At the beginning of this year, the Cardinals were projected to win around 85 wins given their talent. Baseball Prospectus had the team at 78 wins because it didn’t believe in the Cardinals rotation, but I think somewhere between 82 and 88 wins were realistic expectations for the Cardinals. With just 19 games left, the Cardinals are on pace to win 85 games. Reconciling the season we’ve seen with expectations at the beginning of the year is difficult.
Consider that PECOTA projection that Mike Matheny laughed at and called “unbelievable”. With over one-third of the season gone, the Cardinals were on a 73-win pace. At the All-Star Break, the pace was 79. With two-thirds of the season gone, the 53-56 Cardinals were on pace for 79 wins. A couple weeks ago the season passed the 80% mark and the team was just .500. Yet now, they are on pace for 85 wins, their highest mark by pace since the team was 23-20 exactly 100 games ago.
So if a team expected to win 85 games wins 85 games, is that a success because expectations were met. For better or worse, making the playoffs matters. Any season where the team makes the playoffs, even just a one-game version, should be considered successful. If 85 games is what it takes to make the playoffs, then an 85-win season might be deemed successful, though expecting to make the playoffs with an 85-win team would be pretty presumptuous, as the Cardinals found out last year, and are still likely to find out this season.
To provide an example of how that works, here are the ten teams with best odds of making the postseason when the season began, per FanGraphs. Look at how those playoff odds progress as the year goes by.
The Dodgers, Red Sox, Nationals, Astros, Indians, and Cubs all began the season with odds above 75% to make the playoffs. These are all teams expected to win 90 games or more. Five of those six teams are all-but guaranteed to make the playoffs with the Cubs still likely to qualify. In the next tier, we have four teams expected to peform at the Cardinals level, the 85-win tier. Three of these four teams have fallen by the wayside, and only the Cardinals have any realistic shot at the playoffs.
Things don’t work out that cleanly every year. Teams that have set themselves up really well don’t always perform really well, and the teams that set themselves up with the possibility to succeed with vulnerabilities don’t all fall apart. It does illustrate the risks an organization takes when fielding a good, but not great roster.
Money matters, but free agency would not have bought what the Cardinals needed. Edwin Encarnacion has a good 130 wRC+, but he’s a terrible baserunner and is a full-time designated hitter. Encarnacion’s 2.2 WAR is no different from the Cardinals four primary infielders in Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong, Paul DeJong, and Jedd Gyorko, the four of whom have produced their numbers in less playing time.
Justin Turner would have been great, and if the Cardinals didn’t push harder to see if he might leave Los Angeles, then that was a mistake. The Cardinals did sign one of the better free agents available in Dexter Fowler, and absent the injuries, he’s performed about as expected, with a 115 wRC+. They also signed the best reliever outside of Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, and Mark Melancon, but Brett Cecil hasn’t brought needed stability.
No big trade was made, although one might have been needed, either in the offseason or during. The front office rolled out an 85-win team, used its organizational depth in the infield, outfield, and starting pitching to make sure the talent level remained roughly the same as players faltered or were injured. When the team’s record was consistently below the talent level more than one-third of the way through the season, coaching changes were made.
The team’s record slowly improved and a good run of late has meant that the team has been on a 94-win pace since those coaching changes were made. On the field, a vast majority of the players have played to expectations. Paul DeJong has picked up for the expected production of Aledmys Diaz. Tommy Pham—who neither the organization nor the manager believed in to start the season—has done more than enough to make up for any lack of production from Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty.
The rotation has met or exceeded expectations, even allowing a decent pitcher to be jettisoned last month. The bullpen hasn’t been great, but Trevor Rosenthal and Tyler Lyons have filled the performance voids left by Seung-Hwan Oh and Brett Cecil even if Rosenthal didn’t make it to the end of the season.
By run-differential and BaseRuns, the Cardinals got that extra boost of performance they needed on the field, playing like an 89-win team so far this season even if the record says they are headed for 85 wins. Ben Markham wrote about how un-clutch the team was for much of the season. That well could be the difference between making the playoffs and missing them. The difference between success and failure.
When the margin is so thin, it becomes easy to exaggerate the importance of certain aspects of the game when it comes to both success and failure. Something small will get more credit if the team wins and more notoriety if the team loses. The manager, the bullpen, one move, one callup, one surprising performance or notable failure from a player all receive heightened scrutiny. The truth is it all matters.
When success and failure are so close together, every decision matters, whether it was in March or April or July and August or in these last two weeks. Sub-optimal decisions with lineups, running the bases, fielding, and throws all add up. The Cardinals are a good team and a good organization. They are also a flawed team and a flawed organization. They’ve gotten some bad breaks, some self-induced, but they’ve had some things go their way as well.
With just 19 games to go, everything that happens these last three weeks is important, just like it was for the first 143 games. Success and failure isn’t and shouldn’t be measured over this last stretch. It will be measured on what has happened all season. The Cardinals—and Cardinals fans—are fortunate that these games matter. As we might have expected at the beginning of the season, there is almost no margin for error.