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A Way Too Early Look at the Standings

The Cardinals are good team. The Brewers are a good team. The NL Central is terrible.

Toronto Blue Jays v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Joe Puetz/Getty Images

The Cardinals are a good team.

I tried to say that in many of the articles I wrote leading up to the start of the season. Cards fans, you see, seem to be accustomed to angst. And worry. And pessimism.

It’s fair. Sure, back in 2019 they reached the NLCS – a feat often forgotten – and then got smoked in four miserable games by the Nationals.

The next season was COVID, and while most were just happy to have some baseball, the illnesses, injuries, and absurd schedule forced upon the team left finishing just about .500 and sneaking, exhausted, into the playoffs as a moral victory. There was no expectation that the team would go far.

Last season Arenado came over, which enthused the fan base, but Kolten Wong left and the pitching staff decided to try their grand “what if we just walked everyone… everyone” experiment that produced one of the most frustrating 3 months of baseball in recent memory. A 17-game win streak couldn’t erase all of that, and the team exited in a play-in game loss to the mighty Dodgers.

I could also talk about 2016, 2017, and 2018, where the team was in transition and competitive, but performing far below the expectations of fans spoiled by the previous fifteen years of baseball excellence.

Fans started to expect the worst. Entering this season, there was no way that Miles Mikolas would pitch at all. Dakota Hudson was completely forgotten. What’s a Drew VerHagen, anyway? Wainwright was old. So was Goldschmidt. Arenado was disappointing. Steven Matz is not Marcus Stroman. Do we even have a shortstop? The bullpen can’t throw strikes!

I heard all that and more during the offseason. Some of those hot takes were reasonable. (And have proven true). Some just weren’t.

More than anything, the worst-case scenario doesn’t happen in every scenario. I keep going back to the same jolly ditty – you take the good and take the bad, you take them both, and there you have the facts of a baseball season.

And the facts are that a team featuring Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Gio Gallegos, Adam Wainwright, an elite defense, some legit prospect depth, and a very solid group of core players surrounding the stars was not going to be a bad team. Despite what Baseball Prospectus’ computers believe.

The Cardinals are a good team.

We are 40 games in now and that’s still holding true.

No, they’re not the best team in the National League. No one expected that.

No, they’re not leading their division. That was more of a hope than an expectation, but they’re keeping it pretty close, just as many of us who write and analyze this team believed they would.

It’s early. I know. But let’s take a day to just consider where the Cardinals are at from the perspective of the standings. I keep hearing that the Brewers, who currently lead the NL Central have played a “very weak schedule”. I wanted to see that for myself, verify or deny it, and then consider what that meant against the Cardinals’ schedule.

[TL;DR version: The Brewers have played the weakest schedule in the game and the Cardinals, despite trailing them in the standings, are outperforming them and in a position to challenge in the Central once the calendar begins to even things out. Which will happen soon.]

Let’s start by looking at a snapshot of the Cardinals’ season so far. I updated the record after the game Monday, but the rest is accurate as of Monday afternoon, before the start of their series against the Blue Jays.

Record: 24-18

Cardinals Strength of Schedule: .500

League Rank: 15

Pythag. win%: .615 (+45)

Opponents so Far: PIT, KC, @MIL, @MIA, @CIN, NYM, ARI, @KC, @SF, BAL, SF, @NYM, @PIT

Next 4 Weeks: TOR, MIL, SDP, @CHC, @TB, CIN, PIT, @BOS, @MIL

So, including Monday’s win, the Cardinals are 6 games over .500 while playing a schedule that is exactly .500, dead in the center of the league.

I was surprised that the strength of the Cardinals’ opponents was even that high. After all, the NL Central is a dumpster fire after the Cards and Brewers. The Cubs are third in the division with a 17-24 record and a roster that feels worse than that. Pittsburgh, whom the Cardinals just swept at home, has the same record and also feels worse than that.

Then there are the Reds sitting at the bottom of baseball with just 12 wins who… wait for it… feel worse than that! It took them until May 5 to win their 3rd game of the season. They’ve been pretty hot since, mostly because they got to play the Pirates for a series or two.

It seems like that might be how the division goes. The Brewers and Cardinals make their hay against the divisional also-rans, while the also-rans find their wins from playing each other.

