As of mid-May, the Cardinals have a big early lead in the National League Central division, while the Reds, Cubs and Astros occupy the bottom three rungs. Which leaves two surprise teams in second and third place: the Milwaukee Brewers and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Surprises, because neither team got off to a robust start — as this graph of the divisional race shows:
About three weeks ago, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh were last in the division. But over the past twenty games, both teams have a 12-8 record — tied with the Cardinals for best in the division. How have they done it? Well, I thought it would be fun to watch last Friday’s duel between them to figure it out.
If you look closely at the graph you can probably see that the Brewers won Friday’s game — 4-3, thanks to a run in the ninth inning. It was an intriguing game, with many of each team’s strengths and weaknesses on display. As always, I’ll be using Win Probability to bring some in-game perspective.
Kip Wells started for the Pirates. If you want to understand how the Pirates have been winning lately, look no further than this graph of running ten-game averages in wins, runs scored and runs allowed:
The offense, which was just terrible in the early going, has been above average the last twenty games, but it’s really the pitching that has excelled for the Bucs. In fact, Pittsburgh is right around the middle of the pack in runs scored over the last twenty games, but second in the league in team ERA (3.53).
Mark Redman (2.50 ERA in the last twenty games) and Wells (2.77 ERA in the last twenty games) have been the recent standouts in the rotation, and Wells looked fine in the early going of this game. Wells had an uneven year last year, spending time on the disabled list, but he seems to have recovered well from carpal tunnel surgery and he’s finding his rhythm this year.
Another player who recently came off the DL to give the Pirates a lift was second baseman Juan Castillo, who is batting .357 since being activated May 8th. He also proved his worth in the field by starting a double play with the bases loaded and only one out in the top of the second — a pretty big impact play for so early in the game, with a WPA of .149. Overall, Castillo scored a WPA of .044 in this game.
On offense, Jason Bay and Daryle Ward have both been hot (with six home runs each in the last twenty games). Bay has a .312/.356/.663 line in his last twenty games, prompting Milwaukee to use a shift against him, moving the second baseman to the left of second base when there is no runner on first. In the bottom of the third, Bay emphatically beat any kind of shift by hitting it over the centerfield fence with Lawton on first. Bay’s home run added a WPA of .218, and the score at the end of three innings was Pirates 2, Brewers 0. The Pirates’ Win Probability was .727.
Chris Capuano, one of the Brewers’ many dividends from last year’s Richie Sexson trade, was on the mound for the Brewers and pitching fairly well, despite the Bay home run. Capuano had Tommy John surgery three years ago, and reportedly hasn’t reached the same velocity he had before the surgery. However, he’s still an effective pitcher with good control and fastballs typically between 88 and 90 miles an hour.
The real story behind the Brewers’ recent winning ways, however, has been the offense. Here’s a graph of their ten-game rolling averages in wins, runs scored and runs allowed:
The Brewers’ bats have been hot, while the pitching has been only slightly better than average. The stars at the plate have been Lyle Overbay (.417/.531/.833 in the last twenty games), Brady Clark, Carlos Lee and Billy Hall, who was playing shortstop Friday in place of rookie J.J. Hardy. In fact, both of these teams have two struggling shortstops (the Pirates’ Jack Wilson and the Brewers’ Hardy) and neither one played on Friday. Freddy Sanchez subbed for Wilson.
In the top of the fourth, Overbay doubled in a run, giving him nine doubles after hitting 53 last year. Later in the inning, Capuano hit a sacrifice fly with one out, two strikes and the bases loaded. It was a fine contribution for a pitcher, knotting the score at two, but it reduced the Brewers’ WPA from .499 to .492. It really is time to re-think the value of the sacrifice fly; it doesn’t really have the value that the related RBI indicates. At the very least, it seems to me that sacrifice flies should be included in at bats.
In the bottom of the fourth, Capuano threw a 95 mph heater by Wigginton, the only time he cracked 90 on the radar gun (according to TV). I assume this was a bad read by the radar gun, but it was a tantalizing moment for Brewers’ fans. Nevertheless, the Pirates got a run back in the bottom of the fourth thanks to a Castillo double and Humberto Cota single. At this stage, with a 3-2 lead, the Pirates had a Win Probability of .637.
The Brewers knotted the score at three each in the top of the sixth when Overbay walked, Branyan was walked intentionally one out later, and Chad Moeller lined a single to left. Unfortunately for the Brew Crew, Branyan overran second base and was caught in a rundown when the throw home was cut off.
This was a big play. With one out and runners on first and second, the Brewers’ WPA would have been .552. Instead, with Branyan caught for the second out of the inning, their WPA was .476. Baserunning mistakes can have a huge negative impact on a team’s chances of winning.
At the end of the sixth, the score was tied at three and each team’s WP was 50%. Overbay was leading the game in WPA with .195, with Bay next at .180 and Castillo at .104. Yes, Overbay was “over” Bay in WPA. You were already thinking it, right?
