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The Cardinals really need to win their Cubs games

An early frontrunner in our “most obvious headline of the year” competition, but here are the numbers — and an eight-man bullpen update.

Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The 2018 MLB regular season is already nearly three weeks old. It’s still too early to be drawing conclusions, but there are lots of official games on the books — around 10% of the season’s games have been played. The Cardinals, at 9-7, are in a slightly better position than they were when the season began, in a couple different ways.

Before the season, FanGraphs projected the Cardinals to win something like 87 games (the exact number varied depending on the noisy projections of the back of the bullpen, which tells you something about how imprecise those projections are). At 9-7 against a basically neutral slate of opponents overall, the Cardinals are now on a 91-win pace. That’s an improvement. Their playoff odds have also improved a notch, according to FanGraphs, from 61.6% to 63.6%. That increase would be more after a solid start, but unfortunately other Wild Card contenders (most notably the Mets and Diamondbacks, though don’t write off this Pirates team yet) surged out of the gates even more strongly, and their gains keep the Cardinals in a far from secure Wild Card position.

Plan A, though, doesn’t need to be the Wild Card race. Plan A should be to avoid all that — and the automatic ~50% hit to World Series odds attached to playing in the wild card game — by simply winning the NL Central. The Cardinals are underdogs in that race, but it’s far from impossible. FanGraphs currently gives them a 24.9% chance of it, up from 15% on Opening Day. The Cubs are 7-7 (and that’s largely against bad teams), meaning the Cards have already banked a full game in the standings over them. The Cardinals have taken what amounts to a small head start.

As I wrote in February, it wouldn’t be that weird for the Cards to take the division despite projecting as a worse team than the Cubs:

Projections are useful to the extent they prevent a 75-wins-on-paper team from mistakenly acting like an 85-win one in the offseason, or vice versa. But over the last 13 seasons, the average error — the difference between real end-of-season record and what was projected — in the projections FanGraphs publishes was seven games. If the Cardinals finish +5 against their projections in 2018, and the Cubs finish -5, that should come as no huge surprise to anybody. It’s not likely, but it’s also not that weird. It’s a normal amount of weird, for baseball.

In that article, I focused on reasonable ways the Cardinals could overperform their projections in the aggregate and catch the Cubs on paper. In this one, I want to look at a more straightforward way: the Cardinals could simply beat the Cubs most of the times they play them this year. They don’t need to be “better” than the Cubs per se to do this; a slightly less talented team beating a slightly better one happens every day of the season. They just need to go out and win the games.

Although it’s only April, the impact of each game the Cardinals win (or lose) this year against the Cubs is already substantial. The Cards’ odds of winning the division rose by 10 points simply by virtue of locking in their current one-game lead over Chicago (along with Milwaukee opening at .500). The importance of these 19 games is intuitively apparent, but just look at the numbers:

  • The Cardinals are currently 9-7, the Cubs 7-7. The Cardinals project as a 86-win true talent team per FanGraphs, and the Cubs as a 92 or 93-win team. If they play at those rates the rest of the year, starting with their current records, the Cardinals will finish with 86-87 wins and the Cubs with 91-92 wins.
  • If the Cardinals win each three-game series against the Cubs 2-1, and split the lone four-game series, their season record against Chicago will be 12-7. If both teams play to their projections in all their other games, the Cardinals will end up at 88-89 wins, and the Cubs at 87-88. That, by itself — with no need to assume the Cardinals are better than their current projections, or the Cubs worse than theirs — swings the division to the Cardinals.
  • Looking at it another way, if the FanGraphs projections for the Cubs turn out exactly right against everybody but the Cardinals (.571 record the rest of the season), and the Cubs win the season series 11-8, the Cardinals would have to play .589 ball against everybody else to keep pace — a 95-win pace. If the Cubs take it 12-7, St. Louis needs a 98-win pace against all others.
  • But if the Cardinals win the series just 10-9, they only need a 90-win pace against the rest of the league (i.e. their actual rate so far, basically). If they win it 11-8, that’s 87, at 12-7 it’s 85, and at 13-6 it’s 82. If the Cardinals go 14-5 against their biggest rival, they can play under .500 against the rest of the league all year and still finish in front of Chicago (although they may well be hearing footsteps from others by this point).

All this is academic, because of course the teams will play all those other games in reality, and they very likely won’t go the way they’re projected to. The teams might be better or worse than their respective projections in terms of actual talent (you think Tommy Pham agrees with FanGraphs that he’s only putting up 3.0 more WAR this year?), and also might play better or worse than their actual talent levels would indicate. On top of all that, there’s always the vagaries of luck and injuries.

But the Cardinals start their first series against the Cubs today (maybe; it’s snowing outside my window in Chicago as this post is published). And even though it’s only April, all these games are already critically important. That’s life as an underdog.

In addition, as promised, here’s your weekly update on whether Mike Matheny has a plan or not for utilizing the eight-man bullpen he’s insisted upon. Here’s his bullpen usage in the last week — with a couple days the week before tacked on, for necessary context:

This isn’t quite as pointless-looking as week one (which featured Mike Mayers literally not pitching for the span of a week), but I’m still not seeing a lot to like, here. John Brebbia threw only one inning all week, in particular. And Matheny wasn’t without opportunity to lean on his expanded bullpen to make early starter pulls in key situations: Adam Wainwright took a high-leverage PA in the bottom of the 5th inning on the 12th, and that game ended with two clearly available relievers (or one and an injured-but-somehow-still-on-the-active-roster Sam Tuivailala) unused.

So last week, the Cardinals continued to carry an extra reliever they didn’t really find a use for. Maybe this week!