That’s a favorable environment for the top two in the division to rack up some significant win totals.

That’s where the Cardinals are at a disadvantage so far. Inside the division, the Cardinals have played two series against the Pirates, one long series on the road against the Brewers, and the Reds in Cincy. They are 7-2 against non-Brewer divisional foes.

Meanwhile, they’ve played a bunch of tough opponents outside of the division, including the Mets home and away. The Pond Scum enter Tuesday’s action tied with the Yankees for the most wins in baseball. They also had 7 games against the Giants, a very good team from the West.

The Giants and Mets series’ make up around 1/3rd of the Cardinals’ schedule so far. And 8 of those 14 games were on the road. They are 18-10 in games played against everyone else, including the Brewers.

In other words, the Cardinals have been a really good team when playing everyone except the (still-with-Scherzer) Mets. That shows up in the runs scored and runs allowed and, by extension, their Pythagorean record – a way to predict a team’s record based on run ratio.

Before their Monday night win, the Cardinals were +45 in runs scored. (Add 4 more to that after the walk-off grand slam). They have an expected win% by run ratio of .615.

Their record should be: 26-16.

If that win percentage holds throughout the season?

Their record will be: 100-62.

You can pick apart Pythag. There are more advanced ways to approach predictions (see Fangraphs), but I like the simplicity of runs scored vs. runs allowed and strength of schedule for this simple, early season comparison, without digging into the minutiae of projection models.

Because our point is a simple one: The Cardinals are a good team.

Now, what about the Brewers? Here’s the same dashboard for them, taken at the same point in time (Monday afternoon.)

Record: 26-15

Brewers Strength of Schedule: .454

League Rank: 30

Pythag. Record: .582 (+32)

Opponents so Far: @CHC, @BAL, STL, PIT, @PHI, SFG, @PIT, CHC, CIN, @ATL, @CIN, @MIA, ATL, WSH

Next 4 Weeks: @SDP, @STL, CHC, SDP, PHI, @WSH, @NYM, @CIN, STL

The Brewers are currently playing the 28-14 Padres on the road. They have also had a home series against the Giants and got the Cardinals at home. Otherwise, their schedule has been a cakewalk.

Before the Padres series began, their strength of schedule was just .454, ranking last in baseball in schedule difficulty. They have had the easiest schedule in the game so far. That’s amplified by the fact that the two good teams they have faced – the Cards and Giants – were both home series.

Now that I look at it, the Brewers played the Giants in a very odd one-game series, which they lost. So, they’ve only played five games all season against “good” teams, all at home, and are 2-3 in those games.

The Brewers also haven’t exactly been beating up on all of these easy opponents. Yes, they have a 26-16 record entering Monday’s games, but are only +32 in runs scored vs. runs allowed on the season.

Apply the same pythag formula to them and things aren’t quite as rosy as the Cardinals.

Their record should be: 24-17.

If that holds up for the rest of the season?

Their record will be: 94-68.

Any time you are talking about two teams who are projecting toward 94-100 wins, just ignore the 6-win gap. They’re both just “good teams” and will probably be battling for the division all the way through.

The Cardinals seem likely to take a small step forward as more NL Central opponents fill the schedule, assuming that nothing dramatic changes beyond the normal ups and downs of a 162-game season. Yes, the team is now missing Matz. And Carlson and O’Neill are on the IL. But the early-season Cardinals suffered through Matz’s inconsistencies, a long slump from O’Neill, and up and down play from Carlson. There’s the same kind of up and down from DeJong to Edman, Edman to Gorman, Dickerson/Pujols to Yepez, etc.

I don’t think the Cardinals will win 100 games. But with the weak NL Central, a final win total in the low-to-mid-90s seems possible, if not likely.

The Brewers have to prove they can beat good teams, which they’ll see a lot more of in the next few months. They have to remain unusually healthy in the starting rotation and their over-performing offense has to keep it up as the opponents get harder. That doesn’t seem likely to me. But they still get to play the NL Central a bunch and that will mean wins.

What am I trying to say? Again, the point is very simple:

The Cardinals are a good team.

The Brewers are a good team.

They will both build a lot of wins against weak NL Central opponents.

And as we’ve been saying from the beginning, this should be close and competitive to the end of the season.