The Los Angeles Dodgers will probably lose some games this season. The Baltimore Orioles will probably win some games this season. But an undefeated or winless season is more on the table than it ever has been before.
The odds of either of these things happening are in the one in a trillion range, but that doesn’t mean this season will be normal—it just means that the absolute craziest circumstances remain unlikely. I am too dumb and too lazy to calculate the odds that the Dodgers win 45 games, but I can assure you that they are much better than the odds that they would win 122 (the same pace) over a 162-game season. This isn’t because the Dodgers are uniquely well-equipped the handle a short season relative to a full one. They’re also more likely to miss the playoffs altogether.
Earlier this week, I published a moderately tongue-in-cheek season preview that, given my attitude to this season being played, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking was fixed by me. It wasn’t, but I don’t care enough to argue against you if you think it was. It projected that the Cubs would win the World Series and that the Cardinals would finish below .500. I don’t think either is going to happen, but given the structure of the season, I didn’t finish my Excel inputs and think this was clearly a malfunction. I re-ran the numbers yesterday and it had the Cardinals reaching the World Series and the Cubs going 26-34. This is all very possible.
So let’s get extremely silly in projecting the St. Louis Cardinals specifically. What if the entire team activates their best self over the course of sixty games? The odds that everybody does this are very low, but it’s not as though a guy having a hot barely-over-a-third of a season is unprecedented. It wouldn’t shock me in the least bit if at least one Cardinal surpasses his previous best sixty-game stretch. But let’s be realistic here and see what would happen if every Cardinal replicated (but did not surpass!) his best 60-game stretch. A couple caveats when it comes to extrapolating a season projection.
1. I’m not including bench players because if these guys have this kind of stretch, the bench won’t be playing very much. Also, I’m including a DH probably recklessly, so whatever amount I should be docking the DH for not having defensive value you can go ahead and consider the total bench value. That seems fine.
2. I’m not including the bullpen because in this case, they won’t pitch very much. Let’s say they’re replacement level. They’ll probably be better than replacement level anyway and certainly would be better in a best-case-scenario world, but I’m also exaggerating the lineup a bit, so whatever, stop complaining, this whole post is junk baseball science anyway.
Also, God Bless FanGraphs.com for creating a 60-game stretch tool. It is the only reason I did the work necessary to create this post. If you can afford a membership at FanGraphs and don’t already have one, please consider it.
Catcher, Yadier Molina: While Molina is certainly (I think?!?!) closer to the end of his MLB career than the beginning, he is still a capable player, and I’ve wondered for a while if he would be better served if he didn’t play constantly. Of course, in this circumstance, he’d still be playing constantly, but over a shorter duration of time, I think it’s more realistic for him to be a standout. Molina’s career-best stretch came from April 12 through June 20, 2013, when fresh off receiving MVP votes the season before, the catcher picked up where he left off. During this stretch, he had a .977 OPS, good for a 178 wRC+ and still very much vintage Yadier Molina defense. In total, his 4.7 fWAR is the best 60-game stretch any current Cardinal has ever had.
First Base, Paul Goldschmidt: As a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Paul Goldschmidt was often an unholy terror at the plate. His apex came during a stretch from April 10, 2015 through June 15, 2015 during which Goldschmidt hit 18 home runs in 266 plate appearances, got on base nearly half the time (.481), had a wRC+ of 213 (only Barry Bonds has reached this mark since the Eisenhower administration), and produced 4.3 fWAR, which eclipsed his total in 161 games last season of 2.9.
Second Base, Kolten Wong: We don’t have to dig into ancient history to find Kolten Wong’s peak—it began on July 4, 2019 (hey, Independence Day! I remember watching that game! Remember having baseball as a signifier of time?) and concluded on September 14, 2019. He may not have quite mashed to a Goldschmidt or even Molina level, but a .956 OPS and a 152 wRC+ for a Gold Glove-winning middle infielder is inarguable. At 2.6 fWAR, he had the third-lowest peak of the lineup and still managed to play at a near-MVP pace (7.1 fWAR/600) throughout it.
Shortstop, Paul DeJong: Man, did 2019 Paul DeJong start off strong and end abysmally? That his plate appearances verged on unwatchable by the postseason may have detracted a bit from the memories of how phenomenal he was to start the season. He was the team’s lone All-Star for a reason—over the first two months-ish of 2019, from April 8 through June 16, while I was getting distracted by watching the Blues instead, DeJong hit ten home runs, put up a robust 134 wRC+, and was a terrific fielder at shortstop, all to the tune of 2.8 fWAR.
Third Base, Matt Carpenter: If 1967 was the Summer of Love, 2018 was the Summer of Salsa. Although Matt Carpenter began the 2018 season rather terribly, teetering on the edge of replacement level for the first couple months of it, he became an absolute monster over the next two months. From June 6 through August 13 of 2018, Carpenter had a Bondsian 215 wRC+ and hit an unthinkable 26 home runs. Twenty-six! At 4.5 fWAR, Carpenter would’ve been elated to reach that level in a full 162-game season in 2020, but maybe he could squeeze it into 60? Look, probably not, but I’m a dreamer.
