The Cardinals recently announced that Ray Lankford and Vince Coleman will be the newest members inducted into the team Hall of Fame. Both were very fun players so this is good news. And it is on those lines that I want to imagine a Cardinals Devil Magic Hall of Fame, a place to honor those who had unexpected or welcoming season(s) in St. Louis.
I am not sure when Devil Magic became an actual thing people discussed, although I think I first heard Jonah Keri use the term. I always assumed it came to be following the top of the 9th inning at Nationals Park during Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS, when the Cardinals came back to stun the Nationals with big hits from…[checks notes (but not really, we all know the parties responsible)]…Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma.
That was a good, not great wild card team, the first year without Albert Pujols, no less, stunning the best team in the National League in the most gut-wrenching fashion. I was there – the ballpark was so silent that I could hear the hoots and hollers from the Cardinals’ dugout all the way up in Section 305. And this all followed the 2011 season, which starting with the 10.5 game comeback in the wild race and culminating with Allen Craig catching the final out to secure the World Series, was the most improbable series of events that I have ever witnessed in sports.
So yes, there was a reason why a lot of people were growing tired of the Cardinals, and thought maybe they played the game with some knowledge of the dark arts.
And it continued. The next season, in 2013, the Cardinals hit an astonishing .330 with runners in scoring position. In 2015, the entire pitching staff had an ERA under 3.00 and stranded almost 80 percent of runners. Those were 97 and 100-win teams, respectively, and, as John LaRue of Viva El Birdos noted, had they performed to their BaseRun record neither would have been division winners. In fact, the 100-win 2015 team would have missed the playoffs entirely.
There are the players, too. The aforementioned Descalso and Kozma coming through in big moments. There was Jeremy Hazelbaker with a 168 wRC+ his first month in the bigs in 2016. (I should note he’s been a below average hitter ever since and is currently in AAA with the Diamondbacks organization.) And Pat Neshek,who went from the scrapheap to being a two-win player for the Cardinals in 2014.
So I don’t know exactly when Devil Magic started. I don’t even know if it refers to specific moments, teams, players, or all three. Probably all three. But, as noted, for the sake of this post, I’m going to focus on players and nominate five somewhat recent Cardinals who displayed Devil Magic tendencies before we knew such a thing even existed for the Cardinals Devil Magic Hall of Fame which does not exist and never will.
Here we go…
1. Gregg Jefferies
Other than a few stars (Todd Zeile, Ray Lankford, Bernard Gilkey) who played for the now-defunct Springfield (IL) Cardinals, the Single-A affiliate who were just down the road and often written about in our local paper, Gregg Jefferies was the first prospect I ever heard of by way of his 1988 Score “Rookie Prospect” card. He was a big deal if you collected baseball cards around that time, and if you were a Mets fan, I suppose.
And he was good but never that good. Certainly not great…except for his brief stint with the Cardinals.
The relevant facts: Of Jefferies’s 6,072 career plate appearances, 17 percent of them were spent with the Cardinals in 1993 and 1994, yet those two seasons accounted for 36 percent of his career fWAR (20.2). These were also the only two seasons Jefferies ever made the All-Star game or received MVP votes.
The 1993 season was his peak. He hit .342/.408/.485, good for a 143 wRC+. He was also really hard to strikeout and trailed only Ozzie Smith, Tony Gwynn, and Mark Grace in K% (5.2 percent) for qualified batters in the National League. In the strike-shortened season of 1994 his production dropped but not by much, and his 128 wRC+ was easily still the second highest of his career. The Cardinals didn’t want to pay for that production going forward; Jefferies signed with the Phillies before 1995 and that was that. He was a below-average hitter for the rest of his career.
Now, Jefferies was with the Cardinals during his age-25 and 26 seasons. Maybe that just happened to be when his skills and health peaked. He had hamstring issues once he left, after all. I feel fine giving him this Devil Magic nominee though.
2. Will Clark
This one might get laughed at since Will Clark is firmly entrenched in the Hall of Very Very Good, and very, very good players don’t need Devil Magic. Also, his best year was not spent in St. Louis. In fact, he barely spent any time with the Cardinals, but that is sort of the point.
