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The Odds Are Still Working Against the Cardinals, But Recent Trends Offer Hope

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny was imagining things over the weekend, and that’s OK, because his team is playing very well as of late and I can’t fault him for being a little dizzy, a little giddy.

In speaking to the sports-media pack on Sunday, Matheny said the second half of the 2017 season would offer a “huge opportunity” to his men.

“This could be one of the greatest seasons of any of those guys’ careers because of how much we’ve been written off,” Matheny said. “That, to me, is such an exciting thought, about us putting something together and pushing hard and remembering all the things we’ve already gone through in half a season.”

Who wrote the Cardinals off?

Answer: No one who matters.

Not one credible person has dismissed the 2017 Cardinals and declared the season over.

Not even during their worst, clumsiest and most depressing stretches of the first half were the Cardinals ruled out of contention in the NL Central division.

Here’s the reality:

Yes, many have criticized this team for its inexcusable, repeated lapses in fundamentals. Many –otherwise defined as “people with functioning brains” have pointed out the alarming number (67) of lost base runners, the the loose defense and the disturbing regression of young position players. The Cardinals tried like hell to slip-slide their way out of contention; they just didn’t play sound, quality baseball with the desired frequency.  After all, the boys go into the All-Star break with a LOSING RECORD. But I guess it makes me a ravenous, angry, vicious, hater by mentioning their 43-45 mark. Sorry, snowflakes. The 43-45 record at the All-Star break is the poorest by a Cardinals team since the 2007 unit went 40-45. And in the post-expansion era (1962-present), the team’s current winning percentage (.489) is tied for 39th among 56 Cardinals’ teams. Facts are OK. When GM John Mozeliak, jumped in to tear up a part of Matheny’s coaching staff on June 9, I don’t think he was writing his team off, either. But Mozeliak was demanding a cleaner, and better, performance. Just like most fans and media.

Now onto the friendly part: while it is perfectly fine to hold this team accountable, the Cardinals’ place in the forgiving NL Centra was noted constantly. I cannot count the number of times that I said something along the lines of, “The Cardinals are a mess, but no one is running away from them in the NL Central.” In spite of themselves, the Cardinals never even came close to tumbling out of the division race.  Since June 16, the Cardinals have swayed between 3.5 games and 5.5 games out of first place on 22 of 23 days. The Cardinals had one day — after losing to  the New York Mets this past Friday — where they slipped to 6.5 games out for 24 hours. But after beating the Mets Saturday and Sunday, the Cardinals are a workable 5.5 games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers going into the All-Star Game festivities.

The Cardinals threatened to write themselves out of this drama. For a while there the only team they could master was the worst-in-show Philadelphia Phillies. Between May 16 and June 24, the Cardinals had a 5-1 record against the Phillies but were 7-24 vs. other opponents.

To their credit, the Cardinals rebounded and bounced into the break with 10 wins in their last 15 games. The surge included series wins over two quality teams, Arizona and Washington.  In their last four series entering the break, the Cardinals had three wins and a split.

In going 10-5 to reverse the negative flow, the Cardinals got a 3.13 ERA from their pitchers. Starting pitchers Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha have come on strong as of late, so that’s encouraging. And a few words on the STL bullpen: over the last 12 games the relievers have combined for a 1.41 ERA, and opponents have been limited to a modest .617 OPS. That’s a good sign for the team.

The Cardinals offense averaged 5.9 runs per game with an .804 OPS over the last 15 games. And in one of the most entertaining developments of the season, the Cards were carried by three players that opened the season at Triple A Memphis: outfielder TommyPham, shortstop Paul DeJong and first basemen Luke Voit.

Roll these numbers around in your head…

In the last 15 games, here’s what Pham, DeJong and Voit have combined to do for this offense:

— A .355 batting average, with a .408 onbase percentage and 1.200 slugging percentage.

— Nine homers, 29 RBIs, 23 extra-base hits, 31 runs.

— And this is my favorite: over the last 15 games, this trio of former Memphis Redbirds accounted for 47.3% of the Cards’ homers, 33.7% of the RBIs, 35.2% of the runs, 45.6% of the extra-base hits, 36.4% of the hits, and 40.5 percent of the total bases.

— By the way: since being promoted on May 5, Pham ranks 13th among all MLB outfielders with a 140 wRC+. (Park-adjusted runs created.) That’s 40 percent above the league average. And from May 5 until now, Pham’s wRC+ is higher and better than Bryce Harper, Mookie Betts, Charlie Blackmon.

I don’t know if it’s fair to expect to Pham, DeJong and Voit to keep this up. But they’ve definitely freshened a tired-blooded team with their energy, enthusiasm and most of all performance. With center fielder Dexter Fowler back from the DL and second baseman Kolten Wong expected to return from the DL after the break, there will be a traffic jam for playing time.

Let’s worry about that in a couple of days; for now let’s just appreciate what we’ve seen from Pham, DeJong and Voit. Let’s take a few hours to appreciate the improved bullpen work, and a Cardinals rotation that finished the first half ranked No. 5 in the majors in starting-pitching ERA (3.90) and third in quality starts (48.) The defense is a little tighter now, and not as goofy. The base running is an issue, but let me say that it hasn’t been quite as scary-bad over the last two-plus weeks.

The Cardinals will resume play with a 10-game roadie that takes them to Pittsburgh, New York (Mets) and Wrigley Field in Chicago. This journey gives the Cardinals an immediate opportunity to declare themselves. Sure, they’ve won 10 of the last 15 games, but is it real?

We’ll find out. But as it stabds The odds aren’t promising. According to the postseason probabilities FangGraphs gives the Cardinals a 20.2 percent chance to win the division, and a 30.3 percent chance to make the playoffs. Six NL teams have a greater postseason probability than the Cardinals.

And there’s this: since the second wild card was added (in each league) in 2012, only two of the 50 teams that made the playoffs through 2016 had a losing record at the All-Star break. Both teams — Toronto and Texas — pulled it off in 2015.

This doesn’t mean that we should write the Cardinals off.

Again: no serious person has written this team off.

And really, that’s irrelevant. Here’s why: instead of worrying about outsiders writing them off, the Cardinals need to play excellent second-half baseball and write themselves in.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Miklasz – Cardinals Pitcher Adam Wainwright and the Confusion of Misleading Statistics