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Are the Cardinals Underachieving?

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The Cardinals are hovering at .500, right on with preseason projections. Is the club underachieving? Overachieving? Or somehow both?

St Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers - Game Two Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Projections suck. Every year statistical projections come out for players and clubs and fans (myself included) love to scoff and boo them for their overt pessimism. As Ben Godar and I wrote here and here before the season, PECOTA, ZiPS, and Steamer have invented the perfect system not to predict performance but to hack us all off!

In the optimism of winter, I don’t want to hear that Tyler O’Neill is just a 1 WAR player. I want to believe he can slug his way into an All-Star appearance! I don’t care that some emotionless computer thinks Dylan Carlson will be pretty meh as a 22-year-old. I want to see him become rookie of the year!

The spring is a season for optimism.

Well, It’s fall now. And that spring optimism has been replaced with a heaping shovelful of realism. The club is hovering, as they have all season, just on the edge of the expanded playoffs and a .500 record.

Let’s go back to this winter. Before the coronavirus. Before a mostly-lost season. Back when there was still hope in the world. Let’s look at what those pessimistic computers said about the Cardinals:

Well, crap. The computers were right. PECOTA placed the Cardinals just under .500 — 80 wins. They weren’t alone:

2020 Cardinals
PECOTA - 80 wins
Depth Charts win% - .491,
Depth Charts - 35.9 WAR
ZiPS - 35.3 WAR

Three major projection systems said the 50th percentile media for the Cards was just under .500. The Cardinals current record, with a week to go in the season, is exactly .500 after yesterdays doubleheader sweep.

What about WAR? ZiPS and Depth Charts had the club consistently at 35-36 WAR. On Friday afternoon — before the doubleheaders — the Cardinals are sitting two games under .500 with a WAR value that projects to 30 over 162 games. (The quantity of games played requires some fuzzy math with WAR/GP and that significantly changes the margin for error.)

Like them or not, the computers had this team pegged.

So, why does it feel like they’ve underachieved?

I think part of it is the challenges the team has faced. They’ve played the most difficult, compressed schedule baseball has ever contrived. They’ve lost a dozen or more players for significant lengths of time due to COVID, injuries, and even opt outs. They’ve had to dig deep into their minor league depth and use more unknown players in key roles than even the computers could have anticipated. All of that is going to show up in the standings.

If we look objectively at the obstacles the Cardinals have faced, it’s not hard to conclude, “well, yeah, of course this team can’t break .500.”

So, facing the worst possible circumstances, the Cardinals are actually still meeting objective expectations. That’s kind of good. But still kind of sucks.

Here, I’ll really confuse you: The Cardinals might be underachieving based on their expected (though not projected) potential but might be overachieving based on the circumstances and their actual roster. Somehow the end result is they’re achieving exactly what was objectively expected of them.

Or... huh?

To the original question: are the Cardinals underachieving? No, not really. But, definitely yes!

That’s the way it feels to me and I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way. Fans seem to get the challenges this club has faced and they knew the Cardinals weren’t that good to begin with. But dang it, they really should have been better than they are and it would only take a little bit more from a small handful of players for them to show it.

PECOTA actually agrees with that sentiment. One of the things I like about PECOTA’s projections is they are presented in a range. Look again at the image above. The mid-point for the Cardinals’ projections was 80 wins. There’s a significant hump in the curve just to the right of that win total and a long, thick tail after that mid-point.

PECOTA’s simulations frequently had the Cardinals winning more than 80 games. 81-85 was a high-percentage output for this club. The club also very rarely won more than 85 games. However, when things started to go bad in the simulations — because of injuries, age, or collapse — the club’s win totals began to drop rapidly. While the (long tail) of 70-79 win seasons were not as regular as (the short peak) 81-85 wins, there were enough of them to pull the club’s median projection backward.

This kind of projection — a short peak and a long tail — is bad news. PECOTA rightly believed that the there was more than could go wrong for the Cardinals than could go right.

That’s proven true. The “wrong” just didn’t come in the way that the computers — or anyone — could have predicted. At the same time, with the lack of true talent this team has displayed, it’s probably true that they never had the potential to duplicate last season’s 90+ win pace.

The season isn’t over yet, though. There’s a week to go. There is still time for the Cardinals to put something together and climb out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves. They might not be underachieving from a projection standpoint, and there is just enough games left for them to hit that just-over-.500 bump that PECOTA let us hope for. Despite everything going wrong, a couple of days of good performances would buoy the club back toward .500 or just above. Maybe Friday was a first step.

Hang in there! It’s Saturday. The computers don’t get to determine this club’s destiny. The Cardinals can still make the playoffs and who knows what can happen then. Enjoy your weekend!