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The Cardinals are Still Just Not Falling Apart

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This season has been a disaster. And yet, the Cards’ record doesn’t reflect that. It never does.

Pittsburgh Pirates v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Last night, the Cardinals slugged four home runs and beat the Reds 7-1. Dakota Hudson was really good, except when he wasn’t, and then for that inning when he wasn’t, he still managed to wriggle out of trouble. Heavy ground ball tendencies and a defense always ready to turn a double play can help in that way.

The victory came one night after the Cards endured a shellacking at the hands of those same Reds, when Luis Castillo did that thing Luis Castillo sometimes does, which is to be really good at pitching a baseball. Friday’s game was disappointing, Saturday’s was encouraging. That’s sort of how this season has gone, really; one day the team looks solid, clubbing homers and rolling up zeroes on defense, the next day they look sluggish and underpowered, scoring two runs on four hits and getting bitten by a pair of ill-timed walks.

Setting aside for a moment the fact that every team always has those days, those back and forth swings where they can look so good one day and so bad the next, and it’s easy to see why fans might be frustrated. The Cardinals are just one game above .500, and it feels like another season of watching a club that just isn’t good enough, just doesn’t have the firepower.

Just for a moment, though, let’s take a step back and look around baseball a little more generally. There are good teams, and there are mediocre teams, and there are bad teams. The Cardinals are probably in that middle group, a little closer to the good side than the bad. Here’s the thing, though: that’s really weird.

Here are just a few of the things that have gone wrong for the Cardinals this year:

  • Miles Mikolas, worth nearly 7 WAR in 2018-’19, has not pitched at all.
  • Carlos Martinez has appeared in only two games.
  • Daniel Ponce de Leon has started five games and has an ERA of 7.49 and an FIP close to 8.00.
  • The team’s best reliever, Giovanny Gallegos, is on the injured list with a strained groin.
  • Kwang-Hyun Kim is out with a kidney blockage.
  • Tyler O’Neill is still running a BABIP of .209.
  • Kodi Whitley was very exciting, and then went on the IL with a sore elbow.
  • The whole team missed two and a half weeks of baseball due to a covid lockdown, and several players experienced serious symptoms that seemed to affect them even after they came back.
  • Since that lockdown, the Cardinals have played a literally unprecedented schedule, in which they have played multiple doubleheaders, have had almost no days off, and just in general have played about 50% more innings than the rest of the league in order to try and catch up.

Those last two things are, of course, the big things, but it’s worth keeping the early part of the list in mind too. All teams have things that go wrong during the course of a season, and the Cardinals have had their fair share of issues even aside from the disaster of the outbreak. If we looked at that list, keeping in mind just how brutal the last two points really are, what would you guess would be the Cards’ record right now? I suppose the answer would depend on what kind of outlook you generally have on life, but anyone really being realistic would probably guess something markedly worse than .500, I would think.

And yet here we are, watching a club hanging around .500 in spite of all that. And really, the Cards have been better even than their record would suggest; they have the best run differential in the NL Central by a strong margin, and by Pythagorean record should actually be about 23-16. I personally think we can chalk that shortfall of wins up to exhaustion; we’ve seen a handful of really uncharacteristic mental errors this season that Mike Shildt clubs have not made in the past. I feel pretty comfortable saying at least some of those are due to fatigue created by this grueling schedule. Players wear down mentally long before they start to show physical fatigue to a noticeable degree.

Seriously, the Cardinals being pretty good this year is weirder than you think. Or, at least, the fact they’re pretty good again, after being at least pretty good every year of this century (minus 2007, to be fair), is definitely weirder than you think.

The Washington Nationals are the defending champions. In 2019 they were a 93 win team with the underlying numbers of about a 95 win team. They were really good, is what I’m saying, and then once the playoffs got going they were even better than that. It made sense, too; the Nats had one of the best rotations in baseball, captained by the ageless and amazing Max Scherzer, a young outfielder who looked like one of the brightest young stars in the game, and a perennial all-star anchoring their offense at third base. Anthony Rendon left in the offseason, taking his ~6 win annual performance with him, but other than that the Nationals didn’t really change that much from 2019 to 2020.

