‘Pitching wins championships.’ That was the phrase my father repeated to me anytime we watched a game together growing up. Even as I continued my own playing career from little league to junior varsity, every coach expressed that same exact sentiment. I kind of just accepted this as a fact because it made a lot of sense. In theory, good pitching should lead to less runs being needed by your offense to beat another team. As I wondered what to write this week, I thought to myself: “Is there a case in which this wasn’t true?” To sum it up, I set out to search for the most atrocious pitching staff in the last 21 seasons to win a world championship.
I went to Baseball Reference and found where each year’s champion ranked based on ERA. It was easy to conclude that ‘pitching wins championships’ knowing that since 2002, 20 eventual world series champions had a team ERA above league average. Of those 20 teams, 12 finished within the top 10 and there were three instances of the best regular season ERA leading to a world championship (2020 Dodgers, 2016 Cubs, 2010 Giants).
But one team was left out, namely the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals. While numerous teams were close to being below league average in ERA, the Cardinals were the only team to place below the line. St. Louis finished the 2006 regular season with a team ERA of 4.54 and still found a way to win their division and a championship. How did they do that?
The numbers these Cardinals starting pitchers put up are ugly. Jason Marquis started 33 games in 2006 with an ERA of 6.02 in 194.1 innings pitched. Mark Mulder pitched in 93.1 innings himself in 17 starts and finished with a 7.14 ERA. To round out the rest of the Cardinals rotation, pitchers Jeff Weaver, Anthony Reyes and Sidney Ponson started 45 games combined for St. Louis with the lowest ERA of the three being 5.06. These starters, along with Chris Carpenter and Jeff Supan, combined for 159 of the starts for the Cardinals, with Carpenter and Suppan being the only two with an ERA+ over 100. Suppan finished the season with a 4.12 ERA leaving Carpenter as the only starter on this staff with a sub-four ERA.
Chris Carpenter was the shining star of the rotation. Coming off his Cy Young 2005 campaign, Carpenter followed it up with another solid season. He had a 3.09 ERA, led the National League with a WHIP of 1.069 and led the entire MLB with three complete game shutouts. Carpenter made his second career All-Star Game and had an ERA+ of 144 to lead the St. Louis starting rotation. He would end the season finishing third in the NL Cy Young voting, losing to Brandon Webb of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The bullpen wasn’t terrible with Jason Isringhausen converting roughly 76.7% of his save opportunities. For pitchers in the bullpen who appeared in over 20 games, five out of eight had an ERA in the threes. As a team, St. Louis ranked 21st in ERA+, 25th in FIP, 21st in RA/G and 16th in ERA. Looking at Wins above Average by Position, St. Louis ranked 25th (-5.1) as a staff, 27th for starting pitching (-5.1) and 20th for relief pitching (-1.1). St. Louis was above zero in just two positions, first base (6.6) and third base (4.2), the positions of stars Albert Pujols and newly elected hall of famer Scott Rolen.
How could they possibly win if they were that bad on paper? I only mentioned their regular season numbers.
St. Louis came to play in the postseason, especially their pitching. Through 16 postseason games, the Cardinals staff put up the lowest team ERA out of any of the participating teams at 2.68. Only four championship teams since 2002 have pitched to better ERAs in the postseason, those being the White Sox in 2005 (2.55), San Francisco in 2010 (2.47), Boston in 2013 (2.59) and Houston in 2022 (2.29). Only one team since 2002 has finished the postseason with the worst team ERA, that being the 2003 Florida Marlins. In those 16 games, the staff’s WHIP was just 1.16 and they held their opponents to a batting average of .219.
St. Louis had no business winning the world series in 2006, but their players played their best baseball when their team needed it most. Even in the most outrageous of cases, pitching finds a way to win championships. The Cardinals had one of the worst pitching staffs entering the postseason and barely made the playoffs, but they were able to piece it together when it mattered most, giving the city of St. Louis their first world series since 1982.