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A Path to the Division Crown: September Edition

The Cardinals did everything they needed to do in August and more to put themselves in great position to take the division.

St. Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Two weeks ago. That was when I wrote an article entitled “A Path to the Division Crown” where I laid out what the Cardinals need to do through August and into September to secure their first division title since 2019.

Even though it hasn’t been that long since I last looked at this subject, I want to revisit it as August is coming to a close and the playoff picture becomes even clearer.

Did the Cardinals do what they needed to do in August to set themselves up for the season’s final month? One look at the standings answers that question quite emphatically.

As of Tuesday morning, the Cardinals have stretched their lead to 6 games over the Brewers and are now up to 21 wins above .500 at 75-54.

The Cardinals now have the 4th best record in the National League and have the Braves in their sites. They have the 6th best record in all of baseball.

If the playoffs started today, the Cardinals would host the San Diego Padres, who have fallen just below the Philadelphia Phillies in the Wild Card series.

How did they get here?

Let’s go back to that home Brewers series back in mid-August. The Cardinals entered play against the Crew with a 1.5-game lead. They won 2 of 3 against them to maintain that gap. That was critical for the Cardinals as the two central division contenders only have 4 more games against each other for the rest of the season – 2 games in both Milwaukee and St. Louis.

While the head-to-heads certainly matter, if the Cardinals want to secure the division they have to do it against other teams. And that’s why the two-week stretch that followed was so vital. The Cardinals faced a slew of below-.500 talents, including five games against the Cubs in Wrigley. The only winning team they faced for the rest of the month was the aforementioned Braves.

The Brewers, meanwhile, had 7 games against the Dodgers, who are clearly the best team in baseball.

If the Cardinals could simply take care of business against the weaker end-of-August schedule, the Dodgers would probably do the rest for them, pushing that 1.5-game lead over the Brewers even larger.

The Cardinals did that and more. Here’s what happened from that Brewers series through game one of the current series against the Reds:

Beginning record: 61-50

MIL: won 2 of 3.

COL: won 3 of 3

@ARI: won 3 of 3

@CHC: won 3 of 5

ATL: won 2 of 3

@CIN: won 1 of 1 (so far)

Current record: 75-54

That’s a stretch of 14 won out of 18 games, a 78%-win rate.

That outpaced even my optimistic imaginations for the Cardinals’ August. In the original piece, I had the Cardinals winning 2 of 3 against the Brewers, Rockies, Reds, and D-Backs, then 3 of 5 against the Cubs. To try to temper that with some reality, I gave the then-surging Braves a 2-1 series win.

With two sweeps – one on the road – and a terrific series win against the Braves, the Cards exceeded all expectations. They could really put the cap on the month by winning a few in Cincy. If they take 2 of 3 against the Reds, they will still finish August 76-55, 3 wins better than I hoped.

While this was happening, the Brewers were struggling to gain ground against the Dodgers, as predicted, but were also having problems against teams much less celebrated. Here’s what happened:

Beginning record: 60-50

@STL: 1 of 3

LAD: 2 of 4

@CHC: 1 of 3

@LAD: 1 of 3

CHC: 2 of 3

PIT: 1 of 1

Current record: 68-59

That’s an 8-9 record in 17 games with 2 to go in the month. I originally predicted a 10-9 record for the Crew to end their month, which would have given them a 70-59 record. It would take a (very possible but never assumed) sweep against the Pirates just to equal my projections. (Update: which they didn’t do.) Doing so would allow the Brewers to end the month 70-59, 6 wins behind the Cardinals with a month to play and 5 games behind them in the standings with a month to go.

It’s hard to describe the last two weeks of Cardinals baseball as anything but phenomenal. If the next two games play out as suggested – even giving the Brewers a sweep (that can’t happen now) and the Cardinals a 2-1 series win – the Cardinals will have a 5-game lead with 31 games to go.

The rest of that previous article still holds up. Through September, the Cardinals have one rough west coast swing against the Dodgers and Padres, and the two 2-game series against the Brewers. Otherwise, the rest of the month is pretty simple.

Cardinals’ Remaining Schedule in September/October: Chicago Cubs (3), Washington (4), @Pittsburgh (3), Milwaukee (2), Cincinnati (5 – including a doubleheader), @San Diego (3), @Los Angeles Dodgers (3), @Milwaukee (2), Pittsburgh (3), @Pittsburgh (3).

