How the Cardinals won 86 games

Going into 2008, the Cards appeared to be in for a long season.  Their lineup looked thin after Pujols, and no one know when his elbow might blow out.  The rotation was patched together with converted relievers and cast-offs from other teams.  Then, the one area that looked like it might carry over as a bright spot from 2007, the bullpen, turned out to be a disaster.  Yet somehow, at season's end, there stood the Cardinals, 10 games over .500.

Fans in St. Louis pointed at the failings of the bullpen (30 blown saves!) and decided they should have won the division with even an average bullpen.  In focusing on the one area that went wrong, however, they missed the overwhelming number of things that went right for their team.  Yes, Izzy was a mess at closer.  Yes, the bullpen was among the worst in baseball.  But that lineup that struck fear into nobody scored the 4th most runs in the NL and the rotation wound up being more than serviceable.

The most obvious thing that went right was that Albert stayed healthy, and he absolutely mashed the ball en route to his second MVP.  The best player in baseball turning in one of the best years of his career is bound to bode well for whatever offense he happens to be in.  Then, on top of that, former minor-league journeyman Ryan Ludwick all of a sudden hit the ceiling projected for him before he became an injury-plagued ex-prospect, turning in a line of .299/.375/.591.

New GM John Mozeliak bided his time in shopping Scott Rolen in the offseason and waited out offers until Troy Glaus hit the table.  What initially looked like a swap of aging, injury-prone third-basemen past their primes ended up being a clear win for the Cardinals.  The deal not only essentially took a year off a large third base contract, it provided a steady on-base threat that came on after a slow start with resurgent power.  The team that was supposed to be punchless now had a 1-2-3 punch to rival just about anyone's.

The weakness at second base, by some mechanism understood by sabermetricians only as divine intervention, turned somehow into a moderate strength.  Aaron Miles' typically hollow BA spiked to .317 in over 400 PAs, leading to career highs in OBP and SLG by .026 points and .030 points respectively (both of his old highs came when he played in Coors).  Felipe Lopez, freshly cut from the low-hanging branches of the Washington Nationals (International League membership pending), signed on and caught fire, actually outhitting Ludwick in 43 games (.385/.426/.538).  Adam Kennedy bounced back from his disastrous 2007 and returned to his career norm as a decent-hitting, albeit lackluster, second baseman (.280/.321/.372).  All in all, the second base position ended up 15 runs above average according to Chris Dial's Offense Plus Defense, ranking behind only the Phillies, Marlins, and Cubs at the position in the NL.

From there, the rest of the role-players followed suit in turning in seasons on the high end of their projections.  Skip Schumaker and Yadier Molina both hit .300, and Skip turned into a passable lead-off hitter (.302/.359/.406).  Ankiel hit for the power he showed early in his 2007 call-up, and his plate discipline, while still poor, showed modest improvements.  Even Izturis was less anemic than usual in his best season since 2004, when he looked like an emerging potential All Star.

Then there was the rotation.  Wainwright emerged as a legitimate ace in Carp's absence.  Wellemeyer threw 190 innings and walked fewer than 3 batters per 9 for the first time in his career (previous low:  4.54) a year after being cut from the Royals' bullpen.  Lohse temporarily stopped allowing home runs for the first couple months of the season.  Looper threw 200 innings as an average pitcher in his second year removed from a waning bullpen career.  The rotation far out-pitched all expectations and ended up 6th in the NL in both ERA and IP.

The infield defense was outstanding as well.  Pujols played his usual GG defense at first, and he an Yadi were the only 2 repeat winners of Fielding Bible Awards this year.  Izturis and Adam Kennedy were among the best middle infielders in the field this year, each ranking in the top 5 at his position in baseball in UZR, +/- rating, and RZR (accompanied by very good OOZ totals), with Kennedy doing so despite limited playing time.  Glaus, while certainly no Scott Rolen, didn't provide the drop-off most anticipated at the hot corner.  Combined, only the Phillies had a better team infield UZR than the Cardinals in all of baseball this season.  A below-average outfield defense didn't keep the Cards' overall team defense from being among the best in the game last year.

Compared to all these positives, the bullpen problems were actually fairly minor.  The defensive value of the team alone (an estimated 30.8 runs according to UZR) was enough to cover the bullpen woes.  Thirty-one blown saves is certainly an alarming number, but it's not exactly the whole story in evaluating a bullpen.  For one, while it did lead the Majors, there were still 5 teams with fewer save opportunities that blew a higher percentage of their save chances.  Another thing is that blown saves tell you very little of value in translating to wins or losses contributed by a bullpen.

A common assumption among the St. Louis faithful is that if they could cut the blown saves in half, or even just have a league average total, they would have added the difference in wins and run away with a playoff spot.  Dealing with blown saves is not that simple, however.  Blown saves simply do not equate to losses.  The Cardinals ended up winning the game anyway after some of those blown saves, and there were a few games with multiple blown saves, so that cuts about a third of those blown saves off the total number of losses in those games.  The bullpen also lost games that weren't blown saves, though, so when you add those back in, the total is back up (by pure coincidence) to 31.  The average NL team lost 27 games in its bullpen.  So, by this crude measurement, the Cardinals only lost 4 more games in their bullpen than the average NL team; their losses were just disproportionately distributed into blown saves rather than other bullpen losses.

There are still better ways to consider how much of an effect the bullpen had on wins and losses that help eliminate a lot of the noise associated with pure loss totals.  Looking at Win Probability Added is one such method.  The Cardinals' bullpen subtracted 1.92 wins according to WPA.  WPA is biased toward late-game situations (whether or not that is appropriate is debatable), so it enhances problems in the bullpen by a fair margin; if you look at WPA/LI (leverage index), which looks only at the inherent value of performance and removes it from game context, that total drops to .42 wins lost by the bullpen.  Whichever methodology you put more stock in, that is still over a win short of the significance of the defense alone.  Despite the disproportionate amount of attention the bullpen problems got in bringing down the team, it is pretty clear that the unexpected positives far outweighed anything the bullpen did, and the result, predictably, was a team that far outpaced expectations coming into the year.

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