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Let's hope the Cardinals say good riddance to April

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The Cardinals played a mediocre first month of baseball and as a result already find themselves on the outside looking in.

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

For a franchise that has been as successful as the Cardinals have been in recent years, a slow first month is going to induce handwringing perhaps more than it should. Take note here and here.

Whether the concerns are legitimate probably can't be answered just yet. Scheduling imbalance persists throughout the season, but after one month of play especially so. Combine that with several very bad teams in the National League and it's especially hard to understand what we're looking at. Rob Mains of Baseball Prospectus recently outlined why the month of April is the least helpful month for predictive individual performance and I'd expect the same is true for team performance. Still, give a quick glance at some of the numbers from April for both the Cardinals and the team they're chasing and it's hard to blame anyone who believes they face a daunting uphill climb for the NL Central.

The Cardinals' pitching staff, which was considered by some to be one of the best in all of baseball entering 2016, allowed 103 runs in the month of April which is in the middle of the pack for the NL, but far and away worse than the other teams (Cubs, Mets, Nats) they were expected to compete with. And to understand how much the Cardinals excelled in run prevention in 2015, in one less game, they allowed 55 total runs for the entire month. Those numbers were never expected to be replicated but the steep slide back to mediocrity has been discouraging.

Their 12-12 record for the month is their first .500 or below record in the opening month of the season since they went 10-14 in 2007 - the only year since 1999 the Cardinals have lost more games than they won. If it feels like they're wading close to uncharted waters it's because they are.

According to FanGraphs, the Cardinals playoff odds at the end of April sat at 32.6% (29.5% after yesterday's 6-1 loss to the Nationals). Last year they never dipped below 70.9%. As has been pointed out many times over, most of this is largely a result of the Cardinals thus far being horrendous against good teams.

After yesterday's loss it's now six of nine.

To exacerbate matters, the Cubs are living up to their preseason hype (and our fears) and had a +79 run differential in just 22 games in April which is nothing short of astounding. Using April 30th as a cutoff point is rather meaningless but just for a fun exercise, here are the highest run differentials in the month of April in the Wild Card era (excluding 1995 since the season didn't begin until late April because of the strike):

Year

Best Run Differential Entering 5/1

Games Played

Final Record

Won Division?

Playoff Result

2016

Chicago Cubs +79

22

N/A

N/A

N/A

2015

Kansas City Royals +45

22

95-67

Yes

Won WS

2014

Oakland Athletics +59

28

88-74

No

Lost AL Wild Card Game

2013

Boston Red Sox +38

28

97-65

Yes

Won WS

2012

Texas Rangers +56

23

93-69

No

Lost AL Wild Card Game

2011

Cleveland Indians+46

26

80-82

No

Missed Playoffs

2010

Tampa Bay Rays +68

23

96-66

Yes

Lost ALDS

2009

St. Louis Cardinals +37

23

91-71

Yes

Lost NLDS

2008

Arizona Diamonbacks +56

28

82-80

No

Missed Playoffs

2007

New York Mets +48

24

88-74

No

Missed Playoffs

2006

Detroit Tigers +50

25

95-67

No

Lost WS

2005

Florida Marlins +45

22

83-79

No

Missed Playoffs

2004

Houston Astros +41

22

92-70

No

Lost NLCS

2003

New York Yankees +79

27

101-61

Yes

Lost WS

2002

Boston Red Sox +53

23

93-69

No

Missed Playoffs

2001

Boston Red Sox +58

25

82-79

No

Missed Playoffs

2000

St. Louis Cardinals +51

25

95-67

Yes

Lost NLCS

1999

Cleveland Indians & Atlanta Braves +47

22 (both teams)

97-65 (CLE); 103-59 (ATL)

Yes (both teams)

Lost ALDS (CLE); Lost WS (ATL)

1998

Texas Rangers +59

26

88-74

Yes

Lost ALDS

1997

Atlanta Braves +67

25

101-61

Yes

Lost NLCS

1996

Montreal Expos +55

26

88-74

No

Missed Playoffs

No one in the past decade has beaten up on teams to the extent the Cubs did in April as only the 2003 Yankees have matched the 2016 Cubs' run differential. The Yankees did play five additional games but if you look at their run differential on April 24, 2003, after 22 games played, the Yankees were at +82. None of the other teams listed above were in the same conversation after 22 games. However, ten of the 21 teams above (counting both the Indians and Braves in 1999) won their respective division. Fourteen of the teams qualified for the postseason, and under the current wild card format, only the '01 Red Sox, '05 Marlins, '08 Diamondbacks, and '11 Indians - the only team above to finish with a losing record - would have missed the postseason.

This hardly tells us all that much. Again, it's just a single month, and speaking of early schedule imbalance, every team the Cubs have played currently sits with an even .500 record or worse and had a combined 68-99 record in April. But if history is any guide the Cubs at the very least are putting themselves in good position to win the NL Central and be as good of candidate as anyone to compete for the World Series.

The good news for the Cardinals - besides the fact that there are five months to go - is that they too have played well against the lesser teams (11-5 combined versus the Braves, Reds, Brewers, Padres, and Diamondbacks). In spite of the ugly numbers a few paragraphs back, it has still been more feast than famine from this sporadic, surprising offense resulting in a +34 run differential and a Pythagorean W-L of 15-9. Perhaps they're much better than the team that was just swept by the Washington Nationals.

Regardless, this morning the Cardinals sit six games out of first in the NL Central and three games out of the wild card. Is one month a good indicator for an entire season? Of course not. But last year the Cardinals gained a stronghold on the NL Central by racing out to a 6.5 game lead by early May, a lead which ballooned to nine games by late June and never dipped below two for the remainder of the season.

This year a mediocre April has put the Cardinals in a less enviable position: It's early and it already feels like the chase is on. In 2014 it took the Cardinals until August 31st to finally wrestle away first place from the Milwaukee Brewers, however, this Cubs team is a completely different species and wearing them down won't be as easy - especially if the Cardinals team of April turns out to be who they really are.