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Assessing the Cardinals chances if they make the playoffs

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Yeah, we’re getting a big step ahead of ourselves here. Let me dream though.

NLCS - St Louis Cardinals v San Francisco Giants - Game Five Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Cardinals had a rather uneventful deadline. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the Marco Gonzales/Tyler O’Neill trade, but I think we all wanted to see the Cardinals go in some direction. I don’t want to get to far into it, and The Red Baron already described the way I feel pretty well on Sunday. Rather than write a less eloquent version of what he already wrote, we’ll just try to move on. Oh well, I guess we just have to watch our favorite team try to make the playoffs.

The Cards are far from assured a playoff spot at this point, with just 10.9% chance according to Fangraphs’ playoff odds. It falls to 9.2% chance to make the NLDS, either through winning the division or a Wild Card spot as well as a Wild Card game win. Actually, that was yesterday, before they lost. The numbers will be updated by the time you read this, and it’ll probably be a slightly lower after a Cards loss, Cubs loss, and Diamondbacks win (the Rockies are tied in the 8th as I write this).

From that point on, I typically think of the playoffs as a crap-shoot. I mean, the better team is more likely to win, but there’s only so much difference between teams that make the playoffs. It’s probably easy for Cards fans to see things that way. We’ve seen the 2006 (83 wins) and 2011 (90) teams win World Series championships, while the 2002 (97), 2004 (105), 2005 (100), 2013 (97), and 2015 (100) teams all fell short. The 2001 Seattle Mariners hold the modern record for best regular season (116 wins) and were bounced in the ALCS by the Yankees in just five games.

That’s just a feeling though, backed up by a few examples that actually only constitute a small percentage of playoff teams. Today we’ll look at the math involved, using those playoff odds referenced earlier. Those rely on an average of Steamer and Zips - the two best public projections - for each player’s rate stats. Fangraphs writers allocate playing time for each player, and then they then run 10,000 simulations daily, and that’s how they come up with their playoff odds.

The simulation continues the process in the playoffs, so they can share with us the chances that each team reaches the Divisional Series, League Championship series, and World Series. Take it one step further and you have a team’s chances of winning the World Series, the ultimate goal.

By comparing the chances that a particular team has to reach say, the NLDS and NLCS, we can find the probability a team has of winning the NLDS, in a vacuum. And that’s the question I wanted to look into today: How much of an advantage (or disadvantage) can a team have in a playoff series?

The projections have an answer. Leaning heavily on those, I found the chances that each team has to win each individual round of the playoffs. Here’s the result, and yes it’s sortable:

Playoff Odds breakdown by team

Contending teams ROS W% win WC game win DS win CS win WS WC to WS win DS to WS win
Contending teams ROS W% win WC game win DS win CS win WS WC to WS win DS to WS win
Dodgers .614 --- 65.6% 55.2% 52.5% --- 19.0%
Indians .599 56.6% 53.1% 56.0% 57.0% 9.6% 17.0%
Astros .587 --- 60.1% 50.7% 53.4% --- 16.3%
Cubs .600 60.7% 56.1% 55.1% 52.6% 9.9% 16.3%
Red Sox .562 55.5% 50.2% 55.3% 52.9% 8.1% 14.7%
Yankees .513 53.4% 45.0% 44.2% 46.1% 4.9% 9.2%
Nationals .568 --- 45.2% 46.2% 43.1% --- 9.0%
Blue Jays .506 52.5% 43.2% 43.8% 42.9% 4.3% 8.1%
Rays .503 48.8% 37.5% 39.7% 44.0% 3.2% 6.5%
Cardinals .538 50.7% 39.0% 41.3% 36.8% 3.0% 5.9%
Diamondbacks .510 52.9% 37.6% 42.0% 35.2% 2.9% 5.6%
Mariners .498 47.2% 32.8% 31.7% 46.2% 2.3% 4.8%
Angels .496 45.7% 32.6% 42.9% 33.3% 2.1% 4.7%
Pirates .496 45.2% 31.8% 28.6% 50.0% 2.1% 4.5%
Royals .509 48.1% 36.2% 31.4% 33.3% 1.8% 3.8%
Orioles .467 43.6% 34.5% 30.0% 33.3% 1.5% 3.4%
Rockies .497 47.4% 30.5% 32.2% 28.2% 1.3% 2.8%
Brewers .451 44.8% 30.6% 26.7% 25.0% 0.9% 2.0%

Remember, these numbers are just for that particular round. It’s not including the team’s chances of making it to that round. That way, we can look at a single round in isolation.

This is a lot information thrown at you, but it has quite a few interesting nuggets. The Astros, Dodgers, and Nationals are not given a percentage chance of winning the Wild Card game, because the chances of them needing to play in one are so low that rounded numbers make things wonky.

Let’s go round-by-round. Excluding the above three teams, the Cubs have the single best chance to win a Wild Card game, at nearly 61%. That is almost a match with their rest-of-season projected Winning percentage (.600). That makes sense, as if they end up in the Wild Card game, the teams they have a chance to play - The Diamondbacks and Rockies, and to a much lesser extent the Cardinals, and Brewers - all project around .500. They project to finish the year with more wins than all four of those teams, so they’d have a decent chance of home field advantage. The Red Sox and the Indians both share the next-best advantage, though they both also are unlikely to need to play a Wild-Card game.

