Cincinnati Reds pitcher Mat Latos (55) reacts after recording the final out against the San Francisco Giants. (Photo: Cary Edmondson)

Strange Days in the National League Central

I read an article on the Pirates FanSided website rumbunter.com that really triggered my thinking on a number of levels.  First off, the Pittsburgh Pirates are a solid baseball team.  The fact that the majority of Reds fans seem to think they are a joke is akin to the outrage these same Cincinnati fans felt in 2010 when fans of the St. Louis Cardinals dismissed the Reds as an insignificant upstart with no chance of sustaining momentum.  The article, penned by senior editor Tom Smith, highlights a startling statistic.  The Pittsburgh Pirates scored more runs than any other team in baseball during the month of June.  And that was before Pedro Alvarez got the scoring started this afternoon with a first inning grand slam against the Cardinals.

So in light of this fascinating tidbit of information I decided to do a little comparative research between the NLC teams and get a better idea of the problems the Reds face in holding on to their first place perch in the division.

Let’s start by looking at a few preseason expectations.  I decided to check out a few mass media sites, Fan Sided’s own Call to the Pen, and throw another blog or two for good measure.

Sports Illustrated is the first site I checked out.  They had 8 resident experts picking and 4 picked the Reds to win the division, 3 picked the Cardinals, and 1 picked the Brewers.  In fairness, lest you ridicule Albert Chen for picking the Brewers, consider he also picked Madison Bumgarner to win the Cy Young Award.  After Thursday night’s game, I am unwilling to poke fun at him for anything.  In addition, 1 of the experts picked the Reds to win a wild card bid, 2 picked the Cards to get a wild card and one picked the Brewers.  No mention of the Pirates aside from Mel Antonen selecting Andrew McCutchen as his MVP projection.

ESPN may not be my favorite venue for baseball information because I tire of the “NBA all the time attitude”, but they are widely read so I checked them out.  Ugh.  In an page devoid of any bells and whistles they listed 48 expert picks.  I am not kidding 48.  Made my head hurt just looking at it.  Of 48 picks, 20 chose the Cards to win the division, 19 chose the Reds, and 11 chose the Brewers.  Not one pick for Pittsburgh, Chicago or Houston.  The wild card revealed similar beliefs:  8 picked the Reds, 6 picked the Cardinals, and 6 picked the Brewers.  The rest of the division again failed to get any love at all.  Of additional interest, no one picked the Reds to win it all but 4 of the 48 picked the Reds to win the National League at least.

Call to the Pen had 10 predictions to kick off the 2012 season and they follow the same pattern.  6 picked the Reds to finish first with 2 apiece selecting the Brewers and Cardinals.  4 picked St. Louis to nab a wild card berth, with 2 selecting the Reds and one selecting the Brewers.  Again no mention of the other three teams in the Central.  It is as if they don’t exist.

MLBTradeRumors.com also offered their wisdom into the mix with more of the same result.  3 writers picked Milwaukee to again win the division while one each selected the Reds and Cardinals to finish first.  Both the Reds and the Cardinals were projected to win a wild card berth.  But never were the Pirates, Cubs or Astros mentioned.

Finally I went to a site that uses a mathematical approach to determine who will finish on top and it went from being the same story to becoming a bit hurtful.  TeamRankings.com built a predictive model that assigned a percentage chance to make the playoffs.  They give the Cardinals a 49.8% chance of making the playoffs while the Brewers have a 38.3% chance and the Reds have a 36.3% chance.  To round out the division the Cubs are given a 26.5% chance which seems a bit optimistic to me, the Pirates are given 10.1% chance and the Astros are given the worst chance in all of baseball of just 9.4% chance to even make the playoffs.

So these are the guesses by a variety of experts of all shapes and sizes.  So how wise do they appear?  Let’s look at some numbers starting on the offensive side of the ball.

NLC Team BA April BA May BA June BA Year
Chicago Cubs .237 .259 .243 .247
Cincinnati Reds .240 .242 .265 .249
Houston Astros .257 .244 .238 .246
Milwaukee Brewers .235 .246 .240 .241
Pittsburgh Pirates .228 .210 .268 .236
St. Louis Cardinals .280 .283 .261 .274

Clear advantage in batting average to the Cardinals in April and May but the Reds and Pirates have overtaken them in June.  Look at where the Pirates were compared to where they are now.  It is a sobering statistic for Reds fans in light of how Pirate pitching has man handled them for the last year and a half.

NLC Team Runs April Runs May Runs June Runs Year
Chicago Cubs 82 103 98 283
Cincinnati Reds 87 114 127 328
Houston Astros 104 108 109 321
Milwaukee Brewers 102 121 109 332
Pittsburgh Pirates 58 89 146 293
St. Louis Cardinals 113 157 120 390

Again we see the Cardinals offensive dominance early and the Pirates surge late.  Again as a reminder, the Pirates scored the most runs in all of baseball in June.  It really is hard to believe.

