NL East First Quarter Report
Original Projection: 91 – 71, Current Pace: 85 – 77
As a life-long Phillies fan, I watched most of the games the Phillies played in April and the lack of extra-base hits generated by a line up without Chase Utley and Ron Howard was maddening. On the other hand, for mid-90s film buffs, by the time the month ended I was sure that when they make the documentary film of the Phillies 2012 season, Cameron Crowe would direct it and it would star Matt Dillon and Bridget Fonda.
What, too obscure? http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0105415/
Even though that narrative continued to be advanced by commentators and many of the anguished Phillies fans I speak to, by the end of the first quarter, its accuracy was questionable. Through the first 40 games, the Phillies were slugging .390. Last year, when the Phillies cruised to 102 wins, they slugged .395. Sure, that’s less this year but not by a huge amount and, importantly, the scoring environment in the majors has eased once again in 2012. Last year, a .395 slugging percentage ranked the Phillies 17th in the majors; in 2012 their .390 slugging percentage ties them for 14th. Sure, the Phillies would score more runs with the additional extra-base hits Utley and Howard would provide, but the real reason for the Phillies lack of scoring this year is an uncharacteristic lack of patience at the plate. Only 6.5% of Phillies batters have walked this year, second lowest in all of baseball. In their five-year stretch of winning National League East titles, the Phillies line up has never walked less than 8.6% of the time over the course of a season.
The Phillies starting pitching has been just as great as ever, not only dominating hitters but pitching deep into games. As a result, the bullpen, a potential weakness outside of automatic closer Jonathan Papelbon, throws less innings than any other bullpen in baseball.
Unlike many Phillies fans, I’m not the least bit concerned by their 21-19 start – assuming they get half-seasons out of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. If so, a .500 record before their arrival and a .600 record afterwards would result in about 88 wins and, at worst, a wild card berth.
(Note: This was written before a potential disabling injury to Roy Halladay surfaced during the second quarter of the season.)
Original Projection: 81 – 81, Current Pace: 93 – 69
The final sentence above hedged on whether the Phillies, should they win 88 games, would get into the playoffs as a division winner or a wild card team and that’s because I believe in the Washington Nationals.
All five starting pitchers for the Nationals, even Stephen Strasburg for whom the bar starts very high, are posting better skill-based peripheral statistics in 2012 than they did last year – and the improvements are dramatic. The entire staff struck out batters during the first quarter at a league-leading 23.3% rate, while walking batters at a below-average rate. At the same time, they’re inducing ground balls at an upper-quartile rate of 48.3% compared to last year’s roughly average rate of 44.6%. Whether or not some of the credit for improvement should be attributed to the pitching coach or the catchers is unknown but more strikeouts and more ground balls accompanied by less walks is the perfect recipe for limiting runs allowed. As it also represents skill-based execution, there is every reason to believe that the Nationals could continue to remain the team in the National League that allows less runs than anyone else.
Original Projection: 80 – 82, Current Pace: 101 – 61
If the Nationals unexpected surge to the top of the pitching ranks in terms of runs allowed is the sustainable portion of one side of the coin, the National League’s leading run scoring team, the Atlanta Braves, represents the other. Atlanta scored 212 runs in its first 40 games, tied with the St. Louis Cardinals atop the NL. The Cardinals had a higher batting average, a higher on-base percentage, a hugely higher slugging percentage, stole more bases, got thrown out stealing less and yet the Braves matched them in runs scored. If you’ve been reading me since the preseason you know where I’m going with this; the Braves offensive output in the first quarter was drenched with cluster luck.
The Braves, notably when Chipper Jones is healthy enough to play, may have enough talent on offense to lead the division in runs scored, but the pace of scoring they exhibited through 40 games will drop dramatically (unlike St. Louis). That’s going to be a problem for their win-loss record because the pitching staff as a whole is league-average – a problem in the NL East where league-average means 4th best.
No one rooting for the Braves should despair however; if the Phillies get no contributions from Utley and Howard and the Nationals remain offensively-challenged, the Braves can remain a division threat all season long. However, there just isn’t enough talent in the batting order to justify the continuance of top-tier offensive production.
New York Mets
Original Projection: 83 – 79, Current Pace: 85 – 77
The sequel to the much-maligned 2011 edition of the New York Mets, like the Braves, are probably also rooting for a division in which no one wins 90 games so that they can threaten as well. I love this Mets start – my very, very out-of-consensus call for them to be an above .500 team has proved quite fruitful from a handicapping basis so far – but there are cracks in the talent base. Through 40 games, the Mets, despite a winning record of 21-19 were outscored by a whopping 32 runs. By comparison, the 14-26 San Diego Padres had been outscored by 37 runs. The Mets have absolutely no chance of remaining above .500 if that deficit doesn’t reverse going forward.
To be sure, on the pitching side of the ledger, the Mets’ dismal runs allowed results do not come close to matching the surprisingly impressive skill sets the pitchers have displayed in 2012. Some of the disconnect is cluster luck, some of it is defensive variance, and some of it is an unlikely spike in home runs allowed per fly ball, but thanks to an offense that has a lower slugging percentage than the injury-ravaged Phillies and Nationals – while striking out more – the Mets probably will not score enough runs to make the post season.
It turns out it might not be the dimensions at Citi Field that kept the Mets from hitting home runs all these years, more likely it’s the personnel.
Original Projection: 84 – 78, Current Pace: 85 – 77
No team’s personnel in this division probably frustrates its fans more than the Miami Marlins. It just doesn’t seem possible that a line up with Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, and Giancarlo Stanton could rank near the bottom of the league in runs scored. In this case, your eyes don’t lie; the Marlins probably shouldn’t be near the bottom. There aren’t any obvious signs of bad luck but a team that doesn’t strike out more than average seems unlikely, given its personnel, to have a .235 batting average, better than only the truly anemic offenses of the Pittsburgh Pirates and the San Diego Padres. More balls off the bats of Marlins hitters should find open spaces going forward and additional runs will result.
As much as the offense could improve, some regression is likely from the pitching staff. Closer Heath Bell’s ineffectiveness has been well documented, but as a staff the Marlins are vulnerable, especially compared to the rest of the division. They don’t strike out a lot of batters which is a problem for a defensive alignment that features a number of players out of their natural position. Like the Braves, it’s doubtful they’d be the team to pull away, but if the division stays bunched all year, they’re a threat to hang with the pack.
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.
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