Sports Nut

Cardinal Sin

Why is everyone so annoyed that St. Louis is in the World Series?

Yadier Molina

The St. Louis Cardinals reached the World Series thanks to the worst hitter in the National League. Yadier Molina, whose .216 batting average was dead last among NL regulars, launched a tie-breaking blast to beat the Mets in Game 7 of the NLCS, joining Bucky Dent and Francisco Cabrera as the unlikeliest of October heroes. How fitting that such a lowly player should lead these Cardinals to victory. With a regular-season record of 83 and 78, St. Louis is the second-worst World Series participant in history. Now, after their 5-0 victory over Detroit in Tuesday night’s Game 3, they’re two wins away from becoming baseball’s weakest World Champion ever.

Americans love an underdog, right? Not this time. On message boards and in the newspapers, the sentiment about the Cards’ NLCS victory ranged from eye-rolling disdain to outright disgust. In one chat room I frequent, somebody posted “Tigers in 4” before Molina had finished circling the bases. “Wow, is the National League pathetic that it could produce this team as its representative,” cringed blogger Scott Long at the Baseball Toaster. USA Today’s World Series handicappers were equally scornful, suggesting that the Tigers’ biggest challenge against the Cardinals would be “keeping a straight face.”

Improbable championship runs inspire delight in other sports—think March Madness—but not in baseball. That’s partly because upsets are so at odds with the game’s tradition. In its first 70 or so years, before the advent of divisional play, baseball produced only two real postseason shockers: the New York Giants’ sweep of the invincible Cleveland Indians in the 1954 World Series, and the Chicago White Sox’s upending of the 1906 Chicago Cubs, whose .763 winning percentage remains the best of all-time. In nearly every other year, the series paired two pretty evenly matched teams, and since each boasted the best record in its league, none could be characterized as a huge underdog. Flukes simply weren’t possible, and a championship won on the field was inherently credible.

Today, the postseason tournament consists of eight teams of varying degrees of quality. Nondescript ballclubs crash the bracket every season, and once inside they’re apt to make trouble. At least one of the wild card teams has made the World Series five years running. The Cardinals are a division winner, but their presence in the World Series is still a fluke.

St. Louis’ surprising run seems particularly galling now because this era of playoff randomness coincides with the height of baseball’s statistical age. While random chance governs the sport from game to game, the opposite is true on a season-long level. The gradual accretion of outcomes—pitch after pitch, at-bat after at-bat, game after game—yields a deep body of evidence about which teams and players are the best. By the end of the season, we know not only who’s more valuable, but by how much. And Yadier Molina isn’t valuable.

Stat-centric analysis holds such sway over fans and sportswriters that when it clashes with the outcomes on the field, we tend to sneer at the outcomes. Next to the rich trove of data we’ve acquired throughout the season, a seven-game series seems like a ridiculously crude instrument for determining the best team. The Cardinals’ October accomplishments, however stirring, don’t seem as believable as those recorded by better teams over the long haul. I’m a huge Cardinals fan, and I still can’t convince myself that they’re the best team in baseball.

But there’s another way to look at this. We could view the Cards as a bunch of guys who made themselves better than their numerical profiles—who surpassed their limitations when it mattered most. That’s how we viewed George Mason last spring, when it beat a vastly superior UConn team to make the Final Four. All but the sourest fans embraced those upstarts.

The “underdog” storyline may fly in the face of baseball tradition, and it may violate every principle of sabermetrics. But ballplayers are people, not Strat-O-Matic cards. They have the capacity to make adjustments, and—even if only for a few games—raise their level of play. The results might not be reproducible, nor sustainable over the long haul. But this isn’t the long haul. This is October, the month when random chance beats certainty into submission.

Besides, don’t we watch sports in the hope of seeing something unexpected? The St. Louis Cardinals may not be the best team in baseball, but if they can overcome their own foibles and beat the Tigers two more times, they will be the most improbable World Champions of all time. If you can’t find something to celebrate in that—well, there’s always Strat-O-Matic.