Posted on 05 April 2011.
Through the first five games of the 2011 season, the Cardinals offense has been somewhat of a disappointment. General Manager, John Mozeliak, recently explained that the team made a conscious effort to add more consistent offense, even if it meant sacrificing the defensive side of the team. We have certainly experienced the downgraded defense, but are still waiting for that upgraded offense that Mozeliak had promised would arrive. What if they never do – is that the end of the season ? What if Albert Pujols has the first bad year of his career ?
Five games into the season is a bit too early to be pressing the panic button. Instead, let’s flip through the pages of the Cardinals history book and see if we can find something that might put our minds at ease. Fortunately, we don’t have to go back too far – just to 1968.
They Couldn’t Hit Worth a Lick Either
The defending World Champion St. Louis Cardinals entered the 1968 season with the same regular starters as in 1967. They were all a year older, but only Roger Maris seemed to be getting close to the end of his career. Since this group put up some ferocious offensive numbers in 1967, expectations were high for a similar performance in 1968. The NL Pennant was a forgone conclusion – the only question was who they would play in the World Series, and did they have enough pitching to beat the Redbirds. We would know the answers to these questions soon enough, but getting there was not quite that easy.
While 1968 is fondly remembered as the year of the pitcher, the overall offensive production across the National League was down from the previous season, but not all that much. The same thing could not be said for the Cardinals. Their offense would experience power outages all summer long, often for long periods. It was not limited to just one player, as nearly the entire team’s production dropped. All except for Dal Maxvill and Mike Shannon, who defied the trend and had a good year at the plate. For Maxvill’s efforts, he would be awarded the only Gold Glove of his career.
Let’s take a look at the regular lineup and see how they did.
That is not a typographical error. Orlando Cepeda’s batting average dropped 77 points from his MVP season. As you can see, he was not the only one. Tim McCarver, Curt Flood and Lou Brock all had a tough year at the plate. The exceptions were Mike Shannon and Dal Maxvill, who both turned in solid offensive performances, relative to their career averages.
But it was so much worse than the drop in batting average suggest. Let’s take a look at the team slugging, or rather lack of it.
Not only were the batting averages down significantly, the big bats in the heart of the batting order were reduced to singles hitters. The result was a precipitous drop in runs scored, from 695 in 1967 to just 583 in 1968. Mike Shannon would lead in the team in RBIs with 79, a frighteningly low number for a team with World Series aspirations.
Poor Cepeda. For the man who had electrified the fans and helped turn the franchise into champions, 1968 was a disastrous season. As we documented a few months ago in Why Bean Ball is Bad Baseball, the likely cause of Cepeda’s problems were two times when he was hit by a pitch, late in the season. One of those errant pitches got him on the wrist or forearm, and he was not the same afterwards. We have learned that injuries to the wrist and hand can take a player a year or more to completely recover, as was the case with Julian Javier in 1965.
Cepeda felt that he had faded late in the 1967 season and worked hard during the winter break. When he arrived in St. Petersburg to start spring training in February 1968, he was bigger and stronger than we had ever seen. But it did not help the former MVP as he struggled all season long, prompting a trade to the Atlanta Braves immediately following the loss to the Tigers in the World Series. Cepeda struggled again in 1969, but the slugger returned nearly to his MVP form in 1970.
If the offense wasn’t a big part of the Cardinals return to the World Series, who was ?
The Year of The Pitcher
No discussion of the 1968 St. Louis Cardinals would be complete without looking at the amazing season turned in by Bob Gibson. No matter how many times you look at the numbers, they are just mind-boggling.
- A win-loss record of 22-9
- 1.12 ERA (a modern day record)
- 34 starts, 28 complete games
- Was not taken out of an inning that he started
- 13 shutouts
- 304 2/3 innings pitched
- 268 strikeouts
- WHIP (combined walks and hits per inning pitched) of 0.853
- 5 consecutive shutouts in June
- In 105 innings fr0m June 2 to August 4, only 3 runs allowed
- 5 times pitched into extra innings, 11 innings or more 3 different times
- Winner of NL Cy Young Award and NL Most Valuable Player
Mind-boggling, indeed. Any one of those achievements is amazing, but to think that Gibson did that all in one year is almost beyond belief.
The story does not end here. Overlooked in a new found fascination with the New York “Amazin’” Mets were three more spectacular seasons turned in by the Cardinals Hall of Famer.
