Cardinals Road Back Should Begin in NL Central

photo: Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports Images

For years, the St. Louis Cardinals had ruled the National League Central Division. Specifically, in the decade of 2000-09, manager Tony La Russa’s club delivered six first place finishes. In other words, they logged two more titles than their five division rivals combined.

After three consecutive second-place seasons, the Cardinals again topped the NLC from 2013-15 under new manager Mike Matheny. However, there were storm clouds to the North.  “The lovable losers” from Chicago were no longer doormats. In fact, the Cubs had pretty much pulled even during the 2015 season, with St. Louis holding the narrowest possible 10-9 edge in head-to-head action.

The torch unofficially passed when Chicago took out St. Louis in the 2015 NL Division Series, three games to one. From that point on, it has been no contest.

St. Louis has not returned to the post-season since, with Chicago winning the 2016 World Series and back with a shot at repeating here in 2017. Another measure of the increasing gap is illustrated by the Cardinals having won just 15 of the pair’s most recent 42 head-to-head games, including a dismal 5-of-19 showing in 2017 and the Cubs clinching the division at Busch Stadium.

After the second of two players-only meetings, held on August 3, Adam Wainwright said this. “Guys left there with a sense of confidence that I hadn’t seen in years around here and a sense of purpose and some togetherness that was just off the charts…”

While his candor surprised some, the long-time leader’s acknowledgement that team confidence was down is not surprising given the regularity of the Cardinals losses to Chicago.

With St. Louis skidding from 100 wins in 2015 to 83 in 2017, and those two consecutive post-season misses, many debates among Cardinals fans are focused on why, and where to cast blame. That is ground I am not going to cover here, however.

The hope for the future of many Cardinals followers is to see St. Louis again able to compete with the Cubs atop the division.

While that is certainly a nice target, I see the Cardinals facing a more pressing concern. The rest of the division is catching up with them from behind.

In fact, the Milwaukee Brewers won the season series from St. Louis on the way to taking second place in the division behind Chicago.  It is the first time the Cardinals have finished lower than second since 2008, with their win total of 83 lowest since 2006.

It only stands to reason that one has to have their division affairs in order to carry realistic hopes of winning the World Series. That was clearly not the case for the 2017 Cardinals.

Putting aside the Cubs and their dominance for a moment, the Cardinals could not consistently handle their other in-division competition, either. Specifically, against Milwaukee, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis managed only a collective 29-28 record in 2017. For the season, these three division opponents came in at a mediocre 229-257 combined.

If the division standings solely included each team’s 76 games of head-to-head results, the Cardinals problems are underlined. In fact, in this view, St. Louis would have finished only one game out of last place.

NLC vs. each other, 2017 Win Loss Pct GB
Chicago 46 30 0.605
Milwaukee 40 36 0.526 6
Cincinnati 37 39 0.487 9
St. Louis 34 42 0.447 12
Pittsburgh 33 43 0.434 13

In these 2017 division-only standings, the top two teams remain the same as in the overall standings, with the Cubs and Brewers best at taking care of their in-division business. The surprise is that Cincinnati was three games better within the division than the Cardinals, which would have been 12 games back of Chicago in fourth place.

Further, let’s look at how the Cards fared in non-NL Central action. The team’s winning percentage in the rest of their games was .570. That rate would have been good enough for them to easily pass Colorado for the second wild card spot. In other words, St. Louis’ struggles in the division was a key element of their 2017 downfall.

2017 Cardinals Win Loss Pct
vs. rest of MLB 49 37 0.570
vs . NL Central 34 42 0.447
total 83 79 0.512
Revised Wild Card Standings Pct.
Arizona (1st wild card) 0.574
StL vs. rest of MLB 0.570
Colorado (2nd wild card) 0.537

So, while catching the Cubs would be ideal, perhaps a more realistic short-term goal for the Cardinals would be to re-establish their winning ways over the Reds, Pirates and Brewers in 2018.

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Brian Walton can be reached via email at Follow Brian on Twitter.

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