Dreadful start has already put the Cardinals' postseason chances in doubt

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Monday April 17th, 2017

Here's one bit of good news for the St. Louis Cardinals: At least they don't have the worst record in baseball. Nevertheless, the Cardinals begin this week with a 3-9 record, their worst start in more than a quarter century and just one game better than that of the Toronto Blue Jays, who are 2-10. Historically speaking, few teams have overcome such a rough season-opening stretch to make the playoffs. There's a case to be made for not overreacting to two weeks of bad baseball, but to paraphrase Yogi Berra, it gets late early for slow-starting teams.

While the Blue Jays have reached the postseason each of the past two years, those are still their only playoff berths in the wild card era, which dates to 1995. St. Louis, on the other hand, has been a postseason regular since 1995, making 13 appearances in the playoffs while winning four pennants and two World Series titles, making the Redbirds' start all the more surprising and worthy of further examination.

After a winter in which they gave out the majors' third-largest free agent contract ($82.5 million over five years) to outfielder Dexter Fowler and signed lefty reliever Brett Cecil as well—moves that helped the team get a B+ in our Winter Report Cards series—the Cardinals began this season in auspicious fashion, beating the defending world champion Cubs 4-3 on Opening Night at Busch Stadium. They lost their next three games, however, and have followed each of their subsequent victories with three straight losses, and they enter this week fresh off a three-game sweep in the Bronx at the hands of the Yankees.

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Such a dreadful 12-game stretch isn't necessarily a death sentence for a team's playoff hopes, however, particularly since the adoption of the second wild card per league for the 2012 season. In the American League last year, the Rangers won the AL West with a 95-67 record despite a 2-10 skid in July and the Blue Jays didn't let a 3-9 stumble in September stop them from winning 89 games and an AL wild card spot. In the NL, the Cubs had three overlapping 3-9 stretches running from late June into early July, yet they still won 103 games, and the Giants earned an NL wild card berth despite their own 2-10 tumble and two unrelated 3-9 stretches. In 2015, the AL-West-winning Rangers and the wild-card-qualifying Yankees both overcame 2-10 stretches. That year’s Rangers also had a 3-9 skid, as did the NL West champion Dodgers, while the Astros, Blue Jays and World Series-winning Royals each had two. In fact, six of the last seven championship-winning teams—all of them since 2010 except the '12 Giants—have gone 3-9 or worse at one point in their otherwise storybook seasons. From their recent run of playoff qualifiers, the Cardinals’ 2011 squad had six overlapping 3-9 stretches in June of that season, while the '12, '13 and '14 editions each had one such sputter; only the 2015 club avoided that fate.

All that said, losing nine out of 12 to start the season is a different story. Dating back to the start of the wild card era, only the 2000 Giants (3-9), 2007 Phillies (3-9) and 2001 A's (2-10) have overcome such sluggish starts to play into October. Expanding to include the Division Play era (1969 onward) but excluding the 1981 strike-shortened season, the 1974 Pirates (2-10) and 1991 Twins (3-9) also join the list, with the latter the only such team to win a championship. The Cardinals last went 3-9 in their first 12 games in 1988, the year after being upset by the Twins in the World Series; to find a St. Louis squad that did worse one has to go back to their 1-11 bellyflop in 1973.

There's no definitive answer as to why a 3-9 start is so much harder to overcome than any other 12-game fizzle, but there’s also no doubt that a dreadful season-opening record generates more attention than if it were camouflaged by several weeks or months of better play. As the great sportswriter Leo Tolstoy once observed, all unhappy teams are unhappy in their own way, but from a management standpoint, it’s fair to suggest that slow starts tend to induce more panic. Teams can be more prone to make ill-advised changes based upon small sample sizes, or early-season injuries become more difficult to overcome since most squads aren’t usually ready to make trades before June. From a psychological standpoint, one can understand individual players pressing more under such circumstances; from afar, it’s easy to project such concerns onto free agents Fowler (off to a 7-for-49 start) and Cecil (9.00 ERA in his first five appearances) and the heavily scrutinized, unhappily platooned Kolten Wong (4-for-27).

Regardless, it does appear that the die is cast early. In the era of two wild card berths in each league, only two teams have even overcome 4-8 starts to make the postseason (the 2012 Reds and '13 Rays), while seven other postseason teams began the year 5-7. In other words, of the last 50 postseason-bound teams, just nine of them lost more than half of their first 12 games.

As far as a more robust sample of data goes, in Baseball Prospectus' 2012 book Extra Innings (of which I was a part), BP's Derek Carty examined non-strike seasons from 1962 through 2011 and found that at the 16-game mark, a team's current record reached a 0.5 correlation level with their final record, which is to say that their year-to-date performance became more predictive than simply assuming they'll finish at .500 (as the largest possible sample of teams inevitably does). Because of the evolution of the playoff format in that 50-year span—from pennant-winner-take-all to the singe wild card era—Carty wasn't tracking whether those teams made the postseason, but the size of the sample makes the finding that much more powerful.

History aside, it's worth a quick look at the current Cardinals' issues. First, their offense simply isn't functioning. The team is 13th in the National League in scoring (3.50 runs per game) and on-base percentage (.294), 14th in batting average (.212), dead last in slugging percentage (.332) and tied for last in OPS+ (73). Of their regulars, only Stephen Piscotty has an OPS+ above 100 (.258/395/.484 for a 141 OPS+), and Aledmys Diaz (.245/.245/.490 for a 95 OPS+) and part-timer Jedd Gyorko (.250/.323/.500 for a 1122 OPS+) are the only other players above 87. Besides Wong (35 OPS+) and Fowler (9 OPS+), Jhonny Peralta is 3-for-25 without an extra-base hit; his OPS+ is -13, which is to say it’s so bad that it breaks the metric.

Obviously, those are all based on small sample sizes, as are the slow starts of Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina and Randal Grichuk. While one can project all manner of concerns onto that trio—Carpenter's focus on his move to first base, Molina's advancing age and Grichuck's subpar 2016, for example—the reality is that most of this team’s veterans will come around to produce, barring injuries. Wong and Peralta were the only ones who finished last year with an OPS+ below 100, and manager Mike Matheny has enough spare parts at his disposal to cover for their weaknesses.

On the other side of the ball the team is dead last in run prevention (5.33 per game) and defensive efficiency (.650), a problem that goes beyond the bad decision to play Matt Adams in leftfield. The rotation—which, critically, lost top prospect Alex Reyes to Tommy John surgery this spring—hasn't really been the problem. The unit's 3.80 ERA and 3.48 FIP are middle-of-the-pack with Adam Wainwright's 7.24 ERA after three starts the only major concern. Watching Carlos Martinez walk eight Yankees on Saturday, however, is nobody's idea of a good time.

The bullpen, however, has been tagged for a 7.34 ERA, with Cecil, righties Jonathan Broxton, Miguel Socolovich and Kevin Siegrist and closer Seung-hwan Oh all with ERAs of at least 9.00. On a team-wide basis, it hasn't been a matter of coughing up late-inning leads or blowing saves (the team has just one of the former and two of the latter), but the unit's 5.2 walks and 1.6 homers per nine won't get the job done, and it's Matheny who will take the heat every time a reliever fails to come through.

A dozen games is just 7.4% of the schedule, and while it’s generally wise to take any such stretch with a grain of salt as far as what it tells us about a team’s true level of play, history says that the Cardinals already face a steep uphill battle to return to the postseason. We’ll see if they can become one of the exceptions. 

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