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Get to know: the 2019 St. Louis Cardinals, and their path to the NLDS

A look at the Braves’ upcoming playoff opponent

MLB: Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

When I was in high school, I had a friend who was a Mets fan. While there’s no specific litmus test for fandom, which is a self-implementing personality adornment, I always found it curious that while I would watch the Braves religiously on and immerse myself in their essence every year, he... would not. If I asked him about this, he’d reply with something like, “Look, I’m a Mets fan, but I’m also a baseball fan.” That distinction may or may not make sense to you; it didn’t to me until I grew up a bit and it did. (Either that or he just got used to saying it, because he was a Mets fan.)

We here at Talking Chop are primarily (presumably) Braves fans. Some of us may also be baseball fans, but that’s not a prerequisite for belonging to the community, nor participating in it. Still, baseball (and really everything) is kind of curious, in that one’s perspective has an extreme warping effect on how one views, characterizes, and remembers a particular set of events. An easy case in point: a game with multiple runs scored late to end the game with a walkoff hit could be the story of a bullpen collapse by the losers, or an epic, gritty, never-say-die comeback by the eventual winners. It’s generally not going to be both; the path of least resistance wants a unifying narrative to explain outcomes, not a messy one. Following this thread, the National League Division Series between the Braves and Cardinals is going to end one way or another. If the Braves prevail, it’ll be some kind of minor apotheosis for some measure of the fanbase, a playoff series victory after nearly decades of nothing of the sort; if the Braves fail, recriminations regarding the continuation of playoff futility will commence. If players succeed, they’ll be heroes; if they fail, they’ll perhaps be scapegoated. But all this success and failure will have a whole other set of parties to it: the St. Louis Cardinals, and their 25-man roster that they’ll bring to Atlanta to do battle over five games. I doubt we’ll focus too much on their individual and team identity in the coming days — that’s part of the “I’m a Braves fan” myopia we’ll all fall into. The point of this post is to, at least on a temporary, fleeting basis, attempt to make better baseball fans of us... by getting to know the 2019 St. Louis Cardinals, and how they got here.

The end result for the 2019 Redbirds in the regular season was ultimately successful, but a little wacky. The NL Central was the only division whose champion was reasonably in doubt down the stretch, and the Cardinals ended up with a 91-71 record good for just 10th-best in MLB, behind three of the four Wild Card teams and one team (Cleveland) that will be sitting at home in October altogether.

Here are the Cardinal ranks in various team bits, with the Braves ranks for comparison, over the whole 2019 season:

  • Position player wRC+: Cardinals 101 (14th in MLB); Braves 110 (sixth in MLB);
  • Position player UZR: Cardinals +32.5 (third in MLB); Braves -10.8 (22nd in MLB);
  • Position player DRS: Cardinals +93 (third in MLB); Braves +33 (12th in MLB);
  • Overall position player fWAR: Cardinals 22.3 (14th in MLB); Braves 26.8 (seventh in MLB);
  • Rotation fWAR: Cardinals 10.9 (15th in MLB); Braves 11.3 (12th in MLB); and
  • Bullpen fWAR: Cardinals 4.7 (seventh in MLB); Braves 1.1 (21st in MLB).

These season-long stats basically show that the Braves have a position player edge despite the Cardinals’ defensive prowess, and the two teams have had fairly similar rotation performance with the St. Louis bullpen giving the Redbirds an upper hand as far as overall pitching goes. But of course, these stats are for the whole season, and aren’t fully relevant for the NLDS — you wouldn’t hold Jesse Biddle’s disastrous Braves performance against a forecast of how well the Braves will fare in an October 2019 series, would you?

So, as far as breaking down the season and thinking about exactly how the Cardinals got to where they are, I’ve found it most helpful to think about their 2019 season in three distinct phases, as follows.

Phase One: The Red-Hot Bats Lead the Way (Season Start through May 1)

The Cardinals started the year with nearly-coin flip (44 percent) odds of securing a playoff spot, and around a one-in-four chance (26 percent) of winning the NL Central. The Fangraphs projections saw them as an 84-win team smack dab in the middle of a division where the first and last teams were only separated by ten games on a forecasted basis, with the Cardinals the runner-up to the 87-win Cubs. Still, if you looked at it on a distributional basis, there was a pretty decent chance (call it around 30-40 percent, based on back of the envelope math) that the Cardinals would end up with a better record than their Chicago rivals.

While the Braves scuffled (relative to what came later) to start the year, the Cardinals did not. They lost three of four to the Brewers to open their season, but then went on a 19-7 run to sit at 20-10 on the first day of May. Their run involved sweeping the Dodgers in four games (yes, this happened), a three-game sweep of the Brewers (after dropping another series to them as well), and winning three straight against the Nationals. After a 5-1 victory over Max Scherzer on May 1, the Cardinals held the best record in baseball, with a one-game lead over the Twins, a 1.5-game lead over the Dodgers, and three-game cushion in the division.

