The season is 70% over, and the Cardinals find themselves wallowing in third place in the NL Central, behind the Reds and again-surprising Pirates. Excluding division leaders, the Cardinals are a lowly fourth in the wild-card race. What’s going on?
First, the Cardinals aren’t playing badly. Not only do they have an actual record that is .543, but their Pythagorean record is much better at 69-47, second in the National League behind the Nationals (the team, accordingly, has the worst “luck” in the league). Through 116 games this year, the Cardinals are actually playing better than they were at this time last year:
So their actual winning percentage this year is the same as the team’s Pythagorean winning percentage last year (.543) and better than its actual last year (.534). The problem, of course, is that the competition is better this year, at least so far, with both the Pirates (who were competitive through July last year) and Reds much improved. So even though the Cardinals lead the league in hitting (.336 wOBA) and are third in the league in pitching (3.71 FIP), they are in roughly the same spot that they were in last year at this time, which is to say competing not for a division title but for a wild-card berth.
Last year at this time, the Cardinals had eight games against the division-leading Brewers remaining. They went 6-2 against the Brewers but still fell short in the division quest, by six games. This year, the Cardinals have six games with the Reds remaining. Though less incentivized to settle for a wild card, the Cardinals could play worse down the stretch than they did in 2011 and still get to the playoffs.