State of the NL Central: Pirates ascendant

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Welcome to the NL Central, the best division in baseball. Yeah, you heard me, the best division in baseball. Maybe you can make a case for the AL East, but run differential likes the Central. This has been a fascinating division to watch this year. It’s been such an interesting race I almost don’t care that my beloved Reds are in third. Almost.

I’ll get to the team capsules in a moment, but I want to point out how much of a role luck has played in the division so far. By Pythagorean record, the Cards should be sitting pretty at 72-38 with the Reds (64-48) and Pirates (63-48) duking it out for second. Instead, the Pirates reign supreme at 67-44, trailed closely by the Cardinals (65-45), while the Reds are pulling up a distant third at 61-51.

As if that weren’t enough, Baseball Prospectus has the Reds’ expected win percentage at .551, the Cards’ at .545, and the Pirates’ at .525. That, as they say, is why we play the games. Or something.

Pirates

Everyone who had the Pirates as the only NL team with a .600 win percentage at the beginning of August, please raise your hands. Stop lying. Yes, even you, dude from Pittsburgh.

Listen, lots of us thought the Pirates would be legit this year. We even thought they’d contend for a Wild Card, but nobody anticipated like this. The Pirates currently sport the best record in baseball. And no one who was being honest about things expected that.

But let’s be honest, they probably aren’t this good. They’ve been at least a few games lucky, and I’d probably take the Cards in the division if you forced me to make a pick. But what a nice situation for Pirates fans. The worst-case scenario likely is your team grabbing a Wild Card spot.

So how do things look going forward? The Pirates have a pretty reasonable schedule remaining, but they do have nine games against St. Louis and six against Cincinnati, so they will have to win within the division. They close the season against the Reds, and it’s at least theoretically possible that could be a very important series with the two teams battling for the division or a Wild Card spot.

Otherwise, the Pirates have to hope the pitching holds up. That has been the big question mark all season (they can hit, let’s not doubt that), and while their pitchers have come through, it’s hard to fully believe in this staff.

Of course, this may simply be the year everyone gets it done. That happens every now and again. The right players peak at the right time, and the right guys stay healthy. It certainly feels like the Pirates’ year, though the next three months (yes, I’m including the playoffs) will tell us if it really is.

Cardinals

I thought the Cardinals would be good this year. I did. I didn’t think they’d be this kind of juggernaut. I had them second to the Reds in my preseason picks, and that wasn’t homerism. But when you have five everyday players with wRC+ over 120, it’s almost impossible not to be good. Never mind their seeming ability to pull Cy Young candidates from the minor leagues at will.

I said above that I think the Cardinals will pass the Pirates before the season is over, and I do. That major league best run-differential of +150 is just too absurd for them to finish second. As I type this, they are only a game and a half out, and I don’t think that will last.

If anything does derail them, however, it will be their schedule. Nine against the Pirates, seven against the Reds, and a four-game series each against the Braves and Dodgers mean that 24 of their remaining 52 games are against teams that simply cannot be taken for granted at all.

Still, at this point, the Cardinals look like world beaters to me. They just survived a seven-game losing streak and are still within a game and a half of the best record in baseball. The only thing that can stop them would be if Yadier Molina‘s knee injury is worse than it appears to be, and even that might not be enough.

Reds

Let me tell you something, Reds fans were excited for this season. They won their second division crown in three years last year, and this team looked improved with the addition of Shin-Soo Choo. It hasn’t worked out that way. Staff ace Johnny Cueto has been out for most of the year, and numerous other players have not performed to expectations. Ryan Ludwick‘s season-derailing injury on the first day certainly didn’t help, either.

The Reds are in position to claim the second Wild Card, but Arizona and Washington do at least still need to be paid attention to. At six-and-a-half back of Pittsburgh and five back of St. Louis, a division championship is probably out of the question. If it is going to happen, a lot will have to break right.

If we’re looking for reasons it might do so, we can point to Ludwick’s impending return (though who knows how much power he’ll have) and a schedule that is easier than those of their two rivals. There is at least some hope that Cueto will return eventually. It could happen, if things fall right, but they probably won’t.

Cubs

Soon, we aren’t going to be taking the Cubs for granted. As with every team in the division except the Pirates, Pythagoras has been unkind to them. Based on their run-differential, they should be 52-59. That’s not great, and it’s not even good, but it’s not laughable.