NLC Team RBI April RBI May RBI June RBI Year
Chicago Cubs 75 96 94 265
Cincinnati Reds 85 108 118 311
Houston Astros 99 98 100 297
Milwaukee Brewers 98 117 108 323
Pittsburgh Pirates 53 88 140 281
St. Louis Cardinals 112 151 111 374

Most opinions on Twitter and most discussion on the radio about baseball focuses on offensive power – home runs, RBI, etc.  If that were so critically important how do the Brewers have more RBI than anyone but St. Louis yet still represent such a non factor in the division?

NLC Team OPS April OPS May OPS June OPS Year
Chicago Cubs .633 .748 .671 .687
Cincinnati Reds .694 .727 .776 .735
Houston Astros .706 .685 .709 .700
Milwaukee Brewers .742 .706 .735 .726
Pittsburgh Pirates .618 .617 .785 .679
St. Louis Cardinals .792 .816 .715 .775

Let’s look at the pitching and find out why…

NLC Team ERA April ERA May ERA June ERA Year
Chicago Cubs 4.21 4.47 4.59 4.43
Cincinnati Reds 3.53 3.29 3.62 3.47
Houston Astros 4.09 3.72 5.26 4.36
Milwaukee Brewers 5.12 3.65 4.11 4.24
Pittsburgh Pirates 2.78 3.58 3.97 3.49
St. Louis Cardinals 2.61 4.72 4.57 4.07

First thing you note when looking month by month at Earned Run Average is that the Cardinals seem to have been pitching far above their capabilities in April.  They simply were outstanding.  This is one of the most impressive indicators of the Reds abilities as they demonstrate sustained consistency.  June has been a bit worse but they have been the best staff with the smallest range variation over the course of the season.

NLC Team WHIP-April WHIP-May WHIP-June WHIP-Year
Chicago Cubs 1.32 1.37 1.44 1.38
Cincinnati Reds 1.29 1.24 1.16 1.23
Houston Astros 1.34 1.38 1.42 1.39
Milwaukee Brewers 1.56 1.31 1.33 1.39
Pittsburgh Pirates 1.19 1.29 1.32 1.27
St. Louis Cardinals 1.04 1.48 1.39 1.32

The Reds win this category as well and in fact peak with their best performance in June.  Mat Latos‘ gem this afternoon highlights just how dominant Reds pitching can be on a given day.

Just as you must have base runners to consistently score, you must avoid base runners to keep your opponent from scoring and the Reds have succeeded at this critical task.

NLC Team UnER-April UnER-May UnER-June UnER-Year
Chicago Cubs 9 8 7 24
Cincinnati Reds 11 4 13 28
Houston Astros 8 18 11 37
Milwaukee Brewers 7 15 6 28
Pittsburgh Pirates 7 11 6 30
St. Louis Cardinals 3 10 5 18

Unearned runs can truly bite even good teams.  The Cardinals have allowed the least unearned runs and the Reds allowed the most in June but this factor involves both solid defense and a bit of luck.  The Reds have the defense and they seem to be weathering the bad luck by remaining in first place for the whole month.  This bodes well for the home team.

Finally we look at the only statistic that, in the end, matters.  Wins.  If you don’t win, it just doesn’t matter, regardless of what Twitter pundits espouse to the contrary.

NLC Team Wins-April Wins-May Wins-June Wins-Year
Chicago Cubs 8 10 10 28
Cincinnati Reds 11 17 15 43
Houston Astros 9 13 10 32
Milwaukee Brewers 11 12 11 34
Pittsburgh Pirates 10 15 17 42
St. Louis Cardinals 14 13 13 40

What should concern Reds fans is that the Pirates won 10 games in April while scoring 29 fewer runs than the Reds did.  The Pirates can be a solid team as the Cardinals have learned painfully the last two days.  We Reds fans should not be so dismissive or we provide weight to the chip they already have on their shoulder.  The experts have so far got it all wrong concerning these Pirates as they remember the August collapse last year.  But this could be the team that shakes off that mantle of mediocrity if they aren’t taken seriously, experts not withstanding.  They numbers indicate they can.

Just sayin’.

Follow me on Twitter @JohnHeitz

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Tags: Andrew McCutchen Chicago Cubs Cincinnati Reds Houston Astros Madison Bumgarner Mat Latos Milwaukee Brewers National League Central Pedro Alvarez Pittsburgh Pirates St Louis Cardinals

  • beeker

    Well written, John. As always.
    The number that jumped out at me was how the ERA for the Pirates staff has climbed sharply. I have been curious to see if their pitching falls off the table like it did last year. They will be a factor as long as it holds steady. If it continues to climb, they will begin to fade at some point. Even if they do, fans had better be prepared for the Pirates to be tough next year.
    And that is OK with me. The more competition there is in the NLC, the more pedestrian the aging Cards will become. Enjoy it while it lasts, STL, because the young talent is here to stay a while. :)

  • JohnHeitz

     @beeker Thanks beeker!
     
    The Pirates ERA has jumped a run from April to June but they scored more runs in June than they did in April or May combined.  No clue if Clint Hurdle can keep them working together and moving forward this year but if he does…
     
    The whole division should sigh with relief that Houston is moving to the AL because the more I look at some of the young talent they have the happier I am to see them go.
     
    The Cubs are not good and will not be good soon and Milwaukee proves that one star does not make a franchise.  As for St. Louis, Lance Lynn is certainly a bright spot but without him they would be in real trouble…