The addition of a second wild card in each league had a profound impact on this year’s trade deadline—one of the most exciting in recent memory. In addition to the intriguing deals made by the division leading White Sox, Yankees, Rangers, and Reds, 5 second or third place teams acquired everyday position players or middle-to-top of the rotation starters.
John Mozeliak and the Cards, however, were conspicuously quiet, acquiring only Edward Mujica for Zack Cox and a PTBNL for Tyler Greene (trade breakdown here). From both a baseball and a business standpoint, though, Mozeliak’s inaction was the right call.
Much has been made of the fact that the the Cards have the largest differential between runs scored and runs allowed in MLB. Pythagorean win percentage is a concept developed by Bill James that is based on a simple concept. It provides the win percentage a team should have based on the number of runs it has scored and the number of runs it has given up. The problem with Pythagorean win percentage is that no one cares how many wins a team should have, they only care how many wins a team does have. Luckily for the Cards, though, in the long run most teams’ actual win percentage tends to come back in line with their Pythagorean win percentage.
At the trade deadline the Cards had a Pythagorean win percentage of .598 and an actual win percentage of .534, a difference of .064. In the last ten seasons there have been 13 teams with a positive differential between Pythagorean win pct. and actual win pct. of at least .05 at the trade deadline. On average, those teams had a win pct. post-trade deadline that was .041 higher than their win pct. before the trade deadline. If the Cards followed suit this would mean they would finish with roughly 91 wins. Better yet, there have only been 5 teams in the last ten years with a Pythagorean-to-actual win percentage differential of at least .064 (the Cards mark as of July 31st). Their post-deadline improvement? It was .137 in win percentage, meaning that if the Cards follow in their path they would end up with 96 wins.
Translation: the Cards are a better team than their record as of July 31st would indicate and history suggests that this will translate into a significantly better record in the last two months of the season—a record worthy of making the playoffs.
So we should expect the Cards to be a better team after the trade deadline than they were before, but wouldn’t it pay off to make a big acquisition and ensure that they make the playoffs? In past years, absolutely. Numerous studies suggest that the added revenue from making the playoffs is very significant and that every team that makes the playoffs has about an equal 1 in 8 chance at winning the World Series.
This isn’t past years, though, and the new playoff format means that unless a team wins its division, it could play one game and find itself back home on the couch with the Astros. From a business standpoint this means there is a huge difference between winning your division and simply making the playoffs. Additionally, the team that wins the play-in game is forced to burn its ace before the divisional round of the playoffs, putting the team at a significant disadvantage.
I had the pleasure of talking with Dave Cameron of Fangraphs last weekend and he mentioned that teams haven’t yet adjusted to this reality. He posited that first place teams should be aggressively pursuing ways to improve and maintain their lead, while teams chasing wild card spots shouldn’t sell the farm for a chance at a one game playoff.
While we all want the Cards to be in the middle of the pennant chase come September, Mozeliak and Co. have demonstrated time and again that they are building for long term continued success, not marginal short run improvement. The result? A farm system ranked 6th in baseball and a World Series title last year on the backs of numerous homegrown players. I, for one, am willing to trust that approach.
Will the Cards make the playoffs this year? Only time will tell. But given the team’s current position in the standings it would have been a mistake to sell off major prospects like Shelby Miller, Oscar Taveras, or Tyrell Jenkins for a chance at a one game playoff with potentially little economic benefit going forward. More optimistically, even without a major move we should expect the current Cards team to start translating production into wins during the last two months of the season and make a serious push for the playoffs. Time could prove me wrong…but 6-4 since July 31st isn’t a bad start.