed off their teammates. The Cardinals play the game with class and never seem to be phased when the pressure is on. There are no headline-grabbers or “me-first” attitudes on the roster. Young power arms and scrappy role players power the system and keep the Cardinals firing on all cylinders. There were so many arms in the system, that the front office felt comfortable parting ways with Shelby Miller, a starter whose ERA hovered under 2.00 for much of the first half of the season.
The Cardinals have not made splashy free agent signings, just savvy under-the-radar acquisitions over the past 15 years, and were comfortable allowing franchise icon Albert Pujols to walk to the highest bidder. There has always been someone waiting in the wings, like Kolten Wong, Matt Carpenter, Matt Adams, or Jon Jay. None of those names will go down in history among the game’s most luminary names, but the sum of their parts adds up to a relentless attack that scores just enough to back up the pitching staff.
There was another franchise that followed this same formula. It was actually the same one that once played in the same city as the Cardinals, the Baltimore Orioles. After moving to Baltimore in 1954, the Orioles became the preeminent franchise for most of the next 30 years. Starting in 1960, the Orioles posted only two losing seasons over the following 25 seasons. The run included five World Series appearances, three wins, and two ALCS losses. There were five 100-win seasons and 12 more 90-win seasons. Had Major League Baseball taken more than two playoff teams per league during the Orioles’ run of dominance, there would no doubt have been more World Series appearances for Earl Weaver‘s clubs.
Under Weaver and his predecessors, Paul Richards and Hank Bauer, the Orioles, much like the Cardinals, formed their own “way,” that is still spoken of in baseball circles. Like the Cardinals, the Orioles teams were made of classy individuals. The Orioles were not a team of stars. Just solid players. The names of Paul Blair, Bobby Grich, Mark Belanger, Ken Singleton, Mike Flanagan, Dennis Martinez, and Scott McGregor will hardly be uttered with hushed reverence by baseball fans for all of time. There were a few all-timers on those Orioles’ rosters — Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson, and Frank Robinson. Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken caught the tail end of the decades of dominance, but on the whole, the Orioles were not made up of the best players ever to take the field. Solid, dependable players, but not the stuff of legends.
What the Orioles had, like the Cardinals, was a group of solid pitchers surrounded by a group of hitters and fielders who caught the ball when it was hit to them and put just enough men across the plate to win over sixty percent of the time. The formula worked for the Orioles, and it still works today for the Cardinals. Save one very medically-aided era, baseball has always been about pitching. It was that way for the Orioles in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Now that the needles and creams have been taken out of the game, the pendulum has swung back towards the pitcher’s mound.
While baseball has always been referred to as a “thinking man’s game,” it’s really quite simple, and the formula for winning has scarcely changed a bit from the beginning of the Baltimore Orioles’ run of dominance in 1960 all the way to the St. Louis Cardinals’ dominant 2015 season. Your pitchers must throw the ball across the plate, your fielders must catch it when it’s hit to them, and your batters must hit it just regularly enough to score three runs a game. It doesn’t take stars (although having one certainly doesn’t hurt), only a core group of above average players and good pitchers who know their role and gladly perform it for the good of the team.
That was the formula for success in 1960, it is the formula in 2015, and there is no sign that it will change any time soon.