There is no shortage of talking heads asking the same question right now – “How are the Pirates leading the NL Central?” The answers given are varied yet predictable.
- The Pirates have had really, really good pitching, and pitching wins. Yes, the Pirates have allowed a division low 357 runs, but they have only scored 372 runs for a differential of +15. Both the Reds (+26) and Cardinals (+24) have higher run differentials. Not that run differential is a great indicator of overall success, but it does imply at least something about the margin of error and possibly run distribution. The quick take is that it’s not how much you score, rather it’s about when you score.
- The Pirates have chewed up their NL Central opponents to the tune of a 24-13 record.
- Maybe the other teams in the NL Central are overrated, or maybe they just aren’t playing up to their potential.
What about the possibility that the Pirates are simply a young, talented team loaded with promising young players who have finally been given the opportunity to play and succeed? Nah, that’s too easy. While the Pirates certainly have some good, young players, it would be oversimplifying to pass off the team’s success on talent maturation. To a certain degree, the Pirates have benefited from favorable matchups this season, but that factor could swing the other direction the rest of the way. The Pirates are 0-5 against the Brewers already this season, and the teams are set to meet 10 more times this year. The Pirates have a starting rotation that consists of 4 righties and 1 LHP, and the Brewers are a division best 43-34 against right-handed starting pitchers this year. Unless the Pirates can turn the tide on the Brewers, I see them losing the head-to-head battle by a lot.
Of course, that’s not the only matchup issue they might have as well. The Pirates only have 4 games left against the Cubs and 6 games remaining with the Astros. To this point, the Pirates have feasted on those 2 teams, going a combined 15-6 against the pair. Maybe they will hold their own with a schedule heavy on quality opponents, but the remaining games have the potential to be much more challenging than the ones already played.
So, what should we expect from the Pirates the rest of the way? Well, that depends on how well they can maintain their current levels of pitching success. Consider the following statistical comparison of NL Central rivals.
Note that for WHIP the teams align perfectly with their current places in the division (Pirates, Brewers, Cardinals, and Reds). Interesting, no? It’s also interesting to note that all but the Pirates rank in the top 10 in runs scored, yet it is the Pirates that are leading the division. Maybe there is some truth to the saying that pitching and defense wins championships. If you don’t mind making a generalization or three, the team stats appear to explain the current standings.
Furthermore, if you read between the lines a bit, you’ll notice supporting evidence for the case that the Cardinals are a solid bullpen away from being the best team in the Central. Okay, maybe that’s stretching things a bit, but how else do you explain a 50-46 record for a team with the kind of offensive capability the Cardinals have? Some might say that they aren’t getting quite enough from their starters and being 23rd in quality starts may support that argument. However, just look at the number of “holds” and “saves”. Either the Cardinals are trailing a lot going into the late innings, or they are surrendering a lot of runs in those late inning situations. Actually, the problem is probably both of those things, but getting more from the bullpen is probably a much easier problem to solve than trying to improve the starting pitching.
So, what does all this mean in terms of handicapping the division race? That depends on what factors you value, but strength of schedule in terms of matchup context looks to be huge. I’ll explain.
- The Reds appear to be headed for a 4th place finish right now, and they have already played 50 games against their division rivals. That leaves them with a significant number of games left against quality teams like the Braves, Mets, Giants, Phillies, and Rockies. Of course, they can score with the best of them, and it would only take a slight improvement in the starting pitching department to put them right back in the mix.
- The Cardinals are currently in 3rd, but they still have a lot of games left against the Cubs and Astros. Additionally, the team has a .500 record against NL opponents outside the Central division. Their fate may depend greatly on how well they perform in their remaining games against the Pirates (10 more games) and Brewers (12). Considering the Redbirds are only 3-6 thus far against the two, it seems that they might have an uphill battle.
- Even though the Brewers are behind the Pirates in the standings, I give them the best odds at winning the division right now. Their schedule looks to be the most favorable due to the fact that they only have 16 games remaining against teams outside the division. They are a combined 9-2 against the Cardinals and Pirates, so it seems that the head-to-head matchup may favor them as well. The Reds have had their number this year, but the Brewers only face them 3 more times.
- I give the Pirates a lot of credit for being close to ending a long string of losing seasons, and I must admit that they are good at the whole baseball thing. However, I have my doubts about whether or not they can keep it going without more offense. Their pitching has been really good to this point, but it may be difficult to maintain the .667 winning percentage that they have for July.
Much to my disappointment, it looks like it will take less than 90 wins to take the Central. On the upside, this season is shaping up much like 2006 in terms of team records. That year the Cardinals finished on top, but the Astros, Reds, and Brewers were all within 8.5 games of them. If there is a year worth repeating for the Cardinals, 2006 is a pretty good one to choose.
TIDBIT: Despite the impression that the Pirates came out of nowhere to take the division lead, it’s worth noting that they haven’t been more than 6.5 games out of first all season.
MORE BITS OF TID: The Brewers are currently 22-13 in 1 run games while the Cardinals are just 14-15 in games decided by 1 run.
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