Why is the NL Central So Bad?! Contributed by Rob McQuown Tuesday, 25 September 2007 There's not getting around it, it's bad. Despite having the World Series-winning team from 2006, few would debate that it's been the softest division in baseball these past two years. Consider the depth of its “badness”. The division's cumulative record sat at a .474 winning percentage through 9/15/07. And this represents an improvement from the divisional mark of .467 in 2006.
Only the Milwaukee Brewers are playing .500 or better against either of the directional divisions (East or West) in the NL. They are 15-14 against the NL East. Each of the 11 other matchups has resulted in a sub-.500 record in 2007 (through games of 9/15). The Interleague results are somewhat more encouraging, with the Cubs hammering the White Sox five(5) times in six(6) meetings this season en route to an 8-4 Interleague record, while the Brewers also stayed above .500 at 8-7 against the AL, and the Astros were 9-9 against the AL.
But why are they so bad? A quick answer would be to blame the GM's. After all, two have been fired from this division in recent days, and few ever argued that Dave Littlefield was among the better GM's in the game. And Tim Purpura has drawn mixed reviews, but the Astros off-season moves this past season were – even at the time – viewed as being awful. And Wayne Krivsky's first big move with the Reds was widely lambasted as being historically bad. And Jim Hendry was ripped for overpaying for the players he signed this past off-season.
But is that really it? The NL representative in the World Series in 2005 and 2006 came from this division, and Littlefield's bad trades haven't had much impact on the division as several were made with Chicago. The “historically” bad trade Krivsky made to the Nats has resulted in two disappointing players with rather large salaries in Washington, so perhaps he knew something. And, while the Cubs overspent at many positions all the way from manager to backup catcher, they did acquire pieces which made the team better, and money didn't seem to be an object.
So, calling the NL Central GM's a bunch of muttonheads may be facile, but doesn't seem to be the whole answer. So, what else would determine how strong an entire division is? And do you look at the average team? The best team? The worst team? The fact that the NL Central has 6 teams complicates matters somewhat. But, in general, the three best teams should be examined more closely, as the question of divisional strength really comes down to “what would a good team have to do to win in this division?” And each team (even those not in the top 3) needs to be reviewed for strength and depth in each aspect of winning baseball: offense, defense (non-pitching), starting pitching, and bullpen.
Stars: Time was, the names Pujols, Edmonds, and Rolen would send even a hearty pitcher running for cover. Add Griffey, Bay, Dunn, Lees Derrek and Carlos, the Milwaukee infield, Aramis Ramirez, etc. And it seems like there's good star power among the NL Central hitters. And – in fact – 8 of the 20 All-Star game offensive players were from the NL Central this season, or slightly more than would be expected from 6/16 teams. Considering the widely-held assumption that East-coast (and LA) players are more-hyped than other areas of the nation, this would be a bit surprising if there really weren't good players in the NLC. Eleven (11) of the top 30 players on the VORP NL leader list from Baseball Prospectus (baseballprospectus.com) are from the NL Central, or slightly less than their “due” based on having 6/16 teams. All-in-all, it's safe to say that there's not a huge shortage of star power among NL Central batters, though it may be a little light.
Depth: This is always difficult to measure, since teams which encounter less adversity will have less need to display their depth. Yet, as a whole, the NL Central is hitting .267/.332/.424, which is virtually the same as league-average (.266/.334/.422). The NL Central has slightly better hitters parks than average for the NL (From baseball-reference.com, the average NL Central team has a batting factor of 102 this year, with the rest of the NL being 100).
Summary: The NLC may be at a very slight disadvantage offensively, both on star power and depth. But it is very slight. A 1% shortage of offense would lead (based on Pythagorean Theorem) to a .495 winning percentage. But it's unclear that even this shortcoming exists.
Run Prevention (Pitching and defense):
Stars: Oswalt, Carpenter, Zambrano, Sheets, and the league's most underrated pitcher - Aaron Harang – all pitch here. 8 of the top 20 NL VORP pitchers (all starters) are in the Central. And, though none of the top 5 play there, Oswalt, Harang, and Lilly are 6,7, and 9. In 2006, 3 of the top 4 NL VORP pitchers were in the NL Central. The loss of Carpenter significantly impacts the NL Central's pitching star power, though not as badly as it impacted the Cardinals this season (or in the 2004 World Series).
Relievers are different birds, since “stars” come and fade almost every year in the bullpen. And the performance of relievers is extremely difficult to evaluate. Francisco “Coco” Cordero is 2nd in the league in saves, and Isringhausen has annihilated opposing hitters this year. Though his save total is only 30, he's held opponent hitters to a paltry .176/.267/.275 batting line. Baseball Prospectus has a good reliever report that is available to their online subscribers. It measures effectiveness at preventing runs, weighing pressure situations more heavily. Per their report, Isringhausen has been the NL Central's best reliever this year, and 6th-best in the NL. Again, 8 of the top 20 are in the NL.
