If coming into the season, you’d been told that the reigning NL Central champs would be on target to make the expanded playoff fray, then nothing about that would be surprising in the least. That’s indeed what’s happening right now with the Cardinals. In the full light of what’s happened in 2020, however, that St. Louis is in playoff position and above the waterline in the standings is indeed surprising and a testament to the organizational depth.

You’ll recall that the Cardinals had their 2020 season paused because of a COVID-19 cluster within the roster and among some non-uniformed personnel. After arriving in Milwaukee for a series that was to begin on July 31, multiple Cardinals tested positive, which led to the shutdown. Additional positive tests in the days to come forced the cancellation of a series in Detroit and then the scheduled Field of Dreams game against the White Sox in Iowa. After seven positive tests among players and period of quarantine in Milwaukee, the Cardinals were cleared to travel to Chicago. However, two more players and another staffer tested positive, which forced the postponement of that series against the Cubs. Then the series against the Pirates was banged, and then a doubleheader against the Tigers became a casualty. 

Finally — after not playing a game since a shutout loss to the Twins on July 29 — the Cardinals returned to action with a doubleheader against the White Sox on Aug. 15. 

Losing more than two weeks from an already-compressed calendar would surely make it impossible for St. Louis to get to 60 regular season games as planned. The expectation was that the Cardinals would be granted a dispensation of sorts and be permitted to strive for, say, 50 games instead, which would still be a challenge. However, team and league — seemingly in defiance of that calendar — barged ahead with plans for a 60-game regular season. 

To get there, though, the Cardinals would need to run a gauntlet not seen in living memory at the major-league level. They started their reboot by playing eight games in five days. At this writing, the Cardinals have played 30 games in 25 days, and by the time the regular season ends they’ll have played 53 games in 44 days — including 11 doubleheaders — which will bring them to 58 games for the regular season. As well, that cancelled doubleheader against the Tigers figures to be made up at some point before the Wild Card round of the postseason begins. 

Right now, the Cardinals are through the worst of it, and since their restart they’re 16-14. Twenty of those 30 games have come against the Cubs, the White Sox, the Twins, and Cleveland. Overall, the Cardinals are 18-17 with the best run differential in the NL Central. According to the BaseRuns system at FanGraphs, which evaluates how many runs a team should have scored and allowed based on their underlying fundamental indicators, the Cardinals have played like a .596 team. Among NL squads, just the Dodgers, Padres, and Braves have higher marks. 

So how have they done it? Largely, they’ve put themselves in line for a playoff spot with pitching and defense. The Cardinals right now are fourth in all of MLB in runs allowed per game and third in ERA+. In related matters, the Cardinals are easily tops in all of MLB in Defensive Efficiency, which is the percentage of balls in play that a team’s fielders convert into outs. They’ve managed this despite getting nothing from the injured Miles Mikolas and John Brebbia and getting just 7 1/3 innings (and a 12.27 ERA) from Carlos Martinez. While the offense has not been a strength, St. Louis hitters do rank fourth in the NL in on-base percentage this season, which has helped paper over the general lack of power.

In other words, the Cardinals are doing pretty much what they did en route to winning the division in 2019 — i.e., keeping runs off the board and scoring enough to get by. The difference is that they’ve done it this season while missing some core arms and while enduring what would seem to be an unendurable games-to-days ratio. 

The good news is that, while the calendar won’t let up for St. Louis, the schedule itself should. Their remaining games come against the Tigers, Reds, Brewers, Pirates, and Royals. All of those teams are below .500 right now, and the Royals and Pirates are two of the worst teams in the league. Second-place teams this season are automatically part of the 16-team playoff fray, and the Cardinals right now are 2 1/2 games ahead of the Brewers for second place in the NL Central. Also, the Brewers’ run differential and BaseRuns record suggest they’ve been quite fortunate thus far in 2020 and may not fare as well moving forward.  

Related to all of that, the SportsLine Projection Model (@SportsLine on Twitter) right now gives the Cardinals a robust 90.7 percent chance of making the playoffs. No, they’re not likely to catch the Cubs in the NL Central, but the playoff structure for 2020 is such that there’s little advantage to winning the division versus backing into the postseason. Once there, the Cardinals, assuming health, are probably as dangerous as any NL team not named the Dodgers or Padres.

That doesn’t seem like a notable thing to say about a team coming off a 91-win season, but it does seem like a notable thing to say about a team that’s played 30 games in 25 days — and counting. 

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