The Game of Numbers: Evaluating the NL Central

Sept. 9, 2011; Phoenix AZ, USA; San Diego Padres pitcher Mat Latos (38) in the first inning against Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Hilderbrand-US PRESSWIRE

After reading Tyler Grote’s post this morningwhere he examined the reasons why the Reds were baffled by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2011, I got to thinking about how each team in the division has progressed over the last few years and wondered if I could use the numbers to project where each team is going in 2012.  Do the Reds have what it takes to return to the Central crown after the disappointment suffered with last seasons result?

To try and answer this question while taking advantage of the magic of baseball-reference.com, I built two sets of tables that will try and illuminate strengths and weaknesses of each team in the division.  At the same time, considering the massive roster changes across the division, we can at least speculate on where these teams will rise and fall during the 2012 season.

Let’s start with the offensive performance of each team over the past 3 years.  The columns for BA-Best and BA-Worst signify the best batting average among the 8 position players who started the most games at each position on the team.  Some of these players are no longer even with the team in question.  The BA-Average is just the team batting average for the 162 game season.

Astros Wins Losses BA-Best BA-Worst BA-Avg Runs RBI Errors
2009 74 88 .313 .247 .260 643 616 78
2010 76 86 .308 .225 .247 611 577 103
2011 56 106 .308 .240 .258 615 579 116

Houston’s numbers aren’t great but considering the similarity in production between 2010 and 2011, offense can’t explain how the Astros lost 20 more games this past season.  If anything, the 6 other starters played better in 2011 when you factor in the departures of Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, the two most productive players Houston put on the field.

Brewers Wins Losses BA-Best BA-Worst BA-Avg Runs RBI Errors
2009 80 82 .320 .229 .263 785 757 98
2010 77 85 .304 .235 .262 750 710 101
2011 96 66 .332 .223 .261 721 693 111

Milwaukee actually regressed offensively and defensively in 2011.  The numbers are close but slightly down in every category but the one that mattered, wins.  But when you look at these numbers remember that in 2012 Fielder is gone and Ryan Braun stands to miss a third of the season.  They did add in Aramis Ramirez who should help mute Fielders absence.

Cardinals Wins Losses BA-Best BA-Worst BA-Avg Runs RBI Errors
2009 91 71 .353 .228 .263 730 694 96
2010 86 76 .312 .223 .263 736 689 99
2011 90 72 .305 .246 .273 762 726 116

The Cardinals primary strength on the World Champion 2011 squad was the consistent production across the lineup.  The lone batting average under .260 in the starting lineup was Colby Rasmus at .244 and he did not finish the year with the team.  Having a team batting average over .270 really sets the table for strong offensive production and no one scored more runs than the Cardinals in the National League.  But without Pujols will the rest of the lineup be able to maintain production.  I have said for years that the best way to deal with Albert was to walk him, even if the bases were loaded.  That fear is now gone.  Carlos Beltran is a good outfielder, but he is past his prime and his prime never approached Albert’s production.

Cubs Wins Losses BA-Best BA-Worst BA-Avg Runs RBI Errors
2009 83 78 .317 .218 .255 707 678 105
2010 75 87 .300 .241 .257 685 658 126
2011 71 91 .307 .225 .256 654 610 134

Hunter and Michael have left Houston, Prince has left Milwaukee, Albert has left St. Louis and Aramis left Chicago.  Each of these players where one of the top two offensive threats on their respective teams.  Even with Milwaukee signing Ramirez he is a far cry from Fielder in production.  Each of these teams will be weaker offensively than they were last year.  Hard to imagine things could get much worse for Chicago.

Pirates Wins Losses BA-Best BA-Worst BA-Avg Runs RBI Errors
2009 62 99 .296 .236 .252 636 612 73
2010 57 105 .299 .247 .242 587 570 127
2011 72 90 .273 .191 .244 610 580 112

The Pirates offense is an example for the Cubs of how things could get worse.  The Pirates flirted with first place through the middle of July before the reality came crashing down that they just have no offense.  There are those who argue batting average is not an important measurable statistic and while I will agree it only paints a partial picture having a team batting average under .250 is just not acceptable.  Four of the starters listed on the baseball- reference website as having started the most games at a position for the Pirates were not on the lineup card handed to the umpire for even half of the Pirates games.  You can never win with that kind of inconsistency.

Reds Wins Losses BA-Best BA-Worst BA-Avg Runs RBI Errors
2009 78 71 .322 .211 .247 673 637 89
2010 91 71 .324 .255 .272 790 761 72
2011 79 83 .309 .211 .256 735 697 91

When I first looked at this numbers I was arrested by the similarity between the 2009 roster and the 2011 roster.  The statistics improve, but only slightly.  If the Reds had posted these numbers in 2010, fans would have hoped for more but would have been happy with the progress instead of frustrated at the regression from the actual 2010 numbers to last season’s performance.  In addition, Brandon Phillips is the ONLY Reds position starter to have a better season in 2011 over 2012.  You don’t expect everyone to have a career year in the same season, but by the same token you don’t expect everyone to go in the tank together.

Let’s move our focus to NL Central division pitching.  Here we will compare the ERA of the Starters, the Bullpen and the team average ERA.  In addition we will once again note how many IP the Starters and the Bullpen record on average over the course of the season and I through in one other telling bullpen number.  The ERA of the relief corps in save situations.

