There's that old chestnut in baseball we hear constantly, that thing about beating the teams you're supposed to beat. Just play .500 against the good teams, the Al Hraboskys of the world are fond of saying, and clean up against the bad teams. The Teams You're Supposed to Beat. With capital letters built right in, you know?
As hoary old chestnut cliches go, it's really not too bad, actually. You're not going to beat the good teams at a particularly high rate -- at least not usually, though strange things do occasionally pop up -- so to construct a great record you tread water against the top and handle your business against the dregs. It's very sensible. Downright brilliant, in fact, considering some of the other nonsense that has found its way into baseball's book of Accepted Wisdom. It's certainly better than most of that stuff related to bunting, at the very least.
The Cardinals have the best run differential in all of baseball. By a lot, in fact. The Redbirds currently sit at +99 for the season; next in line are the Yankees, Nationals, and Rangers at +77, +74, and +73, respectively. It is, frankly, absurd.
So with such a remarkable run differential, how exactly is it the Cards find themselves sitting in third place in the NL Central, a full seven games back of the Cincinnati Reds? Well, their record in close games is the first issue; that 12-18 mark in one-run games is pretty damning all by itself. (Their 20-9 record in blowouts is kind of fun to think about, though.) But in addition to the way this team is losing games, perhaps, I thought to myself this morning as I sat down to compose a post, there's something to be gleaned from the exact teams the Cardinals are beating. So I pulled up the old B-Ref (that's the what the hip kids call it; or, at least, it's what the hip kids would call it if the hip kids weren't too busy being hip and getting laid to study up on sabermetrics), and took a look at the Cards' records versus various teams.
The breakdown is as follows:
Against teams with .500 or better records, the Cardinals are 17-22.
Against teams below .500, the Cardinals are 38-26.
First off, it's amazing the Cards have played so many more games against teams below .500 this year. I'm sure it's just one of those weird anomalies of how the schedule works out, but it feels like a big deal.
Second, that pretty much looks like a team taking care of business against the weak teams. Twelve games above the break even mark isn't bad. Well, until you consider the Cards' Pythagorean record is 62-41, 21 games over .500. In that context, that number against the little sisters of the league should probably be even better.
And, indeed, going through the list of opponents, there are a few that really jump out. The Cards are only 8-6 against the Chicago Cubs, who are a dismal 43-59 overall. The Brewers are below .500; El Birdos are just 5-4 against the Brew Crew. A winning percentage of .250 against the Phillies and Mets, both clubs with losing records, sticks out as an ugly group of missed opportunities.
On the good teams side, the Cards' brutal 1-5 performance against the Braves this year really hurts. Oddly enough, there isn't a single really good team the Redbirds have just owned this year. I'm hoping it turns out to be Washington, as the Cardinals have yet to play the Nationals this season. But, so far, no anomalously awesome beatdowns of a really good opponent.
The worst, though, oh, the worst, has to be the Cardinals' record against the Houston Astros. The 'Stros are a shocking 35-70, the worst record in baseball, and on track for the first overall pick in the draft again. Houston is 28 (!) games out of first place in the Central. In other words, the Houston Astros are an awful, awful team this year, and their record reflects their abject brutalness fairly accurately.
The Cardinals have played 6 games against the Astros. They have gone 3-3 in those games.
It's a little bit of a pattern, actually; the Cubs, Astros, and Brewers are all below .500. The Brewers aren't a terrible team, but they're a losing club all the same. (The other two most definitely are terrible teams.) The Cards have an aggregate record against those three teams of 16-13. That's not awful, by any means, but not the kind of thing one would classify as Beating the Teams You're Supposed to Beat. At least not on the scale this team should be. Just as a point of comparison, the Cincinnati Reds are a combined 17-6 against those three clubs.
The Cardiinals have done their best work this year against the Rockies, Marlins, Padres, and Diamondbacks, with an aggregate record of 15-3 against those four clubs. So, you know, if MLB ever decided to shift the Cards out to the NL West (and move the Marlins as well, for some reason), we're golden. Until then, though, the Redbirds really need to figure out some other way of piling up the victories.
Overall, the Cardinals are just 25-22 against their own division. Not the most damning figure, but frustrating all the same.
So, when we add it all up, we get a picture of just how maddening this team has been to follow this season. They've beaten up on a handful of clubs, sure, but there are also three frightfully bad teams in division the Cards have essentially just treaded water against. They're under .500 against the good teams, which isn't necessarily the worst thing in the world, but still not something that inspires much confidence going forward.
The Cardinals have beaten some of the teams they're supposed to beat, but not all of them. And at the end of the season, when it's all said and done and tallied up, I have a feeling that's going to be one of the things we all look back on. Probably lamenting. A little more bullying and things would look a whole lot better for the Birds.