The Greatest Cardinals: 1-100
One does not enter into a project like “The 100 Greatest Cardinals” series without anticipating some blow back.
You can explain the methodology and the math until the Phillies finish paying Bryce Harper, but you’ll still never convince somebody that the player they’ve idolized since they were a kid either wasn’t as good as they remember or that somebody else was just better.
But that was never its intent anyway. Baseball is a fan’s game and we all have our favorites for different reasons. If you believe Red Schoendienst should be El Birdo numero uno you’ll get no argument from me.
I was surprised, however, how little of that kind of feedback I received.
A couple of you bristled at the inclusion of Mark “I’m not here to talk about the past” McGwire and Garry “Do you kiss your mother with that mouth” Templeton, citing questions of character. And one ardent Lou Brock fan didn’t think No. 12 out of nearly 2,300 players was quite good enough for his hero.
Otherwise, feedback to the “Greatest Cardinals” series most often related to the anecdotes you hadn’t heard before or players whose names you didn’t recognize. In the midst of my nearly 800 hours of research, that was my experience, too.
It was sometime shortly before Thanksgiving that I began wading into baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com to see what the numbers have to say about the players from 136 rosters that go back to the Cardinals’ birth in 1882.
There were two goals in mind.
The first was to identify the best 100 Cardinals players by grading them on the same objective statistical formula. Popularity, team success, individual moments and milestones, how many statues they have in front of the stadium ... none of that was factored in.
The metric of choice was Wins Above Replacement, averaged among each of the players’ seasons in St. Louis. I like WAR because it factors batting, defense and base running into a single statistic. It’s an effective relative metric, too, meaning it compares the players against a baseline average during the actual seasons in which they played.
Ozzie Smith, for example, was so much better than the average shortstop of his day (and that bar was set high by contemporaries like Alan Trammel, Ivan DeJesus, Larry Bowa, Mark Belanger, etc.) that the defensive component helped push him up the list to No. 6. The traditional triple crown stats (average, home runs, RBIs) and fielding percentages can’t paint that picture.
WAR also judges players away from the context of the teams that surrounded them. Vince Coleman, No. 91 on the list, is the perfect case study.
We know that Coleman remains hugely popular in St. Louis because, for six seasons, he burgled bases in a class that included only Hall of Famers. Fans rightly voted him last year into the Cardinals Hall of Fame. Moreover, what would the Cardinals have done without him in 1985 and 1987?
All told, though, Coleman was a below-average defender in left field. And he was only marginally above average at the plate because he didn’t reach base on par with the average leadoff man and all those stolen bases didn’t always translate into runs. Much of his success depended on the good contact hitters — like Smith and Tommy Herr (No. 89) — he had batting behind him.
You can always make the reasonable argument that having Coleman on base turning walks into triples divided the attention of opposing pitchers and, in turn, benefited the rest of the batting order. You’ll get no argument from me. It’s just that WAR doesn’t measure that.
At any rate, the primary goal of “The 100 Greatest Cardinals” has been to revive the memory of players and moments that have helped make the Cardinals a great American sports franchise.
It’s easy, to remember Adam Wainwright’s nasty strike-three curveball that froze Carlos Beltran to end the 2006 NLCS. But Ol’ Pete Alexander’s bases-loaded, Game 7 strikeout of Tony Lazzeri? Not so much.
And who doesn’t remember where they were and what they were doing when Ozzie “corked one into right” to make the folks at Busch Stadium “go crazy”? But the memory of Whitey Kurowski’s ninth-inning, two-run World Series clincher has faded over the intervening 77 years.
These all are moments worth preserving. These stories need to be told, and retold over and over again.
It was likely a foregone conclusion among many of you Stan Musial would top the list. He was, after all, as popular as he was great and we lost him only six years ago. His career and his life remain top of mind to those not as familiar with the metrics.
But Rogers Hornsby, who batted .400 three times and won two triple crowns, made things really interesting.
Stan the Man ultimately came out on top because not once over 21 years did WAR rate him a sub-replacement level player. His longevity and measurable consistency are what made the difference, not his harmonica or the vast number of autographs he so graciously signed.
If you read their profiles, you know what different personalities “The Man” and the “The Rajah” were, which brings us to this gratifying bit of irony:
After a long process designed to rate players on solely on the basis of cold, hard, and unemotional statistics, it was still the nice guy who finished first.