Surprise central

The NL Central has—for the most part—gone as expected. It has also been the scene of one of the biggest (and most enjoyable) surprises of the baseball season.

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It was supposed to be a three-team race. The Reds, Brewers and Cardinals all stood apart from the rest of the division, but not each other. There was a clear favorite for the fourth spot, but they weren’t expected to be in contention.

That team, of course, was the Cubs. The prevailing thought this spring was reflected well in the pre-season picks by THT staffers. Milwaukee and Cincinnati were co-favorites, with St. Louis tucked into third (but not far behind). The consensus pegged the Pirates behind the Cubs in fifth place with the Astros in the anchor slot.

But that’s not quite what happened.

There’s a three-team race with a fourth club in the hunt. But No. 4 is the Reds (who are currently below .500) and the virtual tie up top includes the Pirates. The Cubs are nowhere to be seen, except over the horizon from where the Astros stand.

This was not expected. Pittsburgh had a sub-par offense and cellar-dwelling pitching and defense in 2010. The hitting has improved, but the pitching and defense have turned things around.

The Pirates are such a surprise, the rest-of-season projections from THT Forecasts anticipate the Pirates tanking.This seems unlikely, as that would require the Astros out-playing them. While that seems nearly impossible, those projections do hint at the possibility that the 2011 Pirates won’t look quite so good when all is said and done.

NL Central standings
Actual records, expected/Pythagorean record, division record, THT “rest-of-way” projection, RoW record that is required to meet that projection.

Tm     W  L pythWL vCent    THT   RoW
STL   50 44  50-44 19-15  86-76 36-32
MIL   50 45  46-49 20-17  85-77 35-32
PIT   48 44  47-45 21-13  74-88 26-44
CIN   46 48  50-44 27-20  85-77 39-29
CHC   38 57  38-57 12-24  71-91 33-34
HOU   31 63  36-58 15-25 60-102 29-39

Is Pittsburgh playing over its head? Or is this a team that will stay in the thick of it?

In our last look at the NL Central, the Pirates were already the surprise of the division. They’ve come up in the standings since early June, so the final segment of the season gives a great baseball city a chance to get behind its team.

Pitching and defense will remain the key for Pittsburgh. Their team wOBA is the lowest in the division (.303), while the Cardinals, Reds and Brewers occupy the top spots in the entire National League (.332, .324 and .324, respectively). Disadvantage, Pittsburgh.

On defense, the Reds have the edge across the league in both Fielding Runs (24.9) and defensive efficiency (.722). The Pirates are second-best among Central teams and in the top five in the league (9.6, .716). The Cardinals and Brewers are harder to peg down (FR and DER don’t agree on either), but they’re a step below the Pirates—at least.

Hey, why are the Reds below .500? Pitching.

The Reds and Astros have the lowest-ranked pitching staffs by both Fangraphs WAR and Baseball Prospectus VORP. The Reds have used 10 different starting pitchers so far, and Aroldis Chapman has not been the dominating force many expected. Not even in Triple-A. Bronson Arroyo and Edinson Volquez have posted numbers that are barely acceptable for a fifth or sixth starter.

The Cardinals and Pirates have fared better than the Reds, but not by much. Both are in the lower rungs of National League pitching staffs. The Brewers have been the class of the Central with four solid starters (plus Randy Wolf). Shaun Marcum‘s health could derail things, but the addition of Francisco Rodriguez gives John Axford some help. K-Rod’s vesting option has been waived, so the closer controversy could be a second fly in the ointment beer.

The Pirates have one of the better ERAs in the league, but both FIP and xFIP slide them to the bottom. So the key for the Pirates is better described as adequate pitching bolstered by a strong defense. They’ve had a busy disabled list (and used somewhere around 194 different catchers), so more runs may take the pressure off the defense if and when Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez return and produce. Until then, it’s Andrew McCutchen and a supporting cast.

The Forecast-based second half still seems pessimistic, but there are a few red flags in play for Pittsburgh. The Reds can hope for some improvement via regression for at least two of their frontline pitchers, so there will be pressure on the upstarts from behind. It should be an entertaining summer, and we should all expect the unexpected enjoy of a four-team race.

PITCH-f/x batting

It’s time to turn the tables and look at things from the batting side. Here’s how the NL Central offenses measure up.

Swing rate
Astros (.468), Cubs (.466), Brewers (.455), Reds (.452), Cardinals (.450), Pirates (.449)

Called ball-to-called strike ratio
Cardinals (2.3), Reds (2.1), 4-way tie (2.0)

Whiff rate
Cubs (.221), Reds (.220), Astros (.218), Brewers (.216), Pirates (.216), Cardinals (.194)

The Cardinals are patient and discerning. The Pirates are also patient, but take more strikes. The Cubs and the Astros have a bad combination of free swingers who catch a lot of air. The Reds are all right, but they have the lowest groundball rate (44 percent) by 2 percentage points and the highest pop-up rate (7.5 percent) by about 1 point. I’m sure they’d trade the infield flies for worm burners, all else being equal.

Favorite pitch
Cubs: cutters (.543 swing rate)

Change-ups are thrown in counts that see higher swing rates, but the Cubs and Astros (sliders) swing more at something other than a change. Useless fact of the day candidate?

Most spit-upon pitch
Cardinals: curves (.364 swing rate)

Every team lays off the curve, but the patient Redbirds take it to the extreme.

Whiff and crush. Or not.
{exp:list_maker}The Cubs miss a lot of curves (.335 whiff rate, second in the division) but hit them the hardest (.577 SLGCON leads by a long shot).
The Reds handle changes the same way, with a division-high mark in whiffs (.311) and SLGCON (.545).
The Brewers own the cutter, with a division low .193 whiff and division high .553 SLGCON.
The Cardinals own the slider, with a division low .308 whiff and division high .589 SLGCON.
The Astros are getting beat by fastballs, whiffing the most (.179) and SLGCON-ing the least (.501).
The Pirates don’t miss too many curves (league best .243 whiff) but do nothing with them (.351 SLGCON, worst of any NL Central team against any pitch). {/exp:list_maker}

References & Resources
Standings provided by Baseball-Reference.com.
wOBA and Fielding Runs from Fangraphs.
DER from Baseball Prospectus.
THT Forecasts are through July 11.
PITCHf/x data from MLBAM and Sportvision. Pitch classifications by the author.

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