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If only...

As you know, I like to spend my Sunday mornings coming up w/ something halfway original to say, even if it strikes some as pretty radical. I’m not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom. I like to use a lot of stats to try and support what I have to say. It’s easy to fall into the typical lamentations about the most recent Cardinal loss or complaints about the newest worst player on the team so, since I get 1 day a week, I like to try to say something that hasn’t been said. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I fail but it’s not for a lack of trying.

I’m a teacher and school started this week. I’ve been busier than a 1-legged man in a butt-kicking contest and haven’t been able to spend a lot of time talking all things Cardinals in the threads and, in fact, haven’t seen much of the games this week. I suppose that’s a good thing. I have, of late however, noticed a discernible increase in the number of complaints similar to this:

The Cards have lost too many games they shouldn’t have lost. If not for losses like this one, we’d be ______________ (insert lost opportunity here: i.e. – "in first place," "leading the Wild Card," "ahead of the Brewers," whatever…

As a reference point, the poster often refers to the Cards’ 5-10 record against the Brewers or 7-7 record against the Pirates. They point to our high number of blown saves or inability to score runs after the 3rd inning (both of which are true, of course).

If we’d only …, we’d be heading to the playoffs!

I’m not going to spend any time trying to figure out if this stuff is true. Sure, if we hadn’t blown so many saves or scored more runs in the middle innings, we’d have a few more wins and wouldn’t be 5 ½ games behind the Brewers. If we’d played better against the Pirates or Brewers, maybe the Brewers would be chasing us right now.

There have been too many games where we‘ve been beaten by terrible pitchers in games like this one or this one or this one. That’s why we’re going to be watching the playoffs on TV. We’ve squandered far too many chances this year.

These, of course, are not actual quotes and I’m certainly not trying to call anyone out or mock anyone but I thought I’d use this Sunday morning to try and put things in perspective a little. It just seems as though there’s been an awful lot of hand-wringing of late about how the Cards, through their mistakes and poor play at times, have played themselves out of the playoffs. The idea seems to be, from many, that we’ve given it away. We’ve lost it; the Brewers haven’t won it (though I know it’s not over yet) and the Cards are going to regret not winning those games or beating those bad pitchers or blowing those leads or whatever. Or, the other sentiment is that we’ve been unusually plagued by injuries and bad luck and the gods just didn’t smile on us this year. In fact, we’ve been cursed while others have been rescued. If the injury bug had treated us fairly, it’d be us in the playoffs, dammit!

All this strikes me as pretty odd. I mean, I hate a bad loss as much as the next guy and I really hate losing to the f-ing Astros, but sheesh. The Cards right now are at 74-62, a win % of .544. Luck? No. Our Pythagorean record is 73-63. This is, legitimately, how well we’ve played. We’re not the ’07 Mariners masquerading as a pretty good ball club. We’re on a pace to win 88 games. Even if we play the final 26 games at .500, 13-13, we’ll win 87 games. I ask you this – going into the season, would you have taken 88 wins? I would have. If I would have told you that we’d be entering the final month w/ a chance to win 90 games, would you have believed me? Careful now…’cause I know the answer!

Back in March, we all put in our vote for how the NL Central teams would fare this season and AZ put together the community projections for the season. Conventional wisdom, among Cards’ fans here at VEB, was that the Cards would win a grand total of 78 games. I’m not sure what my vote was but I am sure it was fewer than 81 wins. I’d bet it was somewhere between 75 and 78. (For those of you who find me to be the community pessimist, that fact will hardly surprise you.) But we don’t know anything, right? Everyone else knew the Cards would be pretty good this year, right? Yeah, right. PECOTA had us at 74 wins and CHONE had us at 75. You’d expect fans to have a higher opinion of the team than the stats guys would but, as poorly as we did, we’re going to be closer to the truth than the stats guys.

So what’s the point? Despite all the hand-wringing, this has been a pretty damned good season. What did you expect? Careful ‘cause I know the answer. The highest projected win total by the VEB community was 89 games. That was the highest. Someone thought we’d win 68! Well, they were right. We did win 68. Then we won #69 on August the 15th!!!!!!!

Have we suffered injuries? Of course, but hasn’t everyone? Don’t we every year? But Carpenter is hurt! Did you really expect much from him this year? I didn’t. Ditto Mulder. Albert got hurt and missed a grand total of 13 games – not a crippling loss. We’ve missed Wainwright, to be sure, and probably Tyler Johnson. Ankiel’s been banged up. Don’t even give me that Duncan’s missed most of the season b/c he stunk when he was healthy anyway. We’ve been better off w/ Skip and Mather. Izzy got hurt! See Duncan, Chris. The man turns 36 next weekend. It shouldn’t have been that surprising.

