Last night the Cardinals had their seventh opportunity in 2016 to go ten games over .500 and it’s the seventh time they’ve failed. The last time they were eight games over .500 or worse after 138 games was five years ago when they had an identical record and needed a 17-7 finish to squeak into the playoffs. Absent a similar furious race to the end or a collapse down the stretch, the Cardinals’ 2016 season will be summed up by remarkable consistency of rather unremarkable play.
The Cardinals are one of two teams in all of MLB who, up to this point, do not have a winning or losing streak longer than five games (the other team, somehow, is San Diego). That means there hasn’t been a full week this season when you haven’t gone to bed happy or sad at least once. Going back the last 25 years, only twice have the Cardinals been able to make a similar claim over the course of an entire season – 2009 and 2012 - and they made the postseason both times because they were able to play at least one month-and-a-half of very good baseball. This year has been different.
The Cardinals’ best 40-game stretch this season was from early June to late July when they went 23-17. The last time they failed to win at least 24 games over a 40 game span during a season was 1999 (their best 40-game stretch that season was 23-17 as well) – the year before the current Cardinals’ golden age commenced. Finding a worse “best” record over 40 games takes us back to 1995 when the Cardinals went 22-18 from mid-August to the end of September – the year before Tony La Russa claimed his spot in the dugout and a season in which the Cardinals had their second worst winning percentage (.434) since 1978.
Conversely, they haven’t had a completely forgettable stretch either. The Cardinals’ worst record over 40 games this season is 20-20 (mid April to late May), which is quite good. In the National League, the only other team to not have a losing record over their worst 40 games of baseball is the Nationals (also 20-20). Other than last season when they went an amazing 23-17 over their worst 40 games of baseball (August 22 until the end of the season), the Cardinals haven’t posted a .500 record or better over their worst 40-game stretch in a season since 2005.
The result is the least erratic baseball team in the NL. Below are all NL teams’ best and worst 40-game stretches in 2016, as ranked by largest difference in win total:
While their brethren are streaking in either direction, the Cardinals keep modestly plodding along. It’s why they’re firmly entrenched where they are - good enough to be in the thick of the wild card hunt but that’s it.
When compared to every Cardinals team in the aforementioned golden era (2000-present), the results are the same:
Are there any pertinent conclusions to draw here? Possibly not. The starting pitching obviously has not been good aside from Carlos Martinez, who’s the only one on staff with an ERA below 4.41. As a whole, the Cardinals’ starters are very likely to finish outside of the top third in the NL in run prevention for the first time since 2011. Five of the six teams in front of them (Cubs, Nationals, Mets, Giants, Dodgers, and Marlins) were able to sustain a 40-game stretch at least ten games over .500, with the Marlins (24-16) being the exception. The relief core has been better when compared to their peers and their collective 3.56 ERA ranks fourth in the NL, but is still a dramatic drop off from the elite 2.82 ERA posted by the bullpen last year.
The Cardinals’ longest streak of games this season allowing less than four runs is a total of four (games 60-63) in which they went 4-0. There are two other three-game stretches (games 38-40 and 52-54 where they went a combined 4-2) and that’s it.
Now look at how this compares to last season: The 2015 Cardinals had two stretches of seven games in which they held their opponents to less than four runs, three stretches of six games, three stretches of five games, and two stretches of four games. And that might be the simple reason why the Cardinals have been unable to build a winning streak in 2016 - they’ve been asking too much from the offense all season.
Before this year, much was made (often on this very site) of the Cardinals having a lot of high floor/low ceiling-type of players. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that what’s unfolded is a high floor/low ceiling-type of team. The Mets have joined what looks like a three-team race for the two wild card spots and have 19 of their 22 remaining games versus teams a combined 84 games under .500. The Cardinals also still have a series left with the Giants, as well as six games with the Cubs. If they’re going to make it to the other side, they might have to figure out what they haven’t figured out all year which is how to string together a lot of wins.
Credit to the Baseball-Reference Play Index (Streaks category) for much of the statistics in this post.