In 2011, his final year (so far) with the St. Louis Cardinals, Albert Pujols had his worst career season to date, but he was still the team’s most valuable player by Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Replacement. This was his seventh consecutive season as the team’s WAR leader, and his ninth season overall. A month and a half after the conclusion of the season, when Pujols signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, it became necessarily true that somebody new would lead the Cardinals in WAR in 2012. As it turned out, who the new Cardinals standard-bearer would be has remained an open question in every season since.
The 2012 WAR leader for the Cardinals was Yadier Molina, the team’s steadily improving offensive catcher who became a full-fledged MVP candidate following Pujols’s departure. And while Molina remained a true star in 2013, it was Matt Carpenter who emerged from the 2012 bench to become the team’s 2013 MVP by WAR. And thanks to the seven subsequent seasons, whether via Adam Wainwright, Jason Heyward, Carlos Martínez, Tommy Pham, Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, or Paul Goldschmidt, a different player has led the St. Louis Cardinals in Wins Above Replacement in each of the last ten seasons.
Wins Above Replacement is widely accepted as an objective measure of a player’s value. Like any other metric, it is imperfect, but it does provide a basic framework to determine how much more value a player provides to a team than if that team were forced to try to replace his production with an easily available, run-of-the-mill minor leaguer. There are competing variants of WAR, and I tend to personally have a slight preference towards the version published by FanGraphs.com, but since Baseball Reference came first, it is the most widely promoted one, and in the big picture, I think it does an excellent job of capturing a player’s value in all facets of the game.
In a vacuum, having a new WAR leader each season is not inherently good nor bad, though it leans towards the latter. It means almost by definition that a team does not have a truly elite player. The longest run of new WAR leaders for the Cardinals during the Albert Pujols era was three–Jim Edmonds, Pujols, and Scott Rolen each took turns atop the list from 2002 through 2004. A longer run occurred from 1990 through 1995, with Willie McGee, Ozzie Smith, Bob Tewksbury, Gregg Jefferies, Mark Whiten, and Brian Jordan topping the team leaderboard, and this came during a mediocre stretch which included the team’s only last-place finish of the last century. That a mostly fruitful ten-year stretch–one which included two World Series appearances, a 100-win season, seven total postseason appearances and zero losing seasons–would produce ten unique team MVPs is a relative anomaly.
A solid half of Major League Baseball teams have never had a double-digit streak of consecutive unique WAR leaders. This list mostly includes newer teams–the Arizona Diamondbacks, who acquired Randy Johnson in their second season to help the franchise bust out of the inevitable expansion doldrums, maxed out at five seasons, from 2009 through 2013, when Paul Goldschmidt assumed the mantle as the team’s undisputed production leader, and have the shortest team-record streak. But several franchises which date back to the beginning of the World Series era have had nowhere near the diversity of team leaders of the last decade of the Cardinals. The New York/San Francisco Giants maxed out at six on three separate occasions, and the New York Yankees’ seven unique leaders from 1990 through 1996 (Roberto Kelly, Steve Sax, Melido Perez, Jimmy Key, Wade Boggs, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte) is their record. But the Cardinals didn’t just reach double-digits. Last season, Paul Goldschmidt quietly (as though Goldschmidt could do it any other way) made the Cardinals the only franchise in MLB history with two consecutive decade-long runs.
Unlike the mostly successful 2011-2020 Cardinals, the 1900-1909 Cardinals–the first ten teams in the franchise’s history to be nicknamed “the Cardinals”–were terrible. They finished with a winning record just once, and they lost 94 or more games on six different occasions. One might think that pre-free agency baseball would have fewer long runs of diverse WAR leaders, and to some extent that is truly in the middle third of the twentieth century, but team instability made the sport often quite transient in its early professional days. Hence a run of Cy Young (in his second and final season with the Cardinals), Bobby Wallace (who later went on to become a Hall of Famer and the second-best player in the history of the St. Louis Browns), Mike O’Neill, Mordecai Brown, Kid Nichols, Homer Smoot, Jack Taylor, Ed Karger, Bugs Raymond, and Ed Konetchy, whose three consecutive seasons as team leader snapped the streak.
