The 21st century St. Louis Cardinals have been the recipients of some of the greatest fortune for which a baseball team could possibly dare to dream.
An 83-win team which nearly suffered a historic September collapse, somehow, won the World Series in 2006. Twice in 2011 (technically three times, since Lance Berkman faced the situation for two pitches), the Cardinals were one strike away from being eliminated from the World Series in six games; they eventually beat the Texas Rangers in seven.
The next season, a team which needed the second wild-card spot (during its first year of existence) just to make the playoffs eliminated the regular season's best team after overcoming a six-run deficit in a winner-take-all game thanks to 9th inning tying and go-ahead hits by Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma. Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma!
If the Cardinals miss the 2016 postseason, fans of baseball's other 29 teams will not be sympathetic. Nor should they be. Recent iterations of the Cardinals, though certainly good, have achieved disproportionately positive results—dismissing the recent Cardinals run as strictly #CardinalsDevilMagic is too simplistic, but to deny good fortune is equally silly.
With that said, in 2016, the St. Louis Cardinals deserve to make the postseason with a Wild Card berth. The reason, in its most basic form, is that five teams will make the playoffs from the National League, and the Cardinals are one of the five best teams in the National League in 2016.
Entering today, the Cardinals trail the San Francisco Giants by one game for the second spot in the Wild Card game. And if the Cardinals are unable to pass them, it will not be due to lack of opportunities—since the All-Star Break, only the Minnesota Twins have a worse record than the San Francisco Giants. And while the Cardinals have disappointed fans who anticipated the team to at least maintain a fair fight with the Chicago Cubs for the NL Central title, and their 37-34 post-break record has been frustratingly mediocre, it is nevertheless the 5th best record in the NL in that time.
The nature of the Wild Card era is that not-great teams make the playoffs sometimes. Cardinals fans should know this well, seeing as a decidedly not-great Cardinals team not only made the postseason but won the title ten years ago. In 2007, the Arizona Diamondbacks made the NLCS despite allowing more runs than they scored during the season, a stat which holds true even if you include their NLDS sweep of the Cubs in the calculation.
To put things in perspective, here is the percentage of MLB teams that made the playoffs, by era:
- 1903-1960: 12.5% (2 league winners; 16 teams)
- 1961: 11.1% (2 league winners, 18 teams)
- 1962-1968: 10% (2 league winners, 20 teams)
- 1969-1976: 16.7% (4 division winners, 24 teams)
- 1977-1992: 15.4% (4 division winners, 26 teams; one exception was 1981, in which eight teams made the playoffs and there were split-season division winners and since I wasn’t alive for it, I’m agnostic about whether or not the 1981 season actually happened)
- 1993: 14.3% (4 division winners, 28 teams)
- 1995-1997: 28.6% (8 playoff teams, 28 teams)
- 1998-2011: 26.7% (8 playoff teams, 30 teams)
- 2012-present: 33.3% (10 playoff teams, 30 teams)
It has never been easier to make the postseason. The entry for barrier to the postseason has been lowered to depths that would have been considered inconceivable in previous eras.
But teams can only play the cards they’ve been dealt, and as it stands (and, because MLB owners tend to like the extra revenue that comes with it, it is more likely that the playoffs would expand going forward rather than contract), five teams will make it to the playoffs from the NL.
By run differential, the three Wild Card contenders are very close. By record, they are very close.
But it is the Cardinals who overcame playing in the toughest division in the National League, a designation backed up by the standings (that the Cubs got out to such a commanding division lead, which is mostly unrelated to the Cardinals themselves, perhaps programmed fans to feel a sense of doom and gloom earlier than normally would be the case). It is the Cardinals who are the only one of the three teams to not have a winning record in one-run games, a stat typically emblematic of luck since it is almost never sustained on a year-to-year basis even when rosters remain fairly static. It is the Cardinals who have weathered the storm of DL stints from Matt Carpenter, Michael Wacha, Aledmys Diaz, Matt Holliday, Brandon Moss, Trevor Rosenthal, Tommy Pham...
Okay, so let me, 750+ words into this post, level with you: my point isn’t really that the Cardinals deserve to make the postseason. But they don’t not deserve to, either.
Watching the Cardinals has been frustrating. As Joe Schwarz wrote yesterday, this particular Cardinals season has felt more like a chore than something truly enjoyable at times. But, despite last year’s National League competition being between a 98-win Pirates team and a 97-win Cubs team, the Wild Card Game is mostly a battle of flawed teams.
Three of the six participants in the NLWCG prior to last year had won 88 games, hardly representative of overwhelming baseball greatness. And regardless, at least one and probably both of the NL Wild Card Game participants will have fewer wins than that.
And no matter what team emerges from next Wednesday night as the opponent of the Chicago Cubs, that team will have a decent, at least not a considerably worse than 1-in-8, chance of winning the World Series. And just as the Cardinals receive no sympathy for their 2004 and 2005 teams coming up empty handed despite a league-leading 105 and 100 wins, respectively, the Cardinals should offer no apologies for whatever happens in the remaining days, weeks, or month-plus of 2016.
The best team does not always win the World Series. In any of the major North American professional sports, the occasionally overlong playoff structure creates such parity that even in the league in which the best team most frequently wins, the NBA, the winningest team in league history can come up empty (my sources can confirm what has been rumored for several months: that the Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 series lead in the NBA Finals).
So what I’m asking is why not the Cardinals? By any standard where the Cardinals do not “deserve” it, neither do the Giants and neither do the Mets. And as fortuitous as the last five seasons have been, the Cardinals are not in a position in which they should be scoffing at even the most ridiculous of playoff appearances. Because as anybody who remembers 2006 can attest, not only are the 2016 Cardinals not that ridiculous of a playoff team, but any team can, if given a seat at the table, emerge as champions.