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Just how good are the Cardinals?

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Six weeks in is too early for wholesale revisions to the Cards’ projections, but let’s tinker around the edges.

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

We’re riding high today, eh?

Coming off a three-game sweep of the Cubs, the Cardinals have worked themselves into much better position in the NL Central than they were when the season began: 3.5 up on Chicago. (The Brewers and Pirates are both closer, but both those teams are significantly worse than the Cubs on paper and thus less of a concern, though of course if they keep winning their games they’ll become concerns.) As I noted (with no particular insight) before the first Cubs series of the year, these games matter a lot. The Cardinals’ division odds have already shot up to almost 40%, up from 15% on Opening Day. That’s mostly due to going 4-1 against the Cubs so far.

It doesn’t matter than they haven’t dominated the Cubs in run differential — the wins are what matters, and they’ve gotten the wins. The NL Central race is officially on, and the Cards are somewhere in the neighborhood of co-favorites. Or are they just the favorites?

There’s no scientific way to answer that. If you ask sites like FanGraphs, the answer is still “no.” FanGraphs projects the Cardinals to play .529 ball the rest of the way (equivalent to 86 wins over 162 games), and the Cubs to play .561 ball (equal to 91 wins per 162). That pencils out to a tie* at 89 end-of-season wins, starting where the two teams are today.

*nitty-gritty details: these numbers aren’t strength-of-schedule adjusted, and they technically have the Cubs about a half game ahead, though rounding hides that half game. Under the SOS adjustments FanGraphs is currently assuming, the Cubs get a little bump, which is why they’re still above the Cards in playoff and division odds here. h/t to Craig Edwards for helping unpack this stuff.

So the spreadsheets aren’t on the Cardinals side, yet, though they’re no longer on the Cubs side (or not by much) either. The real question here is what you think of the team projections over the rest of the season — the ones that think the Cards just a true-talent 85-86 win team (vs. 91 for the Cubs). The updated projections haven’t moved much on the Cardinals since before the season, and we shouldn’t expect them to have. It’s in their nature to be conservative.

That doesn’t mean they’re right. We are each, as individuals, enormously free to disagree with ZiPS, Steamer, etc. Those disagreements can either be well-reasoned or not, and either way baseball will, as it tends to, make fools of all of us (including the projections) for various reasons in the end. But it’s fun to voice those disagreements nonetheless, so here are mine.

For ease of reference, I’ll focus on the ZiPS preseason projections, located here — they’ll have been updated some based on recent results, but not a whole lot. They establish a baseline of... let’s call it a 86-win team (which mean 89 wins, given the ones already in the bank in 2018). Going position by position, here’s my personal take on the Cardinals vs. their 2018 projections, based on what we’ve seen so far:

Outfield

Projected for 10 collective WAR (rounding to whole numbers and presented on a full-season basis, conventions I’ll stick to throughout) — 4 for Marcell Ozuna, 3 for Tommy Pham, 2 for Dexter Fowler. I’m terrified of what Tommy Pham will do to be if I take anything but a significant over on him, and more importantly that really seems to be the right answer: he’s played at a MVP level for over a year now, and there are straightforward things ZiPS doesn’t know about him that we do. On the other hand, Ozuna and Fowler have both scuffled. Both have xwOBAs significantly better than their wOBAs, so they haven’t been as bad as their lines look. But with Ozuna in particular, he was projected for a big number based on a 2017 power-and-patience breakout that just hasn’t been apparent at all yet in 2018. I think taking the under on both these guys wipes out the gains from taking the over on Pham.

  • Needle is pointing: sideways.

Corner infield

This has to be treated as a unit because of how Matt Carpenter has been used, I think. ZiPS projected 3 WAR from 3B (mainly Jedd Gyorko) and 3 more from 1B (mainly Carpenter). In practice, Jose Martinez has ended up the primary 1B, Carpenter the primary 3B and occasional 2B or 1B, and Gyorko a utility guy. I’m inclined to think that shuffle doesn’t change the net look very much, though. Martinez has carried his 2017 mashing over to 2018, with a monster .436 xwOBA so far — it hasn’t fully showed up in his results yet as he’s (in a developing theme here) hit into significant bad luck on line drives and fly balls, but it really seems like the dude is going to rake. I’m not worried-worried, but let’s say pre-worried about Carpenter, but I think Gyorko is good enough that even if Carpenter really struggles and loses playing time the team won’t lose much production overall.

  • Needle: sideways.

Second base

Kolten Wong opened with a nasty slump (again) but is fine (again). Since his 1-15 first week, his wRC+ has been 124. It’s up to 95 on the year, which is exactly who Kolten Wong is, and will be.

  • Needle: perpetually sideways, despite the ups and downs.

Shortstop

Finally, something not sideways! Paul DeJong is good. ZiPS projected him for 2 WAR, because ZiPS is sober and sensible and saw his 2017 plate discipline and laughed, saying no, this is not a guy who can keep being an above-average hitter. But just like ZiPS doesn’t know about Tommy Pham’s fixed eye condition, it doesn’t know about the Doc Rocks effect, which is what I’m calling DeJong’s ability to learn new things on the fly. He did it with the shortstop position, and now he’s doing it with plate discipline. I am convinced of this. He’s good.

  • Needle: up! Maybe up quite a bit.

Catcher

After a fun and surprising early homer binge, Yadi’s been as expected. He’ll miss a month after surgery for you-know-what, but like Craig said, it’s not really a huge deal to anybody but him.

  • Needle: sideways, albeit wincing.

Starting Rotation

Here’s some more movement. ZiPS gave Carlos Martinez 4 WAR and everybody else 2. One sentence for each guy:

Carlos was always really good, and now he throws a new pitch, and maybe he’s even better? Michael Wacha has been basically Michael Wacha, but that’s better than a 2-WAR pitcher. Luke Weaver has had poor luck with batted balls and stranding runners, but his peripherals are quite good and the projections systems have already embraced him as significantly above-average. Miles Mikolas has also been very good, and looks like a coup for the front office so far. Adam Wainwright has been fine, and besides, Jack Flaherty and Alex Reyes are equivalent (or let’s be honest, better) replacements for when he’s not fine.

  • Needle: up. This is a very strong group, and it’s so deep that it can remain very strong even through a couple injuries.

Bullpen

Hmm. They’ve been shaky by FIP but pretty solid by ERA (and a ton of that is Jordan Hicks alone). They’ve had close to a neutral WPA as a unit. Greg Holland was notably terrible early on and, even if he’s not good, can’t be that bad. Hicks is a mystery. Dominic Leone is hurt, as is fellow former Blue Jay Brett Cecil. But Bud Norris has been really good, Luke Gregerson has looked good, Tyler Lyons seems fine, Sam Tuivailala was finally throwing hard again last night... I don’t know. It’s a bullpen. We’ll see?

  • Needle: somehow managing to make a shrugging motion.

So that’s my overall view of the team in early May. Not much has changed, nor should much have changed after so little baseball. But I think Pham’s better than advertised, Ozuna somewhat worse, DeJong better, and the rotation definitely better. So for me, I don’t think they match up with the Astros/Yankees/Dodgers elite, yet, but the Cardinals look like they’re better than advertised, and certainly good enough to play with anybody for seven games. They were advertised as a strong Wild Card contender. I think they’re just a contender, period.