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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

  • William Thom

    54 to 34 is 20 difference isn’t it? 54 to 36 is 18.

    • Duane Wisner

      Really?? You actually felt the need to point that out?

  • Jody Wassmer

    I’ll admit I didn’t see this six-game streak coming; it will be interesting to see how the Cards do down the stretch. Matheny was up to his usual self when he left Oh to pitch to Moss last night and that nearly cost him. He’ll be challenged to play the right guys as always.

  • Jeff Behrens

    The frustration for the Cardinals is that they NEED a middle of the order bat and refuse to get it. The lack of enthusiasm from the front office to make that big move that would make this club instantly better.

    But on the other side, the Cardinal farm system is stocked with talent and the Cubs have cleaned their’s out. And they are going to have buy pitching and pay for Bryant, Baez, Russell and Rizzo in the next few seasons. They payroll is already at $180 million (according to spotrac.com).

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    • JDinSTL

      The Cardinals’ farm system is stocked with Windmill strikeout artists – who can be expected to put up 2.0 WAR or below.

  • Chris Moeller

    I’m proud to say I had it right. The Cubs were set up for a major slide. Fowler was a significant piece. Schwarber’s move to leadoff wasn’t some innovation, it was a necessity. Heyward was broken (now simply average) and Baez and Russell have awful K/BB rates. They lost Chapman, who they leaned on heavily after he arrived. Lester lost his catcher. Arrieta and Hendricks were never again going to duplicate what they did, and Bryant and Rizzo were granted pretty early HOF enshrinement. It’s so odd that a dynasty could be declared when the team’s drafting had provided not a single pitcher to their WS roster. That’s not how dynasties get built. Sadly, the Cardinals believed it too, and Mo failed to get the thumper that would have them out in front by 10 games.

    • LawrenceKScardsfan

      Yep – I wish we had gotten Chapman. We’d probably have at least 5 more wins. And the Cubs underestimated his contribution and overestimated the relievers that replaced him.

      • Randy in NY

        Yep, the Cubs sure blew that one, didn’t they you silly Cards fan? The facts, which never seem to be relevant to a ranter Cards fan, reveal a VERY different story.

        To date in the 2017 season:
        Chapman – 14 saves, 3 blown saves, 82% save%, 2.87 ERA, $17.2M
        Wade Davis – 24 saves, 0 blown saves, 100% save%, 2.31 ERA, $10M

        Nice job confirming your ongoing status as the most ignorant fans in baseball.

        • LawrenceKScardsfan

          Good to see ad hominem is alive and well on the web.

          You also forgot to mention that Chapman has been injured. But don’t let that get in the way of your “factual” analysis.

          • Randy in NY

            Lol. Sorry sir, it’s not ad hominem when the facts are provided. The observation of your personal bias and ignorance was simply a delightful bonus.

            And no, I did not forget to mention the injury. That just adds additional weight to the already demonstrated superiority of Wade Davis. That would have been like stealing a base in the 8th inning of a 12-1 blowout – unnecessary and unsportsmanlike.

          • LawrenceKScardsfan

            Saying someone is “ignorant” is an ad hominem attack. Saying that St. Louis Cardinal fans are “the most ignorant fans in baseball” is an ad hominem. What’s delightful is the way you rationalize your attack. It’s amusing to say the least.

            Just in case you need a refresher (or perhaps a course) on ad hominem, this is the definition: Webster’s: “Appealing to feelings or prejudices rather than intellect an ad hominem argument.”

            But that’s ok. You’re rationalizations notwithstanding, you should look in the mirror.

          • Randy in NY

            Again, sorry sir, you are incorrect, and since you don’t realize you are incorrect you are again demonstrating your ignorance.
            I never used my observations of your personal shortcomings as the basis for refuting your original premise that the Cubs overestimated the relievers that replaced Chapman. I refuted that premise with the statistical comparison of Chapman’s performance to the performance of his replacement.
            I am well aware of what ad hominem means. Saying you are ignorant was not, and is not, an ad hominem because I’m not using that to refute your contention. Since it was not the basis of my argument, it was merely a gratuitous insult to tweak a thin skinned Cardinal fan. I’m overjoyed by it’s success.

          • LawrenceKScardsfan

            So you admit to being a troll. Congratulations.