Rick White replaced Wells in the top of the seventh. One of the key reasons for the Pirates’ resurgence has been their bullpen. In fact, according to Baseball Prospectus, the Pirates’ bullpen is fourth in the major leagues in bullpen Win Expectancy (which is their version of Win Probability).
White pitched a perfect seventh, and Capuano escaped the bottom of the seventh without allowing a run. In the eighth, White was replaced by Salomon Torres who got two outs (including Overbay) but walked Hall and was subsequently relieved by Mike Gonzalez. Hall stole both second and third with Gonzalez pitching and Branyan walked again, but Chad Moeller struck out to end the inning.
The Pirates avoided Branyan all night long. In four plate appearances, he walked four times (twice intentionally) for a total WPA of .138. The Pirates strategy was understandable, as Moeller (the backup catcher to Damian Miller) was hitting .128 and Branyan has been creaming the ball (Line Drive rate of 27% and HR/Fly ratio of 29%). The strategy paid off twice, with that Castillo double play and a strikeout, but it didn’t in two other at bats, when Moeller singled and was hit by a pitch. Overall, the strategy cost the Pirates .097 Win Probability points, when you include both the Branyan walks and the subsequent Moeller appearances.
Capuano continued to pitch in the bottom of the eighth and escaped relatively unscathed. Overall, he threw 105 pitches, giving up three earned runs, striking out six and walking three for an overall WPA of .067, compared to Wells’ WPA of -.044.
In the top of the ninth, the Pirate bullpen moved onto its fourth reliever, Jose Mesa, appearing for the first time this season in a non-save situation. All you need to know about the value of “save situations” is that Mesa is actually fourth on the Pirates in Baseball Prospectus’s Leveraged Index (see above link), behind White, Torres and Gonzalez. In other words, “save situations” aren’t nearly as important as you are led to believe.
I was glad to see that Lloyd McClendon didn’t follow the “book” in this case, which usually means saving his closer for save situations. A tie game in the ninth is one of the most critical junctures of a game, and it was a good time for the closer. You can read more about this issue, and a related stat I use called “P,” in this article.
For the record, here were the average P scores of each Pirate reliever in this game:
- Mesa: .140
- Gonzalez: .086
- Torres: .066
- White: .055
Mesa walked the leadoff man, Cirillo, and Brady Clark sacrificed Cirillo to second (the bunt decreased the Brewers’ Win Probability from .580 to .558 — insert your own rant about sacrifice bunts here). Mesa struck out Spivey for the second out but Geoff Jenkins delivered a double to drive in Cirillo and give the Brewers a 4-3 lead. This was the biggest WPA play of the game by far: .358.
In the bottom of the ninth, the Brewers brought in the seventh most valuable reliever in major league baseball (according to Baseball Prospectus), Derrick Turnbow. Yes, that Derrick Turnbow, the waiver pickup from the Angels last November, who has replaced Dan Kolb as the Brewers’ closer and who regularly hits 98 mph on the radar gun. Turnbow had a little bit of trouble, allowing a double to catcher Humberto Cota (who had a fine game and led the Pirates in WPA), but retired the last two batters to record the win for the Brewers. For this one day, the Brewers claimed the title for the second-best team in the NL Central.
Here’s a list of each player’s WPA for the game:
Team Player Off Pitch Field WPA Brewers Jenkins 0.279 0.000 0.010 0.289 Turnbow 0.000 0.193 0.000 0.193 Overbay 0.159 0.000 0.000 0.159 Cirillo 0.080 0.000 0.000 0.080 Capuano -0.085 0.153 0.000 0.067 Branyan 0.058 0.000 0.003 0.061 Hall 0.019 0.000 -0.006 0.012 Hardy 0.000 0.000 0.007 0.007 Castillo 0.000 0.000 0.004 0.004 Moeller -0.031 0.000 0.000 -0.031 Lee -0.048 0.000 0.001 -0.047 Clark -0.109 0.000 0.008 -0.101 Spivey -0.204 0.000 0.013 -0.192 Brewers Total 0.117 0.345 0.038 0.500 Team Player Off Pitch Field WPA Pirates Cota 0.201 0.000 -0.033 0.168 Bay 0.145 0.000 -0.008 0.137 White 0.000 0.081 0.000 0.081 Gonzalez 0.000 0.070 0.000 0.070 Ward 0.053 0.000 -0.004 0.050 Castillo 0.027 0.000 0.017 0.044 Redman 0.040 0.000 0.000 0.040 Torres 0.000 0.037 0.000 0.037 Wells -0.003 -0.042 0.000 -0.044 Wigginton -0.155 0.000 0.104 -0.051 Restovich -0.057 0.000 0.004 -0.053 None 0.000 0.000 -0.059 -0.059 Mackowiak -0.090 0.000 0.000 -0.090 Sanchez -0.111 0.000 0.012 -0.099 Hill -0.139 0.000 0.000 -0.139 Mesa 0.000 -0.295 0.000 -0.295 Lawton -0.295 0.000 -0.002 -0.297 Pirates Total -0.383 -0.149 0.032 -0.500
And here’s a graph of the game’s ups and downs:
References & Resources
Running twenty-game results are available at Doug’s Stats.