Fun and games in the NL Central

It is that time again—yes, the ongoing look at the movers and shakers in each division. This week it is the turn of what is commonly thought to be the worst division in baseball: the NL Central.

The good news is that this is my penultimate division review! In a couple of weeks I’ll wrap up with a look at the NL West but if you’ve missed them (what have you been doing?) here are the write-ups of the AL East, AL Central, AL West and NL East.

Preseason predictions

Conventional wisdom going into the 2006 season was that the NL West was the weakest division in baseball. That myth was soon dispelled as at one point midway through the season all the teams were at or over .500. The “worst division” torch moved swiftly eastwards and stopped somewhere in the region of the Mississippi floodplain and hovered over the NL Central. To wit, the Cardinals won the whole shebang despite winning a meager 83 games during the regular season. It was some change from previous couple of years when the NL Central carried both the winningest team in baseball (St Louis) and the NL wild card (Houston).

This year expectations were as low as 2006 with some predicting a similar win total could be good enough to secure October ball. For the first time for an age there were mixed views as to who would win the division. Here is what the clever folks at the Hardball Times predicted:

                    1st     2nd     3rd     4th     5th     6th
Richard Barbieri    CHC     MIL     STL     CIN     HOU     PIT
Sal Baxamusa        STL     MIL     CIN     CHC     HOU     PIT
John Beamer         STL     CHC     MIL     HOU     CIN     PIT
Brian Borawski      STL     CHC     MIL     CIN     PIT     HOU
John Brattain       MIL     HOU     CHC     STL     CIN     PIT
Matthew Carruth     CHC     MIL     STL     HOU     CIN     PIT
Chris Constancio    STL     MIL     CHC     HOU     CIN     PIT
David Gassko        CHC     MIL     STL     HOU     CIN     PIT
Ben Jacobs          MIL     STL     CHC     HOU     CIN     PIT
Larry Mahnken       STL     CHC     MIL     HOU     CIN     PIT
Dave Studeman       CHC     STL     HOU     MIL     CIN     PIT
Steve Treder        STL     MIL     CHC     HOU     CIN     PIT
Bryan Tsao          STL     CHC     MIL     HOU     CIN     PIT
John Walsh          STL     CHC     MIL     HOU     CIN     PIT
Geoff Young         CHC     HOU     STL     MIL     CIN     PIT
 
Consensus           STL     CHC     MIL     HOU     CIN     PIT

Although the consensus was for St Louis to win the cracks were apparent as both the Cubs and Brewers were also picked as possible champs. How did the professionals expect the division to turn out? Take a look:

              CHONE           Diamond Mind    PECOTA          ZiPS
              W       L       W       L       W       L       W       L
St Louis      84      78      84      78      80      82      90      72
Chicago       84      78      83      79      85      77      86      76
Milwaukee     81      81      80      82      84      78      79      83
Houston       82      80      82      80      81      81      76      86
Cincinnati    73      89      76      86      74      88      72      90
Pittsburgh    74      88      72      90      76      86      72      90

You can practically smell the mediocrity! The most surprising thing here is the ZiPS projection, which has the Cardinals as a 90-win talent team—I hope no one took a bet on St Louis based on that information. All the other projections believe the race for the Central is a close knit affair with Chicago and St Louis vying for top spot and with Milwaukee a couple of games further back.

Houston was expected to be a .500 team, again only ZiPS was in serious dispute of that conclusion. Where there was no doubt was at the basement with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh fighting tooth and nail for the wooden spoon—a prediction that has unsurprisingly turned out true.

The division standings today

Here are the NL Central standings as of Sunday, July 22 (before Sunday’s games):

National League Central     Pwins  Diff
MIL     54  43 .557    0.0   52     2    
CHN     51  45 .531    2.5   54    -3   
STL     44  50 .468    8.5   39     5    
PIT     41  55 .427   12.5   40     1
HOU     41  56 .423   13.0   43    -2    
CIN     41  57 .418   13.5   45    -4 

And here is the story pictorially, courtesy of the legendary THT graph:

image

The graph tells the story nicely. The Brew Crew was out of the blocks à la Asafa Powell but since mid-May has played .500 ball. Actually that’s not quite true as they slumped for a month or so before rediscovering the winning touch in mid-June. What’s also interesting is that the Cubs’ line is almost a replica of Milwaukee’s but with a different baseline, which reflects the relatively slow start that the Cubs had.

