If you asked baseball saber-metrics guru Bill James to name the best team in MLB thus far in the 2012 season, chances are it wouldn't be the New York Yankees; nor would it be the Texas Rangers; nor would it be the red-hot Cincinnati Reds - the team that has the best won-loss record (65-41) after the conclusion of play on Friday night.
Chances are, after crunching all the saber-metric numbers that measure a team's overall talent, Bill James may come to the conclusion that the best team in MLB in 2012 is, in fact, the defending World Series champion St Louis Cardinals - who currently reside in third place in the NL Central; eight games behind division leader Cincinnati, and 3.5 games behind second place Pittsburgh.
To the vast majority of main-stream baseball analysts, this notion is absurd. After all, the Cardinals are only eight games over .500 (57-49), and are flying well under the radar; especially with all the excitement going on in Cincinnati, Washington DC, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, LA, and San Francisco; not to mention the usual dominance on display in the American League (New York Yankees and Texas Rangers). Even the surprise teams (Baltimore Orioles, Chicago White Sox, and Oakland A's) are being regarded higher than the Cardinals; along with the under-achieving Detroit Tigers, who were supposed to run away with the AL Central in a landslide. They may still pull away from the pack over the final two months of the season, but they've had difficulty getting their act together, for the most part.
Actually, the Cardinals have also had difficulty getting their act together on a consistent basis, despite a MLB best +102 run differential. According to Bill James' Pythagorean Winning Percentage, the Redbirds are the biggest under-achievers in MLB; or the unluckiest. The 2012 St Louis Cardinals are a team loaded with talent, especially from a hitting perspective. They're averaging 4.99 runs per game, and have nearly scored one full run per game more than their opponents so far this year. According to James' formula, their won-loss record should be 63-43. Of course, timing is everything. For all those double digit blowouts they've compiled this season, there have been way too many galling one-run losses which has Cardinal Nation fit to be tied. However, that's baseball. When the Cardinals won the whole she-bang back in 2006, they finished the regular season with a lackluster 83-78 record, while compiling only a +19 run differential. However, that was a team beset by injuries all season long; only at the very end of the regular season did the Cardinals get healthy enough to play up to their potential; and they did so with a vengeance in the postseason. I don't think too many Cardinal fans were complaining after St Louis polished off the heavily-favored Detroit Tigers in a shocking (and lowest rated) five game World Series.
Likewise, if the Cardinals somehow fail to qualify for postseason play this year, it could be the baseball gods balancing out the ledger. The law of averages usually evens things out, sooner or later. Certainly, it would be a shame to have some great individual performances going for naught (Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, David Freese, Kyle Lohse, Lance Lynn; just to name a few standouts); however, win-lose-or draw, the 2012 St Louis Cardinals have performed admirably, especially with a roster that has had more than its share of injuries.
However, I think this team is simply too good to be denied a playoff berth come October. At the very least, I think they'll grab a wild card spot; a division title may seem unlikely to most observers, but an eight game deficit with two months to go seems like nothing, after what this team did just last season. I wouldn't count them out, folks. After all, this is the best saber-metrics team in baseball, for whatever that's worth.
Without further adieu, here are my top ten: The MLB Saber-Metrics Power Rankings through August 3, 2012. There is nothing subjective here. Just cold, hard statistical (Pythagorean) evaluations. You can thank Bill James for this one.
TEAM (PYTHAGOREAN W-L) (ACTUAL W-L)
10) Oakland A's (57-49) (58-48)
9) Arizona D-Backs (58-48) (54-51)
8) LA Angels (59-48) (57-50)
7) Atlanta Braves (59-47) (61-45)
6) Chicago White Sox (59-46) (58-47)
5) Texas Rangers (60-45) (62-43)
4) Washington Nats (62-44) (63-43)
3) Cincinnati Reds (62-44) (65-41)
2) New York Yankees (62-43) (62-43)
1) St Louis Cardinals (63-43) (57-49)