The baseball writers cabal yesterday announced their choice for National League Most Valuable Player, Andrew McCutchen. But while many Cardinal fans are wondering whether Yadier Molina was more deserving than the Pirates’ centerfielder, we think they’re asking the wrong question. Based on the results of our Sabermetric MVP rankings, which combine Wins Above Replacement and Win-Probability Added, the question rather should be: Why didn’t Paul Goldschmidt win?
With all due respect to the BBWAA, who despite recently admitting some less hidebound writers to their ranks has undermined the award’s meaning, and to Molina and McCutchen, who did indeed perform amazingly this year, Goldschmidt produced not only quantity but quality — not to mention one of the highest overall scores since we started tracking in 2006. To be sure, McCutchen outperformed him in WAR, an uncontextualized measurement of offense, base running, and defensive value. But the Diamondbacks’ first baseman was much better in performing when it mattered to his team winning, measured by WPA. No doubt this goes to the definitional understanding of Most Valuable, as Dave Cameron notes in his Fangraphs article. But even a modest consideration of value to one’s team should call some type of contextualizing stat into the argument.
And that affects Molina’s case, as well. Molina may deserve some additional credit for intangibles or at least effects on his team that aren’t yet measurable. But he wasn’t even his own team’s top win-contributor, outproduced as he was in WAR by teammate Matt Carpenter. But Carpenter outshone Molina when it mattered, too, leading the club with a 4.33 WPA. (Note that the largely criticized Matt Holliday also had a higher WPA than Molina.) The Cardinals represented themselves well, with four players in the top 20.
To be fair to the BBWAA, the correlation between their list and ours was relatively high at .67. They questionably included Yasiel Puig (surprise), who was 33rd in our list, Allen Craig (18th), Michael Cuddyer (40th), Russell Martin (46th), Craig Kimbrel (47th) and Andrelton Simmons (49th). They overlooked Matt Harvey (10th in our list), probably due to recently bias (he last pitched Aug. 24), Cliff Lee (14th), Brandon Belt (16th), Jose Fernandez (18th) and Starling Marte (22nd), the Pirates’ other stellar outfielder.
A year ago, the Cardinals faced an uncomfortable situation: Shortstop Rafael Furcal was injured, but not badly enough to definitively rule out a return for 2013, for which he already had a contract (for $7 million). So John Mozeliak was somewhat hamstrung, encouraged on one hand that Furcal’s elbow appeared to be healing without surgery back in November but spending the offseason waiting for the eventual bad news in early March that Furcal had to stop baseball activities.
What does that have to do with the World Series? For one, the man who assumed Furcal’s position, Pete Kozma, wound up taking 11 plate appearances and playing in the field in four games. But it also meant that one of the players that the Cardinals might’ve signed — Stephen Drew — instead was playing on the other side. As it turned out, neither one of the shortstops hit a lick — Kozma never even reached base safely, while Drew didn’t come to life until Game 6 with a home run.
But imagine for a moment that Drew was in the Cardinal lineup instead of Boston’s. Boston would’ve been weakened, likely sliding Xander Bogaerts to short and starting Will “The Obstructor” Middlebrooks, who posted a worse OBP than Kozma this year, at third. And the Cardinals would’ve been strengthened: Kozma, despite erring twice in the field, is probably no worse a fielder than Drew. But Drew is not only a superior hitter, he has handled several of Boston’s pitchers well (in limited action), posting at least a .333 OBP against Jake Peavy, John Lackey, Ryan Dempster and Clay Buchholz. In a series characterized by the Cardinals’ lack of offensive punch (the team posted a .273 OBP and .299 SLG), it’s reasonable to think that Drew could only have helped.
Moreover, in going with a replacement-level shortstop, the Cardinals ended up platooning Kozma and Daniel Descalso, another AAAA player (-0.1 WAR over the last two years). Mike Matheny‘s lack of bench options has been well-documented; having Drew would’ve allowed the Cardinal manager an extra roster spot.
And this isn’t a case of hindsight being 20/20 or fantasy-baseball managing. The Cardinals had the opportunity to sign Drew, who grew up around the Cardinals when his older brother played for the team, and they passed. They had earlier extended Jake Westbrook‘s contract into 2013 (and 2014) for $9.75 million instead of buying him out for a mere million. Drew wound up signing for one year with the Red Sox for $9.5 million and posted 3.4 WAR and was positive on both sides of the ball; Kozma was exactly replacement level, despite playing the same level of defense as Drew. It’s true that the Cardinals at least had to consider the possibility of Furcal returning, which evidently meant that they couldn’t guarantee starter time to Drew. But given that Drew is better than even a healthy Furcal, the Cardinals certainly could’ve guaranteed him playing time: If Furcal had returned, the Cardinals could’ve benched him for Drew. His contract was a sunk cost, and the risk of not having Furcal was greater than not having Westbrook. The Cardinals also were prepared to dole out $1.15 million to Ronny Cedeno (they wound up paying him around $300,000), making the marginal cost of Drew even lower.
