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The Ultimate Cardinals Record Book
By Dan Moore
Triumph Books LLCCopyright © 2012 Dan Moore
All rights reserved.
Albert Pujols Ties Stan the Man with Three MVPs
Cardinals' Career Batting Leaders
Albert Pujols picked a bad time to put together 10 consecutive MVP-caliber seasons. In 2001, the 21-year-old infielder hit .329 with 37 home runs and 130 RBIs, one of the best rookie seasons in the history of baseball. Unfortunately, that same year Barry Bonds also assembled one of the best seasons in the history of baseball, hitting 73 home runs and walking 177 times.
The 2002 season brought more of the same — an even better season from Barry Bonds and for Pujols another second-place finish. In 2003 and 2004, Pujols hit a combined .345 with 89 home runs and 247 RBIs and was unfortunate enough to see Bonds hit 90 home runs and put together an astonishing .609 on-base percentage in 2004.
There just wasn't any way around Barry Bonds, who for four years seemed only to be getting better. Then in 2005, Bonds finally, briefly showed his age. Knee surgery in March left him contemplating retirement, and the Cardinals' 25-year-old slugger, newly installed at first base after a trip around the diamond, had his first clean shot at being named the National League's Most Valuable Player.
That year he did exactly what he always did — he was Albert Pujols. For the third year in a row he led the league in runs scored, hit at least .330, hit at least 40 home runs, and added 117 RBIs. While he was at it, he stole 16 bases and was only caught twice, after having never stolen more than five in a season before.
That year being Albert Pujols was his best asset, but as he added to his awards cabinet it became less beneficial each year — after a while the voters grew tired of handing Pujols the Most Valuable Player award simply for being the most valuable player in the National League.
The voters seemed to thrill at each new chance to hand the award to some one-year-wonder or the lynchpin of some surprise contender. In the course of winning his three NL MVP Awards — tied with Stan Musial for most in team history — Pujols ran into competition from a few types of player, all of them frustrating, none as valuable. For instance:
The Andruw Jones Type: In 2005, Pujols found himself in competition with Andruw Jones despite an on-base percentage 83 points higher than the Braves' increasingly immobile center fielder. The Andruw Jones Type puts up great career-best stats, often leading the league in home runs or RBIs while he's never done it before and will probably never do it again. The surprise doesn't quite curdle over into a fluke since he's always been so talented.
In 2005, Pujols had two Andruw Joneses on his tail. The first one, Jones himself, had managed to combine — for one weird moment — his usual Gold Glove defense with Dave Kingman's plate approach. That year he clubbed a career-high 51 home runs; the voters might have been loath to overlook his .263 batting average except he also led the NL with 128 RBIs.
That was competition enough for Pujols, who still had to contend with the stars on his own team for recognition. But there was more. Closer to home, Derrek Lee had put up a vintage Albert Pujols season for the Cubs, leading the league in batting average and slugging percentage and hitting 99 extra-base hits. Chicago's first baseman had a fair case for the MVP himself, but Pujols' defense and the voters' pent-up desire to crown the Cardinal gave him a narrow victory over Jones.
Sometimes the Andruw Jones Type got the best of Pujols. In 2007 he finished ninth despite leading the league in Wins Above Replacement, a popular sabermetric stat; Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies' popular and omnipresent shortstop, won the MVP thanks to his unlikely run at 30 home runs.
The Ryan Howard Type: In 2006 Pujols' MVP arch nemesis emerged. Ryan Howard, the Phillies' hulking first baseman — himself a St. Louis native — hit 58 home runs in his first full season, combining it with his only .300 batting average. The sheer counting stats were enough to convince the voters, who gave him 20 first-place votes to Pujols' 12.
Pujols, who hit a career-high 49 home runs himself, actually topped Howard in on-base and slugging percentage, but when confronted with a Ryan Howard Type the voters tended to forget about the things that made Pujols better than the garden-variety slugger.
Defense was usually the first thing to go. Pujols was one of the best defensive first basemen of his generation, literally a third baseman trapped at the position by arm injuries, and at his best the difference between his incredible reaction time and gutsy decision-making and Ryan Howard's unremarkable bagsmanship was upwards of 20 runs, according to most advanced defensive statistics.
Pujols' incredible plate discipline usually went, too. From 2005 to 2009, Pujols walked 507 times against just 291 strikeouts. Howard walked 404 times and struck out an incredible 865. While they were competing for MVPs in those years, Howard struck out more than three times as frequently, which showed up in his batting average — .279 to Pujols' .334.
In isolation MVP voters seem to have no problem lauding Pujols for his defense, his plate discipline, his base-running acumen, and his team leadership. But when it comes time to compare him to a Ryan Howard Type, it comes down to one set of hitting stats against another — and as often as not the voters made the wrong decision anyway.
The Carlos Gonzalez Type or MVP Fatigue: MVP voters love it when a player has finally reached his potential, or blossomed under a new team or manager, or really done anything great after having not done anything great before. This is MVP fatigue, a phenomenon that's been around ever since baseball first opened up the award to repeat winners. (In the award's early years, a player was allowed to win it just once, which makes Babe Ruth's single MVP award explicable, if not exactly justifiable.)
