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Strength of Schedule and the Cardinals’ Playoff Odds

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As the calendar flips to May, we begin to get an idea of what the NL wild card chase might look like in 2018.

Photo by Michael B. Thomas /Getty Images

A note from proofreading Tyler: I began typing this article out with a completely different idea in mind than what the final product ultimately became. I flipped from revisiting the best single-game performances of last month to the most surprising developments from April to an early analysis of the NL wild card pursuit and how a lighter schedule should benefit the Cardinals as they look to flag down teams like the Mets and Diamondbacks. I hope you find this piece informative and enjoyable.

We have reached what arguably constitutes the first noteworthy milestone of the regular season. It seems like just yesterday that the Cardinals and Mets squared off at Citi Field on a chilly Thursday afternoon, but the calendar has already flipped to May. With the first full month of the season in the books, some individual player stats are beginning to stabilize, but we still have a ways to go before we can declare with great confidence our assessments of Player X or Team Y.

Still, the Cardinals have played 27 games that will count just as much in the standings as their final 27 when things are all said and done. April is really just baseball’s standard peculiarities condensed into 25-30 games. However, May has the precedent of April, June has the precedent of both May and April, and so on until this cyclical sport rinses and repeats. April, meanwhile, has no true precedent for the current season at hand. Perhaps this is part of what makes baseball’s annual April surprises seem so shocking–they suddenly appear out of thin air compared to midsummer developments. Baseball’s randomness feels even more random when the season is still young.

Yet in the face of such a wide array of possible outcomes, the Cardinals have performed relatively close to expectations. At 15-12, St. Louis’ playoff odds have decreased by just 2.1% since Opening Day while their projected win total has slightly improved by 0.7. While those odds have ranged from a nadir of 50.2% to a peak of 71.7% in 2018, the Cardinals end April in a similar situation to the one they inherited when the month began.

The Cardinals have narrowed the gap between themselves and the Cubs by 1.6 wins according to FanGraphs, but a projected 7.7 game cushion for Chicago leaves a wild card spot as St. Louis’ most likely path back into the postseason. The chief concern for the Cardinals as it pertains to their playoff hopes may have more to do with the play of other teams than their own. The Mets and Diamondbacks both “banked” more wins than the Cardinals in April, meaning that St. Louis–the most talented of the three teams on paper–could post a better record than New York and Arizona from May onward but finish behind them in the wild card hunt. As matters currently stand, the three wild card favorites in the National League project to close out the regular season within 1.2 games of one another, a virtual tie.

The Cardinals’ 8-12 record and -2 run differential against non-Cincinnati clubs provides reason to pause, but that is by no means an insurmountable deficit in the loss column, especially if St. Louis can take advantage of this era of tanking (seven teams project to lose at least 92 games as of this writing) by plucking off easier wins and annihilating bad teams whenever they get the chance. Going a spotless 7-0 (including a +27 scoring margin to boot) against any team–FanGraphs gave the Cardinals just a 2.7% probability to pull off the feat against the Reds–is a rather tall order.

The Cardinals failed to qualify for the postseason by one and four games in 2016 and 2017 with mediocre 10-9 records against the cellar-dwelling Reds in both years. Granted, sub-.500 records against the division champion Cubs certainly didn’t help, but the Cardinals have been able to scrape together enough wins against stronger opponents in seasons past to where dominating teams like the Reds could have pushed them over the hump.

St. Louis has 12 games remaining against the Reds and 123 more games on the schedule against teams other than Cincinnati. If we set 87 wins as our target mark for a wild card berth (the Mets currently project to finish on the outside looking in at 86.5 wins), this graph displays how the Cardinals would need to perform going forward to clinch.

Obviously this is a sliding scale where an extra win against the Reds is one less time the Cardinals need to defeat a superior opponent. While strength of schedule is far less impactful in Major League Baseball than in a sport like college football–after all, there are no freebies in the big leagues–the Cardinals have a leg up on the Diamondbacks and Mets in that regard. Each of the three contenders has a distinct bottom-feeder in its division (Padres, Marlins, Reds), but the Cardinals’ interleague matchups represent the path of least resistance relative to the other two. While the Diamondbacks draw the AL West and the Mets tackle the AL East, St. Louis receives 20 games against the AL Central this season. Even more fortunate, the lone team in the AL Central that is better than [squints] five games below .500, the Indians, must travel to face the Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

It is still far too early into the season to gauge the NL playoff picture with much precision–case in point: the Nationals and Dodgers’ once ironclad leads in the projected standings have since been whittled down to just a few games. If the Cardinals do reach the postseason, it will be a testament to them being one of the five best baseball teams in the National League. However, some poor luck compared to other playoff hopefuls has led to the Cardinals finding themselves in a hole in the standings. Series like the Cardinals’ road trips to Arizona in early July and Chicago to wrap up the regular season in late September will likely determine St. Louis’ fate more than a trivial strength of schedule upper hand, but a borderline playoff team like the Cardinals needs to utilize every edge that presents itself.