The Cardinals are playing meaningful September baseball. But does that mean this season can be a success?
Today I find myself thinking about the second Wild Card.
As I write this on Friday afternoon, the Cardinals sit 4 games over the .500 mark. They are 12.5 games behind the NL Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers. They are even further behind the Wild Card leading Giants/Dodgers, who are tied heading into Friday’s action. Both teams have already won 85 games with a month to play.
It seems a shame that one of those teams will finish second in the tough NL West and will probably finish with the second-best record in all of baseball.
The first Wild Card, which often feels like a poor consolation prize for a really good team who gets stuck behind a really great team, is well out of reach for the Cards.
The leader for the second Wild Card, the Reds, are just 2.5 games ahead of the Cardinals and within striking range. So are the Padres, who should be better than their record, but have had to make their hay battling the Giants and Dodgers. The Phillies and Mets are also in the picture. The Phils have a game lead on the Cards. The Mets are two behind in the win column and three in the loss, but they have higher odds of making the postseason since they still have a shot in their division.
That paints a clear picture of what this Cardinals team is 132 games into this season. Sure, they started the season hanging around with some of the better teams in baseball. They had a 23-17 record, tied for best in the National League on the 15th of May. They’ve been under .500 since and are now hanging around with a handful of other teams that are, at best, mediocre.
With all due respect to the feisty bunch over in the Queen City, it’s really hard for me to view fighting to catch the Reds from behind in the 11th hour for the 2nd Wild Card as a shimmering success of a season.
Even if it does happen – and Fangraphs remains very pessimistic that it will – it can’t be construed as any less than a regular-season failure.
The Cardinals front office always says that the “goal is to win the division”. Well, ok. Is the Central just unusually hard this year? Are the Cards a good team stuck behind a juggernaut?
Looking through the rest of the divisions throughout baseball, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Pretty much every division leader in baseball has lapped the Redbirds. Some have done so a few times. The Brewers have the third-best record among the division leaders, so they’re up there among the best in the game. Excepting the 71-win Braves, it would take at least 78 wins today and a .580 winning percentage pace to be among the division leaders.
The Cardinals are twenty wins behind that. With thirty to play.
Barring an absolutely ridiculous (and unexpected) (and unprecedented) September performance by Shildt’s crew, there is no way for the Cardinals to finish anywhere close to their stated goal. If their goal was to “win the division” then they’re double digits out of that goal in all but one division in baseball.
Can this season be successful? No, I don’t think there’s any way it can end up being a successful season.
But what about the postseason, you say? What if they pull off the Fangraphs-improbable? Catch the Reds. Face the Dodgers/Giants in the NL Wild Card. What if Adam Wainwright pitches lights out in that game? What if they get hot in the NLDS? What if they pitch their way to the World Series? What if, in the end, all of this results in a raised banner?
How could that not be a success?
Of course, that would be a success. Postseason success. Miraculous playoff brilliance that I and you and (some in) baseball would celebrate for years to come.
All of that postseason brilliance would come not because of this regular-season performance. It would come despite this regular-season performance.
This boils down to a process versus results issue.
Even if the postseason results end up being there in the end, it seems well past time to recognize that the process this team is taking is insufficient.
They’re failing in their stated goals. And that’s not new.
I went to the Baseball Reference Cardinals’ Franchise Encyclopedia and glanced through their season win totals. The Cardinals have won their division 10 times since 2000. An impressive total and one that we should credit to the front office.
The lowest division-winning team was, of course, in 2006 when 83 wins sneaked out the central and an improbable World Series title.
The highest win total was the 105-win 2004 team, which remains the best baseball club I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching.
In between is a pretty small range of win totals for division champs: 95, 97, 100, 91, 97, 90, 100, 91.
Tossing out the high and low – pretty extreme outliers – leaves the Cardinals with an average (mean) division-winning record of 95 wins. The median wins would be (if my Friday afternoon math brain is working) 96 wins.
That fits with what we’re seeing this season throughout baseball. 5 of the 6 division leaders are pacing toward at least 95 wins.
If we start moving back years (skipping 2020), the division winners in 2019 won 97, 106, 91 (Cardinals), 103, 101, 107 games. That averages out at an amazing 101 wins.
In 2018, the win totals were 108, 91, 103, 90, 96, 92. That averages out to 96 wins.
2017 – 97, 92, 104, 93, 102, 101. 98 average.
2016 – 93, 94, 95, 95, 103, 91. 95 average.
2015 – 90, 100 (Cardinals), 92, 93, 95, 88. 93 average.
That’s far enough, right? The Cardinals’ average win total in their division championships is 95 wins. MLB is tracking toward at least a 95 win average this season and probably higher. From 2015-2019 MLB division winners averaged between 93-101 wins, with 4 of the 5 seasons landing at 95 or above.
If the Cardinals’ goal is to win their division in this season or seasons to come, then they have to set a goal of constructing a roster that will win 95 games.
It can happen at fewer wins. Usually, every season has at least one division that underperforms the rest of the leaders. But counting on a 1 in 6 chance (or so) of sneaking it below 95 wins brings us right back to that “process versus results” point I made before.
The Cardinals’ highest win total since their excellent 2015 season is just 91 wins. They beat the odds and sneaked into a division crown that year. They even stretched their postseason luck into an improbable NLCS appearance.
Since 2015, including the 2020 partial season, the Cardinals have averaged a .530 winning percentage. That’s just 86 wins. 9 wins off a division-winning pace.
None of this is news to anyone reading this article.
The Cardinals have routinely claimed that their goal is to win the division. But they’ve firmly settled in as a Wild Card contender, not a division contender. And, if we want to be brutally honest, they have steadily drifted toward the back end of Wild Card contention, too.
Expanded playoffs kept them from having to back their way into the second NL Wild Card spot in 2020.
Ultimately, that’s the point that I’ve been thinking about lately as we enter “meaningful” September baseball and a looming offseason. The Cardinals need to drastically improve their process if they want to have the consistent results they desire.
Otherwise, they need to work harder at selling “success” as a Wild Card appearance, regardless of how they get there.
Maybe it’s just me but the lack of fans in the stands and the continued sense of malaise and frustration around the Cardinals leads me to believe I’m not alone. St Louis fans will take postseason baseball however they can get it. But they’re not happy relying on the Selig Game to get there.
Am I wrong? Would reaching the second Wild Card count as a successful season for these Cards? Vote in the poll. Express your own thoughts – in true stream of consciousness fashion – in the comments.
Enjoy your holiday weekend! Oh, and despite my overall negative tone today, we get to enjoy at least one more month of Cardinals baseball this season. With a potential work stoppage looming in 2022, who knows when we will have it again…