At the start of the season, I took a look at the Cardinals strength-of-schedule for 2016. In the past, I've looked at a variety of factors, including projected opponent records and home/away stretches. In Major League Baseball, variations in strength-of-schedule don't make too much of a difference by the end of the season, but in stretches, it can distort things.
This year, I set aside some of that on the premise that the National League divided itself clearly into two groups: Teams that were tanking and teams that were not. (Some object to that "tanking" term, so for now I'll call them the teams that are competitive and the teams that are not.)
I identified the "noncompetitive teams" as the Braves, Brewers, Padres, Phillies, Rockies and Reds. Taking them all as race-to-the-bottom teams with a true talent winning percentage of .320, I expected the Cardinals to post about a .680 winning percentage against those teams. If the Cardinals could put together a .500 winning percentage against the rest of the league, that would mean 93 wins, which seemed to be about what they would need to feel pretty well assured of a Wild Card spot. (These winning percentage expectations were based on the table here.)
So, how have the actual results stacked-up through the first half?
Against the non-competitive teams, the Cardinals are racking-up wins at a better-than-expected rate, .750. Against the competitive teams, the Cardinals have been a good bit worse than I'd hoped, only winning at a .415 clip.
That puts the Cardinals on-pace for an 86 win season, and would leave them just outside of the Wild Card behind the Mets and Dodgers, both on-pace for 88 wins. (Though we're a couple games past, I'm looking at all teams records after 81 games to keep things first half / second half.)
It's hard to imagine the Cardinals improving on that .750 winning percentage against non-competitive teams, so the most obvious area for improvement would be to win more against good teams. That said, even if they simply maintain their current paces, the Cardinals have 36 of their 64 games against the bad teams remaining. That could translate into a couple extra wins in the second half and allow them to match the Mets/Dodgers pace.
How accurate was my grouping of
tanking non-competitive teams? As of July 3, the more-or-less halfway point for most teams, the six teams I identified were all in the cellar of the National League, the best of them (the Rockies) still 3.5 games back of the pack from the competitive teams.
The one outlier amongst their ranks is the Diamondbacks, expected to be competitive but sitting just behind the Rockies. Injuries and ineffectiveness have obviously torpedoed their season, but going forward, even if they are not demonstrably better, I would expect them to at least try to remain "competitive" given all the chips they've already pushed-in on this current roster.
Of course, I completely missed the biggest story in terms of #StlCards schedule splits this season: Their complete inability to win at Busch Stadium. In the Matheny era, the club has won at a .643 clip at home and never posted a losing record. This year, they are 18-24 at Busch III, a .429 winning percentage.
Why can't the 2016 Cardinals win at home? I have no answer other than Random Baseball Weirdness.
On a performance level, there's been even more weirdness with this team. Expected to pitch well and struggle for offense yet again, they are instead struggling on the mound but jacking dingers like it's 2005 or something.
Despite all the fluctuations and ups-and-downs, Fangraphs expected the Cardinals to be about a .520 team, and that's what they are. They will likely need to be just a little bit better to get into the playoffs.