So what happened? Well, the Nationals have had some things go wrong, including Stephen Strasburg hitting the IL with an arm injury and Sean Doolittle, their closer and best reliever, missing time due to an oblique strain. Those are tough losses to endure, but the Nats have also seen Juan Soto turn into maybe the best hitter in baseball, Trea Turner go supernova, and Max Scherzer continue to be ageless and amazing. And the Nationals are 17-27, on their way to a top sevenish pick in next year’s draft. True, their Pythagorean record is that of 20-24 team, but make no mistake: the 2020 season has been an abject disaster for the Nationals.

The Angels have Mike Trout, signed Rendon this offseason, and have seen Dylan Bundy turn into one of the best pitchers in baseball this year. They are 19-28.

Boston is only a couple years removed from fielding one of the best teams ever. Yes, they dealt away Mookie Betts, but they also got Alex Verdugo in return in that deal, who has been their best player this season. The Red Sox’s pitching has imploded this season, and they’re 16-31, despite still running a huge payroll.

The aforementioned Reds are 20-26 despite Jess Winker turning into an offensive force and having Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo, and Trevor Bauer all in the same rotation. Oh yeah, and Bauer is running a 1.74 ERA currently. The team still sucks.

None of these clubs have had anything remotely as bad as the Cardinals’ covid outbreak happen to them, and yet all are collapsing or have collapsed, with terrible records, very little chance of making the playoffs, and only a high draft pick next year to look forward to. Meanwhile, the Cardinals are above .500, have nearly a 90% chance to make the playoffs, and have had exactly one losing season (2007), since the turn of this century. It’s like a superpower this team has, never being bad. No matter what happens, no matter how many things go wrong or how big those things are, the Cardinals are just never bad. They may not be good enough some years, of course, but they’re never bad.

I really have no answers as to the why of this thing; it seems like every team should have a down season now and again, a year when everything goes wrong and the club just collapses. But this team never does. It’s worth asking the question, I think, whether that’s the best thing for the franchise, or whether it’s healthy for an organisation to occasionally have a terrible year or two. It might very well be my own personal bias as someone who spends a huge amount of time for a big chunk of each year writing about draft prospects, but I would very much love to someday cover a number four overall pick for this team. Of course, I also don’t really want to have to watch the kind of team that leads to a number four overall pick, so it’s not as if I’m immune to magical thinking now and again. But I do honestly wonder if the Cardinals wouldn’t be better off if they had just self-destructed at some point in time over the past several years, vaulting up into the high rent district of the draft and making some tough personnel decisions easier to make.

But here we are instead, with a team that has been savaged by injuries and a literal plague, still competing, still extremely likely to be playing come October (whatever that looks like), and actually putting together better numbers than the club everyone thinks is running away with the Central. I don’t understand how or why this team manages to always avoid the sorts of collapses that other franchises regularly go through. The Red Sox have won four World Series this century, but they’ve also had four losing seasons in just the last decade, including a 93-loss campaign directly prior to a World Series win. The Mets made it to the Series in 2015, but have had three losing seasons since in five years. (If they end up with a losing record this year, that is, which isn’t a guarantee, but looks pretty likely.) The A’s are great this year, and have been a couple years in a row, but also lost 90+ games as recently as 2016.

The Cardinals are a true anomaly in baseball right now. There are a few teams that are basically just always good, but most of those clubs also spend their way to greatness. On the other hand, nearly every other team has ups and downs, disastrous seasons where everything goes wrong, and miracle seasons where everything goes right. The Cards have had a few of those latter years, but basically none of the former. No matter how bad things go, or how many things go wrong, the Cardinals are just never bad. And there has never been a year that more powerfully illustrates that point than this one.