The three teams above them are good enough that it probably isn’t wait until next year, but it might be wait until the year after that. This is a developing club, and they’ve progressed much faster than I thought they would. It would not surprise me if they finished around .500 next year.

Brewers

Well, we all know the story, so why bother? The Brewers are much worse than anyone expected largely because they tried to do crazy things like have Yuniesky Betancourt as their primary first baseman. And, you know, the Ryan Braun stuff. Also, they can’t pitch at all.

Will it get better? It almost has to. It will be interesting to see how the Brewers regroup this offseason. They looked like fringe contenders coming into the season, and now that season is in tatters. Who knows how they’ll look next year?

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Comments

  1. bucdaddy said...

    “A few games lucky”? Have you SEEN this offense? They win on good starting pitching, a lights-out bullpen from numerous pitchers and strong defense. It’s a team built to avoid long losing streaks and defy projection systems. “Lucky”? And out of the starting pitchers, Liriano didn’t get a start until May, Morton was out most of the season, Karstens hasn’t pitched all year … this is a team that had Jeanmar Gomez in the rotation (and pitching well, thank you, Ray Serage), that gets little offense out of RF, 1B and SS (until recently).

    This team is “lucky”? Only in the SABRworld.

    No such thing as luck.

  2. bucdaddy said...

    And McDonald. Hell, McDonald has been such a nonfactor all season (except for getting blasted in most of six starts) that I forgot about him completely. And Wandy Rodriguez has been lost for the season for awhile now.

    So the Pirates have been forced to go 9-10 deep in their starting staff (only Burnette and Locke have put up 20+ starts), and this team is “lucky.”

    Only as a mathematical concept, I’d say.

  3. Jason Linden said...

    Yes, mathematically, they’ve been lucky. That was the point of the sentence.

    However, the pitchers who have been around consistently have also performed better than we would reasonably have predicted. Liriano’s ERA is 2 runs below his career average. Burnett’s is more than a run below and I don’t think anyone saw this coming from Locke.

    Those players are unlikely to repeat their performances in future years. So, in that sense, the Pirates are quite lucky to have such good results from them all at the same time.

  4. Jason Linden said...

    John – If I win $1000 and you win $10,000 would you say I was unlucky? I’m just taking a look at what various alternate metrics say the standings should look like. The Cards have been lucky in how they’ve hit with RISP. The Pirates have also been lucky.

    The Reds and the Cubs? Not so much.

  5. bucdaddy said...

    John has a point. Compared to the Pirates, who have been terrible all year with RISP.

    Jason, I don’t want to be too harsh, but it seems to me you cherry-picked one stat to make your point, because a look at the big picture would seem to indicate that the Pirates have succeeded DESPITE some large handicaps. And saying that several pitchers have pitched better than was expected doesn’t seem to leave any room for the possibility that they’re pitching better because they ARE better. That (as long as youre believing in luck) somebody waved a magic wand and suddenly Locke and Cole and Gomez and Cumpston became above-average MLB pitchers, instead of doing it with (perhaps) Searage’s help, or Burnette’s help, or Liriano’s help.

    The problem with projections is, they can’t possibly take genuine improvement into account. They expect that a guy can’t learn anything at the MLB level, can’t take a big jump forward. They can only look at what he HAS done and expect more of the same going forward.

    This is like the AP poll in college football or something, where a team that ranked No. 1 at the beginning of the season falls out of the rankings by the end. The explanation is always, well, that team FAILED. It didn’t meet expectations. The explanation is NEVER that maybe the projection ITSELF and the system that produced it were wrong. Because that would mean the projectors would have to re-evalutate their universe. So if Jeff Locke turns into a really good MLB player, it can’t be because he suddenly became really good, for a plausible reason (new pitch, good coaching, strong defense playing to his strengths), no, it has to be: He’s getting lucky.

    Projections may be right a lot, but sometimes, I think, it’s also fair to call BS on them.

  6. Jason Linden said...

    Daddy -

    I understand what you’re saying. But, in fairness, I cherry-picked two stats (that was a joke).

    I’ve come to prefer BBPro’s expected win% to pythag record because it neutralizes luck better. If you look at that, the Pirates “should” be third in the Central.

    You can call BS on that if you want, but the way that is calculated (as I understand it) is by taking observed performance and then calculating what a the teams record would most likely be given the performance of it’s players.

    I think the Pirates are a good team. I do not think they are better than the Cards. I think they are probably on the same level as the Reds. I think they have been fairly lucky this year. Those are my opinions, but they are informed opinions. I can also appreciate disagreement.