Troy Glaus played 115 games last year for the Jays. He played game #131 yesterday. Yadi played 111 games last year and played game #112 yesterday. We should get 30 starts from Kyle Lohse, Braden Looper, and Todd Wellemeyer. If we’d said that back in March, we might’ve thought we’d lose 90. Instead, we’ve got an outside chance at winning 90 b/c they’ve been anywhere from above-average to pretty damned good.

Skip proved that, despite his shortcomings against lefties, he’s definitely a big-league ballplayer. Granted, he’s probably a 4th OF on a really good team but you can’t say he hasn’t been better than any of us expected. Aaron Miles, despite all his warts, and I’ve documented many of them ad nauseum, has had his best season. Ankiel’s proven that he’s a legitimately good major league outfielder. This was not at all certain at the beginning of the year as he entered the season w/ a grand total of 286 career major-league PA’s. He’s improved his ability to recognize pitches and improved his walk rate from 6.8% to 9.1%. This, in turn, has improved his ability to hit. Last year he swung at pitches outside the strike zone 37.2% of the time. This year it’s down to 30.6%. He has tons of power, is a legitimate major league CF and is improving at the plate. There was no way we could’ve been certain at the beginning of the year that he would be anything better than a 4th OF.

Do I need to say anything at all about Ryan Ludwick? How about the trade of Rolen for Glaus? Do I need to prove that signing Kyle Lohse in March to a 1 year, $4.25 M contract has worked out pretty darned well? Or that the conversion of Wellemeyer from reliever to starter has gone well? He was May’s NL pitcher of the month and has been better than Roy Oswalt, Ted Lilly, Javier Vazquez, Mark Buehrle, Josh Beckett, and A.J. Burnett. We’ve discovered that Joe Mather is probably a player and that Kyle McClellan is definitely a player. We’ve found our closer and our #1 starter (in case we weren’t sure about the latter). Jaime Garcia and Brian Barton didn’t embarrass themselves as rookies and have indicated that they can probably help us in the future. Mitch Boggs was voted the best pitching prospect in the Pacific Coast League. Oh, yeah -- and, Albert Pujols has once again proven himself to be the best player in the game.

Yes, I know this team has its warts. The middle infield situation is really bad. Pineiro’s contract is really bad but he is just signed for 1 more year. It’s not like we’ve got Carlos Silva for 3 more or Barry Zito for 5 more! Our young starters may not quite be ready and Colby Rasmus’ season has been more down than up. Duncan’s gone from power hitter to a guy who may never play again and, if he does, might belong at Memphis. But this team’s come a hell of a long way this year. I really don’t expect them to make up the 5 ½ game deficit in the last month but, even if we don’t, it’s been a damned good season.

We can talk all we want about "What if (this)" or "If only (that)" but the truth is that more good has happened to the Cards than bad. For every bad loss that we’ve had b/c we didn’t hit someone like Shawn Chacon or we had too many errors or the bullpen imploded, the benefits we’ve received from Schumaker or Ankiel or Ludwick or Glaus or McClellan or… have been MUCH greater. It’s not even close!

There will always be games we lose that we should’ve won. Hell, in 2004 we won 105 games and lost games started by Dave Burba, Glendon Rusch, and were shut out by some guy named Jung Bong! That’s a pitcher, not what our hitters had for the pre-game meal! There will always be games where we make errors or where the pen implodes but this team’s going to finish at least 8 games better than the vast majority of us expected. Though we likely won’t make the playoffs, we’ve really got something to build on for next year and beyond. The key, of course, is to make the correct decisions that help us build for 2009 and beyond, and not JUST for 2009. But there’s a pretty good foundation here. I don’t think there’s anyway to NOT look at this season as an unqualified success in St. Louis.

Sure, it’ll be disappointing to watch the Brewers and Cubs in the playoffs. There’ll be a 50/50 chance that one of them will play in the World Series. But it’s been a great season in St. Louis and I’m excited for what next season might bring. I wouldn’t have said this at the end of last season. Now we’ve just got to finish strong and let the chips fall where they may. But if we finish in the upper-80’s in wins and are left out in the cold, it’ll be silly to blame injuries or Izzy or Pujols’ 3 K game or the fact that we lost to the Pirates 7 times.