The Cardinals were obviously talented enough to make it to the postseason crapshoot, so laying any blame on Kozma has to be taken in context. Still, watching Kozma and Drew on the same field during the World Series one couldn’t help but wonder if a minor change back in December might’ve resulted in a different outcome this past October.
In the wake of the Cardinals’ World Series loss to the Red Sox, let’s analyze what happened by looking at a few of the series storylines. We’ll start by reviewing the curious case of a player who became a big deal precisely because he played so little: Shelby Miller, who didn’t even make an appearance.
Miller posted the third-most wins above replacement among the team’s starters in the regular season. He had the fourth-best FIP behind Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha and Lance Lynn. And yet Mike Matheny opted for Joe Kelly in the World Series rotation. Matheny took the less explicable decision of giving lesser right-handed lights Seth Maness and John Axford a total of 18 batters without so much as a single batter to Miller. So the question is “why?”
Derrick Goold quotes Matheny as explaining that Miller was “that safety valve for us at the end of the game,” which is to say long relief. It’s worth recalling that prior to Game 6, Matheny sounded a different note, saying (our emphasis added) “We need Shelby to stay sharp in his mind, because at any point, we might need him to come and fill a number of different roles,” though we’ll take him at his later word. The problem is that the way that the pitching staff was configured — plenty of righties who could pitch multiple innings, plus starting pitchers able to return and relieve (e.g., Lynn in Game 6, Wainwright in a potential Game 7) — obviated the need for a dedicated long reliever. Indeed, Matheny never even used another right-handed reliever in Edward Mujica. And given that a long reliever almost by definition appears only in low-leveraged situations — typically in a blowout for either team — optimizing for such a role is probably bad strategy.
Others have alternately suggested that the reason Miller didn’t play was because he was fatigued or that he was injured. But both are also unsatisfying answers. If Miller were either, the Cardinals would surely have simply replaced him on the roster.
By not using Miller, Mujica or backup catcher Tony Cruz, the Cardinal manager effectively managed with a 22-man roster. If he didn’t need the extra pitching, he certainly could’ve used the additional hitters. We understand that the organization has limited options, but surely even a replacement-level player with a platoon advantage, would’ve been preferable to the six disadvantaged plate appearances that Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma had between them. And given that Matt Adams faced a lefty six times, a few in key moments, the Cardinals might’ve used a Brock Peterson for at least a couple.
It’s one thing for a World Series team who wins in four games to use that few players, as the Giants did last year in their sweep of the Tigers. But a losing team has to at least lose after exhausting all options, and the Cardinals didn’t do that this year. Despite playing only four games last year, the Detroit Tigers went to the wall with all 25 men on their roster. The 2010 and 2011 Texas Rangers used 24. The last losing team to use as few as 22 men in at least a six-game series was the 2009 Phillies, and, well, you know what Charlie Manual is doing these days.
Though John Mozeliak prefers not to dwell on the past, saying that “second-guessing the roster doesn’t have traction,” the more troubling question looking to the future is why Miller himself wasn’t and apparently still isn’t clear on why he never saw action. The Post-Dispatch quotes him as saying “There could be something that I don’t know about going on. Maybe I’ll have some understanding in the offseason. I think it’s more they’re just looking out for me, innings-wise. I don’t feel fatigued. I don’t feel tired. I feel really good. There is probably some answer that I don’t know about. I’ll wait to hear it.”
Only two readings of this are possible. One is that the Cardinals clearly told Miller what they’ve said publicly (that he was reserved for long relief, an opportunity that never came) and that Miller is simply misrepresenting that by asserting that something he doesn’t “know about” is going on. The second is that the Cardinals were not straightforward with Miller, and his concerns about the vagueness of the team’s answers or of their not being forthcoming are legitimate. Take your pick, but both cases are unhealthy, the first being disingenuousness on the player’s part, the second being disingenuousness on the management’s.
This apparent misunderstanding is a sad coda to the poor management of the Cardinals’ roster in the series. The ill-advised strategy wasn’t the only explanation for the club’s failure to play more competitively, but it was surely one explanation. Mike Matheny is of course still learning how to optimize his roster, and we trust he’ll do better next time. But the rest of the team’s decision makers, from Matheny’s fellow uniformed coaches to Mozeliak and his staff needed to put the team in a better position.