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What the Cardinals record against good teams says for their postseason chances

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Unlike the teams of recent past, the 2016 Cardinals have not fared well against good teams in the early going.

Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

Following yesterdays 10-5 loss to the Pirates, the Cardinals now have a 2-10 record versus teams who were projected to have a winning record in 2016. Seven of those losses have happened at Busch. The Cardinals, of course, took three of four from the Phillies last week, who currently sit at 18-14, but since it's still very early in the season and the Phillies were projected to finish at or near the bottom in MLB, I'm going to hold off on lumping them in with the Cubs, Nationals, and Pirates.

Following yesterday's game, J.J. Bailey of KMOV outlined some of the Cardinals' woes against the better competition:

The lineup is hitting nearly 80 points worse when their opponent is above .500, and their slugging percentage falls off a cliff as well.

Taking away the offensive outburst in the Phillies series, the Cardinals are slugging just .341 against elevated competition with seven home runs and 19 doubles in 364 at bats.

This early stumble against good teams represents a blip on the radar but so far deviates from other Cardinals teams during the Matheny era. From 2012 to 2015, the Cardinals were 375-273, which was the best in baseball and eleven wins better than the second place Dodgers. During that span the Cardinals had a .538 wining percentage versus teams with a .500 record or better - easily the best in baseball and only one other team (Tigers) could boast a winning record. The entire league was 4,626-5,743 (.446). Versus teams with a losing record the Cardinals went 212-133, good for a .614 winning percentage and exactly the type of record you'd want and expect from a good team but one that was only fifth overall in all of MLB, and third in the NL behind the Dodgers and Nationals.

So the Cardinals have separated themselves from the pack in recent years by breaking serve more often versus good teams. But suppose the early returns are indicative - how bad can the Cardinals be versus good competition to still salvage a spot in the postseason? If recent history is any guide, in some cases pretty bad, but overall, falling outside the middle of the pack could mean trouble.

Since the beginning of the Wild Card era, here are the teams each year who had the worst record versus teams .500 or better and still qualified for the postseason:

Year

Team

Record / W/L%

Record vs. teams >= .500

Rank in MLB

Playoff Result

1995

Rockies*

77-67 .535

26-33 .441

14th

Lost NLDS

1996

Orioles*

88-74 .543

29-46 .387

26th

Lost ALCS

1997

Indians

86-75 .534

19-28 .404

19th

Lost WS

1998

Indians

89-73 .549

30-32 .484

10th

Lost ALCS

1999

Astros

97-65 .599

20-30 .400

15th

Lost NLDS

2000

Cardinals

95-67 .586

33-37 .471

12th

Lost NLCS

2001

Diamondbacks

92-70 .568

42-43 .494

10th

Won WS

2002

Twins

94-67 .584

28-33 .459

11th

Lost ALCS

2003

Twins

90-72 .556

39-42 .481

11th

Lost ALDS

2004

Twins

92-70 .568

28-29 .491

10th

Lost ALDS

2005

Padres

82-80 .506

31-29 .517

8th

Lost NLDS

2006

Dodgers*

88-74 .543

19-38 .333

29th

Lost NLDS

2007

Cubs

85-77 .525

32-37 .464

15th

Lost NLDS

2008

White Sox

89-74 .546

40-48 .455

16th

Lost ALDS

2009

Cardinals

91-71 .562

28-32 .467

15th

Lost NLDS

2010

Reds

91-71 .562

20-33 .377

27th

Lost NLDS

2011

Brewers

96-66 .593

27-34 .443

17th

Lost NLCS

2012

Cardinals**

88-74 .543

39-40 .494

12th

Lost NLCS

2013

Indians*

92-70 .568

36-52 .409

21st

Lost WC Game

2014

Dodgers

94-68 .580

26-33 .441

18th

Lost NLDS

2015

Mets

90-72 .556

28-38 .424

20th

Lost WS

*Wild Card

**Second Wild Card

(A few stray thoughts: First, if channelling Jim Mora, understand the Cardinals have a +40 run differential, fourth best in the NL, so thinking they're a playoff team is certainly reasonable. Second, 2005 is the only season in which the eight teams with the best records versus teams .500 or better all qualified for the postseason. Third, in 2010, the Cardinals had the best record in baseball versus winning teams (37-23) and stayed home from the postseason because they went 49-53 against the lesser field. It was galling. The 2014 Mariners are the only other team to do that in the last 21 years.)

Per the chart above, four times teams have finished in the bottom third versus teams .500 or better and still waltzed into the postseason. In fact, in 2006 the Dodgers had the second worst record in all of baseball against this subset. But overall, the 21 teams listed above were 620-767 (.447) versus teams .500 or better and the average rank in MLB from year to year was around 16th.

So to make the postseason it's not imperative for the Cardinals to continue their recent run against good teams. (To be clear, this is hardly unique to Matheny's tenure - since 2000 the Cardinals have a .521 winning percentage against .500 or better teams which is second to only the Yankees.) And it's not imperative to ensure postseason success either. While only one of the teams above went on to win the World Series, that's more of a statement on the randomness of postseason baseball in the Wild Card era. To compare, since 1995, only two teams with the best record versus teams .500 or better won the World Series ('95 Braves and '09 Yankees).

However, the wins will have to come from somewhere. Not to be presumptuous but the Cardinals already find themselves nine games behind the Cubs and for the sake of clarity let's assume their best shot at the postseason will be a wild card. Since the second wild card was added in 2012, the eight NL wild card teams have averaged 92 wins. That's not a small task. There is certainly still a lot of baseball to play, including 29 games against the Cubs and Pirates, as well as games with the Nationals, Mets, and whoever is good in the NL West - so plenty of time for the Cardinals to correct their record on this front. If they don't, luckily they play in the NL Central which is home to the Reds and Brewers - two demonstrably bad teams - but the margin of error against them and teams of their ilk will be that much smaller.

The stats from the chart above come via the Play Index at Baseball-Reference.