While the Cardinals have to deal with the west coast, the Brewers get the East, with 6 games against the Yankees and Mets. Then it’s also-rans for them, too.

Brewers’ Remaining Schedule in September/October: @Arizona (4), @Colorado (3), SF (2 – one-day doubleheader, no off days on either side), Cincinnati (3), @St. Louis (2), New York Yankees (3), New York Mets (3), @Cincinnati (4), St. Louis (2), Miami (4), Arizona (3).

Take a look at those schedules. Is it possible for the Brewers to play well enough to pick up 5 games in the standings? Yes. Anything is possible. Is it likely? Definitely not.

The Cardinals would have to be much worse than they’ve been pretty much for the entire season for the Brewers to make up the ground they lost this month.

It’s probably impossible to project the Cardinals to continue to win at their current level. Since the All-Star Break, they are 25-10 and have a .714 winning percentage. That would translate to 116 wins over 162 games. We can’t be that greedy.

At the same time, we should not underestimate just how good the Cardinals are.

They are currently second in baseball in wRC+ at 117. Their collective wOBA is .333, just behind the Dodgers. They have, without qualification, one of the best offenses in baseball and it’s peaking at just the right time.

They are also in the top 10 in the league in BSR (A cumulative baserunning stat) and DEF (a cumulative defensive stat). They can hit as well as anyone while also fielding and running at a playoff level.

What about pitching?

It’s a little harder to measure since this team completely revamped its rotation just a few weeks ago. There hasn’t been enough of a sample for that to even out, but on the season, the Cardinals are 4th in the NL in runs allowed. They’re about middle of the pack or worse in ERA, FIP, and fWAR for pitchers.

Since the trade deadline, that’s shifted in the Cardinals’ favor. Over the last 30 days, which would include some time without Quintana and Montgomery, the Cardinals are top 10 in baseball in FIP and fWAR for pitchers. Their ERA is below average over that same period.

The point is that the Cardinals are fairly well-rounded. They have an elite offense, a good defense, solid fundamentals, and an improved rotation. If they have one hole, it’s probably middle relief but the team isn’t going to drop 5 games in the standings in a month based on the performance of its middle relievers.

How can the Brewers compete with that? They simply can’t.

Right now, the Cardinals hold a +126 run differential. That’s a +93 over the Brewers. The Cardinals’ expected W/L record should put them two more wins up against the Brewers. The growing gap between the clubs should be bigger than it is.

Let’s factor at least some of those points in to create a range of outcomes for the Cardinals in the division. What if the Cardinals had their worst month of the season? What if the Brewers had their best month? What is the most likely scenario? That gives us two end caps and a central mean as outcomes to consider.

Worst Cardinals Month of the Season: The Cardinals’ worst month of the season was July, where they went 11-13, a 46% win percentage. With 31 games remaining, that’s a 14-17 record.

Final Cardinals record: 89-73
To tie, the Brewers would have to go: 21-14 (60% win rate)

That right there tells you how secure the Cardinals should feel. The Brewers had only one month over a 60% win rate and that was back in April. Speaking of which…

Best Brewers Month of the Season: Let’s flip it and assume the Brewers tie their best month. At a 68.2 win%, that would be 24-11 over the final month.

Final Brewers record: 92-70
To tie, the Cardinals would have to go: 17-14 (54.8 win%)

That’s your range. Either way, there are pretty good odds that the Cardinals hang on to the division. I could see them going 17-14; that’s just a little worse than they’ve played for the full season. It would take a huge month from the Brewers just to tie the Cardinals. That is unlikely. Possible. But unlikely.

How unlikely is it? Well, Fangraphs provides us with the middle ground – the most likely scenario. And odds to go along with it.

Fangraphs’ Projected Rest of the Season: Fangraphs is predicting that the Cardinals and the Brewers will win about 57% of the rest of their games. That seems very fair for both teams considering how close the standings have been all season.

If both teams win at the same rate, though, how can the Brewers catch them in the standings? They can’t.

Here are the final records that Fangraphs predicts:

Final Cardinals record: 94-68
Final Brewers record: 88-74

Fangraphs then gives the Cardinals a 90.7% chance of winning this division.

Don’t print the championship banners yet. But the Cardinals have a very clear path to the division title. And when they do, we should look back at this two-week stretch in August as the reason why.