Interestingly, it wasn’t all coming up Milhouse in St. Louis. The rotation and bullpen were awful for that first month or so. The lowest FIP for a Cardinals starter in that span was Jack Flaherty’s 4.50 (that’s a 104 FIP-), albeit with a much more agreeable 3.43 xFIP. Michael Wacha and Miles Mikolas pitched like replacement-level starters, Dakota Hudson was terribly awful and awfully terrible (176 FIP-, 107 xFIP-, even a 137 ERA- for a guy who you hope outpitches his peripherals). In the bullpen, Johns Brebbia and Gant, along with Jordan Hicks, prevented runs and did fairly well, but everyone else definitely did not. High-priced relief signing Andrew Miller was exceedingly ineffective, putting up negative WPA, -0.5 fWAR, -0.3 RA9-WAR, and basically existing as a cautionary tale about spending big money on relievers.

So, how did the Cardinals manage to be the best team in baseball with eye-bleedingly abominable pitching? They clobbered their opponents to death, and then they kept clobbering them. In this span, the Cardinals had a 118 team position player wRC+, second only to the Braves (who could not, despite the good offense, overcome their pitching deficiencies, in part because they had only Luke Jackson whereas the Cardinals at least had three useful and okay-performing relievers at the time). They were second in position player fWAR to the Dodgers. Of the six St. Louis full-timers through May 1, four had wRC+s above 125; Matt Carpenter and Yadier Molina hitting poorly was more than made up for by Dexter Fowler, Jose Martinez, and Harrison Bader all raking in part-time or bench-type roles as well. Paul DeJong wasn’t Christian Yelich or Cody Bellinger, but he was third in baseball in fWAR. Marcell Ozuna was 16th. Kolten Wong, he of the career .332 OBP (including this year) and sub-100 career wRC+ (again, including this year) was 30th, with an OBP near .400. In this span, the St. Louis pitching yielded some runs for sure, but the offense was never shut out, scored one run just once, and scored two runs just twice.

On May 1, the Cardinals stood with a 67 percent chance of making the playoffs, a 40 percent chance of winning the division outright, and enough banked wins to augment their projected end-of-season win total by four. No NL team had done more for its playoff odds or estimated win total than St. Louis. Times were good.

And then, for a long time, they weren’t.

Phase Two: The Fall and the Climb (May 2 through August 7)

As good as the Cardinals were up through May 1, they were just as bad for the rest of May. The team dropped its series finale against the Washington, then got swept by the Cubs in three games to fall out of first place. They then lost a series to the Phillies. And a four-game set to the Pirates. And another in Atlanta. And another in Arlington. They returned home to split two with the Royals, and lose another series to the Braves. And then they lost another series in Philadelphia to boot On the plus side, no sweeps, aside from that one to start the bad stretch. On the minus side, the Cardinals literally did not win a series in May. They were a bottom five team for the month.

The hitting crashed (90 wRC+, though if you remember, the Braves’ offense also collapsed with a 89 wRC+ in May), and while the pitching got better, baseball can be a knife-edge between things working just enough and nothing working sufficiently, leading to a bunch of losses. The latter is what the Cardinals experienced; the Braves didn’t produce much better, but they racked up wins anyway as the Cardinals slid.

June was a chance to arrest their drop in the standings, but the Cardinals didn’t quite take advantage. They fought to a 13-13 record, and as a result, they started the month 3.5 games back, and ended it 3.0 games back. They actually swept the Cubs to start the month, but then got swept by them later. June would have looked better, too, if not for a five-game losing streak towards the end of the month. The bullpen really hit its stride in the month, putting up the second-highest fWAR total among MLB teams. But, the offense cratered further, finishing last in the majors with a 73 wRC+ for the month. It’s actually kind of miraculous that the Cardinals managed to stay afloat at .500 in June, and that their June was better than their May despite a woeful offense.

And then, July came. It might be tempting to see July as part of the comeback trail. If that’s your take, you’re certainly justified: the Cardinals went 16-9 for the month, including a six-game winning streak. But, I’m drawing a separate line, because even though the Cardinals only dropped two series in the month, they immediately foundered in August, with a five-game losing streak that took them through August 7. In July, the offense rebounded to average but not great, the rotation stayed fine, and the bullpen was really the only particularly impressive part of the squad.

