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When a good team sneaks up on you

The Cardinals are playing some fun baseball.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Washington Nationals Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Does anyone else feel like this season’s success has snuck up on them?

It’s kind of like catching a cold. You wake up one morning, and there are some signs, but you really don’t have any reason to believe you’d be coming down with something. You haven’t been sick in a long time.

The next thing you know, you’re laying in bed as it hits you full force, wondering how this all happened so quickly, remembering what it used to feel like to be healthy. (Can you tell I was sick earlier this week?)

It isn’t a perfect metaphor, by any means. This surge from the Cardinals isn’t an illness, it feels good. There’s no cold, so much as there is a major hot streak. But still, the Cardinals now have the best record in the majors and it all feels like a blur.

Weren’t we just starting the season in Milwaukee watching Christian Yelich mash homer after homer, seeing the once-hyped rotation’s collective ERA balloon and swell?

Carlos Martínez still hasn’t returned, and he’s set to start in the bullpen. Alex Reyes is struggling to find his footing, now dealing with a broken pinkie finger. Matt Carpenter hasn’t really clicked yet. Dexter Fowler started hot but has been out with an illness of his own. Harrison Bader saw time on the IL. Drew Robinson and Yairo Muñoz, the often-discussed bench candidates of the offseason, have been mainly in Memphis, or quiet otherwise.

And yet, so many positive things have happened that either fly under the radar or just feel normal, be them breakouts or positive regression.

Marcell Ozuna looks like the hitter the Cardinals traded for in December of 2017. Kolten Wong is finally playing “his game” and has been a plus with the glove and the bat—his wRC+ of 126 would be his greatest yet if sustained over a full season. Paul DeJong is third on the fWAR leaderboards and looks like he’s picking up where he left off post-rookie season, pre-hand injury.

In fact, six of the Cardinals’ eight Opening Day position players are inside the top 100 on the fWAR leaderboards. José Martínez falls outside that list, but probably on plate appearances alone at this point. He took on a starting role in the absences of Bader and Fowler and has done what he does best: hit. Martínez is slashing .375/.407/.488 through 86 PA.

It probably says enough about the state of the offense that Paul Goldschmidt really isn’t getting a lot of attention at this point. That was the way it was for him in Arizona, but in the spotlight that accompanies an All-Star first baseman in St. Louis, he’s quietly produced an OPS of .862 with nine bombs as the calendar turns to May.

Look at the pitching and it’s harder to see the bright spots, sure. The Cardinals rank 29th in pitching fWAR, which can be interpreted as “really bad.”

Things seem to be turning around, though. Over the past week of play, the pitching staff has allowed a wOBA of .287, which is the sixth-best in that time frame.

Though Adam Wainwright’s 4.91 FIP is pretty troubling, he has a 3.73 ERA in six starts an is averaging just over five innings an outing. Mikolas looked like he was back in control in his duel with Max Scherzer Wednesday night. Jack Flaherty and his stunning 23.1 K-BB% look to be leveling out after his shutout performance against the Mets.

Then, there’s the bullpen. I tend to prefer Win Probability Added (WPA) when looking at bullpen performance. Did you add to the chances of winning the game in your relief appearance, or did you take away?

The Cardinals rank sixth in the majors in WPA at this point. They haven’t been in the top half of the league in that category since 2015. A bullpen led by Jordan Hicks has seen contributions up and down the list, so much so that the team could end up returning to a 13-man pitching staff when Luke Gregerson returns to avoid sending any of the relievers down.

Hicks’ BB/9 is down 1.7 from last season. Andrew Miller, who struggled out of the gate, has made three straight scoreless appearances. Giovanny Gallegos, who wasn’t in many discussions as an impact arm this year, has struck out 18 batters in 10.1 innings.

I don’t suppose there’s much analysis in this post. I don’t think there really has to be today. At this point, the Cardinals have the best record in the majors. They’re going for a sweep over the Nationals today with a getaway day lineup that looks the part. They put up three runs on Max Scherzer last night.

It’s just a fun team to watch right now.

Even with the pitching’s early struggles, the offense makes it feel like the team is in it—even when they’re down.

The Cardinal offense ranks second in the majors right now. They’re ninth in fielding and sixth in base-running. And the rotation looks like it might be turning a corner.

Even if it doesn’t, there’s something that struck me about this team that I couldn’t place. After looking into the rankings, it’s that it’s reminiscent of the teams of 2000 to 2006.

On average, the Cardinals teams over those seven years ranked 17th in pitching. The average finish in offense was third. Aside from an abysmal 2000, team baserunning was never outside the top eight.

The top offense is something the Cardinals had done consistently in their playoff run across the 2000s. They’ve finished outside the top eight in offense just four times in those 18 full seasons, and made the postseason just one of them.

If things don’t change, there will be a time to worry about the rotation. Until then, the offense is elite, and the fielding and base-running are exceptional.

It makes for some exciting baseball. Some .667-winning-percentage, three-game-division-lead, best-record-in-the-majors baseball.