NL Central First Quarter Report
St. Louis Cardinals
Original Projection: 92 – 70, Current Pace: 89 – 73
I feel St. Louis is going to win the NL Central division with relative ease because its strengths play so well in a division in which the other five teams have mirror image weaknesses. Even allowing for some interleague differences, essentially all six teams play the same opponents. Given that, how are the Cardinals possibly going to be outscored by other NL Central offenses? Through 40 games, the Cardinals are the only team in the division whose batters walk more than the league average. The same batters also strike out at the lowest rate in the division. Those skills tend to stabilize very quickly so it’s safe to assume that even before they hit the ball, the Cardinals will own a sizeable competitive advantage versus their peers for the entire year.
Once they swing the bat, the edge widens further. Through 40 games they own huge leads in the triple-slash offensive categories over the next best NL Central team as follows:
Batting Average: .279 On-Base %: .345 Slugging %: .462
2nd – Houston .248 2nd – Houston: .316 2nd – Milw: .402
The Cardinals aren’t getting outsized production from any one hitter; like the Rangers they have a line up full of patient sluggers. It’s too large an advantage to be undercut by less than average fielding, which is their only visible weakness.
Original Projection: 66 – 96, Current Pace: 73 – 89
The performance of the Astros during the first quarter of the season has been a pleasant surprise for Houston’s fans. Seeing how competitive they’ve been, led by youngsters Jose Altuve, Jordan Schafer and off-season pick-up Jed Lowrie the Astros don’t look anything like the team virtually everyone assumed would challenge the 100-loss barrier. That said, there is some sizable regression coming. The Astros benefited from mild cluster luck at the plate and on the mound. Additionally, the pitcher’s skill sets, especially in the bullpen, don’t support the team’s ERA through 40 games. The Astros aren’t going to embarrass themselves during their last year in the NL but there just isn’t enough skill to create any sort of Cinderella story either.
Original Projection: 82 – 80, Current Pace: 85 – 77
Cincinnati’s pitching staff benefited more from cluster luck than any other team in baseball, to the tune of 17 runs – a huge amount over 40 games. To wit: Despite giving up 16 more hits than the Cardinals, including a whopping 10 home runs and 4 triples, as well as walking more batters, the Reds only gave up one more run than St. Louis through 40 games. That cannot persist and, despite a formidable line up that on paper should be able to compete with the Cardinals offensively, it’s why I think the Reds will have to content themselves with Wild Card contention as the season wears on.
Original Projection: 86 – 76, Current Pace: 65 – 97
Best Brewers-related Tweet in 2012: “Brewers are 21-28 and in 5th but after tonight Braun returns from a 50-day suspension. Wait, what? Well I guess they’re just bad then.” – DJ Gallo, ESPN.com
Everything came together for the Brewers last year as they enjoyed exceptional health and break-out performances from a number of their starters. Not only has the injury bug hit Milwaukee hard this year, but whether or not the absence of Prince Fielder in the line up is a contributing factor or not, Rickie Weeks, Nyjer Morgan, and Corey Hart aren’t playing anywhere close to the level they performed at last year. Ryan Braun is a spectacularly talented hitter (he also comfortably leads the team in stolen bases) who is actually hitting better in 2012 than he did in his 2011 MVP season when he had Fielder batting behind him, but even he won’t be able to will this team to a .500 record without help from Weeks, Hart, et al.
One thing that will help get the Brewers to .500, even without more run production, is better results from the pitching staff. Fortunately the entire staff, (especially the bullpen) has better peripheral skills than the results showed during the first-quarter. Zack Greinke continues to be one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball most casual fans haven’t see pitch.
Original Projection: 73 – 89, Current Pace: 77 – 85
Last year the Pittsburgh Pirates maintained a .500 pace through the All-Star break but the foundation for that encouraging performance had been erected on shaky ground. The Pirates run prevention last year resulted from not only an unsustainable level of defensive prowess, but one coming from players who had never shown that level of talent with their gloves. Sure enough, balls started falling in for hits repeatedly in August and September and the Pirates’ ignominious streak of losing records continued.
Once again the Pirates are toying with a .500 pace through the first quarter of the season but this year, it not only looks sustainable, there is a much higher likelihood it prevails through the end of the year. Like the Washington Nationals, the entire Pirates rotation has improved their skill-based peripheral statistics, and in some cases dramatically. (James McDonald has developed “ace” stuff.) I suspect that has something to do with coaching or a new approach undertaken in Spring Training, but whatever the case, it’s rooted in improved skills. Best of all, with the additions of Erik Bedard and A.J. Burnett, both extreme strikeout pitchers, the Pirates front office minimized a team weakness. More strikeouts means less balls in play and that means less opportunities for a defense whose upside is “average.” That, my fellow baseball fan, is simply good management and unfortunately is an infrequent observation around the majors.
Original Projection: 80 – 82, Current Pace: 61 – 101
There’s no doubt that my outlook for the San Diego Padres stands as my worst analysis but I whiffed on the Cubs too. They are just a bad team and the new management team didn’t have any tricks up its sleeve to keep the Cubs around the .500 mark. The Cubs simply don’t have talented players. The hitters, who aren’t very proficient when the swing the bat, don’t have any patience either. The rotation anchors, Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza have been ok, and the emergence of Jeff Samardzija has been a bright spot, but Chris Volstad, picked up in exchange for malcontent Carlos Zambrano has been dreadful.
The Cubs bullpen is, by far, the worst in baseball. How can I say that even if they don’t quite have the worst ERA? Well, runs allowed are subject to some randomness, but generally skill sets are not. Bullpen relievers across baseball strikeout more than 21% of the batters they face while walking a little more than 9%. The Cubs are last in both categories fanning less than 17% while walking more than 13%. (If a graph of those two lines were stock charts, we’d say on the trading desk “stay short and cover when they cross.”) On top of that, they have extreme fly ball tendencies, one of only two teams whose relievers induce less than 40% ground balls (league average is 48%.) A more toxic mix of “skills” is impossible to find.
The entire roster needs an overhaul and if the Cubs can get it started by trading off some starting pitching talent they should do it immediately. Garza, Dempster, and Samardzija aren’t going to be around when the rebuilding is complete so there is no sense holding onto them now.
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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