The 2021 Cardinals have a very good chance of extending the WAR streak. The team’s four current leaders in WAR–Tommy Edman, Nolan Arenado, Dylan Carlson, and Alex Reyes, would each be eligible to extend the streak. Three of the four players are under Cardinals control for the 2022 season, as well, if you want to look into the medium future, and if the fourth, Arenado, is not a Cardinal in 2021, that’s a pretty good sign that he himself was the team’s most valuable player in 2021. Jack Flaherty, presently #5, would snap the streak, and Yadier Molina, tied for sixth, would as well, but the next three players–Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader, and Paul DeJong–provide interesting cases in 2021 and beyond.
You may be now asking yourself if the Cardinals have the longest active unique WAR leader streak in Major League Baseball, and the answer is no. That “honor” belongs to the San Diego Padres, who are presently one of the better teams in baseball but have spent almost their entire run–since 2010–as an afterthought. In fact, outside of the 2010 Padres and with the reminder that the 2020 season was only 60 games, the Padres’ winningest season of the run was the 77-85 2014 club. Like with the Cardinals, the streak began with a tenured first baseman–Adrián González–who immediately left via free agency, but until recently, there isn’t a ton of star power on the list–Cameron Maybin, Chase Headley, Chris Denorfia, Seth Smith, Justin Upton, Wil Myers, Brad Hand, Hunter Renfroe, Fernando Tatís Jr., and Manny Machado. The latter two are by far the biggest threats to break the streak, with all due respect to Wil Myers, who is having a good season of his own so far, but none are guarantees. Trent Grisham, who currently leads the Padres, has a team-best 153 OPS+ and is the defending Gold Glove winner in center field. The next five players by WAR would also be new additions to the list–Jake Cronenworth, Yu Darvish, Mark Melancon, Eric Hosmer, and Ryan Weathers.
Last season, the Padres tied the 21st century record (or the “years beginning with a two” record, for all of the century pedants out there) with the Milwaukee Brewers, who had a new WAR leader for the first eleven seasons of the century as part of a 12-year stretch dating back to 1999. As is often the case, the streak was bookended by two players who had multi-year streak on the opposite ends of the run–it began in 1999 with Jeff Cirillo and was followed by Jeff D’Amico, Ronnie Belliard, José Hernández, Scott Podsednik, Ben Sheets, Geoff Jenkins, Bill Hall, Corey Hart, CC Sabathia, Prince Fielder, and finally, eventual franchise legend Ryan Braun. This is a streak mostly synonymous with futility–the WAR leader in the only playoff season among the years, Sabathia, didn’t even arrive in Milwaukee until a July trade (though a new player, J.J. Hardy, was the team’s non-Sabathia WAR leader). A more fruitful beginning (Braun) and end (Christian Yelich) of the 2010s rendered the Brewers incapable of a sustained streak, though I’m sure they’re delighted about this. And yet their streak is in real danger to a Cardinals team that hasn’t had a losing season during their run.
The National League WAR Diversity record is possible, though even for teams with as impressive of starts as the Cardinals and Padres, it would be difficult to reach. From 1937 to 1950, the Philadelphia Phillies had 14 consecutive WAR leaders. World War II provided a bit of a name-scrambling boost, with tons of roster turnover across the sport from 1942 through 1945, but even compared to other teams of the era, this was a streak without peer. And until the streak’s penultimate season, the Phillies had never achieved a winning record or a finish in the top half of the NL. I will fully acknowledge my ignorance on most of the names involved in the streak, really up until near the end–Dolphi Camilli, Al Hollingsworth, Morrie Arnovich, Kirby Higbe, Danny Litwhiler, Tommy Hughes, Schoolboy Rowe, Buster Adams, Andy Karl, Del Ennis, Harry Walker, Dutch Leonard, Ken Heintzelman, and Robin Roberts. Roberts led the Phillies to their first pennant in thirty-five years, and either he or Richie Ashburn led the Phillies in WAR for each of the next nine seasons. The Phillies of the 1950s weren’t a great team, but they were substantially more competitive than in the 1940s. A pair of Hall of Famers helps.
