It was not all that long ago that the St. Louis Cardinals sat below .500. Third place (and briefly fourth) in an underwhelming National League Central Division. They had under-performed even the most modest expectations and were threatening fans with the prospects of a losing season. Yet even then, there was a glimmer of hope. Chicago and Milwaukee just continued to spin their tires in the mud and never really pulled away. So there we sat the night of August 4th, a 53-56 team, 4.5 games behind the Cubs and caught by the Pirates, threatening our hold on 3rd place. And with the teams out West rolling along, pushing the Cardinals 9.5 games out of a Wild Card spot, it seemed that the only chance at postseason play would come within the division.
Now, reasonable people knew that despite never falling too far behind the division leader, we really couldn’t consider the Cardinals to be contenders until they finally climbed above the elusive .500 mark. They finally reached that mark on August 7th, 3 games into an impressive 8-game winning streak. With their 7th win in that streak, they became the first team in the NL Central to reach 60 wins, beating the Cubs to that mark by a few hours (thanks, geography). With their 8th win on August 12th, they pulled into a virtual tie for 1st place in the division — though due to having more games played they trailed the Cubs by .001 in winning percentage (thanks, math).
Like a good magician, the right hand was distracting us with the impressive 4.5 game climb within the division. Ah, but meanwhile the left hand was shaving 5 games off of the Wild Card standings.
Suddenly, in the matter of 8 days, the Cardinals had becoming a team with a winning record and firmly entrenched in not just one, but two playoff races.
Yes, the Birds took a step back on their trip through Boston and Pittsburgh. Despite it all, they wake up on Tuesday, August 22nd, just 3.5 games out of a division lead and 4.5 out of a Wild Card spot. First of all, I’m still hopeful that the Cardinals can pull off a division win. How great would it be to topple the over-hyped Small Bears? But, we are alive and well in another race that deserves some attention. And so today I take a look at this Wild Card chase, reviewing the Rockies, Diamonbacks, Brewers, and your Redbirds. How have they been playing lately? What is upcoming on their remaining schedules? And what would each look like in a Wild Card play-in game.
Current Position: 1st Wild Card position, +0.5 games ahead of the Diamondbacks.
Current Playoff Odds (per Fangraphs, Chance of winning division OR a Wild Card berth): 74.8%
The Rockies stormed out of the gate with a 16-10 April and didn’t slow down for the first 3 months. They would go 12-12 in July, their first non-winning month of the season. They are currently 8-10 in August. The concern for the Rockies is a familiar one, how will they play away from Coors? This season they are 38-25 at home, but just 30-31 on the road. More recently, they are just 3-8 combined over their last two road trips, and just finished up a 3-4 homestand. 20 of their final 38 games will be on the road, with what could be a really tough 8 game trip through LA and Arizona. 17 of their final 38 are against teams that currently sit above .500.
The Rockies have recently gotten Jon Gray and Chad Bettis back into their rotation, which should be a big lift for a team that has seen rookie starters throw a ton of innings this year. Greg Holland is a monster in the late innings. Offensively, some of their most important players just aren’t cutting it on the road, namely Charlie Blackmon who has a robust OPS+ (100 is average) of 148 at home, but just 58 on the road. In the same category, Nolan Arenado has a 118 at home, but just an 83 on the road. He doesn’t have the dramatic split that Blackmon does, but clearly they are much easier to tame away from the mountain air.
The defining games for the Rockies will be the 14 games they still have against LA and Arizona. To their advantage, they close out the season at home against LA, in a series where several regulars may be getting rest for the Dodgers.
Wild Card Game
This seems like a really simplistic view, but more than any pitching mathup, the most important part of this equation is whether the Rockies finish with the 1st or 2nd WC spot. If they finish 1st and the game is played in Colorado, they have an advantage regardless of opposing pitcher. If they finish 2nd and have to go on the road then their path to the Division Series is much tougher.
Probable Pitcher: Chad Bettis. Career ERA: 5.31 at Coors Field; 4.42 at Chase Field; 5.40 at Miller Park; 1.35 at Busch Stadium.
Current Position: 2nd Wild Card position, -0.5 game behind Colorado.
Current Playoff Odds: 77.1%
Much like the Rockies, the Diamondbacks stormed through the first half, posting win totals of 16, 17, and 17 respectively in April, May and June. Much like the Rockies, they began to tail off in July, posting a 10-14 record for the month. They have gone 7-12 thus far in August. Arizona actually has a larger differential in their home/road split than Colorado does. At Chase Field, the D’Backs are 39-23, compared to just 28-34 on the road. 18 of their final 37 come on the road. Their toughest stretch likely comes 8/29-9/6 as they host LA for 3, then travel to COL and LA on a 6-game trip.
Arizona has a really nice starting rotation, with Grienke, Taijuan Walker and Robbie Ray (assuming a sound return from the concussion suffered in St. Louis) forming a top three that could play well in any short series. Cardinals fans can attest that Zack Godley is no slouch as a 4th starter, either. Their bullpen is a little shaky of late. Archie Bradley is a really nice, multi-inning setup man, but they are trusting 40-year old Fernando Rodney on the back end. After a miserable April, he didn’t allow an ER in May or June. He has shown some cracks in July and August, and he faded big time down the stretch in 2016. It isn’t an issue for them yet, but it is something to keep an eye on. Of note, they added David Hernandez at the deadline, and he provides a backup plan should Rodney falter.
