With the Cardinals lurching to a 3-9 record before nipping the Pirates 2-1 on Monday night, there’s been some discussion on the long-term impact of the slow start. Obviously it isn’t helpful to lose so many games early, and a cold start won’t enhance your chances of making the postseason.
Though it’s absurdly early to sweat over playoff odds, Baseball Prospectus gives the Cardinals a 9.2% percent chance of qualifying for the playoffs. Whatever.
I prefer to save my hyperventilating episodes for a more imposing crisis.
While I can tell you all about the Cardinals’ many problems, I can’t co-sign on the idea of this team being in serious and perhaps fatal trouble because of a 3-9 start that’s now a 4-9 thanks to Lance Lynn’s seven shutout innings in the win over Pittsburgh.
If the Cardinals are doomed by losing nine of their first 13 games, it isn’t because of the record.
If they are wrecked, it would be because of the bad baseball that’s creating the lousy record.
And yes there is a difference.
For example, the 2011 Cardinals got off to a poor start, losing six of their first nine and sitting at 6-7 after 13 games … only two above what the 2017 Cards are right now.
But the 2011 Cardinals weren’t DOA because of the lousy start. Though their pitching was middle-of-the-pack stuff in the first three weeks — ranking 15th in ERA — the offense scored plenty of runs. And the fielders caught the ball.
In other words, you could see quality through the murky record.
You could see a team averaging 5.15 runs through the first 13 games (7th in MLB), and putting up the No. 8 OPS (.767.)
It was a team that had a lineup anchored by names such as Pujols, Holliday and Berkman.
You figured that things would get better.
And the ’11 Cardinals did get going after a mediocre beginning. Not that they took off and sprinted to a division title. Hardly. The Cardinals barely seized the NL’s one wild-card playoff spot and claimed it on the final night of the regular season. Still, that was a 90-win team. It looked like an 80-win team in the first couple of weeks. Things worked out, with an October run to the 11th World Series championship in franchise history.
The point is, you could look beyond the unsightly early record in 2011 and have a reasonable expectation of happier days.
It ain’t the quality of the record.
It’s the quality of the baseball being played.
And even in losing times, the 2011 Cardinals had strengths to lean on.
And if you are concerned about the 2017 Cardinals, it shouldn’t be because of the standings on April 18.
It should be because of the team’s systematic failure through the first two-plus weeks. The offense is dormant, the defense is sloppy, the starting pitching is erratic, and the bullpen has absorbed too many thrashings. It’s a team that’s already made too many base-running mistakes. And it’s a team that doesn’t make smart use of its personnel.
I don’t care about the 4-9 record as much as I care about the dullness and incompetence that’s baked into that 4-9. For the Cardinals to recover and get it together, they’ll have to lean on something — just as the 2011 Cardinals had an offense to sustain them.
Not to make this about one thing — because there are too many shaky areas right now — but if the ’17 Cardinals begin to churn quality starts, they’ll start winning games. Monday’s primer is a good example. Lance Lynn turned in a terrific start, and nobody fussed over the Cardinals scoring only two runs.
The slow start doesn’t preclude this team from making the playoffs.
It’s hardly unusual for any MLB team to have a 3-9 stretch during the season. Last year the Cubs careened to a 1-9 record during a funk that began June 30. That’s hard to believe, considering that the Cubs went on to win 103 regular-season games and then the World Series.
When 3-9 happens in May, or a 1-8 goes down in June, or a solid team gets kicked around for 10 losses in 12 games in late July, we take note and shrug. A 2-9 phase buried in late May, early June — as was the case with the eventual World Series champ 2015 Royals — doesn’t draw much attention. But a 3-9 record at the start of the 162-game schedule? Let’s freak out.
A lengthy, miserable, unshakable stretch of sluggish, sickly baseball — lasting weeks or multiple months — will prevent the 2017 Cardinals from competing in the postseason.
I think the Cardinals will play better ball … but how much better?
I don’t know. That’s why you let a season take shape, and breathe a bit.
In the double wild card system (enacted in 2012) we’ve seen the ’12 Reds rebound from a 5-8 start to win the NL Central … the A’s had a losing record 13 games into ’12 and won the division … we’ve seen the 2013 Rays get a wild card after stumbling to a 4-9 start … the 2013 Indians took the other AL wild card after losing nine of their first 14 … in 2014, three teams made the playoffs after having a losing record through 13 games … In 2015 three teams made it to the postseason despite having losing records through the first 13 or 14 contests.
As we can see, the 2017 Cardinals are in a place visited by others before them.
Other teams that cleaned up and played for rings in October.
As for the current snapshot in time: if you look around the NL, you don’t see any runaway trains.
The best record in the league (9-5) is owned by two teams, the Diamondbacks and Rockies.
Twelve of the 15 NL units are no better than two games over .500.
The Cubs are 6-7, but no one is talking about billy goats.
The National League, early on, is giving the Cardinals a chance to recover.
Will they recover? Can they?
Get back to me later on that.
The early signs aren’t encouraging.
Not because of the record … but because of the inferior baseball underneath that record.
And the uncertainty that comes with it… not knowing if the bad ball can turn into winning ball.
Thanks for reading …