The other day St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz wrote:
As unfair as it may seem in other baseball markets where success is random or elusive, the Cardinals should be even better in 2014.
Obligatory caveat: Nothing is automatic. Nothing can be taken for granted. Each season presents new challenges. But if their season proceeds with reasonable normalcy, the Cardinals should improve.
There's nothing outrageous there. With all their young pitching and some positively reviewed offseason moves, many others expect the Cardinals to be even better this season. Miklasz cited, as I have done as well, that the Cardinals' defense could be much improved with Peter Bourjos playing regularly in center field and Matt Carpenter moving back to third base in place of David Freese.
Still, the Cardinals won 97 games in 2013. Isn't it asking a lot for a team to improve on 97 wins?
One thing we tend to do is overrate how good we think the best teams will be; I'm not immune to this. I was convinced the Nationals -- coming off a 98-win season -- would win 100 games in 2013. They won 86. The past two years, the Tigers have been huge favorites in the AL Central, regarded by many as the best team in baseball, and a sure bet to win 95-plus games. In 2012, they won 88 games, good enough to take a weak divison; in 2013, they won 93 games and beat out the Indians by just one win.
Let's do a quick study: All teams from 2008 to 2012 that won at least 95 games and their record the next season.
Of the 19 teams in our study, only two improved the following seasons. The 2010-11 Yankees went from 95 to 97 wins and the 2010-11 Phillies went from 97 to 102.
The 2008-09 Red Sox won 95 both seasons.
The average of the 19 teams was 7.8 fewer losses the following season.
Dropping down to 94 wins gives us two teams that collapsed (the 2013 Giants and 2011 Twins), and the 2012-13 Braves, who improved to 96 wins.
Bill James outlined this theory three decades ago, calling it the Plexiglas Principle -- simply, that teams that improve one year tend to decline the following year (and vice versa).
In the case of teams that win a lot of games, the reasoning is such: If you've won 95-plus games, a lot of good things have probably happened. Career years. Relatively few injuries. Good luck. A bullpen that came together. All that applies to some degree to the 2013 Cardinals. Based on recent history, the Cardinals are more likely to win 90 games than 100. So here are some things that could go wrong:
1. They won't hit .330 with runners in scoring position again.
That's an astounding total, the highest mark in the books going back to 1950 -- in fact, 18 points higher than the No. 2 team, the 1950 Red Sox. Only 16 teams have even hit .300 with RISP. Yes, you can chalk it up to great situational hitting and cutting down on their swings and whatever else you want, but we have many years of baseball history telling us they won't do it again.
What's it mean? Based on their component statistics -- singles, doubles, triples, home runs, walks, steals, double plays hit into and so on -- the Cardinals created about 727 runs. They scored 783 runs. Considering they weren't a particularly fast team, the Cardinals' situational hitting added about 56 runs beyond what you would have expected. Every 10 runs is roughly equal to a win, so that's five or so extra wins right there. (Now to be fair, the Cardinals' runs scored and runs allowed totals actually projected to 101 wins, not 97.)
How real is the Cardinals' ability to hit with RISP? In 2012, they hit .264 -- below their .271 overall mark. They did hit .290 in 2011 (best in the majors), compared with a .273 overall mark. It's clear the Cardinals do take a different approach with runners on base, willing to sacrifice power for base hits. But they're not going to repeat that .330 mark.
Sure, the Cardinals suffered their share of bumps and bruises -- most notably when Allen Craig got hurt in September and had to limp through the World Series. Still, all eight position player regulars appeared in at least 130 games and the only significant injuries were to closer Jason Motte (missed the entire season), starter Jaime Garcia (nine starts) and starter Jake Westbrook (went out in August with a bad back). Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller each made more than 30 starts, however, and Joe Kelly and later Michael Wacha were able to step into the rotation for Garcia and Westbrook.
3. The bullpen.
While I expect the bullpen to again be outstanding, it may be hard to repeat last year's performance when five relievers posted an ERA under 3.00. With first Edward Mujica closing and then Trevor Rosenthal, the Cards were outstanding in the ninth inning, going 88-3 when leading after eight. Rosenthal should be dominant, but even Craig Kimbrel blows a few games.
4. Bourjos and Jhonny Peralta may not be huge improvements.
The jury is still out on Bourjos' bat. He did hit well the one year he played regularly in 2011 (.271/.327/.438) but he's been unable to stay healthy the past two years. As for Peralta, he'll certainly hit better than Pete Kozma, but he's also just one year removed from posting a .305 OBP. He is underrated defensively but Kozma was a plus defender, so the Cards will lose a little there.
At some point, these two will start slowing down. Molina had maybe his best year yet at the age of 30. Holliday hit .300 with 22 home runs but had his lowest slugging percentage since 2005 and grounded into a league-leading 31 double plays. It's reasonable to expect at least small declines from both as Holliday enters his age-34 season and Molina turns 31.
Those are just some things that could go wrong. With the Pirates and Reds not having made any significant offseason moves, the Cardinals will rightfully enter as huge favorites in the NL Central -- and maybe the best team on paper in baseball. Maybe, with all the youth on their pitching staff, they will find a way to improve.
We'll see. But I'll be taking the under on 95 wins, let alone 100. (Hey, 94 wins is still pretty good.)