As for the record in Major League Baseball…have you ever considered the most likely pathway for a pitcher to surpass Cy Young’s career wins record of 511? This is a thing that I’ve considered before, and I think it would require a concerted effort to get there. After all, there isn’t an active Major League pitcher who has started 511 games, much less won 511 of them. I think the most likely path is as follows–an extremely strange MLB owner would want to see the record broken so badly that they would built a decent-but-not-overpowering team around an elite relief pitcher who would be used exclusively in late-inning games in which his team was tied or maybe losing by one run in hopes that the team’s offense could take a lead and guide said reliever to victory. It would be such a farce that one would be right to wonder if this was designed as a hostile action against either Cy Young’s descendants or against the very statistic of the pitching win. And I think that it would take an actual effort to surpass the all-time record for longest streak of unique team WAR leaders.
It is a streak that only five other streaks can claim to be half as long as. It is a streak which spans three cities and five presidents. It is a streak which includes seven last-place teams but also two first-place teams, including a World Series championship squad. It is a streak whose participants include both iconic Hall of Fame players and names that even some baseball historians may struggle to recall. It is a streak which began before the MLB debuts of Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, Hoyt Wilhelm, Ernie Banks, Sandy Koufax, Jim Bunning, Roberto Clemente, Don Drysdale, Bill Mazeroski, and had not yet wrapped up when each of these Hall of Famers played their final games. I have perused this list repeatedly, assuming I will eventually find the redundancy to disprove what I thought to have uncovered, and yet there it is–a list of 23 different players for the Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Oakland Athletics, spanning from 1950 through 1972. And those players were, in order: Ferris Fain, Eddie Joost, Bobby Shantz, Alex Kellner, Arnie Portocarrero, Vic Power, Wally Burnette, Woodie Held, Bob Cerv, Bud Daley, Ray Herbert, Jim Archer, Norm Siebern, Moe Drabowsky, Rocky Colavito, Ed Charles, Jack Aker, Catfish Hunter, Bert Campaneris, Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Vida Blue, and Joe Rudi.
The beginning of the Athletics’ diverse streak came in Philadelphia, during the same year where the Phillies team which shared Shibe Park with them ended their NL-record streak. The A’s were mismanaged and usually pretty terrible at this point, and before the 1955 season, they moved to Kansas City. But in Kansas City, they were even worse, never tallying a winning record in thirteen seasons and infamously acting as a de facto New York Yankees farm team. Once the Athletics moved to Oakland, they were treated once again as a real baseball team, and it was more or less a fluke that the final five seasons of the streak even happened–these were five winning teams, including a 101-win team in 1971 and a World Series champion in 1972, and the only reason Reggie Jackson and Sal Bando didn’t lead the team in WAR in multiple seasons was because for the first time in decades, the Athletics franchise were fielding teams with actual, multiple good players on them. Mercifully, Kansas City got the Royals a year and a half after the Athletics skipped town, and while the Royals haven’t always been a good team, they have consistently at least tried to be a good team.
Below, for those still interested in these streaks, is each franchise’s longest such streak.
Los Angeles Angels: 7 (1985-1991)
Houston Astros: 8 (1979-1986)
Philadelphia/Kansas City/Oakland Athletics: 23 (1950-1972)
Toronto Blue Jays: 7 (1989-1995)
Boston Braves: 12 (1903-1916)
Milwaukee Brewers: 12 (1999-2010)
St. Louis Cardinals: 10 (1900-1909; 2011-2020)
Chicago Cubs: 9 (2006-2014)
Arizona Diamondbacks: 5 (2009-2013)
Los Angeles Dodgers: 12 (1966-1977)
New York/San Francisco Giants: 6 (1896-1901; 1925-1930; 1980-1985)
Cleveland Indians: 9 (1956-1964)
Seattle Mariners: 6 (2015-present)
Florida Marlins: 11 (1997-2007)
New York Mets: 11 (1989-1999)
Washington Nationals: 7 (2010-2016)
St. Louis Browns/Baltimore Orioles: 11 (1951-1961)
San Diego Padres: 11 (2010-present)
Philadelphia Phillies: 14 (1937-1950)
Pittsburgh Pirates: 9 (2002-2010)
Washington Senators/Texas Rangers: 11 (1969-1979)
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: 7 (1998-2004)
Boston Red Sox: 7 (1930-1936; 1969-1975)
Cincinnati Reds: 12 (1928-1939)
Colorado Rockies: 6 (2010-2015)
Kansas City Royals: 8 (2000-2007)
Detroit Tigers: 9 (1949-1957)
Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins: 10 (1952-1961)
Chicago White Sox: 11 (1958-1968)
New York Yankees: 7 (1990-1996)