In beating the lowly Houston Astros by scores of 7-0 Tuesday and 4-2 Wednesday, the St. Louis Cardinals did exactly what a great team is supposed to do: beat bad teams at home. The only problem is that, despite the best offense in the league with a .333 wOBA and third-best pitching staff with a 3.66 FIP, the defending world champs aren't a great team. Instead, they're fighting for a wild-card berth with a .545 winning percentage. Why aren't the Cardinals better?
After all, Kyle Lohse, who shut down the Astros on Wednesday, is wrapping up his second straight career year. Adam Wainwright is solidly himself again. Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday are on pace for 5.0-WAR seasons. And although Lance Berkman has spent most of the season on the shelf, replacements Allen Craig (.400 wOBA) and Matt Carpenter (.375 wOBA) have probably performed better than a healthy Puma would have anyway. So what's the problem?
Part of it is relativity. The Cincinnati Reds are playing out of their minds, winning yet again Wednesday against the Philadelphia Phillies -- they are on pace for 98 wins, so the Cardinals have some slightly tougher competition than last year, when the Milwaukee Brewers won the division with 96 wins. But other than head-to-head games, the Cardinals' fate is unrelated to the Reds.
Some observers are pointing out the Cardinals' 13-21 record in one-run games. Besides it not being clear if there's some sort of magical ability for teams to do well in such circumstances. To wit: Last year, these mostly same Cardinals were 26-23. That stat tells us nothing about how the loss occurred: For example, did the team nearly come back from being down by four runs or did it blow a lead? It's hard to believe that the team is lamenting its eighth-inning insurance run Wednesday night because it cost them a chance to improve their record in one-run games.
If anything, the bum record in close affairs indicates that, given that those games were close enough to go either way, the Cardinals might very easily have a few more wins on their record. Put another way: Is a good team more likely to win games 5-1 or 3-2?
If the Cardinals do have a legitimate weakness, it has been their bullpen. Sure, every fan hates his team's bullpen, but they can't all be the worst. And the Cardinals aren't far from it, their 4.32 FIP being almost as bad as the Cubs' league-last relief corps. Compare that to the Reds, who are tops in the NL.
And it's the little things. Like Holliday getting thrown out trying to steal in the fifth inning; although with about an average stolen-base success rate, the team is vastly improved over last year’s performance. Despite their potent offense, rookie manager Mike Matheny has short-circuited too many rallies, suboptimizing his team’s results with sacrifice bunts, costing the team a net minus-0.9 win probability. Though the Reds have attempted more sacrifices and been less successful (63 percent), they've hurt their win probability less (minus-0.8).
The odd thing is that the Cardinals, with a .601 Pythagorean winning percentage (second in the NL), are probably a better team than they were last year, when they made it to the postseason tournament as a wild-card team and won the World Series with a .543 Pythagorean percentage. The 2012 team is better, that is, in just about everything except the stat that matters most: real wins and losses.
With 39 games remaining, the Cardinals still have a chance to prove that they're better than their record. Will they continue to float around the edges of the wild-card race, or will they finally fulfill the promise that their statistics point toward?
Matt Philip tweets tweets at @fungoes and posts everything that doesn't fit at fungoes.net
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