Take a deep breath, exhale, keep the meds handy, and enjoy two-plus weeks of meaningful September baseball.
The Cardinals, Cubs and Brewers are down to their final 16 games of the regular-season schedule.
The Cardinals are positioned to win their first division title — and return to the postseason — for the first time since 2015. But I’m not talking about St. Louis and the wild card here.
The only objective is winning the division to avoid having to compete in the NL coin-flip, play-in, wild-card contest.
Before listing my reasons for having a positive outlook, I have a few concerns over the Cardinals despite their solid lead in the division:
A) The Redbirds face the toughest remaining schedule of any National League team, facing opponents that have a combined .533 winning percentage. (Brewers, Nationals, Cubs, Diamondbacks.) All four are contending for playoff spots. All four have winning records.
This is just a sample of what the Cardinals are in for: when the Nationals come into Busch for three games next week, they’re planning to start, in order, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Max Scherzer.
The Cubs’ remaining opponents collectively have a .502 winning percentage. As we’ve mentioned before, when the Cubs aren’t playing the Cardinals over the next two-plus weeks, they’ll have six games against the Pirates (65-82) and three vs. the Reds (68-79.) The Cubs on Friday afternoon will open a 10-game homestand at Wrigley Field. They’re 47-24 at home this season.
After playing three in St. Louis this weekend the Brewers will have four at home against the Padres (68-78), three at home vs. the Pirates, then close on the road with three at Cincinnati and three at Colorado (62-85.) Those four opponents are a combined 61 games under .500.
B) Fatigue could be a factor in the St. Louis bullpen — then again, manager Mike Shildt has a deep supply of arms, and he’s astute at running the ‘pen.
C) I’ll say it again: I don’t trust the Cardinals’ offense. Too many low-scoring games. Too inconsistent. That said, during the second half of the season, the Cards are doing a better job of hitting in high-leverage situations. A good sign, perhaps?
Despite wasting another round of superb pitching, squandering a series at Colorado, and failing to increase their division lead, the Cardinals (82-64) have some advantages working for them over the final 16 games:
1. A four-game lead in the standings over the Cubs (78-68) and the Brewers (78-68) who are tied for second place.
2. If the Cardinals go 8-8 in their final 16 games, the Cubs and/or Brewers would have to go 13-3 to win the division outright.
3. The simulation-based probabilities strongly favor the Cardinals. Friday’s Playoff Odds Report at FanGraphs has the Cards with a 76.7 percent chance of capturing the NL Central, with the Cubs (16.3%) and Brewers (7%) each clinging to a precarious mathematical outlook.
The Playoff Odds at Baseball Prospectus are even more tilted for St. Louis; the Cards have an 85.6 percent chance to win the division compared to the Cubs (9.2%) and Brewers (5.2%.)
4. The Cardinals will play 10 of their final 16 games against the Brewers (three) and Cubs (seven.) That might unnerve some folks, because the Brewers and (especially) Cubs can launch direct attacks on the Cardinals and cut into the lead. But I guess I see it the other way: if you’re holding a four-game lead, and have the stronger position, then you should be excited to have a straight-on shot to weaken, wobble or knockout your rivals.
If the Cardinals fear playing seven vs. Chicago and three against molten-hot Milwaukee, then they’re missing competitive fiber. And I don’t believe that’s true. I decline to insult them by conjuring up — or assuming — some worst-case scenario.
5. Baseball health. It matters. The Brewers have valiantly won seven in a row as they open a three-game series this weekend at Busch Stadium tonight. But the Crew will be without league MVP and all-around offensive machine Christian Yelich, who will miss the remainder of the season with a fractured kneecap.
6. Baseball health II: The Cubs recently lost their dangerous power-hitting shortstop Javy Baez for the season with a hairline fracture of a thumb.
7. Check the larger sample size. And while it’s true that the Brewers are the hottest of the three team at this moment — seven consecutive wins, and 11-3 in the last 14 — the Cardinals have the NL’s best record since the All-Star break. The STL second-half record (38-20) is 5 and ½ games better than Milwaukee, and six games superior to Chicago.
8. The Cardinals have the best pitching in baseball since the All-Star break, leading the majors with an overall 3.31 ERA. That includes a 3.28 starting-pitching ERA (No. 4 overall) and MLB’s top bullpen ERA (3.28.) The Cards have the No. 1 ERA in MLB this month at 2.99.
To go into Coors Field, where the Rockies slug .523 and average nearly 6.2 runs per game and hold them to seven runs in 25 innings — and a .215 batting average — well, bravo.
9. The Cardinals play, by far, the best defense among the three NL Central contenders. The STL total of 81 defensive runs saved this season ranks third in the majors. The Brewers have 27 defensive runs saved; the Cubs have one.
10. The Cards rank 7th in the majors in baserunning effectiveness; that based on the Base Running Runs (BRR) metric at Baseball Prospectus. The Cards are 7.1 runs above average on the bases. The Brewers, who rank 24th, are minus 6.4 runs below average. The Cubs, who rank 25th, are minus 6.8 runs below average.
In short, the Cubs and Brewers aren’t as reliable or sturdy as the team in St. Louis. That’s among the reasons why the Cardinals have the most comeback wins (38) of the three contenders — and the fewest blown leads (29.) As long as the Cardinals continue to pitch, defend, play sharp fundamental baseball and protect leads, they’re less likely to give games away.
Which means they’re less likely to hand away the NL Central title.
Thanks for reading — and have a wonderful weekend.