Mad Em-Dashes is a St. Louis Cardinals blog by Dan Moore that does not want to waste your time. 

After You've Defeated The Aging Core

Here’s Bill James, Sunday afternoon, describing a common way good teams fail:

Below-average players do in fact have value to championship teams; in fact, MOST value consists simply in being average. Every year, pennants are lost because teams cannot find average players to fill some roles.

The 2015 Los Angeles Angels missed the playoffs by one game despite getting a ridiculous .592 OPS from their left fielders, 131 points below the league average. Had their left fielders been merely average or NEARLY average, they would have made the playoffs easily—and not merely the left fielders; had their catchers been near average, they would have made the playoffs, or had their second basemen been near average, they would have made the playoffs, or had their third basemen been average, they would have made the playoffs. They were far below average at all of these positions, and this is what cost them the chance at post-season despite having the league’s best player, Mike Trout.

In fact, I would argue that the Angels have cratered precisely because they believed in the philosophy that you are advocating: that average players don’t matter; all that matters is the stars. The Angels believed that, so they invested huge amounts of money in acquiring a few stars—and crashed and burned because they didn’t make book.

If you remember what John Mozeliak sounds like—you don’t get pregame and postgame on MLB.TV, so I have no idea—try it in his voice: Good teams fail because they can’t find creditable baseball players at every position.

Every year there are good teams, even successful teams, who stare down the concept of replacement level and spit right in its face. The Mets, who it feels like the Cardinals have been chasing for a hundred years now, gave James Loney 342 plate appearances at first base. You have, in the last couple of days, probably been made aware that the richest baseball team on earth started Howie Kendrick in left field for half their Major League Baseball games.

Late in the season, a baseball team attempted to shore up a position by acquiring Coco Crisp. The position was 1) left fielder on the 2) 2016 3) American League Central champion Cleveland Indians, because God as my witness, 4) Rajai Davis will go into their books as the left fielder of record.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals were adequate all over despite their eight most expensive players, making a total of $102 million, contributing—whatever you think Yadier Molina was worth this year.

Baseball-Reference says the other seven were worth about four wins above replacement, a not-insignificant portion of which comes from Adam Wainwright the batter.

The 2016 Cardinals didn’t just prove they weren’t the Angels—they proved they could succeed without the Aging Core we chewed up so much offseason talking about. And while on some level every successful team is unrepeatable, the core that emerged from the 2016 team can probably get the 2017 Cardinals much of the way to 86 more wins.

Only, try to name it. Yadier Molina, still. Matt Carpenter and Carlos Martinez, definitely. Aledmys Diaz, hopefully. Stephen Piscotty is valuable in a boring way; Randal Grichuk could stand to be more boring. Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver pretty soon.

You realize pretty quickly, just looking up and down the WAR column, that the Cardinals didn’t replace their aging core with a young core—they replaced it with something that is not recognizable as a core. You build a young core around Kolten Wong; you build the Cardinals around Kolten Wong and two replacements.

I look at the roster the Cardinals will carry over into 2017 and I see all kinds of players I can pencil in to be roughly average, though I have no advance idea of the particular combination that will get me there. And Bill James is right: Most value comes from getting all the way to average. Every year pennants are lost because teams can’t do it. I think the Cardinals have done most of the work, and I don’t think they’ll fail like the Angels have failed.

If they don’t try to become the Angels—if Carlos Martinez and Alex Reyes aren’t aces next year, and Aledmys Diaz can’t really slug .500, and we’ve seen all we’re going to see out of Adam Wainwright, and the Cardinals can’t find anybody in free agency they like better than the understudy they've already lined up for him—they’ll still be incredibly hearty. They’ll do the same laudable job of finding value where nobody else sees it, and they’ll escape from situations that would destroy other teams.

They’ll compete, and they’ll be a hundred times more fun to watch than teams who have to—or think they have to—tank their way to the place John Mozeliak has fought to establish as the equilibrium. But if they don't reintroduce the risk that got them Adam Wainwright and Matt Holliday, they’ll still risk failing like the Cardinals fail, like this team failed: Barely.

Two explanations for Randal Grichuk getting benched for Jeremy Hazelbaker, one very bad

It was a good at-bat, Dan or Tim said—I can't remember which. Jeremy Hazelbaker, down 0-2, looped the fifth pitch he saw into the horse latitudes in left field to put the Cardinals up 7-2.

