The question posed in the title is a serious one though it does sound a bit out there if you’ve been paying any attention to the team at all. The obvious answer is no, just take a look at their record, which is finally .500 after more than two months below that mark. Good is a bit subjective, the record says no, but what about everything else? Does the other stuff matter if the record is merely average?
Their record is undoubtedly mediocre, but one of the things I hear a lot about this team is that they are underachieving. Everyone seems to think the Cardinals should be better, and not just in a franchise sense of the Cardinals as a team with great history and a lot of money. The Cardinals should be good because they have the resources to be good, but that’s not what is meant by underachieving.
When I hear underachieving, I take it to mean that the Cardinals as currently constructed should be better than their record indicates. If a team underachieves to a degree where the record indicates they are just average, does that mean the team is actually good?
Back on June 9, the Cardinals were 26-32, which isn’t even average. At that time, the Cardinals were playing like it, too. On offense, the team had a hitting line of .248/.320/.398 which was good for a wRC+ of 88, well below average and 24th in baseball. Even taking pitchers out of the equation, the wRC+ was still just 93 and 20th in the majors.
On the pitching side, the starters were quite good with a 3.92 FIP, fourth in MLB and a 3.58 ERA, which was third. Even accounting for park and league effects, the starters were getting the job done. Of course the relievers were not. They had a very bad 4.84 ERA, which ranked 27th, and a 4.42 FIP, which was 22nd. As a team, they had allowed 23 more runs than they had scored so their pythagorean record was right in line with their actual record, and even if they were unlucky in sequencing, it would only have pushed their record toward average, not anything approximating good.
So the Cardinals made some coaching changes, and since that time, the team is 30-24, which is exactly a 90-win pace. While the Dodgers and Nationals and the Cubs of last season might make 90 wins seem pretty inferior, I find it hard to call 90 wins anything but good. Now, if you look at runs scored versus runs allowed and come up with their pythagorean record, the team is playing at a level that might have yielded a 34-20 record, which is above a 100-win pace. BaseRuns says much of the same thing.
That offense which gets so hot and so cold, excluding the pitcher, has hit .271/.350/.459 with a wRC+ of 111 since the coaching changes, sixth-best in the majors. Now you might think they are doing all of this damage in blowouts, but in low-leverage situations, when the impact on the game is minimal, the Cardinals wRC+ in that time has been 101. In medium and high leverage situations, the wRC+ is 122.
The starting pitching, which was so good early on, has still been solidly above average with a 4.34 FIP which ranks ninth in MLB along with a 3.96 ERA which ranks eighth. That bullpen, which had been so bad, has a 2.77 ERA since the coaching changes and that ranks second in MLB. The FIP has been 3.31, also second.
Over the last two months, the Cardinals have played really well. A 30-24 record might not seem like much, but that’s because there is a pretty thin line between average and good over a couple months. For the first two months of the season, the Cardinals played like an 81-win team and had the record of a 73-win team. Over the last two months, they’ve played like a 100-win team and had the record of a 90-win team.
The projections put the team in between, expecting them to play like a 86-win team. If they do that, the season is going to disappointing as the team ends up with a 83-win season and likely out of the playoffs. If they play like a 90-win team, that only gets them to 84 wins. Even if they keep playing like a 100-win team and get the record of a team playing like it, they still only get to 87 wins, which likely doesn’t get to the playoffs.
It might be too late for the Cardinals this season. To get to 90 wins and a likely playoff berth, they will need win games like a 110-win team, a slightly lesser version of the Dodgers this season. It is possible as we are dealing with just 50 games, but it isn’t likely.
Are the Cardinals good? They’ve been playing like a good team for two months, but poor play from the offense and the bullpen in the first few months might have held them back too much. Maybe some of their average record is a streaky offense. Maybe some of it is poor bullpen management. Some of it is probably just bad luck. The parts of this team individually have been good this year and very good of late. The sum of those parts have the record of a good team over the last two months. Without an amazing two months, it might not be enough.
So are the Cardinals good? This season, they’ve been good even if their record doesn’t completely reflect it. They’ve been good lately, even if their overall record doesn’t reflect it and 30-24 doesn’t seem like its good. They have underachieved and we can lay blame on luck, the players, or management. It has caused what will likely be a disappointing season, but I’m not so sure that this Cardinals team isn’t a good one.