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How Major Projection Systems Feel About the Cardinals in 2024

ZIPS and PECOTA both project the Cardinals to win the NL Central this year.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve finally made it. This is the week that pitchers and catchers report. It’s the week that college baseball starts. And it’s the week that we start hearing about players in the best shape of their lives. There’s nothing better.

While we don’t have any Spring Training games until February 22nd, we will have some fresh news and coverage from Jupiter from the great team of St. Louis Cardinals beat writers. We also some have season projections to chew on.

And what better way is there to start the season than with some feel-good (kind of) projections for the Cardinals? So let’s take a look at a few of the major projections systems before we get into the thick of Spring Training.

PECOTA - 85 wins

(PECOTA is the projection system used at Baseball Prospectus. For more details on the intricacies of the system click here.)

Alright. We need to start with some background. PECOTA hates the Cardinals. And I know that every fanbase thinks that every projections system hates their team but I’m pretty sure PECOTA might actually have just enough sentience to personally hate the Cardinals.

PECOTA has massively underrated the Cardinals pretty much every season for a while now. We could also take the flip side view and say that the Cardinals overperformed their projections every year. Or we could take the correct view and say that PECOTA is simply giving a 50th percentile projection based on it’s inputs and weights and the Cardinals tend to be better than that. That’s probably the view we should take but feel free to be as personally offended by PECOTA’s projections as you like.

Going back to 2015, the Cardinals have finished with more wins than projected every single year. Until 2023, that is.

(In the following table note that I pro-rated PECOTA’s 2020 projection for the total number of games the Cardinals played in the 2020 season.)

Cardinals PECOTA Projections Since 2015

Year PECOTA Projected Win Total Actual Wins Difference
Year PECOTA Projected Win Total Actual Wins Difference
2023 86 71 -15
2022 81 93 12
2021 81 90 9
2020* 29* 30 1
2019 86 91 5
2018 84 88 4
2017 76 83 7
2016 82 86 4
2015 89 100 11

So if we exclude 2020, PECOTA was between 4 and 12 wins short of the Cardinals actual win total every year. And then PECOTA got revenge in 2023, with the Cardinals falling 15 wins shy of their projected mark. I’m just kidding. The 2023 season had nothing to do with a vengeful projection system. It did have to do with a myriad of issues and underperformanace throughout the season.

I wanted to start with that because PECOTA’s projection this year is almost exactly the same as it was last year. 85 wins. Is that thrilling? No. But the system is clearly projecting some positive regression and thinks enough of the Cardinals offseason moves to project the team for a first place finish in a weak NL Central division.

Here’s how the division rounds out:

2024 NL Central PECOTA Projections

Team Wins Losses Division Chance Playoff Chance World Series Chance
Team Wins Losses Division Chance Playoff Chance World Series Chance
St Louis Cardinals 85.0 77.0 49.4% 63.0% 2.8%
Chicago Cubs 80.7 81.3 19.4% 34.6% 1.5%
Milwaukee Brewers 79.5 82.5 17.6% 28.4% 1.1%
Cincinnati Reds 78.0 84.0 12.0% 20.0% 0.6%
Pittsburgh Pirates 72.3 89.7 1.6% 3.7% 0.2%

The Cardinals are not only projected to win the division but to do so by a margin of just over 4 games with the Cubs usurping the Brewers as the main threat. PECOTA gives the Cardinals nearly a 50% chance to win the division and a 63% chance to make the playoffs, both of which lead NL Central clubs.

The only NL teams given a higher chance of making the playoffs are the Dodgers (99.9%). and the Braves (99.8%). Playing in a weak division is certainly helping the projection here but that’s still an encouraging sign for the Cardinals.

Let’s delve a little bit deeper into how the Cardinals are expected to win games. The team ranks 6th in the NL and 9th in the majors in projected runs scored (777) but the pitching side of things looks a little worse with the Cardinals falling to 8th in the NL and 17th in the majors in projected runs allowed (747).

That’s probably not a surprise to you.

Amongst their NL Central competition, The Cardinals rank second in both categories with PECOTA liking the Reds lineup a little bit more (794 projected runs scored) and giving the Brewers pitching staff a slight edge (722 runs allowed).

If I told you the Cardinals would finish with a win total in the mid-80s driven by good hitting and lackluster pitching, would you be surprised? I certainly wouldn’t be. So what I’m saying here is that this projection seems solid enough on the surface for a 50th percentile outcome.

The fact that the Cardinals are projected to win the division but only given the 9th best odds to win the world series also makes sense. This isn’t likely to be a dominant team. It’s not a Braves or a Dodgers level team. But it is a solid team that plays in a weak division so projecting the team to be basically a coin flip to win the division is fair.

This is just one projection system so let’s look at another one now - ZIPS - and see if there’s agreement or divergence.

