Dear Mr. Rosenthal,
I'm a Sabermetrician. And a doctor. Perhaps I might be able to answer your recent question about why it is that the Cardinals seem to have all the luck in the playoffs and everyone's favorite playoff punchline, the A's, apparently need a better laxative to cure their playoff ills.
Let's talk about the Halo Effect. No, it has nothing to do with shoot-em-up video games or with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. To quote you:
The Cardinals have won 63 postseason games since 2000, most in the majors. And when they prevailed in four games over the Los Angeles Dollars in the Division Series, concluding with a 3-2 victory Tuesday night, only the foolish among us — OK, me — should have been surprised..
Three late-inning breakthroughs. Two comeback victories over [Dodgers] left-hander Clayton Kershaw. Left-handed hitters crushing left-handed pitching. The improbable turning inevitable, again and again.
In fairness, the Cardinals have also lost 53 playoff games since 2000, second only to the Yankees (54) in that time span. It's a very good record and somewhere at Busch Stadium, there are two World Series trophies from those years. Why do the Cardinals seem to have all the luck? (And since you politely requested that I not use the words "small sample size" or "randomness" or "baseball is crazy," I'll refrain.)
Let's create an alternate universe. We both know full well that a baseball game can turn on one play that's decided by a couple of inches, which can be provided by a convenient gust of wind or a little pebble on the infield that causes a weird hop. Or, y'know, Nelson Cruz's glove. Let's say that a few of those had gone against the Cardinals and that those World Series wins never happened. Now let's review a couple of the low points in recent Cardinals playoff history:
- Game 2, 2014 NLDS (aka, last week) – After battling back in the eighth inning to tie the game at 2-2, the Cardinals suffer a bullpen implosion when Pat Neshek gives up a home run to Matt Kemp. The Cardinals, clearly unable to handle the dejection, go quietly in the ninth, and the Dodgers tie the series at 1 game each.
- Game 6, 2013 World Series – Needing a win to stay alive, the Cards give the ball to NLCS MVP Michael Wacha who promptly falls apart on the mound and the Red Sox win their first World Series in six whole years.
- Game 4, 2013 World Series – Down 4-2 in the ninth inning, and with Carlos Beltran at bat, pinch-runner Kolten Wong gets picked off to end the game.
- Game 3, 2013 NLDS – Another bullpen implosion after the Cardinals tie the game in the top of the eighth. The Pirates get to Carlos Martinez and Kevin Siegrist for two runs and win to go up 2-1 in the series.
- Game 7, 2012 NLCS – They lost Game Seven to the Giants by a score of 9-0. It was over by the third inning. This after the Cardinals had built a 3-1 series lead over the Giants. Talk about a team that falters under pressure—they scored 1 run in the final three games.
- Game 1 and Game 4, 2012 NLDS – Two "bullpen meltdowns". In Game One, the Nationals—playing without Stephen Strasburg—score two in the eighth inning to turn a 2-1 Cardinals lead into a 3-2 Nationals win. In Game Four, the Nationals walk-off on a Jayson Werth home run.
What a snakebit team! They fail time after time in the clutch. No wonder they've never won the World Series!
Would you like me to keep going?
The Cardinals did win those World Series, and nothing can take that away from them. They have had a wonderful run of success over the past decade. They have run a very good organization that has had good luck in the draft. They've done fantastic things in player development. The fact that they even got to the playoffs speaks volumes about the job that they've done.
The Cardinals have also pulled off some fantastic comeback victories and come through in the clutch plenty of times over the past few years. I'll even buy that some of that magic is real (just that it's not actually magic) and that clutch hitting, in the sense that a pressure situation can change a hitter's approach and sometimes for the better, actually exists.
But let's not fall victim to the Halo Effect and overlook the times that the Cardinals fell short. It's easy when you already know the outcome of what happened to look back and see the past in a golden glow. If the Cardinals really do have a magic lantern that will inevitably guide them through the playoff storm with the shining light of righteousness, why does that lantern seem to flicker so much?
peace, love, happiness, banana pudding,
Russell A. Carleton
Sabermetrician and witch doctor