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The Cardinals are not the best team in baseball

The St. Louis Cardinals have the best record in baseball (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

The St. Louis Cardinals have the best record in baseball, winning 59 of their 93 games — five games ahead of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Central. That gives them a 76.6 percent chance at being the division champs and a 9 percent chance at winning the World Series. They are doing it, however, without a single qualified hitter batting over .300.

Batting average isn’t the best barometer of hitting success — after all, a single is counted the same as a home run — so that isn’t troublesome but the Cardinals rank fifth in the league for OPS (.716) and weighted on-base average (.312), or wOBA, which combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value.

That’s more instructive of where the Cardinals should rank in terms of hitting.

Their overall ERA (2.68) is the best in the league, but that too can be misleading because pitchers can’t control everything on the baseball field. After the ball is on its way to the plate the outcome is left to the batter, the defense, and sometimes, even luck. That’s why metrics like Fielding Independent Pitching, which measures what a player’s ERA would look like over a given period of time if the pitcher were to have experienced league average results on balls in play and league average timing, and Expected Fielding Independent Pitching, which uses the league average home run to flyball percentage, were designed.

This season, St. Louis’ team ERA is lower than its 3.28 FIP and 3.55 xFIP, indicating that its pitching is not fully being reflected in his results. In fact, that too is closer to the fourth or fifth best in baseball.

And that’s why they have a record earned more with luck than skill.

St. Louis has the best winning percentage in baseball (.634), but their BaseRuns expected winning percentage is .569, the fourth best in baseball. BaseRuns is one of the best estimators of a team’s true talent because it takes into account a team’s performance without considering the sequencing to calculated expected runs scored and runs allowed, and then takes those numbers to generate expected wins and expected losses.

The drop from actual to base-run win percentage isn’t huge, but it does give the Cardinals six more wins than expected, tied for the second most in baseball. And it is because their pitching staff and defense is allowing 2.97 runs per game when they are expected to be yielding 3.53 runs per game.

It’s likely the Cardinals win the division anyway, but the Pirates or Cubs could make it interesting.