Not even the most wildly optimistic partisans expected this kind of start out of the St. Louis Cardinals, and I say this as a wildly optimistic partisan. By a healthy consensus, they were predicted to finish comfortably behind the Cubs and Brewers in the NL Central, and, in a few instances, were tabbed for the very bottom. Yet the Cards have charged to first-place status, and in the process have compiled one of the best records in all of baseball. Certainly, that’s been a minor shock, and it raises a couple of questions: one, is there anything illusory about the Cardinals’ hot start, and two, is their performance to date sustainable?

The short answer to the first question is that it seems to be for real, but that comes with a serious qualifier. The Cardinals are tied for second in the majors in team EqA, so they’re obviously hitting. On the pitching-and-defense front, they rank fifth in the NL in Defensive Efficiency. Those elements add up to second-place status, according to the third-order standings. As you can surmise, the adjusted view of the Cardinals should temper enthusiasm just a bit. In part, this is because St. Louis has thus far played a highly accommodating schedule. And therein lies the “serious qualifier” I just mentioned.

At the bottom of the Adjusted Standings page, you’ll find that you can draw conclusions with regard to a team’s strength of schedule by subtracting their Equivalent Runs Allowed (EqRA) from their AEqRA and by subtracting their Equivalent Runs (EqR) from their Adjusted Equivalent Runs (AEqR). If AEqRA is more than EqRA, then the team has faced worse than average opposing offenses. In contrast, if AEqR is more than EqR, then the team has faced better than average pitching and defense. In the Cardinals’ case we find that the difference between AEqRA and EqRA is 10. So the Cardinals’ pitchers have had an easy go of it in terms of opposing offenses. In fact, only the Marlins have enjoyed such a large margin between AEqRA and EqRA. On offense, the Cards’ AEqR-EqR margin of -13 means that, once again, they haven’t played a rigorous docket of opponents. The only team with a lower figure on offense? The Cubs at -17. More generally, the Cardinals thus far have played just nine games against teams at or better than .500, and 28 against teams with losing records. (The division-rival Brewers, in contrast, have played 26 games against teams at or above the .500 mark and only nine against teams below the .500 mark.)

This, of course, brings us to the issue of scheduling “blowback.” That is, what the St. Louis schedule looks like from this point forward. As of Thursday, the Cards’ opponents had an average winning percentage of .478; going forward, their remaining opponents have an average winning percentage of .500. So the schedule is going to toughen up a bit in the months and weeks to come. That’s not good news for those invested in the team’s hot start.

The other matter to consider is whether the Cardinals, despite the schedule challenge ahead, can keep this up. It seems unlikely. If you go spelunking through the St. Louis PECOTA cards, you’ll find that they have a striking number of players who are dramatically exceeding expectations. Using Marginal Lineup Value Rate (MLVr) for hitters, let’s take a look at how the core Cardinal bats are faring relative to their PECOTA projections:

90th Percentile
Rick Ankiel
Brian Barton
Adam Kennedy
Ryan Ludwick
Aaron Miles
Brendan Ryan
Skip Schumaker

75th Percentile
Cesar Izturis
Yadier Molina
Albert Pujols

Weighted Mean
Chris Duncan
Troy Glaus
Jason LaRue

As you can see, every regular or semi-regular Cardinal hitter is significantly out-performing projections save for three: Duncan, Glaus, and LaRue. What that means is that the offense is poised for a decline. Now we’ll do the same for pitchers, this time using ERA as the measuring stick of over- or under-performance:

90th Percentile
Randy Flores
Ryan Franklin
Kyle McClellan
Ron Villone
Adam Wainwright

75th Percentile
Kyle Lohse
Braden Looper

60th Percentile
Joel Pineiro
Todd Wellemeyer (projected mostly as a reliever)

Weighted Mean
Jason Isringhausen
Anthony Reyes
Brad Thompson

The pitching outlook isn’t quite so grim, but it’s still troubling that every current member of the Cardinal rotation is pitching at an improbably high level thus far. There’s the likelihood that Chris Carpenter and Matt Clement will contribute at some point after midseason, so that should help. Overall, however, regression appears to be in order.

All in all, the Cardinals hot start is a good and welcome thing, but at this early hour it means less than what’s likely to happen the rest of the way. In part, that’s why the PECOTA-Adjusted Postseason Odds Report gives the Cards just a 10.6 percent chance of being a part of the playoff fray. From an “eyeball” standpoint that feels a bit low, but not outrageously so. In other words, the season to date put in the proper context and the lay of the land ahead lead me to conclude that, no, this year’s Cardinal model probably isn’t for real.

Here’s hoping I’m wrong about that.