Elsewhere the story has been one of decline. The Cardinals have been in sub-.500 territory since day one, although they have had the look of a .500 team over the past couple of months; and the ‘stros, Bucs and Reds are jockeying for last place and in recent days the Reds eased away from the cellar with a sweep of the Braves.

Luck is definitely playing a role and the gap (and more) between the Brewers and Cubs can be explained by the difference in Pythag records—with the Brewers playing a bit over their station and the Cubs a touch under. Astonishingly the Cardinals are also riding a wave of good fortune despite having a .467 record. They are four runs above their Pythag and a more micro look at specific batting events results in the same conclusion! Ouch—even the mighty can fall spectacularly.

THT projections

Let’s see what the THT statistical model spits out when asked who will triumph in the Central given each team’s start.

To recap the methodology, we use THT projections to calculate a team’s expected wins above replacement. This is based on player depth charts that I pulled together for each ball club. The division win probability is calculated from win distribution curves that work out the odds of each team finishing on top given its talent—for the technically minded, I use recursive probability functions. Here are the results:

30th March 2007                              22nd July 2007
             W       L       Playoff%        W       L       Playoff%
St Louis     85      77      37%             80      82      18%
Chicago      84      78      32%             85      77      38%
Milwaukee    78      84      13%             85      77      38%
Houston      75      87      8%              71      91      4%
Cincinnati   73      89      5%              70      92      3%
Pittsburgh   72      90      4%              70      92      3%

Hey the THT model is pretty close (err … bear with me)! Okay so we’ve got the Brewers and Cards the wrong way round but we’ve called the rest of the division spot on (at the time of writing): We pegged the Cubs as a winning team (they are), we were far more bearish on the Astros than others (rightfully so) and we had the Pirates and Reds fighting out for bottom slot (which, with the Astros, they are).

Based on the current standing our model thinks that the Brewers and Cubs are equal favorites to take the division crown. Amazingly the model thinks that St Louis still has a one-in-five chance of making the playoffs—anyone who has had the misfortune to witness the Cards play this season probably thinks that is baloney.

However, the original THT projections had the Cards as an 85-win team, which when factored into the standings means we expect some rebound, although this doesn’t account for the loss of Chris Carpenter and others to injury or poor play. Given that St. Louis is outplaying its Pythagorean record I think we will see the market probability much lower.

The wisdom of the crowds

Let’s look at how the Tradesports prediction market thinks the division will turn out. Below is the current win probability compared to what it was in late March, before the season got underway:

              Market win% (Mar 31)    Market win% (Jul 22)
St Louis      32%                     5%
Chicago       32%                     39%
Milwaukee     15%                     54%
Houston       11%                     1%
Cincinnati    7%                      0%
Pittsburgh    2%                      1%

As predicted, St. Louis’ win expectancy is far lower than that expected from the THT model. That is because the market (rightly) is taking into account that the Cardinals are playing above their station yet still have a losing record! The Brewers are the team that have taken advantage and the market reckons they are a better than even bet to take the crown—it is quite a transformation from preseason expectations.

The Cubs have done well to maintain a win probability around the 40% mark (identical to the THT model) but as we dig deeper I expect that number has fluctuated quite a bit. Unsurprisingly, the other teams” win expectancy has withered away to zero. The reason Tradesports is more bullish on the Brewers is the market has upped its expectations of the Brewers’ talent levels whereas in the THT model we are using preseason talent expectations. We’ll look at how the win expectancy for the top three teams has changed over the course of the season. First up is the Brew Crew:

image

The Brewers opened the season in fine fettle with a 16-9 record in April to establish an early division lead that they haven’t relinquished. The market quickly realized that Milwaukee was playing at a level that hadn’t been seen in 2006 (or nearly any previous year for that matter) and started to push up the win expectancy. In May the Brewers went on a 9-2 tear and the market started to see them as surprise division favorites. The Brew Crew rookies were playing well, led by the rotund Prince Fielder, who hit 13 homers in May to streak into the NL longball lead.

