Stay warm out there!
I’ve been warming to the possibility of the Cardinals being better in 2024. They can’t be any worse, right? True. Of course. But I’m talking about legitimate improvement. A team that goes from a last-place finish in 2023 to a spot in the 2024 postseason.
In a series of columns, I’ve suggested reasons for optimism over the 2024 Cardinals.
In the first four pieces, I discussed their solidified starting pitching, the anticipated restoration of defense and fundamentals, more productive performances from Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, and the steps to foster a happier and more accountable clubhouse.
Today, I take a look at an area that intrigues me: the shifting standards for postseason success.
A lot of the stuff we’ve assumed for a while – you must be a highly successful regular-season team to win the league pennant and the World Series, you must have a massive payroll – is just flat-out wrong.
You may view the Cardinals with disdain – that’s fine with me – but I try to view them through the proper lens. And if the 2024 Cardinals can do enough to make the playoffs, they’ll have a chance to take advantage of recent postseason trends.
Over at MLB.com a team of ballwriters placed the Cardinals in a group of seven teams that are “poised to improve by leaps and bounds” in 2024.
“The Cardinals are a proud franchise coming off their worst season in nearly 30 years,” Manny Randhawa wrote. “Even before any upgrades were made this offseason, there was an expectation that there would be a move toward restoring St. Louis to contention. Then, the club bolstered its area of greatest need: pitching. Only four clubs had a higher ERA from their starters than the Cardinals’ 5.08 last season … St. Louis added veterans Sonny Gray, Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn. The Cards’ bullpen posted a 23rd-ranked 4.47 ERA, so they traded for relievers Andrew Kittredge and Nick Robertson to shore up the relief corps – and they might not be done adding.
“At the plate last year, star sluggers Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado had subpar performances after the former won the 2022 NL MVP Award and the latter finished third in that MVP voting cycle. A bounceback to the mean for that duo would also go a long way toward lifting this club back to .500 and beyond in 2024.”
The writer also talked about potential obstacles – such as the age of the St. Louis starting rotation. But the more optimistic scenario isn’t crazy. As MLB.com noted: last season 11 teams improved by at least nine wins from 2022. The “most improved” list included World Series participants Texas and Arizona and playoff qualifiers Baltimore, Miami and Tampa Bay. Some of the teams made major gains in their win total.
And then there’s this spot-on analysis from ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle from his piece on MLB’s Top 5 breakout teams for 2024:
“The factor driving the Cardinals’ (breakout) score is really the projections category. The markets and forecasting systems alike just don’t think St. Louis’ 2023 debacle reflects the actual quality of the organization. The free agent component isn’t a common driver of breakout success, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. The Cardinals haven’t spent like the Dodgers or Giants or even the cross-state Kansas City Royals, but they are one of seven teams with a free agent spending score of 100 or better. If nothing else, this reflects that the Cardinals’ brass thinks this team can win now.
“Recent breakout comp: 2019 Washington Nationals. The Nats’ 2018 season wasn’t a ’23 St. Louis-level catastrophe. But Washington did tumble to 82 wins after winning 97 the season before. The 2018 team also had the ninth-highest team age, so it wasn’t a young group. Nevertheless, the Nats went big in free agency, adding Patrick Corbin and Brian Dozier, among others. The end result: the first championship in franchise history.”
If the Cardinals can make it to the tournament, they’ll have a shot at doing some damage.
(I can already can hear the protests. Bernie! Shame on you! The goal shouldn’t be having a winning record and making the postseason! The goal, every bleeping year, should be winning the World Series!)
Um, yeah. Agreed. But you can’t win the National League pennant and make plans for a World Series celebration unless you qualify for the postseason. That’s the first objective. That crucial first step that makes other steps possible.
Here are some fact-based realities for your consideration:
— As I’ve pointed out multiple times, the last two NL teams to reach the World Series – Phillies and Diamondbacks – averaged 85.5 wins during the regular season.
— If we include the 2021 Braves, who won the World Series that year, the last three NL pennant winners averaged 86.3 regular-season wins.
— The last three postseasons included 12 teams that won at least 99 regular-season games. Only one of the 12 captured the league pennant: the 2022 Astros, who went on from there to win the World Series. The others conked out.
— The 2022 Astros won 106 games. The other five teams that won the pennant (both leagues) from 2021 through 2023 averaged 88.8 regular-season wins.
— In the last six full seasons in the National League, the average NL champion averaged 91.3 regular-season victories. Three of the six won no more than 88 games, and two others averaged 92.5 wins. The 2017 Dodgers (104 wins) were the exception.
— Over the last three postseasons, MLB teams that won their division had a combined .474 winning percentage in the postseason. Wild-card entries had a .521 postseason win percentage.
— What about National League division winners over the past three seasons? Yikes! They collectively produced a .386 postseason winning percentage. In the same three postseasons, NL wild-card holders posted a .553 win percentage.
— This fits into research done by esteemed baseball writer Tom Verducci. Over the past three seasons, teams that blitzed their way to 100+ regular-season victories had a .436 winning percentage in the playoffs. And teams that won between 80 and 89 regular-season games had a .559 postseason win percentage.
— Another pearl from Verducci: from 2010 through 2023, the teams that entered the postseason with the most regular-season wins had a .568 win percentage in the postseason and won five pennants. Teams that qualified for the tournament with the lowest number of regular-season wins had a .559 winning percentage and won four pennants. Not much difference, eh?
I’ve been on this kick for a long time. I’m a nag. I’m annoying. But I’m also right. You can deny the obvious as much as you’d like to, but the numbers fully back it up: the regular season and the postseason are separate seasons and should be viewed accordingly.
And if you load up with hefty free-agent contracts and invest significantly more money on payroll than most clubs, it guarantees nothing. Increased spending can fortify your chances of making the playoffs but it’s not a sure thing.
Even if your large-payroll club glides into October it must survive the hazards of multiple postseason rounds. The challenge has become even more difficult since MLB expanded to a three wild-card format in both leagues in 2022.
The money-money-money franchises and regular-season powerhouses frequently melt away and succumb to postseason pressure. These fade-outs might be because of injuries, or hot bats gone frigid, a collapse of weary pitching, or an untimely, devastating managerial blunder. There are many reasons behind a run of poor postseason performances – just as there are many reasons behind regular-season slumps. It’s baseball.
All of this said, I believe the Cardinals should be more ambitious in their roster building. At the moment, their bullpen looks flimsy and can’t be entrusted over 162 games — not to mention the postseason.
But roster plans can blow up because postseasons are volatile and unpredictable and nutso. We should know about this in St. Louis, given the Cardinals’ unexpected postseason runs in 2006 and 2011.
The two memorable teams managed by Tony La Russa famously won the World Series after averaging only 86.5 regular-season wins. TLR led the Cardinals to the postseason seven other times with teams that averaged 95.5 regular-season wins, but none won a World Series.
History doesn’t follow a script.
Championship trophies aren’t handed out based on payroll rankings.
You just have to win enough to become a playoff team then do your part to create mayhem and magic.
When the Cardinals won the World Series in 2006 and 2011, only four teams from each league qualified for the playoffs.
In 2024 — for the third straight year — six teams from each circuit will compete in baseball’s wildest 30 days.
The summer winds can be much different — less erratic and traumatic — than the tempestuous winds that blow in October. Those sudden gusts are good for underdogs.
Thanks for reading …
A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or grab the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz and on Threads @miklaszb
For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via 590thefan.com or through your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link. A new Seeing Red, recorded Monday Jan. 22, is available.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Baseball Prospectus, Sports Info Solutions and Cot’s Contracts unless otherwise noted.
For the last 36 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.