Cardinals ownership-management is proud of the organization’s consistency in making the playoffs. They should feel that way, having made it to the postseason more times (15) than any MLB franchise except the Yankees (19) over the past 23 seasons. That’s strong.
But Bill DeWitt Jr. and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak have to be careful. When pride overtakes ambition and the commitment to winning is lessened by complacency and a false sense of achievement, it can work against the declared goal of winning the World Series.
Because when you go into the postseason with a team that isn’t as good as you believe it is, your team is set up for disappointment or failure. When you constantly overrate your own talent and decline to push harder to add more elite talent to the roster, you’ll decrease your chances for postseason success.
The people who run the Cardinals are so happy and self-satisfied about being regular-season heavyweights, it made them postseason lightweights.
Why make a determined effort to spend more money and put a true No. 1 starter at the top of the rotation when you can limit costs, and still beat up your rivals in the NL Central? What’s the point of adding a more dangerous bat to the bench when Pauly DeJong is there to do the job!
When there’s an extra wild-card ticket available to ride into the playoffs, why worry about building a great team? Get in and hope to get lucky. That’s the plan. If making the postseason is the only real standard, and 40 percent of the National League teams will play their way into the tournament, then you don’t have to be great … being good will do just fine.
I’ve said and written this before, but the NL Central is the home of the Cardinals’ best friends … but also their worst enemies. And yes, both things can be true.
With the NL Central in its current condition, there’s no real pressure on the Cardinals to qualify for the postseason. The competition is so mediocre or just flat-out awful, it’s relatively easy for the Cards to win this lower-class division or claim a wild-card spot to reach the playoffs. From the DeWitt-Mozeliak standpoint, that’s a beautiful thing. Their team doesn’t have to be exceptional to get there.
But the reality of the NL Central also works against the Cardinals. The Cardinals have had so much success in games against division softies, they convince themselves into thinking that they’re really something special. And that’s how the smugness sets in.
Here’s what I’m talking about:
— In 2022 the Cardinals had a 93-69 record overall but were a humdrum 45-41 in games played outside the NL Central.
— The 2021 Cardinals did slightly better against non-division teams, posting a 48-38 mark. OK, but where did it get them? Answer: a second-place showing in the NL Central and a lunge into a wild-card showdown against the Dodgers. The Cardinals lost, 3-1. One and done.
— During their current streak of making it to the playoffs in four straight seasons, the Cardinals have a .589 winning percentage in NL Central games and a .528 win percentage against non-division opponents.
— Last season, just under 41 percent of the Cardinals’ 93 victories during the regular season came in games against the Pirates, Reds and Cubs. The Cardinals had a .667 winning percentage against the Pirates, Reds and Cubs – and a .523 winning percentage against all other opponents.
— According to the power-index metrics at ESPN, the Cardinals had the easiest schedule among the 30 MLB teams in 2022 — and the fifth-easiest schedule in 2021. The Cardinals used the cushy setup to post the No. 8 winning percentage in the majors over the last two seasons.
— Given the soft schedule, you can make a case that the Cardinals should have won more regular-season games across 2021-2022. And of course, their postseason record in the past two years was 0-3.
— In NL Central games last season the Cardinals were 16 percent above league average offensively in park and league adjusted runs created (wRC+), slugged .422, and averaged 4.97 runs scored per game. And their pitchers had a 3.36 ERA against division opponents.
— In games against teams that made the playoffs in 2022, the Cardinals were four percent below league average offensively, slugged 50 points lower (.372) than they did vs. NL Central rivals, and averaged only 3.6 runs scored per game. St. Louis pitchers had a 4.29 ERA against playoff-bound teams.
As we can see, the Cardinals are bullies when competing against junior-varsity squads. But in the playoffs the Cardinals are more like the jayvee team, having lost nine of their last 10 postseason games.
That’s the problem with being so giddy after punching down on bad teams. When the playoffs get underway, you don’t have what it takes to punch up, above your class, and knock down the outstanding teams. And ownership-management isn’t willing to invest in the payroll to add a top-gun starting pitcher and another formidable bat. Such a shame.
Because of a change to the scheduling format – with all MLB teams facing each other for at least one series – the Cardinals won’t be able to feast on NL Central cupcakes as often in 2023 and beyond. Instead of having 19 games within the division, the Cardinals will have 13.
St. Louis will play at least two games against every American League team in ‘23 including a total of 17 games against the Astros, Yankees, Blue Jays, Mariners, Guardians and Rays. All six made the playoffs in 2022. The Cards will have 32 total games against the 2022 NL playoff teams: Mets, Braves, Phillies, Dodgers and Padres.
So roughly 30 percent of STL’s 2023 schedule puts them against the other 11 teams that competed in last year’s postseason. And in 2022, the Cardinals played 26 percent of their games against opponents that made it to the playoffs and were 19-24 against the higher-caliber opponents.
When it comes to matching up against postseason-quality teams, the Cardinals aren’t who they think they are. And that’s a problem. They must try harder to get to that level instead of fading in another October. That means opening DeWallet and taking a less-safe approach at the trade deadline. That should be obvious by now. But when you’re sitting on the high horse in the NL Central, it’s easy to turn delusional.
Thanks for reading …
Pardon my typos …
Have a fantastic weekend!
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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Listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and Miklasz. It’s available on your preferred podcast platform. Or follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.