Wild Card Game
Much like Colorado, the most important thing for Arizona is gaining the home field advantage, though to a slightly lesser degree than the Rockies. The Rockies are likely on the short end of any pitching mathup, so playing at home is pivotal. For Arizona, although they have the worse road record, having Zack Grienke in a 1-game situation gives them a good chance anywhere they play. Being at home would only sweeten the deal as they would have their highest offensive potential.
Probable Pitcher: Zack Grienke. Career ERA: 3.44 at Chase Field; 4.14 at Coors Field; 3.23 at Miller Park; 2.42 at Busch Stadium
Current Position: 3rd in Wild Card, -3.5 games behind Arizona.
Current Playoff Odds: 15.1%
Milwaukee has never been too outstanding, but never really bad in any given month. Their best month was a 15-12 May, and they have generally been at .500 all other months, give or take a game. In August they are 10-8. They sit at 35-30 at home, 30-30 on the road. 20 of their last 36 come on the road. Unlike St. Louis, the Brewers still have games remaining against the Dodgers (in LA) and 4 against Washington, two teams that the Cardinals are finished with. Of the two Central Division teams, Milwaukee has the tougher schedule, due to those out of division games.
The consensus feeling around the league is that the Brewers are contending about a year earlier than expected. They have a lot of young position player talent and a pitching staff that has far exceeded expectation. Chase Anderson has had a breakout year, Jimmy Nelson and Zach Davies have been solid, and even Matt Garza has been serviceable. Corey Knebel has been a revelation at the end of games and (unlike the Cardinals) the Brewers doubled down on their bullpen by acquiring Anthony Swarzak at the deadline. They have a lot of home run power, but have hit just .238 with RISP this season, limiting the damage that they can do.
Wild Card Game
Home field advantage would be big for the Brewers, but they have held their own on the road. It may be least important for them, out of all four teams. Chase Anderson has had a great year and is finally back from an oblique injury, but he is likely the lesser pitcher in match-ups against Grienke or Martinez. Being at home in either would help his cause. He has a clear advantage vs Bettis in Milwaukee, but that pairing would likely be a wash in Coors Field.
Probable Pitcher: Chase Anderson. Career ERA: 3.44 at Miller Park; 6.66 at Coors Field; 3.87 at Chase Field; 3.04 at Busch Stadium.
St. Louis Cardinals
Current Position: 4th in Wild Card, -4.5 games behind Arizona
Current Playoff Odds: 31.0%
The Cardinals crawled out of the gate with a 3-9 record in their first 12 games. They then soared with an 18-6 mark in their next 24. They followed that with another poor stretch and found themselves below .500 in early June. It took until August 8th for them to climb back to a winning record, and therefore they are the late arrival to the Wild Card party. This year the Cardinals are 35-27 at home, and just 28-34 on the road. 19 of their final 38 games are on the road. The record to take note of is their poor 22-30 mark within the Central Division. Considering they play their final 22 games against NL Central foes, that must improve for them to truly make noise in the race.
While the head-to-head will be important, a 10-game swing that has 2 games in Milwaukee, and then 4 each in San Francisco and San Diego could be make or break. On paper it seems like a great trip to bank wins. But with their struggles on the road, losing 4 or 5 in an 8-game stretch against bad teams could sink the season before they get to that final 22.
With this team it’s been all about inconsistency. Outside of the 18-6 stretch early on and the recent 8-game winning streak, rarely has the team fired on all cylinders. While the offense finally seems to be settling in, mostly because of less fluid starting lineup, the pitching is now a major concern. The recent loss of closer Trevor Rosenthal only makes the lack of a bullpen addition at the trade deadline even more glaring. As if bullpen disarray isn’t enough, Mike Leake has been throwing batting practice for the better part of the last month. Adam Wainwright has now landed on the DL. While he is nowhere near the pitcher he once was, the team is 15-8 in the games he has started, far and away the best team performance for any pitcher on the staff. For whatever it’s worth, they come to play when their leader is on the hill. Martinez and Lance Lynn will be of utmost importance down the stretch. Luke Weaver will be at worst a competent fill-in, but reinforcements are needed. The organization must tap into their great depth. That may be their only clear advantage over the other teams in the race.
Wild Card Game
Broken record, but home field is the key for the Cardinals. Everyone in the race has a strong home record, and the Cardinals are a bad road team, it’s really that simple. Also, Carlos Martinez has better numbers across the board at home compared to on the road this season. The Cardinals offensive profile is to hit doubles, run up pitch counts, and kill you with OBP, which plays anywhere, especially pitcher friendly Busch Stadium. Conversely, dropping a big swinging team (i.e. the other three WC contenders) into this ballpark diminishes the opponents offensive potential.
Probable Pitcher: Carlos Martinez. Career ERA: 3.68 at Busch Stadium; 4.87 at Coors Field; 2.11 at Chase Field; 2.47 at Miller Park.
Colorado and Arizona are both trending down. Milwaukee and St. Louis have, for the most part, been treading water all year (albeit with Milwaukee slightly ahead). It really comes down to which two teams get their act together down the stretch. All bets are off and I just don’t have the guts to handicap this one. My heart still hopes the Cardinals can find a way to best the Cubs and Brewers for the Central. But I’m glad that the Wild Card is at least part of the conversation now. As disappointing as the season has been, there is potential for a really exciting final 6 weeks. Let the scoreboard watching commence.
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