    But let me ask you a question: Would it really surprise you if the pitching just exploded? I mean, Burnett, for instance, has had a heckuva renaissance with the Bucs, but he’s 36 and that’s not lasting forever.

    Other than the Reds, I probably root hardest for the Pirates because I remember when they were good, and I know that Pittsburgh is a great town and deserves a good team after all that suffering.

    But they aren’t my team. I fully admit that I sometimes see the Reds through rose-colored glasses. I think most fans do that with their teams. I don’t see the Pirates that way, and I think my assessment of them is fair. They are good, but not great. The record is probably a bit better than it should be. They’ll make the playoffs, and then all bets are off. Anything can happen in October.

  7. bucdaddy said...

    BTW, I don’t want to seem like I’m some sort of SABR Luddite. I understand regression to the mean and why people might use that to predict a slide for a guy like Locke. But that’s too easy, isn’t it? There are ways to look at Jeff Locke and truly evaluate whether he’s pitching so well because he’s a different, better pitcher. Did he add a pitch to his repertoire, or has he started using one he already has a lot more, or less? Is he pitching higher or lower in the zone, more inside or outside? If he had a skill set like Liriano’s and he had a chance to watch Liriano pitch and learn from it, isn’t it possible he could pitch as well as Liriano? Could somebody do a side-by-side comparison of their pitches and their approach? Plenty of data available to look at and evaluate, or you can actually eyeball him and see.

    OK, I know this was meant to be just a quick and easy overview of the division, that you really didn’t mean to get deeply involved in explaining why the teams are where hey are. That post would have run to thousands of words. But I think the quick-and-easy has created a possibly false impression about why the Pirates are winning at their percentage. They may have scored X runs and given up Y runs, and they may yet cool off (as we fans of the team are painfully aware from the last two seasons), but looking at the data and the team as a whole, one might easily also reach the conclusion that they’ve been quite unlucky (if you believe in that sort of thing) and are winning anyway, and that they have good reasons for doing so.

  8. bucdaddy said...

    Jason,

    Sorry, that last comment went up before I saw YOUR last comment. To address your question: One of the points I’ve been trying to make is, their pitching staff ALREADY exploded. Liriano couldn’t pitch out of camp. Karstens can’t pitch at all. Wandy’s done for the year. McDonald melted down. Morton was hurt. And yet …

    Why isn’t it possible Searage could be the next Dave Duncan, or Ray Miller, or Leo Mazzone? Someone who is just especially skilled at getting the most out of his staff, a pitching coach who seems to work miracles (which we should know aren’t really miracles at all)? Were the Braves and Cardinals especially lucky with their pitchers all those years, or did they just really know what they were doing?

    Sure, someday Burnette isn’t going to be effective. Someday he’ll be 60 years old, and there’s a good chance he won’t be an MLB pitcher then wink But it’s not like he’s never been good before and suddenly in his mid 30s he’s getting lucky. He knows how to pitch, and age will catch up to him some day, but if he slides it will far more likely be for that reason (or injury), rather than that he forgets how to pitch like an ace.

    Now I have a question for you: Doesn’t Pythag rely heavily on run differential? And if it does, does it take into account the value of a run for the individual team? Try to explain what I mean: If the Pirates are designed to be a pitching and defense team, while the Reds are largely supposed to be an offensive machine, then isn’t each +1 run more important to the Pirates’ success and contribute a greater winning share to it than it does to the Reds’? Seems obvious that if the Pirates win a lot of 2-1 and 4-2 games, while the Reds win a lot of 7-2 games, then the Reds can have a +100 and the Pirates a +60, but the Pirates make more efficient use of their differential than the Reds and thus have a better win%.

    Or do I misunderstand what goes into the Pythag makeup?

  9. I-71_Exile said...

    bucdaddy,

    Maybe you are just speaking hypothetically, but the idea that the 2013 Reds are built around offense made me spew coffee all over my computer keyboard. They are built around pitching and defense just like the Pirates.

  10. bucdaddy said...

    I-71,

    Not all that hypothetically. I am painfully aware that the Reds have top notch pitchers who give us fits—Cueto, Latos etc.—but my point is, the Pirates are more pitching dependent than the Reds.

    Runs scored: Reds 483 (4th in NL), Pirates 432 (11th)

    Runs allowed: Reds 418 (4th in NL), Pirates 376 (1st)

    The Pirates are a little more balanced offensively, but the Reds’ top three hitters by OPS+ (Votto 157, Choo 138, Bruce 120) are easily better than the Pirates’ top three (McCutchen 148, Alvarez 121, Marte 119).

