Baseball has always been the ultimate statistical game.
Even before the Cincinnati Red Stockings turned the game professional in 1869, teams were evaluating their players’ value based on a ratio of outs created versus runs scored.
Today, every major league team has a front office administrator who is charged with analyzing the vast array of performance metrics that dictate everything from roster construction to situational field strategies.
They manufacture enough data, it seems, to land a man on the moon, much less push a runner across home plate.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
With all that information, you’d think it would be easy to flesh out an objective ranking of the greatest Cardinals players of all time.
It is not. A crazy couple of us at the BND have nevertheless made the attempt, reviewing the rosters of 136 Cardinals/Browns teams going back to 1882 and their roots in the old American Association.
And so, we shall reveal the 100 Greatest Cardinals of All-Time beginning with No. 100 on Christmas Eve. Then we’ll count them down, one player at a time, every day until April 4, 2019, the Cardinals’ home opener.
In addition, a running list will be available for you to review at bnd.com with videos highlighting the careers of those who made the cut.
There have been other attempts at lists such as these, but we see ours as being unique in its objectivity. It’s true that statistics don’t always factor in the differences between players of the Dead Ball Era that began the 20th century, the home-run hey-day that ended it, and the game’s on-going evolution that bridged the time between.
And there will always be the tendency to let subjectively advance our own personal heroes to a higher spot on the list.
But we did our best to remove emotion from the process and back each pick solely on statistical merit. Where gray areas necessitated some decision making, we were careful to apply standards we could count across the board.
It’s a fair bet that some readers will find fault in our list. That’s OK. If nothing else, we hope you’ll learn something about Cardinals history and maybe engage in some conversations about your own Top 100.
So what is the BND’s criteria for the 100 Greatest Cardinals of All Time?
THREE-YEAR MINIMUM: Following the criteria set by the Cardinals Hall of Fame, only players who spent at least three years in St. Louis were considered.
BASED ON WAR: The basis of each player’s score is their Wins Above Replacement, better known as WAR.
Basically, WAR factors offense, defense and base running into a single stat to rate a players’ total value to his team. It’s expressed as the number of wins that player produces over the course of a season as compared to what an average player would do in his place.
In 1920, for example, having Rogers Hornsby in the lineup was worth 9.6 wins to the Cardinals above a replacement-level player. Pickles Dillhoefer, by contrast, cost the Cardinals .2 wins and was, therefore, sub-replacement level.
ONLY SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: This ranking is for the greatest Cardinals of all time, not the greatest players who spent some seasons in St. Louis. Therefore, only WAR for those seasons a player spent with the Cardinals count.
AN AVERAGE, NOT A TOTAL: This is where our formula gets a little complicated.
Total WAR is simply the sum of all seasons added together. We assigned each player a baseline score by dividing their total WAR by the number of seasons they spent with the Cardinals.
This is so a good player with a lot of years didn’t out-rank a great player with a limited St. Louis tenure.
We also were careful to not allow a player to be penalized for longevity. Stan Musial, for example, provided the Cardinals 22 seasons above replacement level baseball. Like all athletes, though, his production lessened with age — each of his final six seasons would have lowered his overall average.
Therefore we considered only his 10 best seasons. We did the same for 29 other players on the list who put in more than 10 years with the Cardinals.
TENURE STILL MATTERS: Musial and Rogers Hornsby are statistically indistinguishable, but “The Man” played nine more seasons for the Cardinals than “The Rajah.” Shouldn’t that count for something? We think it does, so we devised a multiplier to reward length of tenure that we applied to all of the former Cardinals we rated.
We added one-tenth of a win to each player’s WAR for each plus-replacement-level season he spent with the Cardinals past year five and subtracted one-tenth of a run per season for each player who lasted fewer than five years.
ON RELIEF PITCHERS: WAR is notoriously unkind to closers. The baseball stats site Fangraphs adds in two other metrics — Wins Above Average (WAA) and Adjusted WAA — to more evenly balance the field. We did the same.
DEADBALL ERA: Unlike other lists, we included the entirety of the Cardinals’ history, including the 10 seasons prior to them joining the National League.
This creates some issues, however, since those players and those who played in the “Dead Ball era” played a much different game. The same metrics we used for the modern era simply don’t translate.
Consider the case of right-handed pitcher Silver King, whose three seasons in St. Louis included a league-leading 45 wins in a ridiculous 584.2 innings pitched. That single, incredible season improved his average WAR such that it would make him the greatest Cardinal of all time.
It was suggested that we sidestep that problem simply by not including those players. By that logic, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Cy Young and many others of their era wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame.
It seems subjective, but to level the playing field, we upped the minimum seasons criteria to five seasons for those players and gave no bonus for additional years.
TIE BREAKERS: 1) Seasons with the Cardinals. 2) Career WAR.