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Rotater Cuff
04-28-2006, 10:17 AM
It's an interesting story on the Astros and Reds. He even throws in a link to his earlier prediction of the Reds finishing last.
http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/whats-up-with-the-nl-central/


What's up with the NL Central?
by Ben Jacobs
April 28, 2006

The neat thing about April is that you can find all sorts of goofy looking baseball statistics or situations. For instance, take a look at the NL Central winning percentages. If you prorated those winning percentages over 162 games, here's what the win totals would look like for the six teams:

Houston: 116
Cincinnati: 110
St. Louis 108
Chicago: 97
Milwaukee: 88
Pittsburgh: 35

As cool as that would be (except for the good people of Pittsburgh, obviously), it's more likely that none of those four teams will top 95 wins than that even two of them will, let alone four. But even though it's obvious that at least three of the top five teams are going to cool down quite a bit, it's still worth taking a look at the division.

Predicting division winners before the season is a tricky business because so many things can happen. Players can get hurt, have career years, have down years, get traded, etc. But when I looked at all six divisions in baseball this spring, the only thing I was sure of was that the Cardinals would not be challenged in the NL Central.

The Cardinals are doing their part so far, playing even better than I would have expected. But the Astros and Reds are playing even better, which you know is a shock to me if you read our THT Staff Predictions (if you don't feel like clicking on the link, I picked the Astros to finish fourth and the Reds last). So even though the season is only about 13% complete, I'm going to take a look at Houston and Cincinnati and see how they've gotten off to such hot starts and whether they're likely to continue playing well (although we already know it won't be this well).

Houston Astros


The Astros so far have had a combination of good hitting and good pitching, scoring 5.5 runs per game while allowing 4.5. The pitching isn't that big a surprise as even without Roger Clemens, Houston still has Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte. But only half of that duo is contributing to the good pitching.

Oswalt is 4-0 with a 2.48 ERA in 36.1 innings, but Pettitte is 1-3 with a 4.35 ERA in 31 innings. The second ace for the Astros so far has been Wandy Rodriguez, who is also 4-0 and has a 2.53 ERA in 32 innings. The Astros have also gotten great pitching from Taylor Buchholz, who has made two starts and two relief appearances and has a 1.80 ERA in 20 innings.

The worst pitchers for the Astros so far have surprisingly been Brad Lidge and Chad Qualls. The closer and setup man combined for a 2.81 ERA in 150.1 innings last year, but they have an ugly 6.85 ERA in 23.2 innings so far this season.

There will probably be some shifts in who does what, but ultimately the pitching is about what you'd expect from the Astros this season. They allowed 609 runs a year ago with Clemens posting a 1.87 ERA in 211.1 innings and they're on pace to allow 729 runs this year without him. Rodriguez and Buchholz will probably pitch worse, Pettitte, Lidge and Qualls will probably pitch better and the Astros will allow somewhere in the neighborhood of 700 runs.

The real surprise has been the offense, which is on pace to score about 200 more runs than it did last season, despite the fact that the only offseason change was the addition of Preston Wilson, and he's not even hitting (.631 OPS).

The bulk of the production has been supplied by the players you would expect: Lance Berkman (1.133 OPS) and Morgan Ensberg (1.276 OPS). Last year, those two were the only really good hitters for the Astros, as Berkman had a .935 OPS and Ensberg was even better with a .945 OPS.

Jason Lane is another hitter whose success is not a surprise. He has an .816 OPS this year after posting an .815 OPS last year (although his current production is better because it's much more OBP-heavy).

The first surprisingly good hitter has been Craig Biggio, who hit .264/.325/.468 a year ago. This season, he's hitting .321/.363/.536, which would be hit best production since 1998 if he could keep it up.

But even Biggio can't hold a candle to Brad Ausmus, who is hitting .353/.485/.412. To give you an idea how big a fluke this start is, Ausmus has a batting average that's two points higher than the OBP he posted last year. His current OPS of .897 is 215 points higher than last year's .682, and last year's OPS was his highest since 2000.

Clearly, the Astros are not going to keep hitting this well. Berkman and Ensberg are good hitters, but they're not this good. Biggio hasn't been this good in a while and probably won't be the rest of this year either. And Ausmus isn't even an average hitter, never mind the very good hitter he's been so far this year.

If the Astros top 750 runs, it will be a mild surprise. They're not going to come anywhere near the 887 they're currently on pace for. It looks like this team will be better than I thought because they only need to go 70-71 the rest of the way to reach 85 wins, but I still don't think they can win more than 95 games, and I wouldn't be surprised if they end up in the 85-90 range.

Another thing to keep in mind when looking at Houston's hot start is that 10 of the 21 games have come against the three teams that are likely to be the three worst teams in the National League this season (Pittsburgh, Florida and Washington). The Astros have gone 8-2 against those three teams and 7-4 against everybody else.

Cincinnati Reds


Just like the Astros, the Reds have played 10 of their games so far this season against the Marlins, Nationals and Pirates, going 8-2 against those three terrible teams and 7-5 against everybody else. Unlike the Astros, the Reds have been winning with great hitting and bad pitching.

