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Visualizing the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry

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Charts galore to illustrate the history of one of the great rivalries in all of sports

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Local World Series hero Jon Hamm appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! last night, discussing such topics as the gustatory merit of Imo’s Pizza while eating Ted Drewes frozen custard mid-interview. Talk of the upcoming Cardinals-Cubs series also arose, with Hamm dubbing the rivalry the biggest in all the midwest.

National League play between St. Louis and Chicago dates back to April 12, 1892, when the then St. Louis Browns opened their inaugural NL campaign against the Chicago Colts. (Neither club adopted their present-day name until 1900 and 1903, respectively.) Entering tonight, the two franchises have faced off in 2,406 regular season contests. The Cardinals and Cubs were slated to meet in the 2015 NLDS for the first time in postseason history, but fans of both teams unanimously voted to cancel the 2015, 2016, and 2017 playoffs in their entirety so I guess we’ll never know what would have happened. By the way, did you know that the Cardinals won the World Series in 1926, 1931, 1934, 1942, 1944, 1946, 1964, 1967, 1982, 2006, and 2011 for a grand total of 11 world championships? Oh, don’t mind me, I’m just trying to make a little small talk.

Anyways, the eternal savior for baseball bloggers that is Baseball-Reference.com has information on every single St. Louis vs. Chicago game in MLB history. I imported all this data into a spreadsheet and did a little digging to take a closer look at the history behind one of the great rivalries in baseball lore.

(Technical note: For the sake of data tabulation, I excluded the 19 Cardinals-Cubs ties on record.)

We’ll begin by taking a look at the basic “scoreboard numbers” of the all-time Cardinals-Cubs series: runs, hits, errors, and wins.

(Another technical note: Baseball Reference only contains hits and errors totals for games from 1908 onward.)

Cardinals vs. Cubs by the Numbers

Stat Cardinals Cubs
Stat Cardinals Cubs
Wins 1165 1222
Runs 10441 10428
Pythagorean Wins 1195 1192
Hits (since 1908) 19241 18601
Errors (since 1908) 2145 2118

The Cubs currently lead the all-time series by 57 games despite their -13 run differential. Based on Pythagorean win-loss records–calculated using a team’s total number of runs scored and allowed–we would expect a 60-win swing to put the Cardinals ahead by three games. Of course, baseball is weird. Such is life.

The Cubs outpacing their expected record against the Cardinals shouldn’t come as much of a surprise when comparing their performance in 1-run games to games decided by at least 5 runs.

Cardinals vs. Cubs Splits

Split Cardinals Wins Cubs Wins Cardinals Win Percentage
Split Cardinals Wins Cubs Wins Cardinals Win Percentage
1 Run Game 346 371 0.483
5+ Run Game 321 289 0.526
Extra Innings 100 98 0.505
STL Home Game 644 544 0.542
CHC Home Game 521 678 0.435

Chicago holds the edge in the nailbiters while St. Louis has controlled a majority of the blowouts. The Cubs have only enjoyed 11 more home games than the Cardinals, but Chicago has been more successful in defending their home turf, winning 91.6 home games per 162 relative to 87.8 for St. Louis.

The Cardinals’ largest all-time series lead was 9 games on July 19, 1894. Meanwhile, the Cubs stretched their lead all the way out to 173 games on three different occasions in 1939 (June 29, August 14, and September 6). Assuming the Cardinals and Cubs continue to play each other roughly 20 times a season, it would require sheer domination in the near future for the Cardinals to retake the lead for the first time since August 1, 1895. Here is a glimpse at what would need to transpire for the Cardinals to catch the Cubs in, say, the next 25 years.

Cardinals Record Needed to Surpass the Cubs

Number of Games Cardinals Wins Cardinals Win Percentage
Number of Games Cardinals Wins Cardinals Win Percentage
100 79 0.790
150 104 0.693
200 129 0.645
250 154 0.616
300 179 0.597
350 204 0.583
400 229 0.573
450 254 0.564
500 279 0.558

So how exactly did the Cubs amass such a large cushion in the all-time matchup? By banking a ton of wins over St. Louis in the early days of the rivalry’s existence.

Cardinals-Cubs Rivalry by Decade

Decade Cardinals Wins Cubs Wins Cardinals Win Percentage
Decade Cardinals Wins Cubs Wins Cardinals Win Percentage
All Time 1165 1222 0.488
1892-1939 395 564 0.412
1940-Present 770 658 0.539
1890s 39 61 0.390
1900s 64 144 0.308
1910s 78 136 0.364
1920s 105 112 0.484
1930s 109 111 0.495
1940s 138 82 0.627
1950s 113 107 0.514
1960s 114 73 0.610
1970s 87 93 0.483
1980s 89 81 0.524
1990s 67 71 0.486
2000s 85 81 0.512
2010s 77 70 0.524

The first few rows perfectly encapsulate the baseball history of St. Louis v. Chicago. The Cardinals have held a firm grasp on the series since the 1940s, but the Cubs hold onto the all-time lead thanks to an overpowering first five decades. In fact, if you only look at post-1905 games, it’s St. Louis who has a 1,084-1,082 advantage over Chicago. As an aside, the Cardinals technically only trail the Cubs by 30 games in the all-time series if you discount games played by the Chicago Colts and Orphans (yes, they were actually called the Orphans) prior to 1903.

I also calculated the rolling 100-game win-loss records and runs-per-game averages for the Cardinals and Cubs in games against each other. For example, the Cardinals have currently won 51 of their last 100 games against Chicago, scoring 4.20 runs per game and yielding an average of 4.17.

The Cubs haven’t won 60 of their last 100 against the Cardinals at any point since July 2, 1921. For historical context, Warren G. Harding was not even four months into his presidency and baseball games had yet to be broadcast by radio. It truly is a testament to just how badly Chicago demolished St. Louis in the Pre-First World War years that they still lead the all-time series.

As of this publishing, round 2,407 between St. Louis and Chicago is less than an hour from commencing. Jon Lester takes the ball for the Cubs, opposing Michael Wacha for the host Cardinals at Busch Stadium. This weekend series has major implications for the NL Central race as it pertains to 2018, but regardless of whatever outcome unfolds over the next few day, the point stands that this rivalry undercuts history 126 years in the making.

Let’s hope the Cardinals can gain a little ground both in their all-time series with the Cubs and the division standings.