After the first thirty-one games of the 2012 season, the St Louis Cardinals are even hotter than they were over the final thirty-one games of the 2011 season, when they were by far, the hottest team on the planet. But are they merely "hot" or are they just incredibly good? At what point do we conclude this team is for real; that they are clearly the best team in the National League - quite possibly the best team in either league?
Taking it one step further, this particular Redbird edition is performing at such a ridiculously high level, it may well be regarded by Cardinal baseball historians as the best team in franchise history.
Far better than the fabled World Champion Gas House Gang of 1934 - featuring 30-game winner Dizzy Dean and fearsome slugger, Joe Medwick.
Far better than the '42 St Louis Swifties, who won 106 regular season games en route to an easy World Series title over the New York Yankees - featuring the greatness of rookie Stan Musial and the hard-nosed Enos "Country" Slaughter.
Far better than that great World Championship '67 team - featuring the electrifying Lou Brock and intimidating Bob Gibson at the peak of their careers.
Far better than any of them. Certainly, the 2012 St Louis Cardinals have the talent, but also have the usual caveat: They need to stay healthy to accomplish this historic potential. If they can avoid an over-abundance of those season-shortening injuries (they've already had their share), I like their chances. In fact, if this team is as good as they appear to be after thirty-one games - they may well be regarded as one of the most dominant teams in MLB history.
Believe it. The sample-size is still only about 19% of the 2012 season, but these Redbirds are putting up some staggering numbers in three key (saber-metric) measurements of performance that boggle the imagination:
*Run differential - +75 after 31 games. Aside from the Texas Rangers, no other MLB team is even within striking distance. What this means is the Cardinals are scoring - on average - nearly two and a half more runs per game than their opponents (actually, 2.42).
*OPS+ - Forget batting averages, slugging percentages, home runs, and all those other traditional measurements of offensive production. This number summarizes everything. Keep in mind that a score of 100 is "average". On a broader scale, even a few ticks higher than average can result in lots of extra wins. After 31 games, the Cardinals' composite total is a whopping 128.
*ERA+ - Forget the traditional earned run average, strikeouts, hits allowed, and all those other traditional measurements of pitching effectiveness. The same rules apply as above. After 31 games, the Cardinals' composite total is a very strong 119.
The Father of Saber-Metrics - Bill James - devised a very complicated formula (PYTHAGOREAN WINNING PERCENTAGE) for determining a team's winning percentage, if "luck" - good or bad - were removed from the equation. Here's the formula, which of course, makes absolutely no sense to me:
(RUNS SCORED) ^ 1.83
(RUNS SCORED) ^ 1.83 + (RUNS ALLOWED) ^ 1.83
Let's suppose the Cardinals maintain their current pace for a full season; let's compare those projections to how the previous eleven World Championship Cardinal teams performed (as shown below). It's no contest; the 2012 Redbirds has all those other great Cardinal teams outdistanced by a fairly wide margin. They're on a pace to win 105 games in 2012; according to Bill James' Pythagorean winning percentage, the Redbirds should be winning more like 120 games this season.
It's interesting to note, the only team in MLB history that compares favorably to the early-season Cardinals of 2012 are the 1927 New York Yankees - considered by many baseball historians (including this one) to be the greatest team ever. They weren't called "Murderers Row" for nothing. Ruth and Gehrig were the featured attraction.
YEAR ACTUAL W-L (RUN DIFFERENTIAL) PYTHAGOREAN W-L OPS+ ERA+
1926 89-65 817 - 678 = 139 90-64 101 107
1931 101-53 815 - 614 = 201 97-57 98 116
1934 95-58 799 - 656 = 143 90-63 97 115
1942 106-48 755 - 480 = 275 107-47 103 135
1944 105-49 772 - 490 = 282 107-47 107 134
1946 98-58 712 - 545 = 167 97-59 99 115
1964 93-69 715 - 652 = 63 88-74 94 112
1967 101-60 695 - 557 = 138 97-64 101 108
1982 92-70 685 - 609 = 76 90-72 95 109
2006 83-78 781 - 762 = 19 82-79 97 98
2011 90-72 762 - 692 = 70 88-74 112 99
2012 STL 105-57 909 - 517 = 392 120-42 128 119
1927 NYY 110-44 975 - 599 = 376 109-45 127 122
Statistically speaking, the 2012 Cardinals of Freese, Molina, Beltran and company are almost identical to the '27 Yankees of Ruth, Gehrig, Lazzeri and company. There may have been previous seasons in St Louis Cardinals history that began as robustly as the current one; however, that seems unlikely. Whether or not this team can maintain this torrid pace for an entire 162-game schedule remains to be seen.
Regardless, the 2012 season to this point has been one of great satisfaction for Cardinals fans. Yes, it's still early; however, there's a very good chance this team is only getting better; that's almost a scary thought.