The relevant facts: In the year 2000, Mark McGwire could no longer move on the diamond all that well due to a bum knee and by July it forced him out of the lineup. Enter Clark, who was acquired from the Orioles at the trade deadline. Here’s what Ben Godar of Viva El Birdos had to say about the situation back in 2015:
In each of the first four games he started as a Cardinal, Clark homered. He would go on to hit 12 homers in just 51 games in a Cardinal uniform, with a monster slashline of: .345/.426/.655. His 161 wRC+ in the second half was the tenth best in all of baseball. For all intents and purposes, Will Clark had replaced Mark McGwire. McGwire would return in September, but only as a pinch hitter (and sometimes starting the game as a pinch hitter, in a classic bit of LaRussaing).
Clark indeed played well with the Orioles that season, but in his two months with the Cardinals he elevated his production to the tune of a 171 wRC+, accumulating 2.2 fWAR in fewer than 200 plate appearances. If he had maintained that pace over the course of his career he would have retired with a 92.5 WAR, which would tie Cal Ripken, Jr., for 25th all-time even though Clark had 4,600 fewer career plate appearances than Ripken (and pretty much everyone else in the top 25). In short, Clark went on a terror during his two months in St. Louis. And while the Cardinals were getting their butts kicked by the Mets in the 2000 NLCS in five games, Clark was still busy OPSing 1.206.
Again, maybe this is a stretch since Clark was always a very good player and for a brief period was in the conversation for best player in the National League. But in 2000 those days were gone. By then, Clark was 36 and once that series with the Mets ended he promptly retired. Also, after the Cardinals had a few scrapes in the 80s with Clark and the Giants – both literally and figuratively – fans had grown to hate Will Clark. (It wasn’t unwarranted, he was sort of a jerk back then.) That he ended his career with a lot of fans in red cheering him on feels a bit Devil Magic-y.
3. Tom Henke
Like Clark, Tom Henke had a very good career. Also like Clark, Henke showed up in St. Louis as a 37-year-old for his final act and had one of his best seasons before retiring. Unlike Clark, Henke was on a terrible team.
The relevant facts: Acquired via free agency for the strike-shortened 1995 season, Henke led all qualified relievers in the NL in ERA (1.86) while outperforming his FIP by almost a full run (a little luck is a good sign of Devil Magic). Henke converted his first 22 save opportunities for the season and finished second in the NL with 36, blowing only two saves all year. He also received a couple of MVP votes and made his second All-Star game, his first in eight years. Measuring by WAR per innings pitched, it was his best season in four years.
There’s not a whole lot more to say about him because the 1995 Cardinals were horrible. One of the few really bad Cardinals teams in their storied history, but an aging Henke was certainly a bright spot and then he was done with baseball.
4. Craig Paquette
Unlike the other names above, Craig Paquette did not have anything resembling a good career. (Although can you really say that about a player who spent over a decade in the league? I dunno.) A utility player, he only did one thing well and that was come off the bench and provide some pop. And you know what, after watching the current Cardinals struggle to score runs against a weak Minnesota Twins squad I don’t think that’s all that trivial.
The relevant facts: Paquette spent three (1999-2002) of his eleven MLB seasons with the Cardinals. By fWAR, he was a career negative 2.7 player. However, during his time with the Cardinals, which accounts for approximately 35 percent of his 2,766 career plate appearances, Paquette was worth 1.5 wins. I tried to figure out what that meant from a percentage standpoint for his career WAR total and it just made me dizzy. But take a look at Paquette’s career 73 wRC+, then notice that his only two seasons in which he was an above average hitter by that same metric (and it’s not really close) were in St. Louis and that’s the case for Paquette.
Also, I saw Paquette walk-off the Dodgers at old Busch in 2000 in the bottom of the 12th inning with a three-run bomb after several rain delays had thinned the crowd and allowed me to take in the last few innings from the very front row. I’m still grateful and thus Paquette receives this nomination.
5. Tony Womack
Acquired in a trade from Boston before the 2004 season, Tony Womack was the starting second baseman for the best Cardinals team of my lifetime. It was his only season with the club.
The relevant facts:
That’s it, those are the nominees. I’m not sure where you vote or how many of the five will be inducted. I guess I really didn’t think this post through.