Baseball’s closest division race is on the final stretch, with the Cardinals (90-68) all but officially taking home their first NL Central crown since 2015. Entering play Wednesday, St. Louis’ magic number to clinch the division is three, and Fangraphs giving the Cards a 93% chance to win the Central. They’ve gone from postseason afterthought to legitimate World Series contenders in less than two months. Here’s the case for the Cardinals to win their 12th Fall Classic.
1. Formidable Starting Pitching
The Cardinals lost five of their six games in the first week after the trade deadline and went from first to third place in the NL Central. Playoff prospects fading, their decision not to acquire an impact starting pitcher at the end of July was looking even more like a failure. However, in the 44 games since, St. Louis starters have posted an MLB-best 2.69 ERA, with a formidable rotation trio emerging in the process.
Jack Flaherty has emerged as one of baseball’s best pitchers, and his 0.97 second-half ERA ranks first in the majors among qualified starters. In his four starts this season against the Braves and Dodgers—assumed to be the two leading contenders to win the pennant—Flaherty is 2-0 with a 1.44 ERA and 31 strikeouts over 25 innings. The only run he’s allowed against L.A. this year came on a Joc Pederson solo home run, and he’s struck out 18 Dodgers hitters and walked just one. Overall, Flaherty is 10-8 with a 2.85 ERA, a 0.988 WHIP and 225 strikeouts across 189 ⅓ innings this season.
In most seasons, Dakota Hudson would be the favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award, though he might not even finish in the top three. The 25-year-old righty is 16-7 with a 3.45 ERA in 32 games (31 starts) over 169 ⅔ innings. Hudson isn’t an analytical darling because doesn’t rely on strikeouts (6.7 K/9). He has the greatest difference (-1.56) between his ERA and FIP (5.01) among qualified MLB starters this year because hitters often put the ball in play against him. However, this discrepancy should be attributed more to the Cardinals' superb defense than luck. Hudson’s 56.8% groundball rate is highest among qualified MLB starters, and the Cardinals have one of the best defensive infields in MLB.
Adam Wainwright has successfully completed the transition to a finesse starter, enjoying the best season since 2014, when he finished third in the Cy Young voting. The 38-year-old righthander is 14-9 with a 3.98 ERA (107 ERA+) in 167 ⅓ innings. That’s a solid No. 3 starter for most teams, but that doesn’t reflect how good Waino could be for the Cardinals come October. He’s 9-2 with a 3.62 ERA in 14 second-half starts, and his September numbers are staggering: 5-0 with a 1.69 ERA over 32 innings.
2. A Blossoming Lineup
The Cardinals’ offense didn’t fully come together until after the All-Star break. Since then, however, St. Louis's lineup has looked like the deep, well-rounded group of hitters most expected it to be when the club acquired Paul Goldschmidt in early December.
Goldschmidt especially has taken off in the second half, slashing .267/.351/.542 with 17 homers and 58 RBI. Only Anthony Rendon and Nelson Cruz have driven in more runs in that span. After eliminating his leg kick, Kolten Wong has ignited the lineup out of the second spot with his ability to hit the ball to all fields and elite speed. The 28-year-old is hitting .342/.409/.487 in the second half. Over his last 30 games, Yadier Molina has posted a .313 batting average and a .530 slugging percentage.
Rookie utilityman Tommy Edman has also provided a spark to the lineup since making his debut on June 8. A switchhitter, he’s slashing .297/.337/.494 in 88 games, posting a 115 OPS+ and a 3.5 bWAR. He’s started games at second base, third base and rightfield, and has played plus-defense at all three spots. He's the kind of do-anything-anywhere type of player the Dodgers have built a foundation on. The Cardinals are 53-35 in games Edman has played, and there’s little doubt he’ll be a mainstay in their October lineup.
3. Battle of the Bullpens
When flamethrowing closer Jordan Hicks suffered a torn UCL in his right elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery in June, it was uncertain how the Cardinals would finish games. Carlos Martinez, who made the All-Star team twice as a starter, has assumed the closer role and helped secure the bullpen in Hicks’s absence. Since then, Martinez leads the majors with 22 saves.
Overall, the Cardinals have six relievers with at least 40 appearances and an ERA+ of at least 100. Their 3.79 bullpen ERA ranks third in the majors and first in the National League.
Every other NL playoff team has struggled with their bullpen this year. Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen isn’t as dominant as he’s been in years past, and it’s uncertain whether he’ll be the guy finishing games for them in the postseason. Joe Kelly, a former Cardinal who was lights out for the Red Sox last October, has been inconsistent in his first year with the Dodgers, though he’s been better lately. The Braves improved their dreadful relief corps at the trade deadline, and they’ve been much better since then, but the bullpen is their weakest link heading into the playoffs. We all know the weapon Josh Hader is out of Milwaukee’s bullpen, but he cannot pitch every day for the Brewers this postseason—if they beat the Nationals in the wild-card game. And finally, the Nationals’ bullpen was a hazardous dumpster fire earlier this year but has slightly steadied
The Cardinals will have the bullpen advantage against any team they play on their way to the NL pennant. We’ve seen how important a strong bullpen has been in the postseason over the last five or so seasons. Even the Red Sox last year, whose relievers were suspect at best in October, were able to close out games by using starters Chris Sale, Nathan Eovaldi and David Price when their bullpen faltered. The greatest strength of the 2015 Royals was their three-headed monster in the bullpen, which kickstarted today’s wave of dominant relievers. It’s the same thing that could set the Yankees apart in the AL this year, despite their questionable rotation.
In summary: St. Louis has both a deep rotation and a shutdown bullpen. If the Cardinals’ offense performs like it has throughout the second half, they have the pitching and defense to win their 12th World Series ring.