- 1969: 20-13 with 2.18 ERA. 28 complete games, 4 shutouts. 314 innings pitched. 269 strikeouts
- 1970: 23-7 with 3.12 ERA. 23 complete games, 3 shutouts. 294 innings pitched. 274 strikeouts, NL Cy Young Award
- 1972: 19-11 with 2.46 ERA. 23 complete games, 4 shutouts. 278 innings pitched. 208 strikeouts.
And also worth noting
- Winner of 9 consecutive Golden Glove Awards (1965-1973)
- Set a World Series record with 31 strikeouts in 1964
- Tied a World Series record for fewest hits allowed in 3 complete games with 14 in 1967 (this is after Jim Lonborg threw a 1 and 3 hitter)
- Gibson actually posted a lower ERA after returning from his broken leg in 1967 than in his record setting 1968 season
I think you are getting the point here, but I’m including all of this additional information for a specific reason.
Correction: The Year of the Pitching Staff
Yes, it was the year of the pitching staff. While all of the spotlight fell on Gibson for his amazing season, the rest of the Cardinals hurlers were doing quite well, thank you very much. Let’s look at this another way – if three of your five starters are having career seasons, and your closer also decided to join in the “let’s have a career year” party, how could you not go to the World Series ?
That’s exactly what happened in St. Louis in 1968. While Bob Gibson was busy rewriting the history books, Nelson Briles, Ray Washburn and Joe Hoerner were turning in the performances of their careers. Especially Washburn.
Ray Washburn received a lot of attention for throwing a no-hitter against the San Francisco Giants on September 18. Yes, it was a terrific game turned in by the veteran right hander, but it was also just a footnote on a spectacular season. In any other year, Washburn would have received serious consideration for Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award. In fact, only a few previous Cy Young Award winners in either league would post a lower season ERA than Washburn’s in 2.26 1968, and most of them were named Koufax. Unfortunately for Washburn, another of those was his teammate, and he would take home most of the metal in 1968.
Another pleasant surprise was Nelson Briles. The young right-hander had been been shopped to all of the other teams as the 1967 season got underway, and fortunately new General Manager, Stan Musial was unable to find a suitor. Briles surprised everybody when he filled in for an injured Bob Gibson, and then continued his mastery of the National League after his return. Briles 1968 proved that the previous season was not a fluke as he turned in a career year, posting a brilliant 19-11 record with an era of 2.81. He would also turn in a career year in innings pitches (243 2/3), strikeouts (151), complete games (13) and shutouts (4).
The two lefties in the rotation, Larry Jaster and Steve Carlton, would take turns wearing the “I don’t get any run support” signs. Both pitched well, especially Carlton, but the lack of Cardinals offense seemed to be particular hard on them. They aren’t going to get much sympathy from Gibson though, as he somehow lost 9 games while allowing less than 2 runs per outing. A lot less than 2.
The starters weren’t the only ones enjoying the 1968 season. Joe Hoerner, the Cardinals closer, finished the season with an 8-2 record, a miniscule ERA of 1.47. In 19 save opportunities, the unconventional left-hander would convert 17 of them, blowing just two. Both of his losses were in non-save situations.
Rookie Wayne Granger was nearly as good, after a mid-season callup. The two time Fireman of the Year with the Big Red Machine would appear in 34 games, and finish with a 4-2 record and an ERA of 2.25.
Perhaps the hero of the bullpen was co-winner of the 1967 Rookie of the Year, Dick Hughes. Hughes blew out his shoulder in spring training, but fought through the pain of a torn rotator to give the Cardinals some much needed innings. His 2-2 record is amazing, consider how badly he was injured.
Side-armer Ron Willis and new lefty Mel Nelson were also effective out of the bullpen for Red Schoendienst.
To appreciate just how good this staff was, consider this last statistic. The staff threw 30 shutouts. That’s right – 30 times the staff combined to hold the opponents scoreless. Another 31 times, they allowed just a single run. And 21 more times, they gave up 2 runs. These are not earned run, they are total runs. If you add these numbers up, you will find out that the Cardinals pitching staff and defense held opponents to 2 runs or less for just over half of the season. That is how a struggling offense managed to win 97 games and run away with the National League Pennant.
What of 2011 ?
If the Cardinals offense continues to struggle, they will have to look back at this group of pitchers from 1968 for their inspiration. We have already seen this in their first two wins of the season – a nifty 4 hit 2-0 shutout by Jaime Garcia and huge first career start by Kyle McClellan where he won 3-2. If the bats don’t wake up, it will fall on the arms of Chris Carpenter, Jake Westbrook, Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse, Kyle McClellan and Ryan Franklin.
Bob Netherton covers Cardinals history for i70baseball.com and writes at On the Outside Corner. You may follow Bob on Twitter here or on Facebook here.