Does Cardinals' Run Differential Matter In August?

Mike Matheny of the St. Louis Cardinals looks on as the umpires discuss a home run by Carlos Beltran of the St. Louis Cardinals against the Milwaukee Brewers at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Paul Nordmann/Getty Images)

Why does the team with MLB's best record currently sit in third place in its division, and in fourth in the Wild Card standings? You know why. But do you know they're still in good shape for a playoff spot?

Hey, baseball fans! Ready for a bit of a Brain Twister?

Without looking, name the Major League Baseball team with the best run differential!

I know. That's a hard one. I will give you a hint. It's not the Yankees or the Rangers or the Nationals or the Braves or the Giants or the Reds or the White Sox or the Tigers or the non-devilish Rays or even those powerful Astros.

If you guessed the Cardinals, congratulations: You win the kewpie doll!

What makes this a hard one, for the non-cognoscenti, is that the Cardinals have the best run differential in the majors, but the 10th-best record (actually tied for 10th best, with two other clubs). So what are they doing in third place? And how frustrating must this be? Here's Bernie Miklasz (via stltoday.com):

The Cardinals have outscored opponents by 101 runs, but the positive run differential makes no difference. By now the statistics, like circumstantial evidence, are a matter of interpretation.

The Cardinals win a lot of games by blowouts. They lose a lot of close games by freak-outs and have a pitiful 12-19 record in one-run games...

It could be worse; the Diamondbacks, another third-place team that was in the playoffs last year, are a more-pitiful 8-17 in one-run games. The Blue Jays, nominal contenders in the first half of the season, are 6-15 in one-run games.

Hey, it happens. One-run records are approximately one part managing, one part relief pitching, two parts team quality, and six parts luck. Maybe seven parts luck. The Cardinals are good, but that's not done them any good. Their relief pitchers have compiled a 4.28 ERA this season, which is 10th in the National League and significantly higher than the league average (3.87). About the managing ... well, it's still early but nobody's yet mistaken Mike Matheny for his Hall of Fame predecessor.

But it's mostly been bad luck. They simply haven't been able to distribute their runs, both scored and allowed, in a way that would bring their wins and losses in line with their +101 run differential. Like I said, it happens.

Which doesn't mean it will keep happening.

Run differential predicts winning percentage better than winning percentage predicts winning percentage.

Records in one-run games do not predict records in one-run games. Last year the Diamondbacks -- same manager, mostly the same relief pitchers -- went 28-16 in one-run games. Last year the Padres went 20-31 in one-run games; this year they're 16-16.

So the St. Louis Cardinals, if they continue to play as well as they've played, will probably fare better in the close games. No matter who's managing, or even who's relief pitching.

For the Cardinals, a division title is probably out of reach. But there are only three teams ahead of them in the Wild Card standings, and all three have significantly worse run differentials. Based purely on that, St. Louis would seem to have a fine chance of catching at least two of those teams.

And they really do, though of course that depends on how one defines "fine". According to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds Report, the Cards have a 56-percent chance of reaching the postseason (11 percent of winning Central, 45 percent of winning a Wild Card). It wold be higher, but they've got a pretty brutal schedule down the stretch. Here's Bernie Miklasz again:

Unless Atlanta (down four) can overtake Washington in the NL East, the two wild cards almost certainly will come from the six-team pool of Atlanta, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Arizona.

The schedule doesn't always play out as expected, but on the surface it seems that the Cardinals, Dodgers and Giants have a more difficult challenge.

Here's the number of remaining games each wild-card contender will play against teams that currently possess a winning record: Atlanta 16, Arizona 18, Pittsburgh 19, San Francisco 25, St. Louis 26, Los Angeles 32.

Based on this, you have to love the Braves for one of the Wild Cards, which leaves everyone else for one. Well, not everyone else. The Giants look like solid favorites in the West. So if both the East and West play out as expected, we've got the Diamondbacks, Pirates, Cardinals and Dodgers fighting for one Wild Card. The Diamondbacks are too far behind, the Dodgers stuck with the toughest schedule.

Which leaves the Cardinals and the Pirates, and the numbers like the Cardinals because of run diff-- well, actually not because of run differentials. The numbers like the Cardinals because of talent ... which, both last year and this year, have led to greatly superior run differentials.

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