The St. Louis Cardinals are still good. They have the best record in baseball, at 51-24, and lead their division by nine games. It’s the best start to the season since the 2005 World Series-winning White Sox also went 51-24 in their first 75 games.
This start comes after they lost Adam Wainwright to an Achilles tear just three weeks into the season. They’ve also been without Matt Holliday, owner of a career .906 OPS who has hit at least 25% better than league average every year since arriving in St. Louis, for the past three weeks. It doesn’t matter, of course, because Kolten Wong, Johnny Peralta and Matt Carpenter have also been really good. Randall Grichuk is hitting like an All-Star. With Jaime Garcia actually currently healthy, John Lackey might be their fifth best starter, which is kind of ridiculous because John Lackey has a 3.41 FIP and is at least a league-average starter. Oh, and they have the best bullpen in baseball, and the numbers suggest it hasn’t been all that close.
So the Cards are still good. Unless you’re a Cardinals fan, you’re probably tired of them being good. It’s been seven years since they didn’t finish in first or second, and 25 since they were a last-place team. In recent years, seemingly regardless of whether circumstances break their way or not, St. Louis teams have been consistently good in the manner that the likes of the New England Patriots or Michael Schumacher have been; almost maddeningly, monotonously reliable in their quality, performing so well at almost every aspect of the game that it becomes boring, because the success is so predictable.
I like novelty, and I like records. So do a lot of baseball fans, or indeed sports fans in general. Being interested in players or teams on course for records is all about novelty, because it’s about watching something that’s never been done before. Sometimes tracking these records is more fun than the wins and losses themselves, like the buzz that followed Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s home run race, or feeling the tension build with every strikeout any time a starter is remotely close to being on course for 20 in a game. Whether it’s Javier Baez striking out a lot, or players who never change position, it’s fun to look for the unprecedented, the unique, the extremes of baseball that just don’t happen very often. The Cardinals being good does not fall under this category, because they’re good every year, so it’s hard to get excited about it and follow it intently.
So while 51-24 is a good start, it’s not a surprising start, or a historically notable one. However, there is one unusual thing that did stand out when looking at the standings, and it isn’t those 51 wins – the 2001 Mariners and ’98 Yankees were both well past that in their first 75 – or the nine game lead – the Nationals, Angels and Orioles all had a bigger advantage at this point last year. What leapt out to me was the 29-7 home record. Here was something that maybe I could track with enthusiasm.
Home field advantage in baseball is around 54%. We might reasonably expect a .500 team to win 44 home games over the course of a season, and a .600 team (97 wins) to win 52. The Cardinals are a .680 team at the moment, but they’re playing .806 ball at home: that’s a 65-16 home pace. This, I surmised, was much more likely to be historic. Fortunately, we don’t have to guess, or pore over years of standings to compare. The ever-reliable Baseball-Reference Play Index includes a ‘Situational Records’ option, which allows you to produce a query showing every team’s home record in the history of the game. Here are the top 20 seasons in baseball (since 1901), sorted by winning percentage:
Best Home Records in History
Aside from showing us that the Yankees have also been annoyingly good throughout baseball history, this demonstrates that the Cardinals would, should the season finish today, hold the best home winning percentage of all time. Rounding down means that they would only tie the ’61 Yankees at 65-16 for the best home record in a 162-game season, but it’s certainly fair to slap the historic tag on this potential record.
Is this something else the Cards are good at? The Pythagorean winning percentage is also great, but it’s .702, not over .800. They outperformed their Pythag record at home by almost the same amount as they are now in 2014, but in three of the previous four years the difference was no more than a couple of wins each way.
The schedule, too, does not seem to be responsible. It’s too far in to the season for it to be dramatically unbalanced. They may have played the Phillies and Brewers at home, but they’ve also played the Dodgers, Nats, Pirates and Cubs at Busch. This seems to just be within the bounds of random fluctuation, a ridiculously great outlier from what is just a very good team.
Of course, we have yet to even reach the halfway point of the season, and St. Louis is not going to win 110 games as they are on course to do now. It’s more than likely that in a month, the home record will have regressed a little, and the Cards will be on course to be more towards the bottom end of that table, not the top. It will only take a handful of losses for this record-setting pace to look a long way off, and they can still only afford 8 more losses the rest of the way in order to beat those great Yankees teams. I’m writing about this now because it’s actually still plausible now, and one bad series is all it will take to make an .806 percentage a near-impossibility.
For just a moment, I’ll indulge my fantasy that the Cardinals might just flirt with this very old record. They face the White Sox and Padres in their next six home games, and still get to face the Rockies, Marlins and Brewers at home before the end of the season. The Pirates, Nats, Cubs and Giants are the only teams coming to St. Louis that are clearly better than .500 teams, and the Cubs have been handled with ease thus far. With a quality team across the board and far from the most challenging schedule, is it really so hard to believe that the Cards might only lose another 8 games at Busch Stadium the rest of the way?
The short answer is yes. Their third order winning percentage is .611, that of a 98-win team, not 110. The Cards really are a very good team, but they certainly aren’t the best team in history. I will, however, just note that there have been 33 teams in history who have outperformed their home Pythag record over a full season by more than the Cardinals currently are, including teams as recent as the 2009 Mariners. St. Louis is also set up to perform well in close games, with that bullpen that has a runs allowed per nine of just 2.81 (the Dodgers are second at 3.35).
So for now, I’ll enjoy the fact that the Cardinals are on pace to have the best home record since baseball began, and hope that the possibility lingers long enough for it to be fun, before their record normalises and the juggernaut rumbles in to the postseason with another 95-win year and division title.
Oh, and the worst home record in history? That belonged to the 1939 St Louis Browns, who went 18-59 at Sportsman’s Park, a .234 winning percentage. Even the Phillies and Brewers will struggle to match that this season. As for the worst road record…well, that’s for another time.Updated MLB Statcast Data (July 2015)
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