Left Field, Tyler O’Neill: We have a fairly small sample size of 60-game stretches for Tyler O’Neill compared to his teammates. And because he has never really been a full-time starter, his plate appearance totals are relatively low. But from April 19, 2018 through September 29, 2018 (yes, essentially a full season), Cardinals Nation’s collective Jacked Canadian Son hit nine home runs over 137 plate appearances and was worth 1.4 fWAR, with a 124 wRC+.
Center Field, Harrison Bader: I think people have forgotten how fun Harrison Bader is when Harrison Bader is good. This is a guy who is so good defensively that he’s still a serviceable MLB regular when he outright isn’t hitting well. When he’s hitting adequately, he’s All-Star caliber. When he’s hitting well, not even great but merely well, he’s an MVP candidate. From June 24, 2018 through September 10, 2018, Bader was a quite good hitter, with a .369 on-base percentage and five home runs leading to a 130 wRC+ (not to mention his excellent base-stealing ability on the offensive end), and his superior glove carried him to a 2.3 fWAR stretch.
Right Field, Dexter Fowler: Absolutely everything went beyond according to plan for the Chicago Cubs organization in 2016, and the torrid start from Dexter Fowler is among those things. From April 4 through June 6 of that season, Fowler hit seven home runs and sported a .429 OBP. His .953 OPS translated to a 159 wRC+, and he was also in the midst of his good defensive seasons that arrived when he showed up to Wrigley Field and have promptly disappeared since he left. In total, his 2.9 fWAR over this stretch is tops among the team’s outfielders.
Utility player/designated hitter, Tommy Edman: We spend a lot of time discussing how unsustainable 2019 Tommy Edman was but, like, this is all we’ve seen. It’s not like he had a great spurt of playing time amidst a bunch of mediocrity. From July 23 through September 28 of 2019, Edman hit seven dingers and produced a triple-slash of .322/.373/.515 while playing solid defense all throughout the field. At 2.7 fWAR, he was a revelation last year, and ironically, with the exception of the time-squeezed Tyler O’Neill, he might be the Cardinals position player most likely to repeat his peak performance, simply because we don’t have any evidence he can’t.
Pitcher, Jack Flaherty: I bet you remember this stretch. From August 1 through September 29, 2019 (oh, for pitchers, FanGraphs correctly uses 12-game stretches, so I’ll be doing that too), Jack Flaherty was must-see TV. In 82 innings, Flaherty struck out 100 batters while walking just seventeen on his way to a 0.77 ERA and 2.18 FIP. By RA9-WAR, Flaherty was even better than his 3.6 fWAR but, still, that’s a really good stretch!
Pitcher, Adam Wainwright: Admittedly he had a much longer time from which to select than Flaherty, but Adam Wainwright managed to equal that incredible run from April 7, 2013 through June 7, 2013 (this almost perfectly correlates with the best Yadier Molina stretch, it is worth noting) with 3.6 fWAR of his own. Over 90 innings, Wainwright walked just seven batters while striking out 85—his 2.20 ERA was surpassed by his 1.78 FIP.
Pitcher, Dakota Hudson: Hudson is a victim of fairly narrow windows from which to select twelve starts and of FIP not caring for him, but his twelve-game stretch from April 27 through June 29 of last season was still quite good. A 2.74 ERA is great; a 3.95 FIP is perfectly fine, especially given the offensive support he’s getting here. 1.3 fWAR may not sound all that impressive but it makes him a firmly above-average pitcher given the sample size being used here.
Pitcher, Miles Mikolas: That dude sure did arrive like a supernova upon his return to Major League Baseball after pitching in Japan. From April 9 through June 12 of 2018, Mikolas exhibited impeccable control; he may not have had Flaherty-level strikeout rates, with 58 over 79 2/3 innings, but he walked just nine batters. With a 2.15 ERA, his excellent surrounding defense sure helped, but a 2.81 FIP also reflected very good pitching, to the tune of 2.2 fWAR.
Pitcher, Carlos Martinez: For two months in 2017, from April 27 through June 27, the Cardinals looked like they had their ace for the next decade. Martinez may not have had the cartoonishly low walk rate of some of his rotation-mates, with 27 walks in 83 2/3 innings (which, it should be noted, still isn’t bad). He struck out over a batter per inning during this time, with 90 Ks accumulated, and his 2.37 ERA and 3.10 FIP from a guy slotted in for the fifth spot in the Cardinals rotation would be quite the outcome. Maybe he isn’t going to replicate that, but this potential, the chance at a 2.4 fWAR two-month stretch, is why Carlos Martinez was always going to get another shot at the starting rotation.
So here we have it—a bunch of awesome seasons to anticipate and, frankly, expect. But how does this translate to a full sixty-game season, you might ask?
This team comes out to 41.3 Wins Above Replacement. For perspective, last year’s Cardinals were worth 38.9 WAR. But that was over 162 games. And that was with a different threshold for what a replacement team is worth.
A replacement level team over a 162-game schedule should put up 48 wins. Over a 60-game schedule, this team would be expected to win 17.777778 games. Let’s round it up to 18—after all, the 48 win total is based on rounding, anyway. So let’s add 41.3 wins to that and it comes out to…59.3 wins. This puts the Cardinals ever-so-close to being projected for an undefeated season, but not quite.
This is how the Cardinals will lose precisely one game (I am not sure which one) in 2020.