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Charting a Path to the Playoffs

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The Cardinals have been playing better but their playoff odds are still very low. How can they make the postseason?

Syndication: The Enquirer Albert Cesare / The Enquirer via Imagn Content Services, LLC

I have huge news for you all today! The Cardinals playoff odds are UP! Yes, UP! I think I’ve included the numbers in my last few articles, so I’ve been tracking them. They were just barely under 3% before the team’s excellent post-All-Star Game homestand against the Giants and Cubs. They crossed the 3% barrier early last week.

But now, as of Friday afternoon, they are ALL THE WAY UP TO 4.2%! Four. Point. 2. Percent! Start sewing the banners now!

Yes, that’s sarcasm. And yes, I know, that was a poor way to start what is supposed to be an optimistic Saturday post that will chart a path for the Cardinals to the playoffs.

I just can’t ignore reality. The Cardinals can play really, really well for the rest of the season and still miss the postseason by a lot. They dug themselves a massive hole by playing the worst baseball we have seen in St. Louis in a decade and a half and they have almost no chance at pulling themselves back out again.

It could happen, though. That’s what I’m here to figure out.

First, let me outline the situation. Before Friday night’s games, the Cardinals were 7 games back of the Brewers in the NL Center, who were at 56 wins and a .577 win%. They are currently behind the Reds, Padres, and Dodgers in the Wild Card. The strength of those teams means that the Cardinals are more likely to win the division than they are to reach the Wild Card. That’s what we’ll focus on.

Upcoming Schedule

The Cardinals are playing better. Their rotation has somehow stabilized, even though they are forced to use Wade LeBlanc, Johan Oviedo, and Jake Woodford three of every five games. The bullpen has followed suit, despite featuring players I can’t even name. The mix of no-name strike-throwers, some talented arms, and a finally healthy defense is working well enough. Players are getting healthy. Mikolas and Flaherty could be back within a few weeks. That could bring an important infusion of talent that would benefit the whole staff, even if those two aren’t at 100% endurance.

The offense continues to have its moments but seems to have stabilized with DeJong finally breaking out of his first-half slump. Goldschmidt and Arenado are hitting. Carlson is still productive. O’Neill, too. Bader is a nice spark at the bottom of the lineup. Now that everyone is back, it’s a collection of hitters that’s not going to light up the league but they can hold their own and can get the ball in the field.

The current version of the Cardinals is not a team that can excel against the best of the league, but they should be able to win some games against lesser competition. That’s the premise of the rest of the article.

The schedule-makers are giving the Cardinals their chance with some really easy games through August. Here is the Cardinals’ schedule over the next 34 games:

@ Reds (3)

@ Indians (2)

Twins (3)

Braves (3)

Royals (3)

@ Pirates (3)

@ Royals (3)

Brewers (3)

Pirates (3)

Tigers (2)

@ Pirates (3)

@ Reds (3)

A Best-Case-Scenario

The only above .500 teams the Cardinals play during that period are the Reds (currently 49-47), the Indians (48-46), and the team they are chasing: the Brewers (56-41). That’s 23 of 34 games against some of the worst teams in baseball.

From there, the schedule gets much tougher. The Cardinals have the Dodgers, Mets, Padres, and the Cubs in September, along with 10 games against the Brewers, 7 of which are on the road.

What about the Brewers? Right now, they are tracking toward 93 wins. If they stay on that pace, the Cardinals would have to win 44 of their remaining 65 games to catch them. That’s a 68% winning percentage. That’s possible but very, very unlikely. Which is why their playoff odds are so low.

Since we can’t assume the Brewers will just play worse for our benefit, let’s try to give a best-case scenario for the Cardinals over their next 37 games. Let’s just go series by series and trip-by-trip:

Reds/Indians road trip – in this five-game trip against quality, but not elite opponents, the Cardinals need to win 3 of 5.

Cardinals: 52-50

The Cards then come back home for a nine-game stand against the hapless Twins and Royals and the very Cardinals-like Braves. All three of those teams make me a bit nervous. KC might play the Cards tougher than usual. The Twins have given the Cards problems in the past and the Braves are solid. I could see them struggling on this stand, but they can’t make the playoffs doing that. So, 6-3.

Cardinals: 58-53

After that, the Cards head on the road for an easy trip to KC and the Pirates. Here, they have to make up some ground. Let’s go crazy and call that a sweep and a series win, 5-1.

Cardinals: 63-54

Then they face their first series against the Brewers at home. Gotta win that one. 2-1.

Cardinals: 65-55

Then they really have to make up some ground. They remain at home with the Tigers and Pirates coming in. These are games they have to win: 4-1.

Cardinals: 69-56

At the end of the month, the Cards head back onto the road at the Pirates and Reds. I’ve been too optimistic so far, so let’s call this one an even trip at 3-3.

Cardinals: 72-59

That brings the Cardinals into Milwaukee in September sitting 13 games over .500 with a 55% winning percentage. That seems possible in small chunks, but collectively, it looks wildly optimistic. That’s what articles should be on Saturdays!

Speaking of optimism. If the Brewers play .500 ball during that same period, then the Cards would be sitting 1 game back with 31 games go to. I mean… it could happen.

If the Brewers continue to play at their current level, their record would be 77-55, with St. Louis five games back in the win column.

Let’s consider that the range the Cardinals are dealing with. If the Cardinals play as well as they possibly can, they are likely to be within the 1 to 5 games of the Brewers, if Milwaukee continues as is or declines. If the Brewers play better than .577 over the next month, the Cards just can’t catch them.

From there forward, the Cardinals have ten games against the Brewers in the final month but 7 of those are on the road. It would be no easy feat, but the Cardinals’ fate would be in their own hands. If they beat the Brewers and don’t falter against the slew of good teams they have to face, then they could sneak out a very tight division win.

Also, with contests against the Dodgers and Giants – both series at home – the Cardinals might have a shot at making up ground in the Wild Card race as well if either of those teams fall back.

So, if the point of this article was to chart a path to the playoffs, that’s how it has to happen. The Cardinals have to play extremely well during a very easy month of August. They can’t take a step back during an extremely difficult final month. They also have to perform exceptionally well against the Brewers in the 13 games that the two teams have against each other between now and the end of the season.

If they fail to do any one of those things, they’re going to fall short.

Which, again, is why Fangraphs still has their playoff odds below 5%.

But, hey, Saturday is a day of optimism. Let’s be optimistic. Let’s beat the Reds. And then the Indians. And then everyone else! That sounds like a great idea to me.

Have a great weekend!