The St. Louis Cardinals clinched a playoff berth earlier this week. If I had told you that would happen in March, you wouldn’t have thought twice. They were a contender in a weak division and had just acquired Nolan Arenado. The only problem with that is the circuitous route the Cardinals took to October. If I told you the same thing at any point from late June until early September, you would’ve kindly told me to have my noggin checked. We know by now that the Cardinals’ playoff odds were 2.8% as late as September 7th. Then... they just stopped losing while their two chief competitors for the last playoff spot- the Padres and Reds- went in to freefall. The Reds won just 8 of their next 18, and needed a four game winning streak against the Pirates and Nats to do that. There’s no word yet on whether or not they’ll put a giant banner featuring their celebrations in Pittsburgh outside the stadium yet, but I digress. On September 28th, the Cardinals clinched. They have the worst run differential of NL playoff teams by far and will face a team in the Wild Card game that has over 100 wins. By plenty of measures, they’re one of MLB’s least imposing playoff teams. What this article presupposes is... maybe they aren’t? Or at least, 5/6ths of the Cardinals aren’t.
Some of you are on the ball and have figured out that there are six months to a baseball season. The Cardinals were dreadful in June at 10-17. If we move our endpoints from May 30th through July 9th, a little more than just June, they were 13-24. How would they look if we could wave a wand and make that stretch disappear? Before I go any further, please understand that this is classic cherrypicking. You are who your record says you are, to paraphrase Bill Parcells. Each of those 37 craptastic games count just as much as the magical winning streak games count. None of what I’m about to say should be interpreted as discounting the meaning of the ugly stretch in terms of how the 2021 Cardinals are gauged. Now, with that out of the way... what happens if a wizard (maybe even THE Wizard) made May 30th through July 9th disappear? If we omit those games...
- They’re the third best team by Pythagorean record in the National League, and the seventh best in baseball (through Tuesday... all of these are through Tuesday).
- Maybe you’re old school and prefer regular ol’ winning percentage. Outside of the donut hole in the middle of their season, the Cardinals have gone 75-45. That’s fourth best in baseball- still behind the Giants, Dodgers, and Rays... and nobody else.
- Cardinal position players are fifth in MLB in fWAR, trailing Tampa, Houston, the Dodgers, and Blue Jays.
- They’re first in BsR- baserunning runs. Even including the ugly stretch, they’re third in MLB... but take it away and they’re the league’s best, smartest team on the bases.
It’s trickier to find some teamwide stats while excluding these specific dates, but we know that June was most of the culprit. If we omit June (but keep May 29, 30, and July 1-9):
- They have a 108 non-pitcher wRC+, the seventh best offense in baseball
- Only one of their starting position players- Yadier Molina- would have a wRC+ below 100. Even then, Yadi comes in at 94. Admittedly, that also includes Edmundo Sosa as the starting shortstop, but he’s started 71 of 117 games since mid-May. It’s not a reach to count him.
- Their team ERA is seventh best at 3.83
As I mentioned, this is classic cherrypicking. Being 5/6ths of one of baseballl’s best teams is great... unless you factor in the fact that the other 1/6th was utter dog dookie. But is there any reason to think the positive 5/6ths means more about their actual team strength?
One thing that might justify dismissing the Craptastic 37 (games from 5/30-7/9) would be if the team had a noticeably different mix of players. There’s a little bit of truth to that. Harrison Bader barely played during the Craptastic 37. He was replaced by a blend of Justin Williams, a disastrous stretch from Lane Thomas, and Lars Nootbaar’s first shot at MLB pitching. That’s a thing that lends weight to the 5/6ths. Matt Carpenter was playing more- 70 plate appearances during the bad stretch and only 79 total since then. On the position player side, that’s about it.
The pitching side has been drastically different. They threw everything but the kitchen sink at their bullpen struggles during the Craptastic 37. Luis Garcia and T.J. McFarland had just joined the team and only contributed 0.2 innings (“all” from Garcia). Since then, those two have completely settled down the middle of the bullpen. Giovanny Gallegos is closing games now compared to Alex Reyes during the bad stretch, but that’s pretty much a push. Reyes was not the problem during the bad stretch, and both of them have been high leverage pitchers during both stretches.
Carlos Martinez, Johan Oviedo, and John Gant have been exchanged in the rotation for Jon Lester and J.A. Happ. By FIP, Lester and Happ haven’t been great. But particularly during the Craptastic 37, Martinez and Gant were dreadful, with FIPs of 5.92 and 6.81 respectively. Oviedo was better at 4.83, but still yielded 4.09 BB/9. Even with a few ugly starts from Lester and Happ, their ERAs have been perfectly acceptable replacements, and they aren’t giving out free passes like Halloween candy the way Martinez and Gant were.
Bader, Lester, Happ, Garcia, and McFarland aren’t enough to assume that the Cardinals’ quality matches the 5/6th squad. You are what your record says you are, after all. But that 5/6th stretch serves notice of what their ceiling can be. It feels funny to say about a team that just won 17 games in a row, and it’s all moot if they can’t win a single game in California next week, but the Cardinals have proven that they belong in October.