St. Louis Cardinals: Alphas, betas and more
By Bill Dawson
Each year, it’s not hard to rank who the top St. Louis Cardinals’ players are. But what about the all-time rankings of the best alphas, betas and more of each year?
The St. Louis Cardinals’ Jack Flaherty figures to be the team’s top player, or alpha, going into next season. His 6.0 WAR in 2019 easily distanced second-place Kolten Wong (4.7 WAR), and his youth (he’s barely 24) suggests he could be even better.
Choosing an all-time Cardinals alpha is just as easy: it’s Stan Musial. The Man was the Cardinals’ best player in 12 different seasons, according to baseball-reference.com, which rates players on wins above replacement. Musial is followed by Rogers Hornsby (10 years as the best Cardinal), Albert Pujols (nine), Bob Gibson (seven), Ozzie Smith (six), and Dizzy Dean and Ken Boyer (five each).
But who are/were the Cardinals’ betas? And gammas? And iotas? Greek to English translation: Who are the club’s No. 2 through No. 9 players now, and who most best fit those roles in the past? This isn’t about the top nine all-time Cardinals; it’s about those worthy souls who were often the first-through ninth-best players on their particular teams.
Confused? You won’t be. Let’s start with the obvious:
Best (alpha) now: Jack Flaherty
All-time alpha: Stan Musial (1941-63)
If Flaherty leads the club in WAR in 2020, he’ll become just the fourth Cardinals pitcher in the last century, after Gibson, Dean, and John Denny, to do so more than once. Hornsby was often a better hitter than Musial but played fewer years (13) with St. Louis than Stan (22). It’s hard to picture skinny (5-11, 150) Ozzie Smith as an alpha dog, but he was the best and most important player on the Whiteyball Cardinals of the 1980s.
Second-best (beta) now: Paul Goldschmidt?
All-time beta: Joe Medwick (1932-40, 1947-48)
It’s just a guess that Goldy will be the club’s second banana; for all we know, Tommy Edman, Dakota Hudson or a left-fielder could eclipse him and others in 2020. You might think of brawny, brawling “Ducky” Medwick (alternative nickname “Muscles”) as a clear-cut top dog, but he was the team’s best player just once.
That occurred in 1937, and he had to win the NL’s Triple Crown (.374, 31 homers, 154 RBI) to claim the best-Redbird prize. Starting in 1933, Medwick placed third, fourth, second, second (both runner-ups to Dizzy Dean), first, second and second (both runner-ups to Johnny Mize) among Cardinal players.
Brand-new Hall of Famer Ted Simmons was the Cards alpha dude in 1973 and ’77 but came in second to various teammates (Bob Forsch, John Denny twice, Keith Hernandez) on four occasions. Simba was the third-best Cardinal once, the fourth-best twice, and the fifth-best once.
Third-best (gamma) now: Paul DeJong?
All-time gamma: Red Schoendienst (1945-56, 61-63)
DeJong’s battering averages have declined and his strikeouts have risen in his three seasons, but he drew a lot more walks last year, and power-hitting shortstops with decent gloves are worth a ton.
Hall of Famer Schoendienst was the Cards third-best player in 1951 (behind Musial and Solly Hemus), ’52 (Musial, Hemus), ’53 (Musial, Harvey Haddix), and ’55 (Musial, Willard Schmidt). He was the team’s second-best player, behind Musial, in ’54.
Curt Flood was never the best or second-best Cardinal but he ranked third in 1963 (behind Dick Groat and Bill White), ’65 (Gibson and White), ’68 (Gibson and Brock) and ’69 (Gibson and Steve Carlton). The seven-time Gold Glove winner was the team’s fourth-best player in ’62 and ’67.
Fourth-best (delta) now: Kolten Wong?
All-time delta: Enos Slaughter (1938-42, 1946-53)
Projecting Wong as the fourth-best Cardinal might be downgrading the slick-fielding second baseman, who was the team’s second-best player (according to WAR) a year ago. The hope here is he can play at least as well in 2020 while a few teammates match or exceed him.
Surprised that Slaughter, a Hall of Famer, is a fourth-best player while Flood was often a third-best performer? Despite losing three years to World War II, Slaughter had a 14 percent longer career than Flood, and his two best years, 1942 and ’49, were better than any of Flood’s years.
Still, Slaughter was never the best Cardinal on any one team and was the second-best player just once — in 1942 (behind pitcher and league MVP Mort Cooper). On the other hand, he was the third-best player twice, the fourth-best three times, the fifth-best twice, and the sixth-best twice. Chris Carpenter averages out to a delta as well: he was Cards’ sixth-, second-, third-, second-, sixth- and fourth-best player in his peak years.
Fifth-best (epsilon) now: Carlos Martinez?
All-time epsilon: Yadier Molina (2004-now)
Martinez was just meh as a reliever a year ago after starting the season on the injured list, but he’s been effective when healthy and when starting, as he will be this year. The Yadi-for-Cooperstown criers (I’m one) may be offended by his fifth-best-player status, but WAR tends to overlook or undervalue the catcher’s impact.
