Throw It Like a Ballplayer

providing baseball commentary and ponderings since April 2010

The NL Central Quarterly, pt. 1

Posted by dannmckeegan on May 20, 2010

A quick glance at the NL Central standings through the season’s first quarter isn’t all that surprising. The clear-cut favorite and the sexy long-shot are neck-and-neck atop the division. The veteran team with some clear holes is lingering. The perennial doormat is surprisingly competitive. The all-hit, no-pitch team looks to be in freefall. And the expected loser has struggled as much as was expected.

I began looking at the standings and scoreboards, but then I became curious about the breakdown of records. Specifically, the oft-mentioned Cubs record of 1-17 when they score 3 or fewer runs was of interest. Obviously, most teams will do poorly when they don’t score any runs. On the other hand, they may be expected to do well when they do put runs on the board. So as of Wednesday night, the other half of the Cubs’ split is an 18-5 record when they score 4 or more runs.

A few questions arise. First, is there anything we can learn from the straight runs scored/runs allowed difference? Second, how does the Cubs’ low/high offense split compare to that of the other teams in the NL Central? Third, what relationship exists between the 4-run barrier and the individual teams’ runs scored and runs allowed? Fourth, does the cumulative view change much when we separate runs for and against each team into categories above and below the 4-run barrier?

Cincinnati 23-17 40 192 195 -3
St. Louis 23-18 41 170 143 +27
Chicago 19-22 41 188 194 -6
Pittsburgh 18-22 40 141 245 -104
Milwaukee 15-25 40 210 234 -24
Houston 14-26 40 122 189 -67

This is just some basic info on each team: their overall record, their overall offensive and pitching/defensive production, and the difference between their runs and runs allowed.
Let’s break down those runs scored and runs allowed values into per-game +/- values:
*Reds: -0.075 runs/game
*Cards: +0.659 runs/game
*Cubs: -0.146 runs/game
*Pirates: -2.600 runs/game
*Brewers: -0.600 runs/game
*Astros: -1.675 runs/game

So the division leader averages a loss by a hair, only one team has outscored its opponents, a near-.500 4th-place team averages a loss by more than two-and-a-half runs per game, and only the Cubs are in their “proper” place. Well, one conclusion we might want to draw is that, despite their record, the Pirates still suck. Although we should remember that Milwaukee hung a pair of drubbings on them at a combined 37-3 score. Each team’s numbers would sidle up to one another if we ignored those two days. But we won’t: they happened. Overall, we can draw a basic conclusion that says St. Louis has deserved what they’ve gotten so far, while Cincinnati shouldn’t be quite where they are. They and the Cubs should be straddling the .500 marker. The other three teams, meanwhile, ought to be quite far from being competitive.


To begin answering the next question, we need to break down the cumulative totals a bit further, into two categories: that which occurred when the team scored 3 or fewer runs, and that which occurred when the team scored at least 4 runs.

Cincinnati 5-10 15 36 62 18-7 25 156 133
St. Louis 3-15 18 31 62 20-3 23 139 81
Chicago 1-17 18 33 82 18-5 23 155 112
Pittsburgh 4-20 24 42 165 14-2 16 99 80
Milwaukee 1-18 19 34 125 14-7 21 176 109
Houston 1-23 24 34 122 13-3 16 88 67

We see from this little table that the Reds have managed to score that extra run or two every so often, reflected by the division-low 15 games of 3 or fewer runs. Meanwhile, both Houston and Pittsburgh have had a lot of trouble getting their offense going consistently. They have each failed to get past 3 runs of offense in 60% of their games! Meanwhile, the Cards, Cubs and Brewers are in the middle of this pack: about 45% of their games have seen their offenses fail to get going.

Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh have each managed to win at least some of those low-offense affairs, while the pitching staffs of the Cubs, Brewers and Astros have only held up in one such game for each team. But we can note that the Cubs have avoided such games a hair better than the 5th and 6th place pair.

