Let’s face it, things are weird right now. My memories of the Cardinals start with Mark McGwire in 1998, but I really started following them in the early 2000’s. Seeing the Cubs as the division favorites is not only something that I’m not accustomed to, it’s basically foreign to me. So what happened? We know the Cubs tanked to get where they are now, but how do the Cardinals catch them without tanking themselves?
To answer this question I think we need to identify the main difference between the two teams. To me, it boils down to the same thing that’s been talked about all offseason. The Cardinals have had a lot of good players, but not really any great players. When you look at the Cubs they have these two cornerstone pieces with Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. For this article, we’ll call them Rizzant because I’m a child and Bryzzo annoys the hell out of me.
This, to me, is what truly separates the two teams. Bryant or Rizzo could win the MVP in any given season and it would surprise absolutely nobody. Having those pillars in your lineup to carry the team through slumps is huge. So how do the Cardinals find those missing pillars to support the lineup when things get heavy.
I stumbled across this when looking at how good the Cardinals outfield can be this season. I was adding up their 2017 fWAR because this is the kind of thing that I do when I’m bored. Before I got around to adding Fowler’s I noticed that Pham and Ozuna combined were at 10.7 fWAR. That’s quite high. Especially since Pham was in the minors until May. The Cubs two best players, I thought, couldn’t have been much higher than that. So I immediately pulled up the Cubs 2017 leaderboard on fangraphs and discovered that Rizzo and Bryant had combined to put up exactly a 10.7 fWAR as well. Very interesting, but that’s not where the comparisons end.
I ran the numbers to find each combo’s slash lines for last year. What I came up with was .309/.391/.536 for Pham/Ozuna and .289/.400/.522 for Bryant/Rizzo. I also figured up their wOBA which was .392 for Pham/Ozuna and .389 for Bryant/Rizzo. One thing that was extremely annoying was that these numbers would be in Pham/Ozuna’s favor had Bryant and Rizzo not been hit by pitches a combined THIRTY-NINE times. Unfortunately though, I’m one of the people that believes HBP is a skill so excluding it would make me a hypocrite.
I’m not going to lie, this discovery is huge to me. The Cardinals strength for so long has been their depth. Their depth has made the term “Cardinals devil magic” a thing. So if the Cardinals can compete with the Cubs at the top end, things could get interesting.
Pham and Ozuna obviously don’t get discussed as being player in the same tier as Bryant and Rizzo, which makes sense. Pham and Ozuna don’t have nearly the track record that the Cubs stars do. They’ve basically only performed at this level for one season. Although my colleague Rusty Groppel would beg to differ on Ozuna. This is why projection systems think Bryant and Rizzo will be the far superior players in 2018. Just look at the difference between them in the Steamer projections:
As you can see, they project Pham and Ozuna to take big step backward while projecting Bryant and Rizzo to maintain their stardom. Bryant and Rizzo are actually projected to repeat their combined 10.7 fWAR while Pham and Ozuna are projected to step all the way back to a combined 6.7.
What this really boils down to is whether Pham and Ozuna’s breakout seasons were a new norm for them, or just a career year. There are reasons to think that both can continue their success, but both have their risks as well. The Cardinals front office is betting that these two can repeat, and if they’re correct, then maybe this is more of a battle in the division than we thought.
Let’s hope these two are legit, because a world where the Chicago Cubs are the NL Central favorites is not a world that I want to live in.
Thanks for reading!