Although a reasonable metric, it doesn’t measure everything as well as it could. Going by WAR, though, Yadi has never been better than the team’s third-best player, which occurred twice. He has ranked fourth once, and fifth four times, plus a seventh one year and a ninth another. Second baseman Tommy Herr was another sturdy epsilon. At different times in the ’80s, he was the Cards’ fifth-, fifth-, seventh-, fifth-, and fourth-best player.
Sixth-best (zeta) now: Tommy Edman?
All-time zeta: Marty Marion (1940 -50)
Edman was really good, offensively, defensively, and on the bases, in 92 games as a rookie, but there’s concern that the kid, who didn’t dazzle in the minors, may have been playing over his head and may revert to the mean, as the eggheads like to say, in 2020. But if he builds on what he did a year ago, he’ll be quite an asset.
Marion is notable for being the only league MVP (1944) to mostly bat seventh and eighth in his team’s lineup. Actually, WAR says the shortstop was only the fourth-best Cardinal, behind Musial, Johnny Hopp and Mort Cooper, in 1944. Marion was twice the fourth-, twice the fifth-, and once the sixth-best Cardinal, but he also ranked ninth (twice), 10th and 11th among his teammates, which averages out to a 6.5.
Bill Sherdel pitched for the Redbirds from 1918 to 1930 and was the team’s finest player in 1928 when he went 21-10 with a 2.86 ERA. A top-five team performer on three other occasions, Sherdel was the sixth-best Cardinal on three occasions and the 10th and 11th in other seasons.
Seventh-best (eta) now: Giovanny Gallegos?
All-time eta: Bob Forsch (1974-88)
Who can predict how a reliever will perform from one year to the next, especially a reliever like Gallegos who had accomplished little before an outstanding campaign (0.811 WHIP, 93 strikeouts, just 16 walks) in 2019. The guess here is that Gallegos continues to excel at age 28.
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The late Forsch’s second season was his finest as he went 15-10 with a career-best 2.86 ERA in 1975. He had a 20-win season in 1977 with a lot of middling accompanying stats — WAR pegs him as that team’s fourth-best player. For the most part, Ken Forsch’s younger brother was a steady middle-of-the-rotation man.
He was the Cards’ sixth-best player three times, the seventh-best three times, and also the eighth- and ninth-best. Pitcher Jesse Haines (StL 1920-37) compiled a surprisingly modest resume for a Hall of Famer, which is why many, including cooperstownexpert.com and author Bill James, decry his selection.
Haines pitched for 19 years but was never more than the third-best player (twice) on any of his teams. He was once the fourth-best, twice the sixth-best, three times the seventh-best, twice the eighth-best and twice the ninth-best. He had three other seasons where he pitched 178-plus innings but didn’t rank among the Cardinals’ top 12 players.
Eighth-best (theta) now: Dakota Hudson?
All-time eta: Vince Coleman (1974-88)
Who will be better in 2020, Hudson or Miles Mikolas? Both had poor first halves and solid second halves a year ago. Hudson, 25, has the advantage of youth over the 31-year-old Mikolas; barring injury, the youngster should improve.
Coleman seemed way better than the team’s eighth-best player when he was winning five straight stolen-base titles from ’85 to ’90, but his on-base averages were .340 or lower in four of those seasons, and his average of 94 runs a year, while very good, feels a little low for a man stealing 91-plus bags a year.
Also, stolen bases aren’t as admired today as they were in the ’80s. In his six Cardinals seasons, Coleman ranked (according to baseball-reference.com) as the team’s eighth-, 12th, eighth-, 14th-, eighth and fourth-best player. Nineteen-thirty-one World Series hero and Gas House Gang stalwart Pepper Martin ranked ninth among all Cardinals in 1931; second in ’33; 10th in ’34; 10th in ’35; fourth in ’36; sixth in ’37; and 12th in ’39.
Ninth-best (iota) now: Matt Carpenter?
All-time iota: Al Brazle (1943, 1946-54)
Is this wishful thinking about Carpenter? Or negative thinking? The versatile Carp was the team’s best year-in, year-out player from 2013 to 2018, but last year’s plummet at age 33 is cause for worry. If he could just split the difference between his terrific ’18 season (.897 OPS) and his terrible ’19 (.726 OPS), he’d have an .812 OPS, which is close to Goldschmidt’s .821 from a year ago — not great, not bad.
You’ve likely never heard of Brazle, a lefty side-arming sinker specialist who turned reliever his last four years. While most pitchers mix good years with bad, “Cotton” Brazle was as steady as they come. Over his first nine seasons, he ranked 10th, ninth, ninth, ninth, seventh, seventh, sixth, 11th and 9th among Cardinal players.
If you’re wondering where a player like Willie McGee would fit, the answer is — who knows? Willie is one of several ex-Cardinals who don’t slide smoothly into any one spot. In his first St. Louis go-around, the lanky center fielder was, at times, the team’s best, second-best, fourth-best (twice) and sixth-best player, according to WAR, but he also had three seasons where he didn’t crack the team’s top-12.
Face it, some players — like Willie — are one of a kind.