    Run differential: Reds +65, Pirates +56.

    That indicates the teams should have roughly the same record, slight edge to the Reds, but it sort of makes my point for me: Each +1 run seems more valuable to the Pirates, in their reduced-run offensive context, than it is to the Reds. If you were looking at runs scored/allowed in most other contexts (ballpark, league, year), you would take into account the offensive context in which runs were produced. When the league is scoring 3.5 runs a game, each run is more valuable than when the league is averaging 5.0 runs a game.

    That’s what I’m getting at. The Pirates have such a good pitching staff and such an anemic offense right now that they create a different, unusual offensive context for themselves compared to the Reds, who are much less exaggerated in both directions.

  11. bucdaddy said...

    Greg,

    So it takes into account that both teams have scored 808 runs in Pirates games vs. 901 in Reds’ games, so the run-scoring environment in Pirates games is (eyeballs) about 9 percent less than in Reds’ games? OK, thanks for the info.

  12. anonymous said...

    The difference between these teams is the Cardinals have an excellent plan and stick to it, year after decade… the Pirates recently figured out their plan and are executing it well after a long dry spell… and the Reds management are bumblers (in particular with respect to Aroldis Chapman, who they’ve turned into The Cuban Gimmick)

    The Reds have definitely been unlucky to be managed by Dusty “let’s put the guy with the .275 OBP in the 2-hole” Baker. Their park-adjusted offense isn’t that great, and it’s feast-or-famine because they swing at the first pitch too often.

    Now that Cubs have found a GM who has skills, if your Reds aren’t careful, they’ll be hanging out with the Brewers somewhere near the basement…

  13. Greg Simons said...

    bucdaddy – I’m not 100% sure if it takes each team’s run-scoring environment into account or just the league’s, and I don’t know exactly how the exponent is tweaked, so don’t quote me on that.

  14. Aaron Lehr said...

    I’m late to the party so this probably won’t really matter, but I wanted to take a step back and address the term “luck” since it often pops up in saber-slanted pieces and lots of people seem to take exception with it.

    To me, luck does not mean the Pirates don’t have good baseball skills, or that they don’t deserve their success.  It doesn’t (necessary) mean that it isn’t possible that their coaches aren’t coaching the hell out of guys and producing better than expected results.

    And while we’re on the subject, being lucky and performing better than expected are two different things.

    I’m not trying to put words in his mouth, but when Jason says luck here I’m taking it to mean that based on run differential, and even more importantly, based on BBPro’s expected win % (which neutralizes things like sequencing in the batting order), the Pirates have seen some fortune.  Another thing to consider, it’s been shown that teams can outperform their run differential when they have an elite bullpen, and the Pirates bullpen has been great.  Again though, that can go back to the question, should we have reasonably expected them to be THIS good, or as a whole has their bullpen overperformed a bit?  Bullpens are especially prone to swings in performance.  It’s possible the Pirates bullpen could be overperforming and it could have very little to do with the individual pitchers and their true talent level.

    Unfortunately, luck carries an implication that winning isn’t about what players are doing on the field, or that battling through adversity means nothing.  Really all it’s saying is that along the peripheries of baseball and its players are millions of tiny bounces and trends and streaks, and sometimes for 162 games a lot of them bounce your way.

  15. Greg Simons said...

    bucdaddy, Pythag should take scoring environment into account pretty well if the exponent is adjusted.  Using “2” is a simple default, but IIRC, something around 1.8 is more appropriate and can then be shifted up or down depending on the run-scoring environment.

  16. bucdaddy said...

    “Unfortunately, luck carries an implication that winning isn’t about what players are doing on the field”

    It certainly does. I should probably wait until I’m sober(er) before I wade into this, but this is part of my problem with “luck.” If you use it to mean, essentially, magic, well, that’s just nonsense of course. It’s like believing in angels and faeries. Besides, one man’s luck is another man’s skill and good positioning, and if you go down that rabbit hole then at some point you have to acknowledge that everything is luck and skill has nothing to do with it. But we all know that’s wrong, unless we have some other explanation for why some people hit .320 and others hit .220.

    But if we mean “luck” as pure randomness, then … at some point we have to acknowledge that everything is luck and etc. etc.

    I prefer to think that everything is physics. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That seems to describe baseball pretty well.

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