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

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

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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Jason teaches high school English, writes fiction, runs a small writing program and writes about education and literature. He also writes for Redleg Nation and both writes and edits for The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @JasonLinden, visit his website or email him here.
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bucdaddy
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bucdaddy
“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… Read more »
bucdaddy
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bucdaddy

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.

Jason Linden
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Jason Linden

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.

John
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John

How can the Pirates be considered lucky, when the Cards batting average with RISP is what it is?

Jason Linden
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Jason Linden

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.

Todd
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Todd

I assume you meant the AL East, not the NL East. The NL East is FAR from the best division.

Jason Linden
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Jason Linden

Yes, AL East. Sorry about that. Fixed now.

bucdaddy
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bucdaddy
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… Read more »
Jason Linden
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Jason Linden
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… Read more »
bucdaddy
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bucdaddy
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… Read more »
bucdaddy
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bucdaddy
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… Read more »
I-71_Exile
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I-71_Exile

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.

bucdaddy
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bucdaddy
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… Read more »
bucdaddy
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bucdaddy

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.

anonymous
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anonymous
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… Read more »
Greg Simons
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Greg Simons

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.

Aaron Lehr
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Aaron Lehr
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… Read more »
Greg Simons
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Greg Simons

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.

bucdaddy
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bucdaddy
“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.… Read more »
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