By 2006 and 2007 the voters, who reacted so strongly to Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins, had already grown tired of Pujols' impossibly consistent excellence. By 2010 he'd hit at least .314 with at least 32 home runs and at least 103 RBIs for 10 consecutive seasons, and even his home run and RBI titles in 2010 weren't enough to wake up voters from their Pujols-induced somnambulism.
So the award went to Joey Votto — himself a borderline Ryan Howard Type — who assembled an outstanding season. Most importantly, Votto had not produced that same outstanding season 10 times before. And Pujols was nearly outvoted by Carlos Gonzalez, who won the batting title but was a long-awaited prospect whose future had been in doubt as recently as 2008.
Everyone likes a great story, and as outstanding a player as Pujols was from 2001 to 2010, his story just lacked suspense. Joey Votto battled anxiety and depression; Carlos Gonzalez overcame a questionable understanding of the strike zone; and Ryan Howard just came out of nowhere.
Albert Pujols wasn't novel by the time Barry Bonds had finally left the spotlight; he had already won a batting title and established himself as the best all-around player in baseball before he won his first MVP. He was just consistently, impossibly great and able to do everything on a baseball field with an idiosyncratic, aggressive brilliance.
It's okay to be boring when you're this kind of boring. It's okay to be repetitive if you're being Albert Pujols every year. Pujols won three MVPs in his first decade, but he should have won five, and he could easily have won 10. His hard work and consistency might not endear him to voters looking for a big story, but they made him the symbol of the Cardinals in the 21st century.
No National Leaguer has accumulated more hits for a single team than Stan Musial's 3,630.
Redbird Reference: Joe Medwick
"Ducky Joe" doesn't sound quite right, nickname-wise, for a bruising slugger who once hit 64 doubles and elsewhere earned the nickname "Muscles" for his physique, but it makes more sense, at least at first, once you understand that Ducky Joe Medwick was short for "Ducky Wucky." Medwick, a 10-time All-Star and the last National Leaguer to earn the Triple Crown, was the most fearsome slugger in the Gashouse Gang and one of the most dangerous hitters to ever undress a third baseman.
He was named "Ducky" apparently for his bowlegged saunter, but it was his 1937 season that earned him immortality. That year Medwick hit .374 and drove in a league-high 154 RBIs — a brilliant season even for Medwick but nothing too out of the ordinary. It was his 31 home runs, 10 more than he'd ever hit again in a season, that earned him the Triple Crown and the MVP award.
For the most part Ducky Wucky — Muscles, if you were anywhere near him — was perfectly happy to hit doubles, and his 64 in 1936 remains the highest single-season total in National League history.
Contemporary Comparo: An occasionally surly slugger who terrified infielders with his line-drive swing, Ducky Joe at his best might have looked something like Gary Sheffield.
Behind the Numbers
The Cardinals have had two Triple Crown winners — players who led the league in batting average, home runs, and RBIs in the same season — Rogers Hornsby, who did it in 1922 and 1925, and Joe Medwick, whose Triple Crown in 1937 was the last one accomplished in the National League.
Rogers Hornsby's career batting average of .359 is second in baseball history, and the top right-handed mark of all time. Only one other right-hander is in the top 10.
Redbird Reference: Chick Hafey
Ask any Cardinals fan to name the team's Hall of Famers and they'll name the greats one after the other — Stan Musial, Rogers Hornsby, Bob Gibson, Ozzie Smith, Lou Brock, and so on. Ask a particularly dedicated Cardinals fan and he'll add the next set, your Jim Bottomleys and Joe Medwicks and Enos Slaughters.
Even if your friend can get all the way down to Jesse Haines, he might not remember to tick the box next to the name of Chick Hafey, a forgotten great and as curious a Hall of Famer as you're likely to find. Between 1927 and 1931 Hafey was one of the most dangerous hitters in the National League; plagued by inconsistent hitting before and health problems after, he played 1,283 games in a career that saw him play 100 games in a season just seven times.
A converted pitcher with an incredibly strong arm and a line-drive swing that produced as many as 85 extra-base hits in a season, Hafey emerged as a full-time player the year after the Cardinals' first World Series championship, hitting .329 and leading the National League in slugging percentage.
Hafey, who became one of the first players to wear glasses on the field when sinus problems weakened his eyesight, won the batting title on the last day of the season in 1931, hitting .349 and leading the Cardinals to their second championship with a six-game win over Philadelphia. After holding out for a raise, Branch Rickey traded Hafey just before Opening Day in 1932, but the recurrence of his sinus problems prematurely ended his career in Cincinnati. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1971.
Contemporary Comparo: A burly outfielder with a line drive swing and surprising skill on the base paths, Hafey looks a lot like Matt Holliday, if you squint.
Remember When ...