Astros ERA-Start IP/G-Start ERA-BP IP/G-BP ERA in Sv Situ ERA-Avg
2009 4.79 5.53 4.13 3.30 3.52 4.54
2010 3.90 6.03 4.49 2.86 3.18 4.09
2011 4.52 5.95 4.49 2.91 6.35 4.51

The Houston pitching staff had a tough year in 2011 but the number that screams out of this table is the monstrous ERA in save situations.  for a number to balloon by over 3 runs/9 IP in save situations is the most telling explanation for just how miserable a season Houston had in last year.  The most consistent reliever is they had, Mark Melancon,  is now in Boston so next year looks like it will be more of the same.

Brewers ERA-Start IP/G-Start ERA-BP IP/G-BP ERA in Sv Situ ERA-Avg
2009 5.37 5.50 3.97 3.36 3.55 4.83
2010 4.65 5.69 4.48 3.20 4.20 4.58
2011 3.78 6.12 3.32 2.78 3.49 3.63

I have mentioned in past blog articles the importance of the starting staff reaching 6 IP/start and the Brewers 3 year pitching history lends credence to that belief.  The strengthened the rotation prior to the start of the 2011 season and added Francisco Rodriguez mid season to the bullpen and the results are apparent.  Good pitching does, in fact, win baseball games.  So in spite of a slight drop in offensive stats last year they improved their record by just getting people out.

Cardinals ERA-Start IP/G-Start ERA-BP IP/G-BP ERA in Sv Situ ERA-Avg
2009 3.66 6.20 3.67 2.70 3.02 3.66
2010 3.50 6.12 3.73 2.86 3.18 3.57
2011 3.81 6.17 3.73 2.86 2.94 3.74

The Cardinals pitching staff was led by a strong performance from the starting rotation.  Consistently pitching 6 or more innings/start they keep the pressure off the bullpen when they can.  While I am loathe to give Tony LaRussa or Dave Duncan a lot of credit one thing was clear on the Cardinals drive to the World Series championship.  They pitch well under pressure.  It is interesting to note that only Pittsburgh and St. Louis saw their bullpen perform better under pressure all three years in save situations than they did in the daily bullpen grind.  That grace under pressure paid off for St. Louis handsomely.

Cubs ERA-Start IP/G-Start ERA-BP IP/G-BP ERA in Sv Situ ERA-Avg
2009 3.71 5.93 4.11 2.99 2.79 3.84
2010 4.00 5.93 4.72 2.94 3.33 4.18
2011 4.79 5.75 3.51 3.10 3.94 4.33

The Cubs starting rotation did not perform well in 2011 and new GM Theo Epstein has worked hard to improve that situation bringing Travis Wood and Paul Maholm into the fold.  Both should help them next year but they sacrificed a vital part of their bullpen when they sent Sean Marshall to the Reds.  I wish Maholm and Wood success in Chicago but I would prefer it not be at the Reds expense.  Without Marshall they add pressure to Carlos Marmol, and I am not convinced he can handle it.

Pirates ERA-Start IP/G-Start ERA-BP IP/G-BP ERA in Sv Situ ERA-Avg
2009 4.59 5.88 4.61 2.88 4.08 4.59
2010 5.28 5.38 4.57 3.33 3.17 5.00
2011 4.21 5.70 3.76 3.25 3.45 4.04

Through the first half of 2011 the Pirates pitching staff carried them all the way to first place, then they just wore out.  With Paul Maholm gone from the rotation and Jose Veras gone from the pen there will definitely be work to be done.

Reds ERA-Start IP/G-Start ERA-BP IP/G-BP ERA in Sv Situ ERA-Avg
2009 4.50 5.92 3.56 3.06 2.65 4.18
2010 4.05 5.96 3.97 3.01 3.53 4.01
2011 4.47 5.98 3.55 3.08 3.77 4.16

The Reds had mixed results in 2011.  The starters edged closer to that magic 6 inning average but gave up more runs, while the bullpen improved overall but struggled in save situations.  Or did they.  On further review using the handy tools available I discovered that the Reds relief corps allowed 47 earned runs in save situations totaling 112.1 IP.  The formula of  9(ER/IP)=9(47/112.33)=3.77 ERA.  Then I noticed the gaudy totals of one Nick Masset, who allowed 11 ER in just 16.2 IP, if you just remove him from the equation the Reds save situation ERA drops all the way to an improved 3.39 ERA.  If you were reading Steve Engbloom’s article today and still think Roy Oswalt is what the Reds need to win in 2012, wouldn’t Masset and his freshly inked $5.5 million two year deal might seem expendable.  Given the acquisition of Ryan Madson and Sean Marshall, if I were Dusty Baker, Masset would never see the mound if the game is in any doubt.

The Reds have the team on paper that they need to win this division as they did in 2010 and just as Milwaukee did in 2011.  But as the Brewers learned during the postseason you must also have the heart of a champion.  Milwaukee at least went down fighting last season unlike the deplorable Reds-Phillies series in 2010.  The time to win is now.

Follow me on Twitter @JohnHeitz

Topics: Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, National League Central Division, Pittsburgh Pirates, St Louis Cardinals

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