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Stunning: The Cardinals and Cubs Are Neck-and-Neck, But Should We Really Be Surprised?

I’m one of the estimated 300 million U.S. citizens who thought the 2017 Chicago Cubs would run away and win the NL Central by nearly 20 games.

You know, kind of like what the 2016 Cubs did in winning 103 times during the regular season and rolling on to win their first World Series since 1908.

Joe Maddon was the greatest, coolest, hippest, most happening manager on Planet Earth. Theo Epstein was the most lauded baseball executive since Branch Rickey.

By the age of 24, Kris Bryant had won the NL Rookie of the Year and a league MVP.

Three-time World Series champeen Jon Lester keyed the rotation.

The Cubs had the best core of young position players in the game. A lineup of scary bats that would wreck a pitcher’s ERA and confidence.

Despite the swooning and drooling of the national baseball pundits — think of the teen girls that squealed at The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show– the Cubs weren’t perfect … only because no team is.

As I wrote multiple times before the 2017 season, we’d see a regression in the Cubs’ starting rotation after its outlier performance in 2016. That turned out to be true, but the rotation has sharpened since the All-Star break.

The Cubs’ bullpen was touted, preseason, as one of the best in the show.

The Cubs were MLB’s finest team defensively in 2016, and it wasn’t even close. And that same level of solid-gold defense was expected to play through again this year. The base-running was high-quality stuff.

The Cubs had not only assembled this heralded base of talent, they added to the base last month by trading for the superb Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Jose Quintana, and making a deal with Detroit for a very good lefty reliever (Justin Wilson) and respected veteran catcher Alex Avila.

And the Cardinals?

After a prosperous run of success under chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. from 1996 through 2016, the Cardinals leveled off.  As I’ve noted to the point of irritation, the Cardinals are in transition. The roster continues to be adjusted and refitted through a process of major renovations. Especially the cast of position players.

The Cards’ pitching has been fine. It’s been good. But without a prototype power-bat enforcer in the middle of the lineup, the overall transition hasn’t been smooth. When the offense shoots blanks and comes up short in providing run support, it’s a strain to win consistently. And that’s been the most prevalent factor in a mediocre STL season that’s taken a positive turn.

With the frequent shuffling of the roster, the Cardinals have a  .523 winning percentage since the start of the 2016 season. Granted, everyone who cares about this team wants a better record. And wants to see the Cardinals competing in the postseason  after missing out in 2016. And yes, we all want to see front-office bosses John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch find that elusive thumper for the middle lineup. And there is never an excuse for mangy fundamentals and stupid decisions.

At times I have to remind  myself   (not you) that the Cardinals are ranked 10th in winning percentage among the 30 MLB teams over the last two seasons. The Cardinals have gone backwards, and that’s frustrating. But they haven’t gone off a cliff, to tumble into the abyss.  Cardinals’ baseball hasn’t been a smooth ride the last two years, but it’s no catastrophe to be winning more than 20 teams .

Given the magnitude of the Cards’ transition since the end of 2015, the end of 2016 and throughout 2017, I’m surprised to see them a game out of first place Friday morning.

The Cubs are the defending champs. In contrast to there rivals in St. Louis, the Cubs have significant roster stability. The Cubs have made bigger, splashier trades to secure upgrades. The Cubs’ collection of young, core-nucleus position players should give them a huge advantage over the Cardinals.

That position-player core forms the Cubs’ foundation for this season, next season, and probably a couple of years after that. It isn’t an insult to say the Cubs have the more talented position players right now, and those pieces are in place to bridge the present to the future. It’s an ideal situation. But this isn’t exclusively about the Cubs/Cardinals.

This isn’t about dissing the Redbirds. The Cubs’ youthful position-player core is superior to all but a couple of teams. (I’m thinking Astros and Yankees. Others will rise in time.)

Of the 11 position players that have taken the most plate appearances for the Cubs this season, seven are age 25 or younger. Nine of the 11 are age 27 or younger. The only two “seniors” are Ben Zobrist (36) and Jon Jay (33.)

So what happened to the Cubs’ big edge? I’m not talking about the pitching; instinctive observers realized that St. Louis was in solid shape there. I’m referring to the position players and the offense.

Going into the weekend, here’s where the Cubs and Cardinals stand offensively:

@  The Cubs average 4.69 runs per game. Cardinals average 4.63. A minor difference.

@  The Cubs have more homers (1.42 per game) than the Cardinals (1.18.) But the Cardinals and Cubs are virtually even in OPS, and the Cards have the higher onbase percentage.

@ I think many people would assume that the Cardinals are easier to shut down than the Cubs. But it isn’t true. Going into Friday the Cubs have been held to three runs or less 47 times — same as the Cardinals. The Cubs have scored four runs or fewer 61 times; the Cardinals 62 times.

@  According to the wRC+ metric — park-adjusted runs created — the two rivals are exactly the same at four percent above the league average.

@  The Cubs’ position players collectively have posted 16.7 WAR. The Cardinals (15.1 WAR) aren’t quite there, but the difference isn’t drastic.  (I’m using the FanGraphs version of WAR.)

@  Citing the BRR base-running metric at Baseball Prospectus, the Cubs get the check mark and it isn’t close. The Cardinals rank 23rd in the bigs with negative 4.1 BRR and the Cubs are 12th with a plus 3 BRR.

@ The Cubs aren’t nearly as defensively efficient as they were in 2016. But they’re ahead of the Cardinals in Defensive Efficiency this season, ranking third in MLB. The Cards are 14th in DE.

The base running aside … from a pure-offense standpoint, the Cardinals aren’t inferior to the Cubs. The differences are slight. Considering the Cardinals’ position-player carousel, that’s an upset. I doubt that many people predicted Cubs-Cardinals parity on offense before the season.

To this point the Cardinals have maintained their rotation advantage over the Cubs. St. Louis has the edge in quality to starts (64 to 50) and starting-pitching ERA (3.78 to 4.29). The Cubs have had the better overall bullpen this season but their relievers have struggled in the second half. The Cardinals’ relievers have done a superb job in recent weeks after an awful start. In fact, the Cardinals fielding independent bullpen ERA is lower (3.81) than the Cubs’ 3.97.

Bottom line: the Cardinals rank fifth in majors in run prevention in giving up 4.17 per game. The Cubs are No. 8 in allowing 4.37 per game.

The Cardinals’ run differential, +54, is  18 runs better than Chicago’s +34.

If we go by the preseason expectations, the one-game margin between the first-place Cubs and second-place Cardinals is stunning … or maybe shocking. But given the actual across-the-board performance by the teams this season, we shouldn’t be surprised.

And perceptions can be fascinating.

Or comical.

The Cubs have the genius front office and the dynamic manager and an owner who is determined to win. This is the new baseball power that will rule the land.

The Cardinals? A dynasty in decline. An owner who won’t go all-in on spending. A manager that shows up on the “worst” lists nationally. A front office that’s passive, overly cautious.

The cutting-edge Cubs represent the way it should be done.

The plodding Cardinals have lost their way.

Blah blah blah blah blah blah …

This could all change quickly, sure,

But on this day take look at the standings and see if perception matches reality.

Thanks for reading and have a wonderful weekend…

–Bernie

More: Miklasz – Why Are the Cardinals Closing In On the Cubs? Start By Looking at the Bullpens