Let’s move on to the teams that probably won’t win their division. The Cards have very slightly more than a fair coin-flip’s chance of winning the Wild Card game. They’d likely be playing an away game, but the projections still see them as the 4th best N.L. team going forward, or the best team unlikely to win a division. The Yankees claim that title in the A.L. The Diamondbacks and Blue Jays both project for a slightly better than average chance of winning a Wild Card spot, but you’re still basically talking about a coin-flip. The likely division winners are the only teams that have significantly more than that.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Orioles and Brewers are the two worst projected contending teams. Thus, they have the lowest chances in a one-game playoff. It gets worse afterwards, as winning a series against a team better than you is harder than winning a single game against them.

It get’s more interesting in the next round. The Dodgers and Astros both have the highest likelihood of winning a divisional series. That’s because they’re (1) really good, and (2) will likely face a Wild-Card team. The Dodgers are 12 games ahead of the second-best record in the N.L., and the Astros are 9 12 up. Whatever team wins the Wild-Card game is likely to be the weakest team to make it to the divisional round in both leagues. On top of that, the division-winning teams will be able to get two starts out of their best pitchers, whereas the Wild Card representative will likely burn their ace in the one-game playoff, meaning they’ll only get one start out of their ace in a best of five series.

Correspondingly, the likely Wild Card teams take quite a hit in the DS, as they’ll most likely to playing the toughest team in their league. The Cardinals escape this fate more than the N.L. West squads, as the odds at this point see them as a division winner more often than not when they manage to make it to the NLDS. That would most likely mean they would be facing the Nats, who are also better than the Cards, but aren’t quite the behemoth the Dodgers are.

The Cards project for a mere 39% chance to win a divisional series. The Diamondbacks are a little behind that, but pretty close. The Rockies, Brewers, and Pirates lag behind, with around just 30% chance to win a best of five series that is probably against the best team in the league.

The general tiers hold up similarly in the LCS, but things tighten up in most cases. This is probably because it’s a little harder to gauge what teams will be playing who. The teams who would be Wild-Cards if they make it generally see their chances increase in the next round, as they at least won’t be playing the best team in the league anymore, and they can utilize their best starter the same as any other team.

The Cubs and Nationals see their odds stay the same. They go from likely playing each other, to most likely playing the Dodgers. The chance of getting to face a Wild-Card team in the NLCS balances things out though.

The chances of winning the World Series really shows the difference between the two leagues. Almost every American league team would have a greater chance of winning the World Series (if they get there) than winning the ALCS. The opposite is true in the N.L.

You might notice the Pirates have a 50% chance to win a World Series if they get there, but that’s the by-product of rounded numbers. They have just a 0.2% chance of reaching the World Series and a 0.1% chance of winning it. Using the unrounded numbers likely puts them around other .500ish clubs, with around a third of chance of winning the World Series if they get their.

The last two columns attempt to aggregate all of this. Eight teams make it past the Wild-Card game, so on average, teams have a 1 out of 8 (or 12.5%) chance of winning the World Series if they make it that far. According to the projections, five teams project for a shot better than that. The Dodgers have nearly a 1 out of 5 chance of winning the World Series from the beginning of the divisional round. Since they have about a 100% chance of making it that far, that means they have about a 1 in 5 chance of winning the World Series right now. The Indians, Astros, Cubs, and Red Sox also are above-average playoff-contending teams.

Interestingly, the other likely division winning team - the Nationals - have just a 1 in 11 shot of going from the NLDS to World Series championships. Their path to the World Series likely involves having to beat both the Cubs and the Dodgers, the only two N.L. teams projected better than them.

If they can pull that off, they have a decent chance of facing either the Astros or Indians, who also project better than the Nationals. The Red Sox project a little worse, but only because the actual schedule remaining schedule is taken into account. The Red Sox are projected as the better team in a neutral context. They, along with the Astros and Indians combine for a 93% percent chance to represent the A.L. in the World Series at the moment. In other words, the Nationals probably have to beat three teams that are better than them to win the World Series.

To put this in perspective, the Cubs and Indians - and probably the Dodgers and Astros - have a greater chance of going from the Wild Card game to winning the World Series than the Nationals have when starting in the NLDS. They’re a great team that will miss the Wild-Card game. Nevertheless, they have significantly less chance to win the World Series than their likely division winning counterparts at the beginning of the playoffs.

Let’s get back to the Cardinals. The hope for me was that the Cards can make it to the NLDS one way or the other. Then I figured they’re probably not far off a 1 out of 8 shot of getting that twelfth ring. However, the accumulated disadvantage of winning three series against three better teams takes quite the toll. The projections give them just a 6% chance of going from the NLDS to World Champions, less than half the average. Starting from the Wild-Card, it’s a 1 out of 33 shot.

Of course, it’s not World Series or bust, which is why I went to the trouble of showing each round on it’s own. However, the more playoff series the better, for both the fans and ownership. After the coin-flip Wild-Card game, the Cards have around a 40% chance of winning any given round.

So the Cardinals have an uphill climb to get to the playoffs, which is itself another uphill climb. That’s probably not what you want to hear, ultimately. But hey, if the Cardinals do pull it off, then this just supplies additional context for how amazing it would be. And boy would it be the biggest Cardinals-playoffs thing ever to knock the Dodgers out again. Well, either that or losing to the Giants, but that’s not a possibility this time around. Here’s to hoping the Cardinals still have some magic up their sleeves in 2017.