How important is pitching in baseball? I don’t know, how important are the tires on your car? Pitchers and tires share so much in common. Both can make their total package look pristine. Both instrumental in carrying loads from point a to point b. Both wear over time. And if one goes down, it’s going to be a noticeable difference.
The National League Central is currently baseball’s Goodyear. Home to three of baseball’s top five ERA’s. St. Louis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have each allowed fewer runs than 80% of the league. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati boasts pitching staffs that encompass two of the three best opposing batting averages in baseball as well.
Starting pitching is traditionally a rare commodity. But so far, in the 2013 NL Central, it’s more the norm than anything. The three aforementioned clubs and the surprisingly efficient starters from the Chicago Cubs are four of baseball’s top ten best starting rotation ERA’s. And to emphasize the efficiency of these rotations, the Reds’ starting rotation has the fewest losses in baseball. The Cards’ have the second fewest while the Pirates are respectably 4th in said category.
So the question inevitably becomes, with an arms race this tight, who is likely to falter down the stretch? I make a case and counter for each team.
1) Cincinnati Reds – If the Reds falter, it probably won’t be because of its starting pitching. Assuming Cueto remains healthy, the Reds’ starting rotation is arguably baseball’s best. When the five guy in the rotation has an ERA of 2.64, it’s easy to feel comfortable. And Reds fans should. Not to mention, Tony Cingrani has been more than a suitable spare for when Cueto goes down; however, this brilliant starting rotation has an evil alter ego that only creeps out late in the game. So far this year, the Reds’ bullpen has been the difference between first and second place. The bullpens of Pittsburgh and St. Louis have each surrendered nine losses. The Reds bullpen has been hit for 14, which is just two losses shy of having the most in baseball. The teams immediately in front of the Reds in this dreadful category are notable July fire-sale candidates like the Dodgers, Marlins and Astros.If the Reds falter, it will probably be because of its recent inability to transition from starter to Chapman. Of course, it’s worth mentioning that if the starting pitching can remain healthy, Tony the Tiger Cingrani could make for an exceptional 8th inning arm. I’m still convinced they should deal for a late inning arm, but with the return of Marshall hopefully drawing near, the pen could get the boost it’s needed.
2) St. Louis Cardinals – The best starting rotation ERA in all of baseball is complemented by the second best offense in all of baseball. But before we name this team MLB’s Lex Luger, let’s examine the arms. Adam Wainwright is Adam Wainwright. He and his 2.37 ERA will get no guff in this space. He’s made 15 starts, 13 have been quality. That’s the difference between him and potential ace rookie Shelby Miller. Miller has a better ERA (2.08) but also has just seven quality starts in fourteen outings. The rookie has been stellar thus far. You do have to wonder if the second half will come just as easy as the first did once tape circulates enough dugouts. It’s only the 19th of June, but already this month’s he allowed more runs, surrendered more walks and more home runs than previous months. Waccha and the other twenty-some odd rookies will be under the same “tape circulating” umbrella.For having the best ERA in baseball, it’s important to note that St. Louis’ bullpen leaves more to be desired. Their ‘pen boasts the 23rd best bullpen ERA while only four other teams have a bullpen that’s been hit at a higher average than the Cardinals (.264). But while these bullpen figures are disheartening, recall the’pen has only nine losses. Oddly enough, the Cardinals actually have one more blown save than the Reds.
3) Pittsburgh Pirates – Exemplify the tire analogy better than either of the aforementioned. Before the All Star break last year, the Pirates pitching had the 5th best ERA in baseball (3.47). In the second half of the season, they were 21st (4.29). What happened? Tread wore to the wire. The before and afters are too revealing. They allowed nearly 50 runs more in the second half. Guys like McDonald and Burnett were virtually bald by the time the season had ended.
The Pirates must have known as much. Adding Wandy Rodriguez last year was a noble effort to keep the team alive, but Francisco Liriano has been an exceptional addition thus far. And what’s really scary about this team is the fact that rotation staples like Burnett, McDonald and Karstens are still on the disabled list. Also, is Pittsburgh not slowly becoming a land of resurrection for pitchers? Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke, AJ Burnett – all starters reinventing themselves in Pittsburgh. The Pirates rotation is loaded with talent, arguably more than the Reds. St. Louis may boast the best ERA in baseball, but the Pirates have the best opposing batting average in the league. People do not hit this team well.
The bullpen is simply stellar. It’s almost as good, if not better, than the bullpen that ended last year with a better reliever ERA than any other team (Reds). The only reason I’d sweat this bullpen is its workload. It has the second most innings pitched in all of baseball. And as we’ve already discussed, pitchers, like tires, will wear down. Plenty of evidence to support this too. Last year, just three teams in the top ten of bullpens innings pitched made the playoffs. While one managed to win a one-game Wild Card contest, none advanced. In 2011, precisely none of the top 13 teams in bullpen innings pitched made the post season. In 2010, just two of the top ten teams in bullpen innings pitched advanced to the post season – the Reds were one of them, they didn’t win a game.
All things considered, here is my list of the pitching most likely to falter in the NL Central:
1) St. Louis Cardinals – Though I’m picking them first to falter, it doesn’t mean I’m picking them to lose the division. As extremely vital as pitching is to success, this team employs an American League offense that can actually nullify three-four run innings surrendered by its pitching staff. Just check the numbers already – the bullpen numbers are less than impressive, but it doesn’t surrender many losses. Still, considering the amount of rookies succeeding right now, it has to be safe to assume that batters may eventually adjust to these foreign arms. But with guys like Westbrook and Lynn literally keeping teams to three runs or less seemingly every single start, it may not matter.
2) Cincinnati Reds – Because I have to write “if” in front of “Johnny Cueto stays healthy” now, it’s not unfair to say they’re more likely to falter than Pittsburgh. Losing Cueto immediately demotes this rotation from class of MLB to solid staff.
Mat Latos is a phenomenal young talent, but last night should have demonstrated his inability to handle adversity like a true ace does. His frustration still admittedly gets the better of him. He physically reacts too much still to pitch through bad umpiring or unfavorable conditions in general.Don’t take that the wrong way. He has the potential to be an ace in this game for a long time. But he isn’t there yet. The bullpen is highly suspect to criticism. Even safe options like Sam LeCure have yet to demonstrate an ability to effectively and consistently hold leads. Broxton, Parra, Ondrusek – pick your poison. It only resembles a shell of the same bullpen that ended last year with the best reliever ERA.
3) Pittsburgh Pirates – Why is this pitching staff most unlikely to falter? Its depth is insane. The Pirates are hanging right in the race, all while the team’s ace, the team’s two guy, Rodriguez and even certain starter like Karstens aren’t even pitching right now – they’re all disabled. I point to the bullpen having a load of innings; however, when you have that much depth outside the starting rotation, you can make room for them in the bullpen. To their credit, the Pirates have addressed its pitching’s propensity to wear out. While the bullpen workload may be worrisome now, there are simply too many good arms that will be able fill in whenever asked to.