So, the NL Central appears to have as much “star power” pitching as any other division in the NL. They lack a top-5 reliever and a top-5 starter, but they are well represented in the top 20. This is somewhat surprising, given that two teams lost their aces to injuries for much of the season (Cards and Brewers), and a third (Cubs) with an ace showing a significant drop-off from previous seasons.
Depth: Aha! Talk about bad pitching depth! The bottom of the league runs-allowed list reads:
St. Louis: 5.13
Who are the offenders? A quick way to find pitchers who have put the “hurt” on their teams this season is to sort the Baseball Prospectus VORP list in reverse, since this will show the guys who have performed the furthest below the mythical “replacement level” line. A lack of pitching depth should show up here, since bad pitchers would be used for more innings than they would for teams with more depth. Note that if “replacement level” is changed, the list would change, since the measure of “badness” is, essentially, innings times (runs allowed rate – replacement level rate). Last year's World Champions, losing their entire rotation from an already mediocre 2006 pitching staff (Reyes did start 17 games in 2006), are the most-represented team on the anti-VORP list (9 of the bottom 20):
Mike Maroth, STL: 37.0 IP, 10.95 ERA, 13.62 RA (runs allowed/9 ip)
Phil Dumatrait, CIN: 18.0 IP, 15.00 ERA, 15.00 RA
Kip Wells, STL: 156.7 IP, 5.80 ERA, 6.55 RA
Andy Cavazos, STL: 19.0 IP, 9.95 ERA, 11.37 RA
Jonah Bayliss, PIT: 37.7 IP, 8.36 ERA, 8.60 RA
Mark Mulder, STL: 11.0 IP, 12.27 ERA, 13.91 RA
Masumi Kuwata, PIT: 21.0 IP, 9.43 ERA, 9.86 RA
Kelvin Jimenez, STL: 40.0 IP, 7.65 ERA, 7.88 RA
Jason Jennings, HOU: 99.0 IP, 6.45 ERA, 6.64 RA
For those of you scoring at home, this can be broken down as: 3 pitchers on teams which fired their GM's, 1 on a team which plays in a bandbox (The Great American Small Park in Cincinnati) - and 5 pitchers (263.7 IP) on the Cardinals.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE CARDINALS!?!? Without any air-quotes added, Dave Duncan really has been a genius as a pitching coach over the years. While he hasn't had much success at developing young arms, he's - time after time – done two things exceptionally well: a) reclaimed seemingly washed-up not-so-young pitchers, and b) used his bullpen arms in a way to maximize their performance. He hasn't been perfect in reclaiming older starters, but he's been almost perfect in figuring out relievers. Reyes also made the anti-VORP list at 29th (107.3 IP, 6.04 ERA, 6.46 RA), so Duncan still hasn't really shown the ability to develop youngsters either... but Wainwright is pitching well down the stretch.
Summary: The average team ERA in the NL Central is 4.95, compared to a league ERA of 4.69, or more than 5.5% worse than league average(!) Only the Cubs (at 2nd-best) are in the top half of runs allowed. If you plug these runs allowed values into the Pythagorean Theorem, it shows that the division should have a .473 winning percentage... almost exactly what it has (.474).
The NL Central is indeed bad. But – by looking at the numbers closely – it's clear that the reason for that is the pitching depth. There is enough star power in the division to “represent”. And the hitting is just fine, compared to the other NL divisions. Again, it would be easy to say that returns to form for Carpenter, Sheets, and Zambrano will bolster the division's pitching. But there will always be injuries, and the other divisions had to deal with them too. The real culprit is pitching depth!
How much of the pitching depth problem is GM-related? Well, 2 of the 3 worst-pitching teams in the division fired their GM's, so maybe we'll see some changes in Pittsburgh and Houston pitching going forward. The Cardinals are mystifying, though. The Cards went from .03 R/G better than NL average in 2006 to 0.44 R/G worse than NL average. Finding “replacement level” talent cheaply should not be difficult. If the Cardinals get back to average in pitching, the winning percentage of the division will go up by 7 points (.474 to .481). Expecting better pitching in Cincy isn't unreasonable, although it's a little optimistic. The park is a difficult place in which to pitch, but Arroyo should bounce back a bit, and if Bailey can throw strikes, he should be an upgrade over the drek at the bottom of their rotation in 2007.
For 2008, expect the NL Central to be as good as the pitching depth. If the new hires in Pittsburgh and Houston can just find “will do” innings to work as filler, and IF the manager in Cincy can get rid of some of the dead weight at the back of the pitching staff, expect to see the NL Central “rise” to a .500-ish winning percentage in 2008. Those are 3 big if's, so another sub-.500 season seems likely.