A curious move by the manager in the 12th inning to replace one of the most reliable hitters these Cardinals had all season — rookie outfielder Dylan Carlson — opened the way for a virtual unknown to win the pennant in the 18th.
In one version of Major League Baseball’s 2020 season that didn’t happen, the Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers played deep into the night to decide Game 6 of the National League Championship Series. The Cardinals had allowed four runs total in their division series sweep of Washington to advance and face the 104-win Dodgers for the pennant. Led by Jack Flaherty and the NL’s pitching staff, the Cardinals took a three-games-to-two lead into Game 6, and then had to do whatever they could to outlast the Dodgers’ superior offense.
A 2-2 tie went into the 18th inning when with two on and one out catcher Matt Wieters hit a sinking line drive that MVP candidate Cody Bellinger dove to catch, forcing the Cardinals’ runners to scramble back to their bases and consider a 19th inning.
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Carlson’s replacement decided otherwise.
Austin Dean, who pinch-hit for Carlson to get — shrug emoji — a righthanded bat against Dodgers lefty Julio Urias in the 12th, hit a two-out, two-run double to left center that scored Paul Goldschmidt and Tyler O’Neill. With one swing, Dean doubled the Cardinals’ runs in the game and lifted them to the pennant with a 4-2 victory at Dodger Stadium. John Brebbia, an essential member of these Cardinals’ bullpen, got the save by striking out Justin Turner looking. No word on whether he could not see strike 3 past his misplaced mask.
These data-driven Cardinals advanced to face Minnesota in the World Series.
Or so the sim says.
In March, the Post-Dispatch asked Dynasty League Baseball to run a simulation of the 2020 Cardinals season, day by day, game by game, in case such a season didn't happen. We thought about running the box scores daily on the web site, and having fun tracking the trends. On opening day, Post-Dispatch sports Benjamin Hochman and I managed the game, as scheduled, between the Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds on Dynasty League Baseball, an industry leader in simulations. I got aggressive with the bullpen, the game went sideways on the Cardinals, and Hochman’s Reds slipped away with the victory.
We went on to write about other things and eventually cover the 58-game schedule that was unlike any season ever. I drove around 8,000 miles to cover road games and was there in Texas as Turner and the Dodgers won the 2020 World Series championship.
But the Cardinals simulation played on ... and on ... and into October.
Mike Cieslinski, the creator of Dynasty League Baseball, continued to run the simulation for the Cardinals 2020 season from that 0-1 start all the way to the NL pennant and a World Series that ended just this past week.
Along the way, the Sim Cards (see what I did there?) got a Cy Young Award-level performance from Jack Flaherty, a left-right setup dynamic duo from Tyler Webb and Brebbia, and a team MVP performance from … second baseman Kolten Wong.
Drawing from past performances, dense data profiles, real ballpark factors, and mixing in probability, the Sim Cards were in the end a lot like the team the Real Cards expected to be, the team they were built to be, right down to the exceptional pitching and the run-of-the-mill offense.
And that invites a question on what the Sim Cards, who got to plug and chug for a 162-game schedule with the intended roster, tell us about the Real Cards, if anything.
If the Cardinals front office had the season expected and the roster they planned would it have been the contender imagined? And if so — how?
What can we learn about the data-driven Cardinals by looking at the data-determined results generated by that roster in a simulation?
The Sim Cards finished the season 93-68 with an 8 ½ game lead on the Reds (85-77) and significantly ahead of David Ross Beta and the Cubs (81-81). They had the fourth-most wins in the NL, behind the aforementioned Dodgers (104-57), the Nationals (97-65), and the Cardinals-dotted Diamondbacks (96-66). (These Cardinals played 161 games, yes.) The Sim Cards got to their record and a division title in a familiar way, in the ways the real team could count on. It all starts with pitching and defense:
• A 3.12 ERA led the National League.
• The second-fewest runs allowed in the majors (647).
• A strong run-differential, plus-143.
• A .990 fielding percentage (an imperfect stat, but it’s what we got), led the majors.
• Only two regulars with an OPS greater than .800.
• A total of 55 homers from three outfielders: Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, and Carlson.
Flaherty went 18-5 for the Sim Cards and he led the National League in ERA (.208), WHIP (0.87), and batting average against (.166). The pitching leaderboard for the NL is populated with Sim Cards pitchers, from Giovanny Gallegos with his 33 saves to Carlos Martinez and Miles Mikolas ranking high among starters in ERA or walks per nine. Martinez had a 3.29 ERA in 169 2/3 innings. Flaherty added to his resume with an incredible 238 innings during the regular season, 292 strikeouts, and he outdueled Walker Buehler in a Game 1 at Dodger Stadium during the NLCS.
In the bullpen, middle relief starred for the Sim Cards.
Andrew Miller made 71 appearances and allowed 68 earned runs for an 8.66 ERA — that was the outlier of the group. Webb countered with a 3.25 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP in his 83 innings. He snagged five wins. Brebbia was even better with a 2.85 ERA and a high strikeout rate in 72 2/3 innings. His presence for the Sim Cards was obviously an absence for the Real Cards as he had elbow surgery at midseason.
