After their game tonight against the San Francisco Giants, the St. Louis Cardinals will be exactly one third of the way through their 2014 regular season schedule, so now seems like as good a time as any to do a quick review of exactly where the Cardinals are — as well as why they’re there, and where they’re likely to end up after 162 games. In order to all of that, we’ll take a look at a number of overall team stats, as well as individual metrics, and what all of these seem to indicate about the chances for the Redbirds to repeat as NL champions in 2014. We’ll start with the obvious — the Cardinals are 29-24, and 2.5 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers for first place in the NL Central division.
Even on its own, 2.5 games out seems like a pretty good spot to be in with over 100 games remaining in the season (at least in the sense that it leaves more than enough time to make up such a relatively minuscule amount of ground in the standings), but the good news doesn’t end there — not by a long shot. According to fangraphs, only 1 NL team had a better chance of making the playoffs this year (and that team just so happens to be tonight’s opponent), and the reasons behind this are numerous.
Firstly, and perhaps most surprisingly, the Cardinals currently own the 3rd best record in the NL, behind only the Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers. When considering factors including the relatively small sample size that 53 games represents over the course of a full season, and the “luckiness” (and “unluckiness”) involved in how teams have accrued their records over that span, the Cardinals look even better. The Cardinals expected W-L record is 30-23, which is worse than only 4 teams in all of baseball — and only 1 of those teams (again, the Giants) plays in the NL. You may have noticed that this leaves the Brewers out of the discussion, which leads to the second major reason the Cardinals have such a good chance of making the playoffs — the Brewers have been ridiculously lucky to play as well as they have so far and they still have technically played worse than the Cardinals.
If I was a betting man, I’d be intrigued by the prospect of making some potentially easy money by placing a bet on the Brewers failing to be better than a .500 team by the end of the season — sure, they may have a better than average chance of beating that record, but the odds you’d probably get on such a relatively statistically likely occurrence are enticing, to say the least. Milwaukee has played only 7 games against teams currently leading their division, and they’ve gone 2-5 in those games. They’ve also gone 11-11 in games against teams with a current record of .500 or better — which wouldn’t be too concerning on its own. But when you also consider that they’ve managed that mediocre record against good teams only with the help of nearly unbelievable levels of luck, you begin to realize just how likely it is that the Brewers will falter greatly as their strength of schedule increases later in the season.
Aside from a simple record standpoint, there’s ample reason for optimism among Cardinals fans — namely, the fact that the team has many opportunities to be much, much better over the course of the remained of the season. Let’s explore a number of these opportunities on a position-by-position basis.
Ok, so maybe this one can’t be improved too much (consider the reason behind this is the near impossibility of pitching any better as group, however, this is a good thing), but there are some minor things that can help, and some of them have already been implemented, at least in some small way. To start with, Lance Lynn, who has thus far in his career defied the ERA-lowering expectations of FIP, seems to finally be turning the corner. In other words, he’s no longer simply an average player who should be better — he’s finally becoming (or at least he appears to be) a player who is actually the above-average player that the advanced metrics have said he should have been all along. And he’s not the only one who’s recent play has sparked reason for hope as the season progresses.
The addition of Jaime Garcia back into the starting rotation is so vitally important that it can’t possibly be overstated — Garcia is a game-changer. Both because he represents a quality left handed pitcher in the rotation, and because he when he’s healthy, he’s simply one of the best lefties in all of baseball — he’s not just depth and a different look for opposing lineups, he’s a nightmare for opposing lineups. Period.
Finally, add in the fact that the bullpen has been (at least as a collective unit) much, much worse (or at least more inconsistent) than they can reasonably be expected to be moving forward, and you can see a clear picture of an elite group of players with the chance to improve even further. That should scare the rest of the league.
I don’t really need to explain this, do I?
Matt Adams is really good at hitting baseballs. He doesn’t care where the defense is, and he doesn’t care how many times people call him a “dead-pull hitter” or a even “just” a power hitter. The fact of the matter is that Matt Adams is a good hitter, regardless of how you define the term. In fact , according to a metric known as wRC+ (weighted runs created plus, where a player’s numbers are weighted against league average) Adams is the top-most tier of MLB player as far his ability to create runs is concerned. His 2014 and career wRC+ are an identical 124, and fangraphs doesn’t even bother attempting to describe anything north of 120 for this metric — 120 is considered “excellent”.
Given all of that, it would be foolish not to expect Adams to drive in a heck of a lot more runs over the next third of the season. In fact, the number indicate that he’s likely to drive in at least 60-70 runs over the remainder of the season, based on his career totals so far, and the season totals for players with a similar wRC+. Basically, the Cardinals have lost a large amount of run production from Adams due to nothing more than rotten luck.
Now that Kolten Wong has finally and rightfully earned his (at least seemingly) permanent stay as the starting 2B, the projected numbers for this position are much easier to define. While his wRC+ and and wOBA (weighted on-base average) seem to represent a player who is either just above or just below average (as a hitter), Wong has recently been much better at the plate, and seems likely to continue to be so as he sees more playing time. Regardless, the value he brings both defensively and as a runner is invaluable. Now that he’s replaced Ellis as the starter, the Cardinals can expect to receive more help from 2B in their quest to win more games over the remainder of the season.
Despite the fact that his ISO (isolated power) is half of what it was last year (.80 this, and .163 last year), Matt Carpenter is still on pace to score more than 100 runs, and drive in more than 50 — add in the likelihood of an at least modest rise in his power numbers (an assumption made from his career ISO of .148) and Carpenter is likely to end the year as one of the most valuable leadoff hitters in all of baseball.
This one is pretty simple. Despite playing only a third of the season so far, Jhonny Peralta already has 3 times as many homeruns, and nearly half as many RBI, as Peta Kozma does in his entire career. He’s even been a considerable “plus” defensively, and that’s really just icing on the cake. If he continues to play well, he’ll help make this Cardinals offense what it should have been all along — great.
Despite what you have heard to the contrary, Matt Holliday has been pretty decent offensively this year, and his career numbers indicate that he’s likely to be even better as the season progresses. Regardless, he’s a good player and an even better teammate and leader. He’ll help this team become better.
Because of his baserunning ability, Peter Bourjos has actually been both more defensively and more offensively valuable than Jon Jay so far. In fact, according to WAR, Bourjos has been twice as valuable so far. While I’d be tempted to say that Mike Matheny’s inexplicable preference for Jay over Bourjos is likely to cost the Cardinals wins over the rest of the season, the likelihood of a looming promotion for one of the Memphis OF means that both men are likely to see decreased playing time. It also means that the Cardinals are likely to be a better team, as they’ll benefit from having a truly quality bat in the lineup on nightly basis that doesn’t also represent a defensive black hole.
I’ll keep this short and sweet — Allen Craig is going to be better as the season goes on. A lot better, in fact. His career wRC+ is astoundingly good, and as he’s likely to perform closer to his career numbers than to his numbers at the beginning of this year, he’s also likely to help this team win more games. Put simply, Allen Craig is going to be really, really good offensively over the last 100+ games of the season.
The Cardinals have been inconsistent and and often times ugly to start the year, but don’t let the small sample size (against a ridiculously stacked schedule) fool you. This is a team that will win the NL Central with ease.
And they might just be the best team in the league when the season draws to a close.