Amazingly, the Reds pitching has performed almost exactly the same as last year's pitching staff. Cincinnati allowed 889 runs a year ago and is on pace to allow 891 runs this year. The difference is that last year the Reds only scored 820 runs. They're currently on pace to score 1,004 runs.

They're not going to top 1,000 runs, but how close can they come? Well, they're actually probably not playing all that far above their heads. Right now, there are seven players with at least 50 at-bats who have an OPS above .800 (Adam Dunn, Edwin Encarnacion, Brandon Phillips, Scott Hatteberg, Austin Kearns, Rich Aurilia and Felipe Lopez).

Lopez is actually hitting below the level he was at last year, and Dunn isn't far above where he's been the past two seasons and could be moving to a new level at age 26. So neither of them should be considered to be on fluky hot streaks.v Aurilia's .820 OPS might be higher than you'd expect, but he posted a .782 OPS last season, so it's not that high.

Of the other five, Hatteberg (.888 OPS after a .677 OPS last year) and Phillips (.903 OPS after posting a .556 career OPS in parts of four seasons) are definitely above their heads. vThe only question is how far both will fall. vHatteberg will probably fall at least down to a .750 OPS. vPhillips was actually a top prospect at some point and he's still only 25, so maybe he could be capable of a .775-.800 OPS.

But the real key to how good the Reds will be lies with Kearns and Encarnacion. Kearns burst onto the scene in 2002 with a .907 OPS in 372 at-bats. He then spent the next three seasons struggling with injuries and inconsistency. But he's not even 26 years old yet and he's clearly got talent, so the fact that he's got an .880 OPS right now isn't a huge surprise. It would, however, be a huge boost as he was only at .785 last year.

Encarnacion is only 23 years old, and he got his first taste of the majors last year, posting a .744 OPS in 211 at-bats. The rest of 2005, Encarnacion was destroying Triple-A pitching to the tune of a .936 OPS. So while his current .942 OPS might be a bit over his head, it's generally accepted that Encarnacion is a real hitter, and it was only a matter of time before he hit in the majors.

Add in the fact that last year's best hitter (Ken Griffey Jr.) has only seen 31 at-bats but is ready to come off the DL, and these Reds could have a shot at scoring 900-plus runs this season.

Of course, they could do that and still finish below .500 if they allow around 900 runs as well. Despite that possibility, an offense that could have as many as seven quality hitters (Dunn, Griffey, Kearns, Encarnacion, Lopez, Phillips and Jason LaRue) gives the Reds a definite shot at being significantly better than I gave them credit for at the beginning of the season.

Ben Jacobs can be reached at bjacobs@hardballtimes.com.

Heath
04-28-2006, 10:50 AM
Ah, the sounds of April.

C'mon Redlegs.

membengal
04-28-2006, 10:57 AM
Actually, I will give that guy a ton of credit for re-assessing his impressions one month in. That's something most commentators are not real comfortable doing...

TylerScottDavis
04-28-2006, 11:11 AM
" Despite that possibility, an offense that could have as many as seven quality hitters (Dunn, Griffey, Kearns, Encarnacion, Lopez, Phillips and Jason LaRue) gives the Reds a definite shot at being significantly better than I gave them credit for at the beginning of the season. "

And that's without him realizing that we quite possibly have the best leadoff hitter / OBP guy in the league (Freel) and another catcher who's just as good or better offensively as Larue (Valentin) and I'd bet on Aurlia finishing the year with an .800+ OPS as well. As far as Hatteberg, if he keeps getting on base at a .400+ clip all year (whether he can hit or not, he can walk), EE or Phillips could end up leading the team in RBI's.

vaticanplum
04-28-2006, 11:15 AM
It's amazing how off one's perceptions can sometimes be from the facts. Here I am bowled over by the Reds' pitching (I in no way think it's good, but any improvement sends me into dumbfounded shock) -- by the shutouts, Arroyo, Coffey, etc. And this guy doesn't even mention the pitching. He talks about the hitting, never a concern for the Reds, and here I am thinking Dunn is in a slump.

He's right, of course, and though the article is positive it's actually kind of disheartening because there hasn't been as much as a shift as I've allowed myself to believe. Just a reminder that if we manage to stay close with the offense through a good chunk of the summer, it's absolutely crucial that we trade for pitching at the deadline if we have any intention of competing this year (I'm not sure if that's Cast/Krivsky's hope but whatever).

remdog
04-28-2006, 11:23 AM
" And that's without him realizing that we quite possibly have the best leadoff hitter / OBP guy in the league (Freel) and another catcher who's just as good or better offensively as Larue (Valentin) and I'd bet on Aurlia finishing the year with an .800+ OPS as well. As far as Hatteberg, if he keeps getting on base at a .400+ clip all year (whether he can hit or not, he can walk), EE or Phillips could end up leading the team in RBI's.

Dream on.

Rem

registerthis
04-28-2006, 11:26 AM
Dream on.

Rem

EE may not lead, but he's going to be up there.