As such, then, taken as a whole, the Cardinals went 38-45 between May 2 and August 7. They went from a three-game lead to a 3.5-game deficit. Playoff odds had plunged to just 29 percent overall, with just an 11 percent chance of winning the division. Moreover, the Cardinals were now in third place, half a game behind the Brewers. Their end-of-season win estimate was now below their pre-season projection. The offense was the real challenge: among the 18 position players the Cardinals deployed in this span, just one managed a wRC+ of 100 or above, and that was Paul Goldschmidt’s 102. Harrison Bader hit so poorly (58 wRC+) he got demoted, Tommy Edman’s first 147 career PAs were lacking in Cardinals devil magic (74 wRC+). Paul DeJong put up less value in three-plus months than in his first month to start the year. Kolten Wong went back to being Kolten Wong. The pitching was better, but as you can see, it wasn’t enough. Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty were legitimately good; Adam Wainwright was okay. Michael Wacha crashed and burned, losing his rotation spot, but Dakota Hudson stopped his tire fire performance. Giovanny Gallegos, acquired when the Cardinals sent Luke Voit to mash for the Yankees, recouped a fair bit of that lost value by transforming into a dominant reliever that could go multiple innings as needed. Brebbia and Gant were still pretty good, helping to offset the loss of Hicks. Andrew Miller stopped being awful (still not worth it, though), and Carlos Martinez was serviceable as the anointed St. Louis closer. The pitching was fine, but the Cardinals needed more. They got it.

Phase Three: Late Season Surge (August 8 through end-of-season)

The Cardinals started the second week of August needing a lot of wins to see October play for the first time in three years. They got those wins. Returning home after being swept by the Dodgers, they reeled off five straight wins, and then managed another six-game winning streak later in the month. They didn’t lose another series until mid-September at Coors Field, at which point their division lead was sizable (four games). By mid-August, after that first five-game winning streak, they had moved into a first-place tie; on August 27, after winning their sixth in a row, they once again had a three-game lead. You probably know much of the rest, just due to the playoff drama that surrounded the Cardinals’ late-season schedule. On September 19, they headed into Wrigley field for a four-game set that could decide the division. They won all four games, roughing up Craig Kimbrel twice. While a four-game skid (including dropping the final series of the year to the Cubs) momentarily threatened to hand the division to the Yelich-less Brewers, the latter could not continue their frenzied pace, and the Cardinals won the Central with a two-game cushion.

The Cardinals went 33-16 to close out their regular season schedule, a pace very reminiscent (but more extended than) their 20-10 start. In 20 days (August 8 to August 27), they increased their playoff odds from 29 percent to 85 percent, and their division odds from nine percent to 59 percent. How did they do it?

The offense came back with a vengeance, featuring a position player wRC+ of 114 (sixth in MLB, ahead of the Braves’ 103 which ranked 10th in this span). The defense continued to be good; the Cardinals were a top-three fWAR position player unit over their last 49 games. Tommy Edman discovered the missing reagents in whatever devil magic formula imbues all un-heralded Cardinals rookies with power, putting up a 158 wRC+ and 2.8 fWAR in 202 PAs (yes this is a thing that happened). Paul Goldschmidt hit well, Dexter Fowler and Marcell Ozuna went back to hitting okay, Kolten Wong once again posted an OBP near .400, and even Yadier Molina (113 wRC+) got in on the fun. The Cardinals had nine players with 100 or more PAs in this span. Seven were at least average, and even the two struggle bugs (DeJong at an 81 wRC+, Bader at 96) weren’t that bad.

The pitching, too, went from uneven and inconsistent to glorious. The bullpen took a bit of a step back, but the rotation moved forward. For once, all five starters the Cardinals relied on were at least somewhat productive; Mikolas ran into some bad luck but Wacha rebounded and Hudson “found” a way to beat his peripherals. The real jewel, of course, was Jack Flaherty, who went completely ham with an 0.93 ERA / 2.39 FIP / 3.23 xFIP over 10 starts. On the relief end, it was time for both Gallegos and Gant to lose effectiveness (along with Andrew Miller, yeesh), but Carlos Martinez stepped up. In 27 of the team’s final 49 games, the pitching and defense held opponents to three runs or fewer. They fired nine shutouts in 49 games, which is wild given the run environment. There was a stretch where they allowed eight runs in six games at one point.

All of this is just window dressing, though. The Cardinals were good, then they were bad or mediocre, and then they were good again. That delivered unto them a playoff berth and a date against the Braves. It’s hard to say much with meaning about how the two teams match up — the Cardinals of Phase Two are (and were) no match for the Braves, but that’s not who the Braves will face in the NLDS — but the Cardinals of Phases One or Three are just as unlikely to make a concerted appearance.

In reality, the NLDS is shaping up as a battle of two good but hardly perfect teams, that may be very evenly matched. Both the Braves and the Cardinals took circuitous routes to the series, and the five-game set should be similarly meandering in purpose and outcome. No team is foreordained to anything in this case, and that should hopefully make it an interesting one (well, as much as any five-game series can be) not just for Braves and Cardinals fans, with their own inherent myopias, but for baseball fans as well.

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