Welcome to another post in a series of articles on Beyond the Box Score positing which team will win the World Series. Today, we arrive at the team with the best record in baseball, The St. Louis Cardinals. Let's get right into it! The Cardinals will win the World Series primarily for the same reason that they led the league in wins this year: their "replacement players" perform at well above replacement level. Conventional wisdom tells us that a team struck with injuries the way St. Louis was this year should not qualify for the playoffs, let alone win 100 games. The Cardinals lost their ace in April, their cleanup hitter for part of June and most of July, and their starting first baseman for three months -- and that is just the abridged version.
The following chart, taken from Man Games Lost, shows a clearer picture of how severely hurt the Cardinals were this season:
Though they did not lose as many games to injury as some other teams, the Cardinals' injuries came to some of their most important players. The y-axis represents the impact of the time missed on team wins above replacement - and the Cardinals are the highest bubble in the graphic. This means that no team lost more potential WAR to injury than St. Louis.
A major reason the Cardinals were able to make it to 100 wins, then, is the contributions of the players who filled in. Take, for example, Tommy Pham, Randal Grichuk, and Stepehen Piscotty, who replaced Jon Jay and Matt Holliday when the latter two were injured. Pham, Grichuk, and Piscotty, between the three of them, had accrued 0.6 fWAR prior to 2015, and then combined to be worth over five wins this season. Each of the three outfielders posted a hard-hit rate over 36%, which would have placed all of them in the top-35 in the majors had they collected enough plate appearances to qualify.
On the pitching side, the Cardinals inexplicably improved as a whole despite losing Wainwright in the first month of the season. The Redbirds' starting pitchers led the majors in ERA with a 2.99, becoming just the second team since 2000 to post an ERA under 3.00 (the other being the star-studded Phillies rotation of 2011). ERA is imperfect, but their fielding-independent numbers were excellent as well: Cardinals starters combined for a FIP of 3.47, good for fifth in the majors. The bullpen pulled its weight as well -- Cardinals relievers were third in the majors with a 2.82 ERA, and seventh in FIP with a 3.50.
The injury bug was relentless this season, and it appears the Cardinals will enter the postseason at less than 100 percent as well. The team's best pitcher in the regular season, 24 year-old Carlos Martinez, was shut down for the remainder of the season in September with a shoulder strain. His presence atop of the rotation will be missed, but, once again, St. Louis seems to be well-equipped to adapt.
With rotations in the playoffs typically composed of four pitchers instead of five, the Cardinals can avoid going through the trouble of finding a playoff replacement for Martinez. And perhaps no team can boast a fifth starter as good as ... well, it is actually unclear who the Cardinals fifth starter is, because none of the candidates really fit the bill. Each of John Lackey, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, and Jaime Garcia was worth at least two fWAR, posted a FIP under four, and recorded an ERA under 3.50. Garcia, in particular, came on strong, with a FIP of 2.98 in the second half. Each of the four starters should give St. Louis a chance to win on any given night, regardless of opponent.
In addition, Wainwright returned from injury almost exactly as Martinez was shut down. He should provide excellent production out of the bullpen, and serve as a safety net should any of the starters falter.
Should depth become an issue, the Cardinals have the top end talent to take on any comers as well. Matt Carpenter and Jason Heyward have both established themselves as star players, albeit non-traditional ones, and closer Trevor Rosenthal remains his excellent self. Yadier Molina missed the end of the regular season, but if he is proclaimed healthy enough to play this postseason, he becomes a major asset behind the plate.
No other team in baseball combines the Cardinals' ability to cope with major injuries with their front-end talent, both on the mound and in the field. St. Louis has been the best team in baseball since virtually day one, and has secured home-field advantage until the World Series. If the Cardinals' depth allows them to combat underperformance and injury, as it has all season, they will be the last team standing once again.
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Tom O'Donnell is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. He is also a junior at Colby College. You can follow him on Twitter @Od_tommy.