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Can the Cardinals Make the Playoffs? Let’s Do the Math!

How many wins does it take to get to the playoff-making center of the National League? Let’s find out!

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals are 36 games into their 2023 season. That’s 22% of the season gone pretty much right down the flusher.

The club’s record as of Tuesday morning is 12-24. Twelve and twenty-four.

That doesn’t feel that bad since the Cardinals have put together two wins in a row. In case you’ve forgotten, that is what is called a “winning streak.”

Yes, for those of you that caught that now 34-year-old movie reference, the Cardinals are down in Lou Brown’s Cleveland Indians territory. I presume Oli Marmol has a peel-and-stick life-sized poster of Willson Contreras in the clubhouse where they pull off another piece of his catching gear following every win.

(Cue the whistles and cat calls.)

Every Hollywood-caliber baseball story needs a villain, right?

The losing. The why’s. The what’s. They’ve all been covered ad nauseam. (Literally, ad nauseam.) So, I’m not going to do that today.

Instead, I want to take a look at some math.

The club has dug themselves a hole that opened up a crevasse that fell into a bottomless pit of despair. Assuming they’ve found their low point – which is not a safe assumption at all – what do the Cardinals have to do to put themselves in a position to make the playoffs from here forward?

We’ll talk about the moves they need to make in a later article. For now, I just mean math. How many wins will the Cardinals need to either win the division or reach the Wild Card and what are their odds of doing so?

I’ve done this in the past with other less-underperforming teams. This time I’m going to adapt my approach. We’re looking for a bottom-end win total. Not a top-end win total. What I want to know is the absolute baseline the Cardinals will need to reach to secure either the division championship or the 3rd Wild Card spot.

Yes, I said the division championship. I’m not eliminating that possibility from this discussion since the NL Central is still the NL Central and despite the strong start from the Pirates and Brewers, this feels like a division that could fall back to the Cardinals.

What I’m going to do is focus on two numbers from each season of the last 10 years:

1. Average win total of the 2nd place team in the NL Central.
2. Average win total of the team finishing third in the Wild Card standings in the NL.

Those two numbers + 1 will become our goals and we’ll do a little backward math to figure out the Cardinals’ necessary winning percentage to have a reasonable shot at reaching the postseason based on history.

Let’s start with the NL Central by season. I’ll list the division-winning total and the 2nd place number. We’ll use win% to estimate a total for 2020:

2022 – 93, 86
2021 – 95, 90
2020 – 92, 84
2019 – 91, 89
2018 – 96, 95
2017 – 92, 86
2016 – 103, 86
2015 – 100, 98
2014 – 90, 88
2013 – 97, 94

A couple of points stand out from this little chart. First, no team has won the NL Central division with less than 90 wins in the last ten seasons. The “Comedy” Central might not demand as many wins as the Easts and Wests but the division champion hasn’t necessarily been a bad team. The average win total for the division champ is 94.9 wins. If we take out the two 100-win outlier teams – it doesn’t look like the Central has a 100-win team this year – that average drops to 93 wins.

For the Cardinals to become an average division champion in the NL Central, 93 wins is the target. We’ll come back to that number.

That said, it does not take 93 wins to actually win the division. A division crown requires 1 more win than the 2nd place team, not a 3-10 game lead.

How many wins does it take to be +1 win better than second place?

This is where the mediocrity of the division shows up. Only four of the 2nd place Central teams won 90 games or more over the last 10 years. On the flip side, no full-season second-place team won less than 86 wins in a season. The ten-year average for the Central’s runner-up is 89.6 wins. If we take out the 94 and 95-win outliers – which we really shouldn’t do but the Central probably doesn’t have two 95-win teams this year – that drops to 88 wins.

Let’s split the difference and say the average 2nd place finisher in the NL Central over the last 10 years is 89 wins. Winning the division would require +1 or 90 wins.

That gives us a range for the division crown. The Cardinals need to finish between 90-93 wins to have an “average” shot at the division crown, with the possibility of that dropping as low as 89 if things fall unusually favorably for them with the rest of the contenders.

Now the Wild Card. MLB continues its expanded playoffs this season, which means we can’t just look at previous Wild Card records. We have to look beyond them to find the first team out; the team that will now be the last playoff team. We’ll do the same thing as before, only this time listing the win total for the #1 Wild Card, #2 Wild Card, and new #3 Wild Card.

2022 – 101, 89, 86
2021 – 106, 90, 83
2020 – 100, 84, 84
2019 – 93, 89, 86
2018 – 95, 91, 88
2017 – 93, 87, 86
2016 – 87, 87, 86
2015 – 98, 97, 84
2014 – 88, 88, 82
2013 – 94, 90, 86

Almost every season the 1st Wild Card winner is a pretty good team that was stuck behind a very good team. The average win total for the first WC is 96 wins. Good luck with that one, Cardinals.