ZIPS - 83 wins

(ZIPS is a projection system created by Dan Szymborski of Fangraphs. You can read his article on the NL projections here.)

ZIPS is a little bit lower on the Cardinals than PECOTA but not by much. Just two games in fact. ZIPS gives the Cardinals a projected record of 83-79 but still thinks that’s good enough to win the division.

That’s because the Cardinals are the only NL Central team projected to finish above .500.

The Cubs are the next best team at 81-81 with the Brewers just a game behind at 80-82 and the Reds just one game behind that at 79-83. That’s a tight cluster of teams near the top of the division and the although the Cardinals are given the best chance of winning the NL Central crown at 33.2%, the projected 4th place Reds aren’t too far behind at 16%.

The Pirates are projected to bring up the rear at 75-87 with a 6.8% chance of winning the division.

Here are the full standings:

2024 NL Central ZIPS Projections

Team Wins Losses Division Chance Playoffs Chance World Series Chance
Team Wins Losses Division Chance Playoffs Chance World Series Chance
St. Louis Cardinals 83 79 33.2% 48.9% 2.9%
Chicago Cubs 81 81 23.5% 38.6% 1.9%
Milwaukee Brewers 80 82 20.5% 34.8% 1.5%
Cincinnati Reds 79 83 16.0% 28.8% 1.1%
Pittsburgh Pirates 75 87 6.8% 13.9% 0.3%

As you can see, ZIPS is really hedging its bets here. The system is projecting the Cardinals to win the division but it’s not a confident projection. The Cardinals 33.2% chance of winning the division and 48.9% chance of making the playoffs are both the lowest figures among projected division winners and the Cardinals are the only projected division champion to have less than a 50% chance of making the playoffs.

ZIPS really doesn’t know what to make of this division, though it still likes the Cardinals a little bit more than the rest of the pack.

What’s also interesting to me is that both ZIPS and PECOTA have the Cubs surpassing the Brewers this year as the Cardinals’ top challenger. It’s by a slim margin for both systems but that’s still something worth noting.

So that’s the 2024 season but how well has ZIPS projected the Cardinals in the past? Let’s find out:

Cardinals ZIPS Projections Since 2019

Year ZIPS Projected Wins Total Actual Wins Difference
Year ZIPS Projected Wins Total Actual Wins Difference
2023 91 71 -20
2022 88 93 5
2021 86 90 4
2020 31 30 -1
2019 86 91 5

2019 is the last year I could find easily accessible ZIPS projected standings so I was unable to go all the way back to 2015 this time. I do know that Dan Szymborski has been running ZIPS projections beginning well before 2019 so that information is probably out there somewhere but, alas, we’ll stick with what we’ve got here.

ZIPS has pretty consistently projected the Cardinals for somewhere between 84 (that’s the projection for a full 162 game season in 2020) and 88 games but it actually like last year’s roster enough to project it for 91 wins. What a weird and terrible season 2023 was.

Keep in mind that ZIPS is projecting a median outcome here. That means you’ll rarely see a 95+ win projection from ZIPS and projections of even 90+ wins aren’t too common.

The system isn’t saying that a team can win 95-100 games or more, it’s simply saying that such an outcome isn’t the median outcome. And that makes sense. Teams that win 95-100+ games are really good but there’s generally some good fortune involved such as health and batted ball luck that play a role. Sometimes players also just break out in a way that a projections system isn’t going to project. It happens.

That’s a little bit of context on why the best projected team this year - the Braves - is “only” given a projected win total of 95. It’s also a little bit of context on just how highly ZIPS thought of the 2023 Cardinals team. ZIPS really liked last year’s Cardinals team and...well... things didn’t exactly go according to plan.

So this ZIPS projection stands out for a couple reasons. First the Cardinals are still projected to win the division. But it’s also interesting to see ZIPS so much lower on the 2024 Cardinals than it was on the 2023 Cardinals and it’s also notable that ZIPS is lower on this team than PECOTA. It’s usually the other way around.

Final Thoughts

The major projections systems seem to agree on the Cardinals this year. They aren’t likely to be a dominant team but they are likely to be the best team in the NL Central. There’s a very real chance that the Cardinals playoff absence will be only a one year absence but there’s also not a great chance that this team, as currently constructed, is a World Series team.

This is more of a win-a-weak-division-and-hope-the-team-gets-hot-in-the-playoffs kind of team. That’s probably about what I expect this team to be and I don’t think it’s far off the common fan sentiment either.

Take these projections for whatever they’re worth to you. The games still need to be played and moves still need to be made. A lot can happen. Players can overperform and players can underperform. Players can get hurt and prospects can impress. Those are the high and lows of a baseball season and that’s part of what makes it so much fun.

Thanks for reading!