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Historic Trends at the Quarter Mark

The Cardinals have reached the quarter-point in the season. History says they’ll make the playoffs and probably win the division.

St Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The Cardinals will play their 40th game of the season today. Well, today for you. Schedules – mine and Major League Baseballs – are forcing me to write this on Friday afternoon, before the Cardinals play their 39th game of the season. Technically, I am two games behind the quarter mark of the season.

That doesn’t matter because regardless of what happens on Friday and Saturday, the Cardinals are guaranteed at least 23 wins in their first 40 games played. That’s enough context for us to consider where this 2021 team ranks among the best Cardinals teams this century and to make some not-so-bold predictions on where it will end up.

Obviously, the Cardinals have won a lot of games over the last two decades. We all know that. It’s always a bit of a moment, though, to go over to Baseball Reference and dig through their Franchise Encyclopedia. The Cardinals have been good. I mean really good. For practically my entire adult life. It’s been the most amazing run of quality baseball that this franchise has ever seen and I’m not sure another franchise can match it in terms of consistent performance.

We are so spoiled.

I think our spoilage showed early in the season when the club was floundering above .500 with a bunch of starters – in the rotation and outfield – on the IL and Twitter was yelling at, well, everyone. Here they are with a .600-win percentage a few weeks later. The yelling has died down (somewhat… some fans just like to yell). Optimism abounds.

It’s not yet Flag Day, so I’m not going to the standings, but we can go to previous years and see how this 2021 Cardinals club is doing versus its past selves.

Here’s a chart of all the teams since 2000 that had 23 or more wins at the 40-game mark.

Teams with 23 or more wins after 40 games since 2000

Season 40 game Record Final Record Division Finish
Season 40 game Record Final Record Division Finish
2015 27-13 100-62 1
2013 26-14 97-65 1
2006 25-15 83-78 1
2005 25-15 100-62 1
2001 24-16 93-69 2
2018 23-17 88-74 3
2010 23-17 86-76 2
2009 23-17 91-71 1
2008 23-17 86-76 4
2000 23-17 95-67 1
Average 24-16 89-73 1.7

I have several points to make about this chart and what it says.

1. 23 wins through 40 games is good.

Thanks, Captain Obvious. Seriously, though, the 2006 Cardinals had 25 wins at the quarter-point and finished with just 83 – the lowest win total on the chart. That club also faced a terrible stretch of injuries before coming together at the finish line and winning the World Series. If we throw ’06 out as an outlier – and it’s pretty much the biggest outlier in recent baseball history – the next worst record by a Cardinals team with 23 wins at the quarter turn is 86, accomplished by both the ’08 and ’10 clubs.

Considering who those ’08 and ’10 teams were, that feels like a pretty good baseline – a floor – from which to project. The 2021 Cardinals are probably going to win at least 86 games this season. That’s higher than almost every projection system pegged them at the beginning of the season. It’s probably right on with most fans. I think I had them in the upper 80s to 90 wins in the preseason. Feel free to go bump my season preview posts to double-check me.

2. 23 wins through 40 games doesn’t necessarily lead to 90+ wins. (But 24 wins does.)

There is a real divide in the data in the chart. At 23 wins out of 40, the Cardinals have historically performed as an upper 80s team in final win totals. If you average all the teams with 23 wins – just 23 – it spits out 88.4 wins as the total. That does include a 95 win squad and two 86 win squads.

Above 23, however, things change. At the 40 game mark, 24 wins is a .600 winning%, which has long been the dividing line between good teams and great teams. At 24 wins or above, the Cardinals have 93, 83, 97, and two 100-win seasons. The 93 and 83-win teams underperformed their quarter-mark winning percentage for the rest of the season. The other three squads kept or exceeded their 40-game pace.

Considering this chart, 24 wins seems like the line of demarcation. Below that and the team is pretty good but usually not great. Above it, the team is usually great and occasionally just pretty good.

Regardless, the Cardinals have to be optimistic.

3. 23 wins through 40 games isn’t enough to secure the division.

Only two teams with exactly 23 wins at the quarter-point went on to win their division. The 2000 team did it, finishing with 95 wins total. A relatively weak ’09 team did as well before getting bounced early in the playoffs.

23 wins is a strong start but it just doesn’t guarantee a division championship.

The dividing point for the division is obvious. A 25 win start has always been enough to carry the club through to a first place finish, as it typically means the club will win 97 or more games.

If the team wants to win the division, it needs to win the next two games! (Well, “needs to” might be a bit strong…)

4. 23 wins through 40 games is (almost) always enough to make the playoffs.

Just two teams that won 23 games in the first quarter didn’t go on to make the playoffs. The ‘08 team somehow finished 4th in a strong central division. The ’18 team finished third with 88 wins. That doesn’t happen very often.

The rest of the time, the Cardinals were in postseason ball. The average finish in the division of all the teams on this list was 1.7. They only entered the postseason as the Wild Card twice when they reached these win totals.

23 wins or more should give the Cards strong confidence that they are a playoff team and probably the class of the division, barring a ridiculously strong finish from the rest of the division.

Are the Cardinals as Good as They Look at the Quarter Mark?

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that once the club started to get healthy, they began to play better. Entering the season without Kwang-Hyun Kim and Miles Mikolas stretched both the starting rotation and the bullpen. It put a ton of pressure on Gant and Ponce de Leon to be solid and on the other starters to provide innings early. They just weren’t ready to do that. The rotation faltered. The bullpen was overworked. It didn’t help that both Bader and O’Neill missed significant time in the outfield. The defense suffered, further amplifying the pressure on the starters and bullpen.

The result was a .500 team.

That was a good sign! It really was. If a club can play with its right fielder in center, its 5th outfielder in left, its utility infielder at 2nd, its second baseman in right, and a reliever and swing starter in the rotation and STILL play .500 baseball, it’s probably going to be a pretty good baseball team when all that changes. None of those early-season realities were planned and few were likely to continue for long.

The team has been able to double down on its identity as a defense and pitching club that can take advantage of its ballpark. It can also drive the ball pretty well and challenge pitchers with at least solid offensive production top-to-bottom.

The club’s potential probably depends on how much of what we are seeing now is real. Is Carlson already a very good hitter? Is Edman truly a Gold-Glove capable second baseman and one of the best contact hitters in the league? Is Flaherty ready to be that consistent ace that he’s flashed his whole career? Can KK and AW continue to defy their age?

Computer projections didn’t believe in any of that pre-season. They regressed the heck out of the entire pitching staff, threw out the club’s defensive potential, and ignored the (pretty obvious) offensive improvements many of the young players have made over the last few years.

Right now Fangraphs still says that the Cardinals will have a .488 win% over the rest of the season and finish with a 83-79 record. Ok sure… And then we’ll go ahead and win the World Series, circa 2006!

I understand how the computer systems (particularly Steamer, which is the basis for the projected standings) came up with their data, but I didn’t buy it in January and I’m not buying it now. The Dylan Carlson that I have watched since A ball will not hit .241/.320/.394 from here forward. Watch him swing the bat and then try to tell me that he’s one of the worst outfielders in the league! It’s absurd. Tommy Edman has .8 WAR so far. Steamer thinks that almost nothing will change about his stats going forward and, yet, he will be worth only 1.0 fWAR the rest of the season? How does that math work, exactly?

Don’t get me started on the pitching staff.

The Cardinals are good. They might not be a .600 win% kind of good but I don’t see any way that they slide back to .500 or worse.

Here are my not so bold predictions: This Cardinals team will finish with 90 wins or above. They’ll probably finish with 93 wins or more.

That’s what history tells us. I believe it.