Quick: who has the best record in the National League?

Once again, order has been restored in the senior circuit, where the St. Louis Cardinals have bounced back from mini-sweeps in Cincinnati and Houston at the start of the month to go 12-4 since, taking over the top of the division from the slumping Reds. Their 29-16 mark has also pushed them past the sliding Mets for the best record in the NL.

Almost all of the attention paid to the Cardinals this season has focused on Albert Pujols. Pujols is not only off to an amazing start overall (.315/.447/.805, 36 walks against 12 strikeouts, on pace to break Barry Bonds‘ single-season home-run record), but he’s spiked his numbers with an assortment of game-winning hits and homers, moments that have only added to his legend.

The Cardinals have needed all of Pujols’ historic start just to keep their offense above water. Even with his great work, the Cards are just seventh in the NL with a .263 EQA. Of his teammates, only David Eckstein (.322/.392/.385) has been both healthy and productive all season long. Jim Edmonds struggled through April and is only now up to .254/.348/.399, while Scott Rolen missed some time to bronchitis. Nearly every day, the Cards play offensive sinkholes in right field, where Juan Encarnacion‘s .271 OBP lies, and behind the plate, where Yadier Molina has been one of the worst-hitting regulars in the game (.171/.226/.211). It’s an offense with no real #2 hitter and, with Edmonds not hitting and without Larry Walker, a lack of left-handed pop.

The bench has made up for some of this. Scott Spiezio and John Rodriguez have played well, and the second-base situation resolved itself as Aaron Miles and Hector Luna formed a platoon that calls to mind the glory days of Luis Alicea and Geronimo Pena.

The Cardinals aren’t winning because of their offense, though, they’re winning because their pitchers have limited walks and homers, and because their defense has been the best in the game. The Cards rank fourth in MLB in Support-Neutral Value and ninth in Reliever Expected Wins Added, numbers that reflect the combination of pitching and defense that has spurred them to the top of the division. They’re eighth-best in HR rate allowed, and tenth-best in walk rate allowed. By Defensive Efficiency, they have the best defense in baseball, helping them post the lowest OBP allowed in the game. As bad as Molina has been at the plate, the Cardinals have allowed the fewest stolen bases, stolen-base attempts, and lowest success rate in the NL (10 SB, 7 CS). That doesn’t make a 400-OPS guy a good player, but it does mitigate the impact of his bat a little.

Put all that together, and you have the a team that doesn’t walk people, doesn’t allow home runs, doesn’t allow you to reach base on balls in play and keeps the double play in order. That’s how you lead the league in ERA, allow the fewest runs in the league and hold a three-game lead in the division. The presence of Pujols, Rolen and Edmonds means that people don’t refer to the Cardinals as a “pitching and defense” team, but that is exactly what they have been this season.

It helps when you can fill holes from within the way the Cardinals have. Luna has been part of the second-base solution, Rodriguez continues his good work since being dug up from the free talent pool, and despite his lack of production Molina ranks as a valuable player thanks to his arm. More importantly, products of the farm have helped to stabilize what could have been a disastrous bullpen. Brad Thompson has kept the ball down on the way to a 1.37 ERA in 19 2/3 innings. His peripherals aren’t great, so while that number should rise, he looks like an acceptable #3 reliever.

Posting the exact same ERA and IP figures, but with more exciting stuff, is Adam Wainwright. A former #1 pick acquired in the J.D. Drew trade, Wainwright has 16 strikeouts and just four walks allowed, and could be as important to this team as Al Reyes was to the ’05 Cardinals. With Jason Isringhausen still scuffling–he’s converted eight straight save opportunities without allowing a run, but with seven walks allowed–Wainwright is the first guy in line to pick up saves. The Cardinals have enough depth to shuffle roles around in the bullpen, a trait that may separate the top teams (Red Sox, Mets, White Sox, Cards) from their pursuers (Yankees, Phillies, Reds) in 2006.

The Cardinals have been a bit fortunate along the way. According to the Adjusted Standings, their record is 4.5 games better than predicted. They pick up ground by having a better record than their runs scored and allowed would predict, scoring more runs than would be predicted by their run elements, and most significantly, playing a fairly weak schedule to date. With no one element wildly out of line, and the overall record consistent with the talent at hand, it’s reasonable to expect the Cardinals to extend their lead in the Central and win their third straight division crown.

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