Between May and June the Brewers’ form dipped a tad as they lost six series in a row. Fortunately the rest of the NL Central also slumped at that point so little inroad was made into their lead. Ned Yost managed to keep the wheels on and a strong run from mid-June saw their win expectancy start to rise again. In recent weeks, their win expectancy has eased as the Cubs have gone on a tear.

image

It’s fair to say that Lou Pinella didn’t get off to the flying start that he hoped, starting April with a 10-14 record. To its credit, the market wasn’t too pernicious and win expectancy fell only to 25% after a particuarly bad run in mid/late April (with the Cubs winning four of 15 at one point). May and early June weren’t much better as the Cubs had a 32-39 record by midsummer. Performance wasn’t helped by the fractious clubhouse as Michael Barrett and Carlos Zambrano shared some fisticuffs after a poor outing against the Braves.

However, with Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee the Cubs were always going to have too much quality to slump for long (although Lee did go 126 at-bats without a home run; a streak he ended last week). Since June 21, the Cubs have been on fire going 19-6 and losing only one series (to the Bucs of all teams), which has catapulted them back into contention. The shock is that despite the 32-39 record, win expectancy was always above 15%—proof, if any was ever needed, of the inherent weakness in the division.

Let’s look at the Cards:

image

The Cards were swept in their first series of the season against the Mets and that set the tone for their season, as they opened April with a 10-14 record. May wasn’t much better with 12-15, and June was a breakeven 13-13. It certainly didn’t bear the hallmarks of a defending World Series champion. Therefore, it isn’t a surprise to see win expectancy steadily falling away since the start of the season. In a stronger division and without last year’s glory, the current 5% win probability would probably be closer to a bagel.

PROTRADE

PROTRADE is a sports stock market where you can buy or sell players and teams depending on whether you think they are over- or under-valued based on a fantasy scoring system.

As I discussed in a previous column this is less useful for players because arbitrary statistics are used, but for teams the scoring system is more sensible so we can build a picture as to how well people think each will do.

Here is a reminder of the points scoring system:

Price	Criteria
$1 	for each regular season win
$10	for qualifying for the playoffs
$4 	for each playoff win
$10 	for winning the league division series
$20 	for winning the pennant
$30 	for winning the World Series

Have a look at how the price of the NL Central contenders has fluctuated since mid-April (when PROTRADE first launched this feature).

Team           Price (April 21Price (July 22) Earnings (July 22) P/E
Milwaukee      $101.40        $105.76         $53.00             2.0
Chicago        $97.25         $112.63         $51.00             2.2
St Louis       $100.64        $94.78          $42.00             2.3
Houston        $92.51         $90.75          $39.00             2.3
Pittsburgh     $79.13         $81.54          $41.00             2.0
Cincinnati     $80.19         $81.25          $41.00             2.0

Contrary to the other projections, models and markets we have looked at PROTRADE contributors expect the Cubs to come out atop the division with a price of $113. That indicates that the Cubs should qualify for the postseason but won’t get much beyond the NLDS (and also that the Cubs winning the division is far from certain—this is the Cubs we’re talking about). A look at the wider list reveals that the Cubs are in the eighth spot, which is indicative of the lack of quality in the Central.

Interestingly, St. Louis also has a price around the $95 mark, meaning that there is an expectation of a strong second half by the Cards. Given that the Cards will struggle to win more than 85 games (remember, $1 per win) then some folks have pretty aggressive postseason assumptions. I suppose with Albert Pujols in the lineup anything is possible, but I think PROTRADE has this one wrong (I refer you to that Pythagorean record). The same is true of the Astros, but a strong second half in each of the last few years probably inflates their price a tad.

The P/E ratios confirm the story, with both Houston and St Louis higher than the rest of the division—the implication being that the market expects those teams to outperform for the rest of the season.

Final thoughts

There are two things that we can conclude with certainty. First, this division is probably the weakest in baseball and by some way. Second, that either the Brewers or Cubs will win the division and that should make for an interesting postseason story. Milwaukee has reached October only twice in franchise history, and the Cubs … well, the Cubs could have an opportunity to expunge perhaps the last curse in the game after the White Sox’ and Red Sox’ heroics in recent years.

Quality? Not so much. Entertainment? Absolutely.

References & Resources
Tradesports, PROTRADE, Baseball-Reference—the usual suspects.

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