The Cardinals are not trending downward

If I had a dollar for every tweet I have seen proclaiming that the Cardinals have plummeted into a linear free-fall over the past five seasons, my net worth would be on par with the DeWitt family.

Just last week, our own Matthew Ludwig penned an article titled The wrong direction, which included the subheading: The Cardinals have taken a step back in each of the past 5 seasons. Embedded in the piece was a table that essentially mirrored the above tweets.

Hopefully you get a pretty good idea of what has been happening from the table. The Cardinals are going backwards. There is no other way to say it. It would be one thing if the organization had advanced to the NLCS a few times and only made it to the wild card game or didn’t qualify for the playoffs a few other times. There is no linear pattern there, but there is still success.

With all due respect to Matthew–and his completely reasonable and logical postulate–the path to the present isn’t as simple as “World Series, NLCS, NLDS, and so on”.

Put simply: the playoffs are dumb, folks. Like, really dumb. Think about it: 40% of its participants watch a 162-game sample reduced to a single game that will inevitably define their entire year in the eyes of critics. What’s that? You won your division? Congratulations! You have the honor of a quick best-of-five series overriding the past six-plus months. The playoffs–especially in a sport as volatile as baseball–are inherently random. We can’t assume that the better team is always going to advance. Sports fans fill out brackets knowing that fluke upsets will ensure that the best team doesn’t win it all the majority of the time. This is the methodology people choose to employ when evaluating the success of sports franchises.

Let’s cut through what amounts to chance, shall we?

When excluding the 100-win club of 2015, the Cardinals’ raw win total has decreased every year since the 2013 pennant-winners went 97-65. But even winning percentage stats over a full regular season are subject to random fluctuation. Is a one-run nail-biter aided by a few blunders from your opponent equal to a twelve-run onslaught? The graph above says so. In reality, we know that win-loss record is not the most indicative measurement of a team’s true talent level. Baseball Prospectus’ first-order win percentage, better known as the Pythagenpat formula, calculates a team’s expected record based on the number of runs they scored and allowed.

The rate of change on this graph’s trendline dips from the actual wins’ -3.20 to -2.34. If these numbers still seem drastic, allow me to provide some context. From 2013 to 2017, the league-wide standard deviation for winning percentage from one year to the next was 0.072, or 11.6 wins over a 162-game span. By pure randomness alone, we would expect 68% of teams to finish within one standard deviation (11.6 wins) of their previous season’s record and 95% within two standard deviations (23.2 wins). Of course, these figures don’t account for offseason transactions, but the Cardinals nonetheless appear to be an incredibly consistent organization with annual rates of change down in the 2-3 win range.

But wait–there are even more precise quantifications of a team’s true talent! One thing that the first-order method neglects is hit sequencing. Suppose that five plate appearances consisted of a walk, flyout, home run, and two strikeouts. If those five events happened to be ordered strikeout, walk, home run, strikeout, flyout, then the team in question would score two runs. Conversely, a team with those same outcomes but in the reverse order would only plate one run. Were the 2013 Cardinals really a 101-win behemoth as first-order wins suggests, or were they merely the benefactors of a .377 BABIP with runners in scoring position and a .280 mark with the bases empty?

These are the types of questions that–wait for it–second-order win percentage answers by adjusting the Pythagenpat formula for how many runs a team was projected (“should have”) to score and allow. Third-order wins simply tweaks the second-order calculations by factoring in the club’s strength of schedule.

The slope (rate of change) on this third-order graph is just -0.56 wins. In fact, the trendline actually flips to a positive 1.3 if you only look at 2014 onward. Have the Cardinals devolved into a significantly worse team, or has statical chance–luck–created an illusion?

The numbers state that the Cardinals of recent years were all more-or-less 87-90 win ballclubs, a fringe playoff team in your typical season. A variety of factors–a strong division that particular year, an inefficient manager (clears throat), or just plain bad luck through ill-timed sequencing–can knock a borderline team out of the postseason bracket altogether, a team who otherwise would have snagged a wild card spot. There are also years when a few pleasant surprises bounce your way en route to an unexpected division title. This is the life of a good-but-not-elite sports team. Year-to-year variations having nothing to do with talent are more costly for the teams that “should make the playoffs assuming things go to plan” than those with a proverbial cushion.

So how did the Cardinals land in this sticky situation? If you haven’t already noticed, John Mozeliak kinda has a thing for 2-3 WAR players. Like clockwork, the Cardinals and their army of above-averageness march into September still very much alive in the playoff hunt. From a business perspective, this strategy makes perfect sense. Meaningful baseball games sell more tickets. And if you’re built to have a higher floor (but a lower ceiling), 100-loss seasons with empty seats are few and far between.

However, this more conservative approach to roster construction assumes that the only other avail option is to “go all-in, blow everything up, then rinse and repeat”. But for a $1.8 billion franchise that generates over $300 million in annual revenue (not to mention a billion-dollar TV deal that kicks in next year), this simply isn’t true. Unlike some organizations, the Cardinals have the resources to maintain a high floor while raising the ceiling so their playoff aspirations don’t hinge on luck anymore.

Do you think the Cardinals need a big-bat to plug into the middle of the lineup? You have the money to land a J.D. Martinez or Justin Upton. You also have the prospect capital to acquire Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton, or Josh Donaldson. You have the ability to win the Manny Machado sweepstakes during the 2018-19 free agent frenzy. If starting pitching or bullpen help is where you feel the Cardinals should devote their resources, by all means, take that path. But to stand pat while more aggressive rivals pass you by? Any one of these moves would make the Cardinals a more talented team overnight. That 87-90 win range could make the leap to a 92-95 window.

The Cardinals are closer to legitimately contending for a twelfth championship than we give them credit for. The organization hasn’t fallen off in the manner that fans claim, a testament to their consistency. However, the franchise operates using an outdated model that churns out a rather mediocre product year in, year out. The Cardinals don’t need to embark on a five-year tank-project to return atop the summit of the baseball mountain. They do need to deviate from their current philosophy by taking a step outside of their comfort zone, and that begins with a bold move. A bold move that, by nature, would contradict “the Cardinal Way”.

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