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The Final Stretch

What needs to change and what needs to continue for the Cardinals’ postseason hopes to come to fruition

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Joe Puetz-USA TODAY Sports

Only the Braves had a larger increase in playoff percentage than the Cardinals since August 1 (+63.8% to STL’s +55.7%). And yet, since the start of the season, the Cardinals have just a 3.2% change in their overall odds. We’re seeing the team we were projected to have. A little better, even.

It came on the back of a monster August featuring some offensive eruptions, gold glove cases and ROTY candidate emergences. It’s been a whirlwind of a second half.

On that note, there are multiple interest points for this Cardinals team entering the final 16 games. I (or another writer) might expand on these topics but, to use the tired office cliché, here are some 30,000-foot views of interesting developments with the 2018 redbirds following the All-Star Break.

Playoff Odds are Deceiving

It’s pretty easy to take a look at just how tight FanGraphs’ playoff odds are and think this race amounts to a coin flip. Look at the categories and there’s a bit more breathing room than one would expect.

The playoff odds of the Dodgers (69.8%) are higher than the Cardinals (64.8%). The Rockies are close, at 60.2%. Ultimately, it comes down to the nature of the NL West race.

Namely, that the Dodgers, Rockies and Dbacks are locked in a battle akin to the NL Central’s current makeup, but with lower records.

The Dodgers having higher odds than the Rockies is interesting given their 1.5-game deficit, but the remaining strength of schedule and ZiPs/Steamers projections used in FanGraphs’ playoff odds give some serious favor to the 2017 NL champs. When you look at the Wildcard odds alone, it paints a different picture:

The Brewers and Cardinals have a pretty sound lead. Granted, you can see that some of those numbers would flip pretty quickly; if the Brewers overtake the Cubs for the NL Central lead, for example, the Cubs will shoot out of the Wildcard odds cellar. But in the case of the Rockies, a half-game behind the Cards in the Wildcard standings (if they weren’t leading the division) still has their Wildcard odds extremely low. The Dodgers are right there with them. The Cardinals can put any of those thoughts to bed themselves, though, which leads into the next interest point...

A High Strength of Schedule is Good

The Cards have the second-highest remaining strength of schedule in the National League. I wrote about this subject in detail before the Cardinals started their stretch of August games against mainly tough opponents, but it rings even more true now after their success: it’s better to be playing meaningful games against your direct competition at the end of the season.

Tonight the birds open a four-game set against the Dodgers, who are two games behind St. Louis for the second Wildcard spot. What we expected to be a tough series in LA turned into a three-game sweep. If the Cardinals can take this series, they put a serious dent in the Dodgers’ playoff hopes—in the Wildcard AND the West.

The Cardinals will also play tough games against the Braves, which don’t have much of an effect on the Wildcard race; Atlanta is looking comfortable with a 7.5-game lead in the East. Those games will be an important test.

Additionally, it couldn’t have been scripted any better that the Cardinals end the year with six games against their division rivals. A three-game set against Milwaukee at Busch followed by another three-game series at Wrigley to end the year has all the makings of a hyper-dramatic finish. Currently 3.5 games behind the Cubs and 2.5 behind the Brewers, those final games will absolutely determine the makeup of the NL Central if the current standings hold or improve.

Sprinkled in, the Cardinals have a three-game series against the Giants, who are currently riding their longest losing streak in 70+ years. Detroit showed us not to chalk any set up as a gimme before it happens, but those are games you’d expect this team to win.

Leading the NL in Baserunning

There’s a tweet that has, for many seasons, rung true for St. Louis:

The Cardinals have been pretty rough to watch when it comes to the basepaths for the quite some time now. BsR, the baserunning component of FanGraphs’ WAR calculations, had them in the middle of the pack in 2017 with 2.0 as a team. 2016 was atrocious, logging -17.1 BsR, coming in at 29th.

2018 has been another story.

This year’s Cardinals have 9.8 BsR, which is tops in the NL. It’s second only to Cleveland, who have (literally) run away with it, given their 15.8 BsR. St. Louis has actually been good at running.

We’ve seen a lot of guys go first to third, which has resulted in some unnecessary outs, sure. It’s also generated quite a few more runs. Even though Harrison Bader is far and away the leader individually with 6.8, the important thing is that only five Cardinals have contributed negatively to the team’s baserunning, according to BsR. Two of them are catchers. What was once a struggle for this team is now a major boon, and it’s worth acknowledging that turnaround. We saw an increased aggressiveness on the bases when Shildt took over, and it’s paying off.

The Outfield is Finally Good

The Cardinals’ WAR leaderboard over last 30 days is headed by two outfielders:

  1. Marcell Ozuna (1 WAR)
  2. Harrison Bader (0.8)

In fact, when you look at the Cardinals list of starting outfielders over the past month (including the rotating cast of characters in right field), every one of them has been average or better.

We started the year with an outfield projected to be one of, if not the best in the league. It was supposed to be Ozuna, Pham and Fowler holding it down every day. Even MLB’s social media accounts got in on the hype with some promo videos. The excitement extended beyond St. Louis.

Things change.

Now, right field is more of a committee than anything, comprised of José Martínez, Tyler O’Neill and Yairo Muñoz. But it’s been successful. Harrison Bader has emerged as a legitimate candidate in the Rookie of the Year conversation, easily one of the best defensive outfielders in the league with a bat that’s slowly catching up. Marcell Ozuna has finally arrived. Let’s talk about that a bit more:

Ozuna’s Turnaround

Over the last 30 days, Marcell Ozuna’s slash line is .319/.351/.667. He’s hit 8 HR over that month, in what’s been 77 PA. Over his first 4.5 months in St. Louis, he hit 13 homers.

The month’s performance has been enough to raise his season wRC+ over the average mark, now at 103. Ozuna’s bat is officially above average; it may not be what it was in 2017, but it’s been positive. He’s a 2.3 WAR player to this point, and one full win of that came over the past 30 days.

I like Ozuna as a person; his personality is exciting and his enthusiasm is infectious. He’s a bit eccentric. It’s fun to watch. The problem has obviously been that he hasn’t been providing the offensive value we expected. It seems he might be waking up just in time for the postseason.

In contrast...

Carpenter’s Slump

The salsa has been one of the best stories of 2018. Carpenter’s eruption was a spectacle, when he was mashing homers seemingly every day. From 7/14 to 8/13 Carp hit 16 homers in 27 games. He’s now hit 2 in last 30 days, with a wRC+ of 92. Not good.

By no means am I saying anything negative about Carpenter or his playing time; he’s proven that he can be a game changer, and he’s still fourth in WAR among NL position players, on pace for a six-win season. But if the Cardinals are going to compete into October and beyond, they need a Matt Carpenter closer to the late July version than the early September one.

Molina’s Difference

A lot of Molina’s value is hard to quantify with statistics. There’s constant conversation among players and fans alike who see him play every day about the way he commands the game from behind the plate. That said, he’s having a great season in 2018 but has missed a pretty considerable chunk of time. Molina’s injury in early May cost him a month of the season and he’s currently day-to-day with a hamstring issue. It seems that, consistently, the Cardinals barely tread water without him.

In Molina’s first DL stint, the team went 13-14. Since he went down with the hamstring, the team went 3-3 against two weak teams. Overall, the Cardinals are 18-19 without Molina on the year.

It makes sense to give him ample rest now, but the games are only gaining significance, especially when playing against direct postseason opponents like the Dodgers, Brewers and Cubs. The only month where Molina played every game, August, was the month of the Cardinals’ climb back into the postseason. If St. Louis is going to put up a fight in the final stretch, it goes without saying that Molina is a necessity.