For kicks, here are a few bytes on what the Sim Cards batters did:
• Brad Miller, UT: .299/.373/.660, 1.033 OPS, 14 HR, 38 RBIs
• Paul Goldschmidt, 1B: .257/.339/.457, .796 OPS, 31 HR, 96 RBIs
• Matt Carpenter, 3B: .238/.354/.401, .784 OPS, 19 HR, 75 RBIs
• Tommy Edman, UT: .271/.318/.466, .784 OPS, 8 HR, 41 RBIs
• Paul DeJong, SS: .230/.311/.434, .744 OPS, 29 HR, 96 RBIs
• Yadier Molina, C: .279/.319/.425, .744 OPS, 15 HR, 79 RBIs
• Tyler O’Neill, OF: .263/.316/.411, .726 OPS, 20 HR, 73 RBIs
• Dexter Fowler, OF: .210/.309/.376, .685 OPS, 9 HR, 37 RBIs
• Harrison Bader, CF: .189/.295/.338, .632 OPS, 17 HR, 54 RBIs
Every so often throughout the simulated season, Cieslinski would drop me a note about a roster move that the Sim Cards might make. We agreed that Carlson, the team’s top prospect, would join the club on the first day after we could assure another year of control. Yep, we massaged service time. We have to own that. We did it. That’s the business. We should be held accountable for it. And Carlson was essential to the division-title run in his 119 games.
• Dylan Carlson, OF: .310/.377/.542, .919 OPS, 18 HR, 68 RBIs
The switch-hitting rookie became the .850+ OPS outfielder that that Real Cardinals believed they had internally, just as many pundits thought would happen. The rookie’s production made that move in Game 6 of the NLCS all the more unexpected.
You’ve probably picked up on the name missing from the above laundry list. Unlike the pitching leaderboards, the offensive leaderboards for this Dynasty League did not feature many Cardinals. One, really. Wong. He ranked in the top 10 for stolen bases (38!) and doubles (50). Carpenter also cracked the top 10 when it came to walks, with 90-some. Wong’s line:
• Kolten Wong, 2B: .300/.364/.460, .824 OPS, 15 HR, 71 RBIs
A career year, absolutely.
With those numbers and a full season of ticket sales as a tailwind, the Sim Cards eagerly picked up his option for 2021.0.
The leaderboards for hitters show us something else about the Sim League. Offense was enormous around the leagues. Perhaps the ball was juiced — or, electrified, if you will. Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich and LA’s Cody Bellinger tussled for the Triple Crown. Yelich hit .363 (1st) and hit 66 home runs (1st), but finished second in RBIs, with 148. Bellinger bested him with 153 RBIs but finished second in average (.357) and home runs (59!). Eugenio Suarez joined that duo to make three NL players with at least 50 homers. Eleven players had at least 44, 10 had an OPS of .994 or more. Fernando Tatis Jr. was every bit the rising Sim Star that he was superstar with a .331 average, a .598 slugging percentage, and a .994 OPS. But even those numbers were dwarfed by the league leaders.
Sure that makes what Flaherty’s sim did even more impressive to suppress offense and tease a 2.00 ERA and finish with a sub-1.00 WHIP.
It also brings us to the nexus for the Sim Cards and Real Cards.
Despite an abundance of offense throughout the simulated leagues, the Sim Cards hit .252 as a team and had 200 home runs and a .746 OPS to go with 4.93 runs/game. They lagged behind the other leaders in the division, and they entered the playoffs as one of the lower-scoring, less-robust lineups. They had to smother teams with pitching and defense to win, even in the short-burst series of the postseason. Sound familiar?
Consider these three stat lines for offense:
A. .234/.323/.371, .694 OPS, 4.14 runs/game, 142 HR, 671 Runs
B. .245/.322/.418, .740 OPS, 4.64 runs/game, 208 HR, 751 Runs
C. .252/.324/.422, .746 OPS, 4.93 runs/game, 200 HR, 794 Runs
A is the actual 2020 Cardinals production, with home runs and total runs prorated across an 162-game schedule.
B is the MLB averages in 2020, again with the total numbers prorated to reflect a 162-game schedule.
C is the Sim Cards.
There it is.
An illustration of what the Sim Cards tell us about the Real Cards.
It’s something columnist Ben Frederickson has written about, something we’ve both pointed out, and something that the Cardinals clearly were counting on: A league average offense — just an average offense, that’s all — and the Real Cards rise a rung or two in the standings. The simulation isn’t the be-all, end-all, but it can be a tell-all when it comes to the probability of a team’s production. The Sim Cards were a run prevention team with enough run production to vault them into the realm of contender, and they advanced through the postseason by doing just that — preventing runs, scoring a few.
The Sim Cards didn’t score more than four runs in any of the NLDS games against Washington and yet swept the Nats because they allowed only seven runs. In the NLCS, Goldschmidt hit three home runs and had 10 RBIs to virtually assure the MVP award, and Carlson went nine-for-19 (.366) to assist. The pitching staff had a 2.90 ERA, and by outlasting the Dodgers through 18 innings in Game 6, the Sim Cards advanced to face Minnesota’s mighty lineup.
The World Series was over swiftly.
Like the Real Cards, the Sim Cards could only outrun their offense for so long.
The Sim Cards scored a total of two runs in the first three World Series games and eight runs total as the Twins swept them for the championship. The Sim Cards scored six runs in Game 4 at Busch Stadium. As a team, they hit .185 in the World Series and had more strikeouts (40) than hits and walks combined (34). The Sim Cards did not hit a home run in the Fall Classic. They had only five extra-base hits.
Wong had two of them. Just to get technical.