The 2nd Wild Card winner isn’t nearly as good. The highest win total for the league’s 5th place team is 97 wins but that’s a clear outlier. The next highest is just 91 wins. The average? 89 wins. That drops to 88 wins if we cut out the high-end outlier and leave the low-end 84-win outlier in, but that’s cheating the system. 89 wins it is.

The 3rd Wild Card? That team is rarely very good at all. They are always above .500, but never above 88 wins, the average of the 2nd Wild Card. Some of this could shift a little as the 3rd Wild Card helps some teams remain in contention and adds to the list of “buyers” looking to improve their club at the trade deadline. No reason to speculate on the impact of that possibility now. We’ll just have to stick with the records we know while acknowledging the need to adjust upward. The average 3rd Wild Card team over the last 10 years would have won 85 games. Add one to that for our target.

Let’s put that together for the big picture:

Central average: 93 wins
Central minimum: 90 wins

First Wild Card average: 96 wins
Second Wild Card average: 89 wins
Third Wild Card average: 85 wins

Now, to the math! With 126 games remaining and a 12-24 record, it’s a pretty simple formula to reverse engineer a necessary win percentage for the Cardinals to reach these milestones.

To win the Central at 93 wins: 81 wins, .643 win%, or a 104-win pace over 162.

To win the Central at 90 wins: 78 wins, 619 win%, or a 100-win pace over 162.

To win the 1st Wild Card at 96 wins: 84 wins, .667 win%, or a 108-win pace over 162.

To win the 2nd Wild Card 89 wins: 77 wins, .611 win%, or a 99-win pace over 162.

To win the 3rd Wild Card 85 wins: 73 wins, .579 win%, or a 94-win pace over 162.

If we’re looking for a minimum win total to have any shot at sneaking into the new playoff format, the Cardinals need to go 73-53 over their next 126 games. That’s the equivalent of a 94-win pace for a full season.

That’s a pretty hard floor. It’s possible but very unrealistic to expect the 3rd Wild Card or the 2nd place NL Central team to come in below 85 wins. It has happened, but considering the improved competitiveness around the Wild Card system, I wouldn’t count on it.

So, can the Cardinals make the playoffs? Yes, they can. They just have to play up to the potential that they had at the beginning of the season. They have to start that right now. And they can’t stumble at any point along the way.

What are the chances that will happen? Fangraphs helps us put odds to it. Right now, the computers believe the Cardinals will bounce back from their horrid start! That’s good news! They are reasonably confident that this club can now finish the season with 79 wins! Woohoo! Yes, the team has to play at a .533 win% or an 86-win pace just to finish one win better than their worst season this century.

That total is pretty depressing. However, if we’re looking for silver linings, that win total would be nearly even with what Fangraphs expects out of the Cubs and Pirates for the rest of the season. Regression from those two teams plus some improvement from the Cards creates a real pile-up in the playoff odds for the non-Brewers NL Central.

They give the Cardinals a 13.2% chance of winning the division and just an 8.2% chance of securing a Wild Card spot, even with the 3rd Wild Card factored into their equations. Their overall chance of making the playoffs is 21.4%.

That’s 1 in 5. Not great. Better than I hoped when I started this piece.

The Cubs have a 22.5% chance. The Pirates have a 21.2% chance. But both teams have quite a few wins already in the bank, giving them an advantage.

The Brewers? They are at 59.3% odds to win the division.

What do we make of this? I offer this one from the fictional Indians’ catcher: “Uh-oh, Rexy. Don’t think this one’s got the distance.”

Fangraphs says the Cardinals’ best chance of reaching the playoffs is winning the division, despite some unimpressive play from other pre-season contenders in the East and West. It takes more wins, but there’s less competition. That improves the odds. Still, there is no reason to suspect the Brewers will fall off as far as they would need to for the Cardinals to catch up. And that assumes two other teams fall back, too. Not a safe assumption at all!

The Cardinals have a very difficult path ahead of them

But there are some solutions out there! We’ve seen them. On the movies, yes. But a few times in real baseball as well.

For now, the Cardinals just need to stabilize their roster. Win some games. And maybe seek out some more divine intervention. Start praying to JoBu for more hits, sacrifice a bucket of KFC, or, better yet, just go out there and do it themselves! A movie-magic season is still possible. (If the 3rd Wild Card can be considered a goal worthy of movie magic.) Not likely. But possible.

Now is the time, Cardinals. As Lou said, “Give ‘em the heater, Ricky!”

(Better make that the slider, actually. Too many Cardinals throw their fastballs more like Charlie Sheen than Ricky Vaughan.)