The only baseball to clear the high, uninterrupted outer walls of Busch Stadium II wasn't a home run at all but the most improbable foul ball in Cardinals history — on September 15, 1986, Mike Laga hit a ball clear out of Busch Stadium, whose arch-patterned façade loomed 130' over the diamond.
Redbird Reference: Ray Lankford
Busch Memorial Stadium, better known as Busch Stadium II, saw Mark McGwire break the single-season home run record and Albert Pujols hit 201 home runs in the first five years of his career. It saw Jim Edmonds launch 40 home runs twice and stood for most of the recent home run era. But none of those fearsome sluggers holds the record for most home runs at Busch II. Instead, the mark will belong forevermore to a center fielder who reached the major leagues primarily because of his speed.
Ray Lankford put on a Cardinals uniform for the first time in 1990, just months after Whitey Herzog left the team in midseason, and at the time Lankford resembled nobody so much as the prototypical Whiteyball outfielder. He was a slick fielder who had stolen more than 100 bases in four years in the minor leagues — to go with 40 triples — but had never hit more than 10 home runs in a season. In 1991, his first full year in the major leagues, he led all of baseball with 15 triples, stole 44 bases, and hit just nine home runs, four of them at Busch.
But something clicked the next year, just before the offensive explosion of 1993 — he hit 20 home runs, nearly doubling his professional high. Speed would always be part of his game, but Lankford developed quickly and surprisingly into a patient slugger who was always on base — in spite of some occasionally eye-watering strikeout totals.
Perpetually underrated by fans in and out of St. Louis, Lankford had his two best years in the middle of Mark McGwire mania — in both 1997 and 1998, he hit 31 home runs while getting on base nearly 40 percent of the time, driving in more than 200 total runs and stealing 20 bases each year.
Eventually all those unnoticed home runs added up — Lankford finished with 123 home runs at Busch Stadium, including one as a member of the San Diego Padres. His 2004 comeback as the Cardinals' fourth outfielder allowed him to cap off the record in his final major league at-bat, homering as a pinch-hitter on October 3, 2004. His 228 home runs in a Cardinal uniform rank him fifth all-time.
To top Stan Musial's triples record, a Cardinal would have to average nine triples a year for 20 years. The last Cardinal to hit nine triples in a season even once was Delino DeShields, who hit 14 in 1997.CHAPTER 2
Mark McGwire Breaks the Single-Season Home Run Record
Cardinals' Single-Season Batting Leaders
In 1996, a surprise run to the NLCS got St. Louis excited about baseball again, but it was the 1997 season that truly reignited the city's love affair with its Cardinals. Mark McGwire had just arrived in exchange for three pitching prospects, and he didn't look like anything Cardinals fans had seen before. Whiteyball had been a going concern less than a decade earlier; as recently as 1991 Todd Zeile had led the Cardinals in home runs with 11. McGwire was traded to the Cardinals with 34 already — he finished ninth in the American League that year despite spending the last two months of the season in the National League.
As if waiting for the chance to make the right first impression, McGwire didn't hit any home runs in his first seven games as a Cardinal, all on the road. Then his first homestand came, and newly renovated Busch Stadium was in thrall, for the first time, to the player who would come to represent the good and the bad of the nineties in baseball. In nine games at Busch McGwire hit five home runs, drove in nine, and slugged .893.
It was September, though, that represented McGwire's real introduction to the National League. In 25 games, McGwire clubbed 15 home runs despite being walked 20 times. No player has ever been so perfectly and single-mindedly designed to hit home runs — for the Cardinals that year he hit 17 singles, just three doubles, and 24 home runs. If a pitch couldn't be driven 450' over the bullpen in right field, he would take it; if he struck out he would get his money's worth, unleashing a swing that made pitchers think twice about taking their eyes off the ball. Eventually fans at Busch learned to set off their flashbulbs with every pitch, just in case.
McGwire's 58 home runs in 1997 were the closest anyone had gotten to Roger Maris' record since George Foster's 52 in 1977, and Ken Griffey Jr., the biggest star in baseball, had come up just short himself with 56. But it was all a prelude to 1998 when McGwire, who unexpectedly signed a contract that would keep him in St. Louis for the rest of his career, promised to do it all over again.
McGwire and Griffey made headlines every morning through the spring, but the chase for 62 home runs didn't become a national obsession until, on the other end of Interstate 55, the Cubs' Sammy Sosa hit 20 home runs in one month. With one hot month Sosa had vaulted into the home run race and set off the ultimate expression of the Cardinals and Cubs' famous rivalry.
McGwire had started early, homering in the Cardinals' first four games, and by the end of May he had 27 home runs — and not just any home runs, but massive, arcing shots that elicited more gasps than cheers. On May 15, McGwire hit a Livan Hernandez pitch high into center field, hitting the giant St. Louis Post-Dispatch sign that marked the farthest part of the second deck from home plate. The home run, so massive that the cameraman aimed too low and missed it entirely, was estimated at the time at 545'; the Cardinals marked the spot with an oversized band-aid.
Excerpted from The Ultimate Cardinals Record Book by Dan Moore. Copyright © 2012 Dan Moore. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books LLC.
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