Coming off the expectations that followed a 100-win 2015, the St. Louis Cardinals had a disappointing 2016.
We will first look at the results from a number of angles before delving into potential contributing factors.
The Cardinals were dominated by the Chicago Cubs in the National League Central Division, finishing 17 ½ games out of first place. It was their greatest distance from the top of the division since the 1999 club limped home 21 ½ games back.
St. Louis did not spend even one day in first place but remained in the race for the second Wild Card berth until being eliminated on the final day of the schedule. Their last victory was notable as it was the first time all season long the Cardinals reached the 10-games over .500 plateau, finishing at 86-76.
It was St. Louis’ first time not participating in post-season play since 2010 and only the fifth time since 2000.
In 2016, the pattern of declining finishes in recent years continued. In 2013, the Cards lost the World Series. The next year, they bowed out in the League Championship Series. The 2015 season ended in the Division Series and in 2016, the Cardinals went home in October.
The 2016 Cardinals were never able to run off a hot streak, with their longest winning stretch just five games. At Busch Stadium, the Cards were inexplicably terrible – winning just 38 of 81 home dates. The .469 winning percentage was the team’s worst since current ownership took control of the club over two decades ago and is St. Louis’ first losing home season since 1999.
In addition to a dismal 8-12 record against the American League, the Cardinals lost season series to all three NL division-winners – the Cubs (9-10), Dodgers (2-4) and Washington (2-5), along with Arizona (3-4) and Miami (3-4). The only clubs against which St. Louis had more than a one-game advantage were San Diego (6-1) and Milwaukee (13-6), two teams which finished a combined 42 games under .500.
In one-run contests, St. Louis finished just one game over .500 at 24-23 and the club’s issues with left-handed pitching returned with a 20-24 mark versus lefty starters.
In the division, the Cardinals had a 42-34 record, but overall, they struggled against the best opponents. St. Louis’ season mark against teams that finished .500 or above was just 24-35, so the end result of the season can hardly be considered a fluke.
When expectations are not met, there are plenty of theories as to what went wrong (or blame to assess, if you prefer). I suspect the following and others each played a role.
The construction of the roster was such that defense and baserunning were sacrificed in the name of power. The increase in home runs was not enough to offset shoddy play in the field and on the bases. The plodding, station-to-station offense seemed to have few rallies not driven by the long ball.
Specifically, St. Louis was 27th of 30 MLB teams in UZR, Ultimate Zone Rating. 57.4 percent of Cardinals attempting to steal a base were thrown out, dead last in MLB. Their season total of 35 steals was second lowest among the 30 teams.
Unlike in the past, the pitching was not good enough to bail the club out. Team ERA, which was the best in the game the year before, declined from 2.94 in 2015 to 4.08, smack in the middle of the NL pack.
Though the 2016 offense was inconsistent and reliant on the home run, overall production was not an issue. St. Louis finished third in the National League in runs scored, was first in home runs and second in slugging. The club set a new MLB record with 17 pinch-hit long balls.
Though there were good contributions from rookies, including Seung-hwan Oh, Aledmys Diaz, Luke Weaver and Alex Reyes, the only reinforcement from the outside picked up at the trade deadline was left-handed reliever Zach Duke.
Manager Mike Matheny drew plenty of heat both locally and nationally for his perplexing lineups and in-game tactical decisions with underlying questionable player usage patterns. Little patience was shown with young players Randal Grichuk and Kolten Wong, each demoted to the minor leagues, while veterans like Brandon Moss played every day through horrendous slumps.
The Cardinals were not immune to injuries, as key players such as Matt Carpenter, Jhonny Peralta, Diaz and Matt Holliday missed considerable time on the disabled list. According ManGamesLost.com, which tracks player injuries, the Cardinals lost the most WAR (Wins Above Replacement) due to injury in all of MLB – for the second consecutive season. As a result of all the injuries and lineup juggling, the club had just two players appear in more than 132 games – Stephen Piscotty (153) and Yadier Molina (147). That compared to six in 2015.
The bottom line is that even though the Cubs were in the same division winning 103 games, St. Louis could not consistently beat other good teams, either. They won just 86, a drop of 14 from the year before. That was not good enough for the Cardinals to break into the post-season tournament, forever marking 2016 as a season of disappointment.
Follow me on Twitter.