The Cardinals might make the playoffs. This morning they’re two games behind the Cubs for the division lead, and three games behind the Rockies for the second Wild Card. The Cardinals play the Cubs seven more times, and the Rockies none, which gives the Birdos a lot more control over their fate in the Central race as opposed to the Wild Card. But both paths are real possibilities.
Butting up against the fact that it’s the second week of September and the Cardinals are a contending team, we have the fact that we’ve relentlessly heard (and/or said) all year that the 2017 Cardinals are fundamentally a mediocre team. Jokes about 2006 aside, it’s hard to look at a mediocre team and think they have a reasonable chance of going through three straight very good teams in the playoffs. But let’s remove the yolk of “they’re mediocre!” from our mind for just a minute, and look at the team objectively, in its current form. I can see at least three reasons to believe that if the Cardinals make the tournament, they’ve got a puncher’s chance:
I. [insert 2006 joke]
I’m serious, though: there’s no better proof than the 2006 champions that this is just a question of math. The playoffs are not a complete crapshoot, as if every game is actually a coin flip, but… it’s baseball, so it’s pretty close. A .600 team beats a .500 team something like 60% of the time. Even if you think the Cards are dead average, they have something like a 40% chance of beating a very good team on any given night. Factoring in home field advantage, that leaves a .500 club with a ~30% chance of winning a five-game series vs. a .600 one, and a ~28% chance of winning a seven-game series.
Even those fairly low odds would make St. Louis a legitimate danger to anybody they play in a single series. It would give the Cardinals -- under the assumptions they’re a .500 true-talent club, all the other playoff teams are .600 true-talent clubs -- a 2-3% chance of winning the World Series merely by reaching the NLDS. 2-3% is low, but it’s higher than the <1% chance of winning it all the club had after getting swept by the Dodgers from August 22-24, 2011.
And, as an escape clause from the rushed negative feedback surely induced by this comparison, the Cardinals do not actually appear to be a .500-caliber team.
II. The early-season Cardinals were better than their record
Or, what Ben said. If you haven’t read that (which you should), the upshot is that the Cardinals by the metrics (team wRC+, ERA/FIP, Bsr, and UZR/DRS) looked quite solid through late August -- in every way but clutch performance, which found the Cards near the bottom on both sides of the ball. Clutch performance that is notably above or below normal isn’t something that tends to persist (it’s noise, not a skill) and, lo and behold, since Ben published that piece the Cards are 8th in clutch hitting and 16th in clutch pitching, which is completely meaningless other than as an illustration that clutch performance varies wildly and unpredictably.
The Cardinals unfortunately banked a disappointing record in the early going. Whether they “deserved” that record is a theological matter that I do not wish to take up here today. It is sufficient to say that the raw material the team was working with was always superior to their mediocre record. Built as it was on a foundation of poor clutch performance -- which we shouldn’t assume will continue, and in fact has not continued -- but otherwise good play, the Cardinals’ meh record should not be held out as evidence that they can’t compete come playoff time, if they get there.
III. The roster right now is the best it’s been all year
The Cardinals are 32-23 since the All-Star Break, 23-15 since August 1, and 8-2 in September. As astute commenter blindmouse noted, the team as currently constituted -- meaning with Tommy Pham and Paul DeJong* locked in as starters, basically -- has been together three months, during which time they’ve played at a 90+ win pace.
*There’s some downward regression due in how some of the guys (particularly those two) have played, but there are many places to point to likely upward regression as well -- from players like Stephen Piscotty to units like Whoever Pitches In Late And Close Games.
Here are the key changes on the current roster versus earlier in the season:
· Pham has displaced Randal Grichuk
· DeJong has displaced Aledmys Diaz
· Luke Weaver has displaced Mike Leake
· …Jack Flaherty has displaced Adam Wainwright, although we’ll see if that sticks
Depending on how exactly one projects the players in question, the first three are obvious impacts: we may be looking at a collective five wins worth of true-talent improvement over the Opening Day roster, there (or more, but calm down; five is already a lot). The fourth is a bigger question mark, but it’s hard to say I’m less confident of Flaherty on the mound right now than I am of Waino. The right-now club -- given good health, which of late has not been a given! important caveat! -- simply looks more talented than the team that meandered out to a .500 start in the spring.
(Yes, the bullpen is still a big question mark, after Trevor Rosenthal went down, and yes, a lack of dominant relief pitching is not helpful in October. Juan Nicasio is postseason ineligible; I have nothing here. Toss Sandy Alcantara in there, toss Seung Hwan Oh overboard, cross your fingers Flaherty can do a 2011 Lance Lynn impression, and hope for the best. A mediocre bullpen isn’t fatal on its own.)
If my word isn’t good enough, here are some updated, rest-of-season projections from FanGraphs: the Cardinals’ current roster projects for the third-most batting WAR in the NL, and fourth-most pitching WAR (which includes the shaky bullpen). No, they are not what you’d call neck-and-neck with the super-teams in LA and Washington. But they’re not in the middle, either. The right-now-this-morning version of the Cardinals is a good baseball team.
That might not be enough, of course. They still have to make the damn playoffs, and that’s a long shot. Matt Carpenter’s bum shoulder might keep him from contributing much, Jedd Gyorko might not make it back in time, Dexter Fowler’s various nagging ailments may nag him out of service. Perhaps most importantly -- what a wonderful phrase to have no choice but to write about this guy -- Tommy Pham’s eyes might keep bothering him. All of that stuff would make the hypothetical playoff Cardinals less dangerous than they otherwise appear.
But if they do make it, and are healthy, neither other teams nor Cardinals fans should overlook their chances. While we’ve been distracted by ugly losses and a stubbornly middling W-L, the Cardinals have compiled the fourth-best team wRC+ (excluding pitchers) in all of baseball, with a top-10 rotation to support the offense. If you think you can dismiss a team like that out of hand, in a run of five-to-seven-game series, you’re crazy.
This team can play.
[update: I’d previously said fifth-best team wRC+, but it’s actually fourth-best as of publication time. thanks, mattybobo.]