And I thought—typically, maintaining eligibility for the Every TV Broadcaster's Good At-Bat Award means taking at least one ball before you foul off a bunch of two-strike pitches. But Hazelbaker is competing with Randal Grichuk for playing time, right now, and Grichuk has played to our worst fears, striking out 8 times in 15 plate appearances. And maybe, says the ex-sportswriter, here's the thing Jeremy Hazelbaker has to recommend himself against a guy who slugged .548 in 103 games last year.

So I checked, and, well, it isn't. Grichuk has been unusually bad ending at-bats on an 0-2 count: He's 3-43 with one double and zero sacrifice flies. (Stephen Piscotty, our control group, is 2-19; the NL, last year, hit .145, 6-ish of 43. Also, if you wanted to call Stephen Piscotty "Control Group" all the time, or just when a PG-rated nickname is called for, I wouldn't be bothered by it.)

But ZiPS has Hazelbaker striking out more often than Grichuk, though less often than Grichuk did last year; as a minor leaguer he struck out about as often as Grichuk did, with a better walk rate.

It's a push, at best—and if the Cardinals wanted to privilege contact over power, they could probably just pick Mike O'Neill back up.

The likely position is the simpler one—

But, OK, probably also not that simple. I think Jeremy Hazelbaker played because he's outhit Randal Grichuk over the last [extremely short and unpredictive period of time]. But there's a distinction to make here: I don't think Mike Matheny sits guys because he wants to win now and he believes the last [extremely short and unpredictive period of time] is predictive. I think he does it believing it will help the guy who sits as well as the guy he tosses a start. (That is, he thinks it's descriptive of something—Randal Grichuk is struggling in a way that may be helped by a day off and a million swings in the cage.)

He could well be wrong; I have learned, as an ex-sportswriter, to never bet against "an impossible rat king of tiny inputs masquerading as random chance has fooled you into believing you have an insight" as the truth behind something I'm worried or excited about. But like most ideas that come into being for reasons beyond my need to write tweets against them, there is an actual rationale behind it, and multiple confused and frustrated human beings trying to use it to solve the problem that may or may not exist.

Notes from the 1095th Celebration of Musialmas

It's 3015, and you're an archaeologist studying the ancient Midwest, and it is still true, 500 years after the Third Postal War, that the only people who send paper letters anymore are the cranks. You've gotten a couple of them a week ever since your article came out, written edge to edge in handwriting like Arial Black's bow-legged nephew, a few too many American flag stamps on each one.

They all say the same thing, basically: What kind of asshole do you have to be to believe Stan Musial didn't exist?

You grew up living and breathing archaeology and it is hard for you to remember a time when you didn't understand the scholarly consensus on Stan Musial, but your wife saw the eye-rolling response you planned to send and threatened to leak it to a talk radio station if you actually did. Now you stay quiet, but you open every one, and you read it from the beginning, the Dear Asshole, to the end, where they still have so much to say and seem only to have run out of paper.

Now that you're back in the field, at the dig, they come once a month, in thick bundles. (Tell Busch is deep inside the Flyover Lands, and the roads don't open very often, not even for the United States Postal Service of the Permanent Revolution.)

Here's what your wife says you should say: Stan Musial was not a real man, sure, but that does nothing to invalidate his teachings or the stories we tell about him, and how important all that is to people. As the mythical founder of the Cardinal Way he's had an undeniable impact on the way we take the extra base, and run out every groundball, and carry ourselves with an unselfconscious dignity.

And okay, sure, on a press release, maybe. But archaeologists owe it to each other to put up a united front about these things, whether it's to cranks or undergraduates. Here's how you put it in ARCH 101: Lots of cultures have mythical founders, and those mythical founders have a lot of things in common.

  1. They live forever, their exploits stretching back into a period the real founders of the society only hazily remember.

  2. They embody not just one but every cultural norm that separates their society from their neighbors. At work they behave with all the culture's fetishized dignities; at home they avoid every taboo and inhabit every generosity that binds the culture together. They are the walls that surround the culture and the soil it grows in.

  3. They are—if not the biggest and the strongest—the best, the shrewdest, the fastest and the hardest-working, and they oversee a miraculous flourishing unlike anything actually discernable in the historical record.

They're overloaded with meaning, is the point, and if you are not a member of a culture it is trivial to distinguish between its actual historical figures—its prickly and severe Bob Gibsons and Alberts Pujols—and its mythological heroes. People who believe in the Cardinal Way—the hardliners, that is, there are good, modern apples in every bushel—know as well as anybody else that Baseball Bugs Bunny was not a real person. It's just their own heroes they can't stop believing in.

You're a good archaeologist and a good, reasonable man. But there's just nothing you're going to do to make them shut up about Stan Musial.