Why the St. Louis Cardinals Will Be a 100-Win Underdog in the Playoffs
It's hard to pity the St. Louis Cardinals.
They've been to the playoffs four straight seasons, winning the World Series in 2011 and reaching the Fall Classic in 2013. Since 2004, they have been to the playoffs nine times, including this season, with two parades during that span.
They are the class of the National League, with a front office structure and organizational culture that is second-to-none. And now, heading into Wednesday's doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Pirates, they are on the verge of their first 100-win season since 2005, holding the best record in baseball.
And yet, they will likely enter the postseason as an underdog to win it all.
For those who think the Cardinals have been sprinkled with pixie dust over the last decade-plus, the last 12 months have been about as difficult as one organization could endure. Last October, their top prospect, Oscar Taveras, died in a car accident in the Dominican Republic. They lost their ace, Adam Wainwright, to an Achilles injury in April that was expected to keep him out for the entire season. And that was just the tip of the injury iceberg.
Carlos Martinez, their young stud right-hander, will miss the rest of the season after suffering a shoulder injury last week. He pitched 179 2/3 innings this year with a 3.01 ERA, 184 strikeouts and just 63 walks. Yadier Molina, their most indispensable player, is also out for the rest of the regular season because of a torn thumb ligament, but the team is hoping to get him back for the playoffs. They've also lost Matt Holliday, Matt Adams, Rookie of the Year candidate Randal Grichuk, Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn, Jordan Walden, Jon Jay, Matt Belisle, and Tim Cooney to boo-boos at various points this year, too.
Then, there was the horrific-looking outfield collision Sunday night in which rookie Stephen Piscotty was knocked out cold and had to be carried off the field on a stretcher. In just 252 plate appearances, Piscotty had put up an fWAR of 1.3, hitting .310/.365/.502 with a .370 weighted on base average (wOBA), a weighted runs created (wRC+) of 136, with seven homers and 39 RBI. There is no word on when he will be back, if at all.
So seriously, how have the Cardinals done it? How are they on the verge of entering the playoffs as baseball's only 100-win team?
Free agent-to-be Jason Heyward has been everything the team hoped he'd be when they traded for him over the winter. His 5.6 fWAR leads the team, and he is batting .289 with a .355 on-base percentage and a slugging percentage of .430. He's hit 12 homers this year, scored 77 runs, stolen 23 bases and provided elite defense in right field for the Cardinals.
Matt Carpenter continues to be one of the best leadoff hitters in the game and is second on the team with a 4.7 fWAR. He owns a slash line of .267/.361/.492, a wRC+ of 134, and a wOBA of .366. His power numbers have exploded this season, leading the team in longballs with 27, adding 96 runs scored, and 83 RBI.
Grichuk is just off the disabled list and is still nursing a sore elbow that has limited his ability to throw and play the outfield. However, the rookie is third on the team in fWAR at 3.1 in only 99 games, hitting .280/.332/.559 with 17 homers in just 337 plate appearances. Kolten Wong (2.3 fWAR), Thomas Pham (1.7 fWAR) and Jhonny Peralta (1.7 fWAR) have also provided production for the Cards this year.
But even with those contributions, the Cardinals are still just a middle-of-the-pack offense. They are 11th in runs scored and home runs, 8th in OPS, tied for 7th in wOBA, and 6th in wRC+.
It is the pitching staff, even without Wainright, that has saved the Cards in 2015.
Their staff ERA is tops in the National League, the only team with a sub-three ERA (2.89). Their starters' ERA of 2.96 is also first in the NL, and they've held opponents to a .243 batting average this year, third-best in the National League.
John Lackey, pitching for the league minimum because of a kink in his contract, has been the team's best pitcher this season, with a team-high 3.6 fWAR, 2.69 ERA, and 3.56 FIP in 214 innings. Lynn has started 30 games and posted a 3.06 ERA with a FIP of 3.48, striking out 8.72 batters per nine in his 170 1/3 innings. Garcia has come back strong from injury, with a 2.36 ERA and 2.93 FIP in 19 starts, and Michael Wacha, the postseason hero from 2011, is also back strong coming off an injury last year, with a 3.15 ERA and 3.70 FIP in 29 starts this year.
Even without Martinez, who was their second-best starter this season, that is a foursome that can get St. Louis back to the World Series.
And the bullpen is formidable as well, especially with the surprising return of Wainwright, who will move to the 'pen to provide some relief for a corps that is leaking some oil here at the end of the season. Trevor Rosenthal is one of the game's best closers, with 48 saves and a 2.10 ERA this season, striking out 10.88 batters per nine. But he has a 6.48 ERA this month, allowing batters to hit .343 against him.
Even though the Cardinals are going to get to 100 wins this year, they are not going to be favored over the Cubs, Mets, Dodgers or Pirates to represent the National League in the Fall Classic by experts. In fact, you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone picking them to win the World Series.
But if we've learned one thing over the last 10-plus years, and especially this season, it's never to count out the St. Louis Cardinals.