It’s getting down to the line. Either the Cardinals make the playoffs for a sixth year in a row, which would stand alone as the third best streak in the Wild-Card Era, or they miss the playoffs for the first time since 2010, without taking advantage of the biggest seller’s market in recent memory.
It bears pointing out that the Cardinals wouldn’t even be in this situation if they had played to their BaseRuns record, which is seven wins better than their actual record. If each teams’ timing was neutral, the Cardinals would be 5 games in front of the Giants and 8.5 games in front of the Mets.
Being that timing has not been observed to be a repeatable skill, that’s a tough break for the Cardinals. Still though, they’re right in the thick of things with 19 to go. The Cardinals have another tough break: they have the toughest schedule remaining of their current Wild-Card competitors. Here is the remaining schedule for each team, along with the current winning percentage of each team as well as the projected Rest Of Season (ROS) of each of those teams:
The Mets have two games against the Nationals remaining, but after that they don’t face another team over .500. They face the Phillies seven more times which is great for them. But even better for them is the fact that their average opponent Win% is nearly identical to that of the Phillies’ Win%. In other words, their remaining strength of schedule is nearly the same as what it would be if they faced the Phillies in every game for the rest of the year.
The Giants’ average opponent from here on out is almost exactly .500 in both metrics, with six games against the Dodgers, but also get six games against the Padres and three against the Rockies. The Cardinals will at least get a four game set with the Giants to make up ground directly.
The Cardinals on the other hand, have five games remaining against the best team in baseball. Not counting the Giants series, it’s not that bad after that, with three against the Rockies and four against the Reds. The team also has a three game set against Pittsburgh, who is not exactly a powerhouse or a pushover. Overall, the Redbirds have the toughest schedule of the three, and the average opponent’s actual and projected records are pretty close to the Cardinals’ own.
How can we get a better idea of how this affects expectations? Well, Fangraphs has an answer. I pulled those team projections from Fangraphs’ projected standings page. Those numbers are formed from taking each players’ projected stats and playing time and summing them in a way to get an expected BaseRuns record on a team level. There is no adjustment made here to account for the schedule remaining, it’s simply a calculation of that team’s projected skill level.
However, Fangraphs also provides a different ROS Win% calculation on their playoff odds page. Those numbers start with the projected standings numbers, and then add in strength of schedule. Let’s look at the Cardinals’, Mets’, and Giants’ projections from both pages:
Just taking projected production, without an adjustment for opponent, the Cardinals are considered nearly as good as the Giants, and much better than the Mets. However, when adding in the context of strength of schedule, the Cardinals are projected for the worst record going forward.
That doesn’t mean we should start dooming; we’re still looking at marginal differences here. The projected final records shown in the last column indicate that the Mets are expected to add 0.7 games to their current half a game lead, with the Giants expected to pick up a couple tenths of a win. That’s certainly not an insurmountable advantage, but it’s still a bummer that the projections expect the Cardinals to fall further behind, rather than gain ground.
Let’s not call the season over by any means. The Cardinals just have to leapfrog one of these two teams, and have 19 games to do so. Anything can happen. Fangraphs’ playoff odds, which are based on the numbers used here, give the Birdos a 42.4% chance of taking home one of making the playoffs. That’s compared to 77.1% for the Giants and 70.6% for the Mets. The Cardinals certainly can still bring home their sixth consecutive playoff berth, they’re just not favored to do so anymore. It’s basically a coin-flip, but weighted against the Cards a bit.
Games are not played on paper. The 2016 Cardinals’ regular season will play out how it plays out. The Cardinals could get hot, storm into the playoffs hot, and go on a deep October run. All it really takes to change the picture today is a Cardinals win and a Mets loss. That should put the Cardinals at better than a fair coin-flip to make the playoffs going forward, regardless of what the Giants do.
On the bright side, according to BaseRuns, the Cardinals are clearly the better team. They’ll have to use that advantage to make up for a weaker schedule than the Mets, and for having less banked wins than the Giants. I, for one, am ready for the Cardinals to have another memorable September and October. Here’s to hoping they can make it happen.