    • Patrick

      Reading some of their message boards and comments in the Chicago papers online, they are ready to dump Schwarber. He was one of the examples of the great young bats the Cardinals didn’t have. Oh, and the great Joe Maddon had to send him to the minors to get “right”.

  • LawrenceKScardsfan

    Bernie – you crack me up!!!

    Look, there has been a wholesale infusion of youth and a complete redo of the bullpen since the season began. And the moves the Cardinals have made have paid off tremendously.

    Which brings me to my most recent question about this season – why weren’t these moves made at the BEGINNING of the season and not when the season was a third to half over? What changed in the evaluation from Spring Training and why were the evaluations then not reliable?

    That said – another point that should be made is that the Cardinals are playing in the weakest division in baseball. All of the teams can be considered failures with the exception of the Brewers. So comparing the Cardinals to the Cubs only gets us part of the way. Hey look – I like kicking the Cubs when they’re down too, but do you really believe this will last forever?

    On the other hand, the Cardinals certainly look to be playing more to their potential. I’ve been complaining for several weeks that the sum of the parts was greater than the whole. Now it appears that the whole is catching up. And it’s great to see. Rosenthal as closer, Fowler hopefully healed, the wonderful additions of Pham, DeJong, Brebbia, Martinez, et. al., Molina outstanding performance, and Wacha Wacha Wacha…. The season is set for a great sprint to the championship. But make no mistake – the Cards will have to unseat the Cubs for the CD title in order to enter the playoffs. And hopefully it can be done!

    • David Dwyer

      Cards in ST expected much better performance by Diaz (remember him?), Piscotty, Fowler, Oh and Cecil from the starting gate. The infusion of young outfielders (Pham, Sierra, Bader) helped a bit for Piscotty, but it took some time to get DeJong going for Diaz. Duke and Brebbia have helped offset Cecil. Rosey is back on track. Finally seems like ALL cylinders are firing.
      Don’t need any more issues (HOPE!).

  • Tarzan

    Let’s see how the Cubs fair with Contreras on the shelf. Losing Bryant and/or Rizzo for an extended time would just about cook their collective geese.

    Meanwhile, back at the 314, MO and co. BETTER Have Plans to get a masher to bat cleanup during the offseason. No Mosses need apply: We want a Stanton, Yelich or (my choice) Ozuna…

    It should be an exciting battle for the Division Crown the rest of the year! Win, Lose or Draw, I love the excitement and hope the Birds have shown the last 6 games!

    • Taylor

      You say they need a masher and list…Christian Yelich? Yelich isn’t a masher.

      • Tarzan

        Taylor, you are right, my bad… Ozuna will do just fine…

        • Taylor

          Don’t get me wrong: I think Yelich is awesome and prefer him to Ozuna, but expectations have to be tempered. Ozuna is fine, too.

  • rightthinker4

    Surprising and stunning that a flawed team like the Cardinals is one game behind the Cubs. Says more about the underachieving Cubs, than it does about the overachieving Cardinals. That said, the 6 game win streak has been fun for Cardinals fans. I suspect most of us keep wondering if the team can keep this up, or will they revert back the sub .500 team they were for two thirds of the season.

  • geoff

    I was surprised by how well the Cubs pitched last year….I missed that one completely..it turns out I was a year early in my assessment. The Cards have good pitching and the bullpen has been restacked a bit. I hope Cecil doesn’t become this year’s version of Moss. The team has apparently realized that getting a lot of hits is more fun than trying to draw a walk and hoping someone hits a home run. I have said all along that I would rather watch a lineup full of line drive hitters with power than I would a lineup full of guys trying to be power hitters, who can’t hit a line drive when a line drive will get the job done. They are fun to watch right now and Matheny is doing a great job of manage a retooling on the fly. I guess Bernie still has stats that say Matheny is the worst manager in baseball, but I strongly disagree. .

  • Patrick

    Is Bernie mocking himself here:

    “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.”

    Bernie loves Theo and Maddon. I mean they are defending world champions, so I get they know what they are doing, but repeating is hard. Really hard.

    • David Dwyer

      Cubs Non-Player personnel and owner are very good. I don’t believe the Cubs will “..rule the land”. They would have to go through Washington OR LA to return to the WS….. IF..IF.. they get into the post season. Nothing is for sure in the current era of MLB.

      Cards are now showing some competitiveness, let’s hope it continues.

      Players, regardless of age, must produce for any team to win. Let’s see how it progresses. Looks like any interesting September.