What’s up with the NL Central?

The neat thing about April is that you can find all sorts of goofy looking baseball statistics or situations. For instance, take a look at the NL Central winning percentages. If you prorated those winning percentages over 162 games, here’s what the win totals would look like for the six teams:

Houston: 116
Cincinnati: 110
St. Louis 108
Chicago: 97
Milwaukee: 88
Pittsburgh: 35

As cool as that would be (except for the good people of Pittsburgh, obviously), it’s more likely that none of those four teams will top 95 wins than that even two of them will, let alone four. But even though it’s obvious that at least three of the top five teams are going to cool down quite a bit, it’s still worth taking a look at the division.

Predicting division winners before the season is a tricky business because so many things can happen. Players can get hurt, have career years, have down years, get traded, etc. But when I looked at all six divisions in baseball this spring, the only thing I was sure of was that the Cardinals would not be challenged in the NL Central.

The Cardinals are doing their part so far, playing even better than I would have expected. But the Astros and Reds are playing even better, which you know is a shock to me if you read our THT Staff Predictions (if you don’t feel like clicking on the link, I picked the Astros to finish fourth and the Reds last). So even though the season is only about 13% complete, I’m going to take a look at Houston and Cincinnati and see how they’ve gotten off to such hot starts and whether they’re likely to continue playing well (although we already know it won’t be this well).

Houston Astros

The Astros so far have had a combination of good hitting and good pitching, scoring 5.5 runs per game while allowing 4.5. The pitching isn’t that big a surprise as even without Roger Clemens, Houston still has Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte. But only half of that duo is contributing to the good pitching.

Oswalt is 4-0 with a 2.48 ERA in 36.1 innings, but Pettitte is 1-3 with a 4.35 ERA in 31 innings. The second ace for the Astros so far has been Wandy Rodriguez, who is also 4-0 and has a 2.53 ERA in 32 innings. The Astros have also gotten great pitching from Taylor Buchholz, who has made two starts and two relief appearances and has a 1.80 ERA in 20 innings.

The worst pitchers for the Astros so far have surprisingly been Brad Lidge and Chad Qualls. The closer and setup man combined for a 2.81 ERA in 150.1 innings last year, but they have an ugly 6.85 ERA in 23.2 innings so far this season.

There will probably be some shifts in who does what, but ultimately the pitching is about what you’d expect from the Astros this season. They allowed 609 runs a year ago with Clemens posting a 1.87 ERA in 211.1 innings and they’re on pace to allow 729 runs this year without him. Rodriguez and Buchholz will probably pitch worse, Pettitte, Lidge and Qualls will probably pitch better and the Astros will allow somewhere in the neighborhood of 700 runs.

The real surprise has been the offense, which is on pace to score about 200 more runs than it did last season, despite the fact that the only offseason change was the addition of Preston Wilson, and he’s not even hitting (.631 OPS).

The bulk of the production has been supplied by the players you would expect: Lance Berkman (1.133 OPS) and Morgan Ensberg (1.276 OPS). Last year, those two were the only really good hitters for the Astros, as Berkman had a .935 OPS and Ensberg was even better with a .945 OPS.

Jason Lane is another hitter whose success is not a surprise. He has an .816 OPS this year after posting an .815 OPS last year (although his current production is better because it’s much more OBP-heavy).

The first surprisingly good hitter has been Craig Biggio, who hit .264/.325/.468 a year ago. This season, he’s hitting .321/.363/.536, which would be hit best production since 1998 if he could keep it up.

But even Biggio can’t hold a candle to Brad Ausmus, who is hitting .353/.485/.412. To give you an idea how big a fluke this start is, Ausmus has a batting average that’s two points higher than the OBP he posted last year. His current OPS of .897 is 215 points higher than last year’s .682, and last year’s OPS was his highest since 2000.

Clearly, the Astros are not going to keep hitting this well. Berkman and Ensberg are good hitters, but they’re not this good. Biggio hasn’t been this good in a while and probably won’t be the rest of this year either. And Ausmus isn’t even an average hitter, never mind the very good hitter he’s been so far this year.

If the Astros top 750 runs, it will be a mild surprise. They’re not going to come anywhere near the 887 they’re currently on pace for. It looks like this team will be better than I thought because they only need to go 70-71 the rest of the way to reach 85 wins, but I still don’t think they can win more than 95 games, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up in the 85-90 range.

Another thing to keep in mind when looking at Houston’s hot start is that 10 of the 21 games have come against the three teams that are likely to be the three worst teams in the National League this season (Pittsburgh, Florida and Washington). The Astros have gone 8-2 against those three teams and 7-4 against everybody else.

Cincinnati Reds

Just like the Astros, the Reds have played 10 of their games so far this season against the Marlins, Nationals and Pirates, going 8-2 against those three terrible teams and 7-5 against everybody else. Unlike the Astros, the Reds have been winning with great hitting and bad pitching.

Amazingly, the Reds pitching has performed almost exactly the same as last year’s pitching staff. Cincinnati allowed 889 runs a year ago and is on pace to allow 891 runs this year. The difference is that last year the Reds only scored 820 runs. They’re currently on pace to score 1,004 runs.

They’re not going to top 1,000 runs, but how close can they come? Well, they’re actually probably not playing all that far above their heads. Right now, there are seven players with at least 50 at-bats who have an OPS above .800 (Adam Dunn, Edwin Encarnacion, Brandon Phillips, Scott Hatteberg, Austin Kearns, Rich Aurilia and Felipe Lopez).

Lopez is actually hitting below the level he was at last year, and Dunn isn’t far above where he’s been the past two seasons and could be moving to a new level at age 26. So neither of them should be considered to be on fluky hot streaks.v Aurilia’s .820 OPS might be higher than you’d expect, but he posted a .782 OPS last season, so it’s not that high.

Of the other five, Hatteberg (.888 OPS after a .677 OPS last year) and Phillips (.903 OPS after posting a .556 career OPS in parts of four seasons) are definitely above their heads. The only question is how far both will fall. Hatteberg will probably fall at least down to a .750 OPS. Phillips was actually a top prospect at some point and he’s still only 25, so maybe he could be capable of a .775-.800 OPS.

But the real key to how good the Reds will be lies with Kearns and Encarnacion. Kearns burst onto the scene in 2002 with a .907 OPS in 372 at-bats. He then spent the next three seasons struggling with injuries and inconsistency. But he’s not even 26 years old yet and he’s clearly got talent, so the fact that he’s got an .880 OPS right now isn’t a huge surprise. It would, however, be a huge boost as he was only at .785 last year.

Encarnacion is only 23 years old, and he got his first taste of the majors last year, posting a .744 OPS in 211 at-bats. The rest of 2005, Encarnacion was destroying Triple-A pitching to the tune of a .936 OPS. So while his current .942 OPS might be a bit over his head, it’s generally accepted that Encarnacion is a real hitter, and it was only a matter of time before he hit in the majors.

Add in the fact that last year’s best hitter (Ken Griffey Jr.) has only seen 31 at-bats but is ready to come off the DL, and these Reds could have a shot at scoring 900-plus runs this season.

Of course, they could do that and still finish below .500 if they allow around 900 runs as well. Despite that possibility, an offense that could have as many as seven quality hitters (Dunn, Griffey, Kearns, Encarnacion, Lopez, Phillips and Jason LaRue) gives the Reds a definite shot at being significantly better than I gave them credit for at the beginning of the season.

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