It’s a good thing baseball games are played on the field rather than on paper, because on paper no team has a shot at winning the World Series this year unless you are the defending champions. Nearly every projection system from Baseball Prospectus (93 wins) to USA Today (99 wins) has the Chicago Cubs running away with not only the most wins in the NL but in all of baseball. What does this mean for the St. Louis Cardinals? Should they just skip out on playing this year and try again next year?
It means that the Cubs are good. It means that lackluster defense and poor pitching displayed last season are not going to get the Cardinals back in the playoffs. Most importantly though, it is not a death sentence on this upcoming season for the Cardinals.
The “experts” are actually quite close in regards to the Cardinals projected win total in 2017 (see below).
|Baseball Prospectus – PECOTA||78|
The difference between everyone but PECOTA can probably be explained simply by the timing of when the projection was posted (Alex Reyes on the 25 man roster vs being out for the year). Before we go any further though, lets dive into the PECOTA projection and see why the system doesn’t like the Cardinals this year. In 2016, the Cardinals scored 779 runs and gave up 712 runs. In 2017, PECOTA projects the Cardinals to score 705 runs and give up 735 runs. PECOTA also projects the Cardinals to have a team AVG of .253, OBP .317, SLG .412 and Fielding Runs Above Average of -31.4. Last season, they had a team AVG .255, OBP .325, SLG .442 , and 5 defensive runs saved. Yes, I realize defensive runs saved is not the same as Fielding Runs Above Average but I’m not going to pay for that data and I don’t expect you to either. PECOTA essentially believes the Cardinals will be worse defensively, score less runs, and give up more runs. This is the problem with relying solely on computer projections and not common sense. I find it hard to believe that the Cardinals will be worse defensively this season. Randal Grichuk in LF over Matt Holliday is an upgrade. Aledmys Diaz improved as the season went on at SS, and I expect him to continue getting better at that position. The combinations of Peralta/Gyorko and Wong/Gyorko should improve over the carousel that was the infield last season. I don’t expect Matt Carpenter to win a gold glove at 1B but I don’t expect his defense to hurt the team either. Defensively, the Cardinals should be much better than last season.
So if the defense is better, then how does PECOTA project the Cardinals will give up more runs this year? Basically, they believe the pitching staff will be worse than last year. PECOTA primarily uses a comparison of Comparable Players, Peripheral Statistics (for pitchers K/BB as an ERA predictor), and Probability Distribution of Comparable Players Careers. In the eyes of the computer (I know, it’s a computer), Adam Wainwright, Mike Leake, and Michael Wacha’s regression last season were not flukes. Lance Lynn’s projection is partly based on a season in which he pitched with a bad elbow. I can understand why when basing your projection purely on numbers why the results would come out the way they did but that’s the problem. When Lance Lynn is healthy, and whether Cardinals fans want to admit it or not, he is one of the top 15 pitchers in the NL. If the rest of the staff pitches the exact same as last year, I think the improvement on defense REDUCES the amount of runs given up last season.
I haven’t even touched on the offense but I don’t believe the Cardinals will score 74 runs less this season. Yes, last season the Cardinals hit 225 HR. No, I don’t believe they will reach that amount this season. That being said, I don’t think we’re going to see a 50 HR drop off either. The addition of Dexter Fowler at the top of the lineup allows Matt Carpenter to slot into the 3 hole, with Diaz in the 2 spot. Diaz should see plenty of good pitches batting between those two OBP machines and then you have Steven Piscotty batting clean-up. There has been a lot of focus on Randal Grichuk and his consistency being a key to the Cardinals offense but I would argue that Piscotty is the real key to the Cardinals success this season. If Piscotty can “keep the line moving” this season, the Cardinals are going to score a lot of runs. The rest of the lineup appears to be set (unlike previous seasons), with some combination of Grichuk, Molina, Peralta/Gyorko, Wong/Gyorko rounding out the rest of the batting order. Is the batting order as good as the Cubs? Probably not and that is okay.
The rest of the projections from above generally fall into line with where most people believe the Cardinals will finish this season. Somewhere between 86-90 wins seems reasonable, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they ended up in the 91-95 range. If reports are true about a better clubhouse atmosphere, it will be important for this team to get out to a hot start to keep the pressure on the Northsiders. Chicago’s starting rotation isn’t the youngest group in baseball, and one or two injuries could change the dynamics of the race for the NL Central. I have no doubt that the Cubs will be able to address any injury via trade, but Theo Epstein also will have to overpay once again much like the Aroldis Chapman deal with the Yankees this past season.
The Cardinals have done well as the “underdog” and hopefully they can thrive in that role once again this season.