TylerScottDavis
04-28-2006, 11:38 AM
EE will break 100 RBI this year, easy. And most of those will come out of the 6 spot in the lineup. With Dunn, Kearns, Griffey, Hatteberg hitting in front of him, he will see oppurtunity after oppurtunity to drive in runs, and I'm betting on him to continue cashing in.

redsmetz
04-28-2006, 11:44 AM
It's amazing how off one's perceptions can sometimes be from the facts. Here I am bowled over by the Reds' pitching (I in no way think it's good, but any improvement sends me into dumbfounded shock) -- by the shutouts, Arroyo, Coffey, etc. And this guy doesn't even mention the pitching. He talks about the hitting, never a concern for the Reds, and here I am thinking Dunn is in a slump.

This is what jumped out at me too. You have to give us some credit for Arroyo's start and Harang is pitching as we expected. Pitching remains are weakest link, but Arroyo raised the level quite a bit.

flyer85
04-28-2006, 11:50 AM
They're not going to top 1,000 runs, but how close can they come? Well, they're actually probably not playing all that far above their heads.I mentioned that in a thread yesterday that if you look at the Reds indivually that outside of Phillips there aren't any other guys that are playing way above expectations(unlike the Astros).

Chip R
04-28-2006, 12:12 PM
Actually, I will give that guy a ton of credit for re-assessing his impressions one month in. That's something most commentators are not real comfortable doing...

I think it's pretty dumb going back on your predictions this early.

membengal
04-28-2006, 12:40 PM
I think it's pretty dumb going back on your predictions this early.

Well, I don't think it's dumb to re-assess where you may have misidentified strengths and weaknesses at an early juncture. It's pretty clear that he underestimated Cincy's offense, and it's probably not too early to come to that conclusion. Whatever else the Reds can or cannot do, they can hit. A lot.

TeamBoone
04-28-2006, 01:47 PM
Amazingly, the Reds pitching has performed almost exactly the same as last year's pitching staff.

Wow! Is this true?

My thought would be that it's performed better... perhaps not significantly better, but better nonetheless.

HotCorner
04-28-2006, 02:22 PM
I would tend to believe our starters ERA for this season is better compared to last season. However I believe the bullpen is worse than last year and has dragged down the numbers for overall staff this season. I'll try to find some numbers to see if this theory holds any water.

Sabo Fan
04-28-2006, 02:32 PM
Wow! Is this true?

My thought would be that it's performed better... perhaps not significantly better, but better nonetheless.

I would say that it has, but then you get some serious inflation in numbers thanks to Dave Williams, Milton's one poor start as well as Claussen's clunker against the Brewers and Harang's rough go on Opening Day. When the Reds pitchers tank, they tank all the way, no halfway stuff. They've also won some 8-6 and 7-5 type games and that'll boost the old ERA, especially this early in the year. Better pitching overall this year perhaps, but only by a slim margin and likely because the offense has bailed out the pitching staff and gotten some wins they wouldn't have otherwise.

HotCorner
04-28-2006, 02:37 PM
2006

Starters: 5.12
Relievers: 4.93

Couldn't find the splits for 2005 but my point is already bunk.

BRM
04-28-2006, 02:44 PM
2006

Starters: 5.12
Relievers: 4.93

Couldn't find the splits for 2005 but my point is already bunk.

2005

Starters: 5.38
Relievers: 4.75
Overall: 5.15

Caveat Emperor
04-28-2006, 02:52 PM
I think it's pretty dumb going back on your predictions this early.

Especially re-assessing a team that has, admittedly, beaten up on what should be the also-rans of the NL: Washington, Pittsburgh and Florida. They did beat pre-Derrek Lee injury Cubs -- but without Prior and Wood, that team is going to be a shell this year too.

It's a hot start -- no denying that, but it's a house of card act right now that's built on an offense scoring at an ungodly pace (that won't continue), 2 decent starters (Harang & Arroyo) and 3 decent relievers (Mercker, Coffey, and Weathers).

It's thrilling and exciting for now, but this particular Space Mountain always breaks down about halfway through the ride.

BRM
04-28-2006, 02:54 PM
It's thrilling and exciting for now, but this particular Space Mountain always breaks down about halfway through the ride.

We may be lucky if the ride can make it halfway.

membengal
04-28-2006, 03:02 PM
Especially re-assessing a team that has, admittedly, beaten up on what should be the also-rans of the NL: Washington, Pittsburgh and Florida. They did beat pre-Derrek Lee injury Cubs -- but without Prior and Wood, that team is going to be a shell this year too.

It's a hot start -- no denying that, but it's a house of card act right now that's built on an offense scoring at an ungodly pace (that won't continue), 2 decent starters (Harang & Arroyo) and 3 decent relievers (Mercker, Coffey, and Weathers).

It's thrilling and exciting for now, but this particular Space Mountain always breaks down about halfway through the ride.

Again, his re-assess is based on his selling the offense short, which he thinks he did. He's probably right. The Reds appear to be better than the Pirates at this point, and I suspect that won't change between now and October 2. So, his re-assessing makes sense. He's not picking them to finish first, just not to finish last. I am OK with that...I think that they won't finish behind Pittsburgh either...