Over on the other half of the table, we see something interesting with the records when the teams score four or more runs: overall place in the standings fails to serve as a predictor for higher-scoring results. While Houston and Pittsburgh have only reached 4 runs in 40% of their games, they make the most out of it when they do. St. Louis, meanwhile also dominates when their offense provides at least decent support. We then see that, with 7 such losses apiece, neither the Reds nor Brewers can feel too confident with 4 runs as the bottom cutoff. The Cubs find themselves in the middle, much like in the overall standings. They win 78% of these games, certainly a healthy number.

This examination tells us a lot about the pitching of each team. St. Louis clearly doesn’t allow many runs, and the consistency of their 4+ record implies that all of their starters are doing well. Milwaukee clearly needs to be a high scoring team – and by mean they are – but their pitching renders their offense almost meaningless. We can see from Cincinnati’s odd breakdown – a very high win percentage for low-offense games and a low win percentage for high-offense games – that they have been inconsistent in their pitching. The Astros and Pirates both trend heavily towards low offensive production, yet the Pirates are 4 games ahead of Houston. Three of them are on the low-offense side. Maybe the Pirates have a stopper, or maybe it’s just luck. Given the two examinations so far, I’d have to lean toward luck.

Let’s recall the per-game average run differences above, and add on the values for when the team does and does not reach 4 runs:

Reds -0.075 -1.733 +0.920
Cards +0.659 -1.722 +2.522
Cubs -0.146 -2.722 +1.870
Pirates -2.600 -5.125 +1.188
Brewers -0.600 -4.789 +3.190
Astros -1.675 -3.826 +1.313

First, let’s look at those games in which the team scores three or fewer runs. The Pirates and Brewers lose, on average, by 5 runs, and the Astros are a hair closer than 4 runs per defeat. The Reds and St. Louis lose by just about the same margin – less than 2 runs per game – while the Cubs are a run behind them. We can work backwards from what we know to expand on this. Cincinnati and St. Louis average a 4-2 loss, while the Cubs are falling around 5-2. Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, on the other hand, are more familiar with 7-2 losses. The Astros are looking at 5-1 as a mean defeat when they don’t put anything up.

When the offense shows up? An even more interesting picture shows up. The first-place Cincinnati Reds are eking out wins by an even smaller margin than the lowly Astros and apparently undeservedly un-lowly Pirates. The Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers, meanwhile, put up more comfortable margins of victory. The Reds’ 5-4 mean margin of victory resembles that of the last place Astros! Meanwhile, the Cardinals are almost averaging a 6-3 double-up. The Cubs also have an insurance run tacked on to their 7-5 mean margin. Pittsburgh’s margin is about 6-4 on average, while the Brewer offense is in full display with a Milwaukee mean margin of 8-5.
Now, with one-figure rounding, some of these averages don’t re-tally to the totals. That wasn’t my intent. I just wanted to make this data mean something contextually. Both the Cubs and the Reds seem to live and die by their offense, with their pitching being more or less consistent from game to game. St. Louis, on the other hand, seems to get better pitching when the offense shows up, though this might simply be an early-season sample issue. Houston’s wins just barely happen, requiring marginally better pitching in addition to some offensive output. The Brewers and Astros, though, seem to be two entirely different teams when they do or don’t reach the 4-run plateau.


I’ll wrap up for today and answer the other two questions in Friday’s entry. What I want to stress is that nobody seems to be all that good when the offense doesn’t show up. It is a stark reminder that only offenses can win ballgames, and only pitchers and defenses can lose them. A 9-inning shutout can be a no-decision, just as a 5-inning, 6 run disaster can hold up. The NL Central appears to offer only one team that’s doing entirely what it’s supposed to, and that’s last place Houston. The Pirates, by all rights, ought to be much worse than a half-game in back of the Cubs. The Cubs and Reds should be neck and neck, but a bit back of St. Louis. And Milwaukee should just enter a softball league and put a cold keg at first base.

Tomorrow I’ll analyze the numbers by way of Pythagoras and his famous theorem. Bill James, still among the most prominent sabermetricians, devised the concept of Pythagorean win/loss records. The concept assumes that runs and luck go together. It operates on the principle that the closest distance between two points (wins as forward progress and losses as downward drag if you wish to see it in two dimensions) is a straight line “as the crow flies.” Where are the crows of the NL Central flying?  Upon whom have the baseball gods been smiling?


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