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Simply the Best

In Baseball on June 26, 2013 at 5:17 pm

The Cardinals, Pirates and Reds are neck-and-neck atop the National League Central Division. They’re also probably the three best teams in baseball.

The St. Louis Cardinals are the best team in baseball. That series of words makes me very happy. The Cincinnati Reds are the second-best team in baseball. That series of words makes me less happy. The Pittsburgh Pirates are the third-best team in baseball. That series of words makes me confused.

In 2006, the National League Central Division was a punch line. An 83-win Cardinals team that limped to the finish line won the division crown simply because it limped faster than the other five clubs. Seven years later — and sans a franchise in Texas — the NL Central has transformed from a race to the bottom to MLB’s most competitive division. As of Tuesday, 2.5 games separated first place St. Louis from third place Cincinnati. And the three clubs show no signs of slowing down.

But what has made the three teams so good this season? Interestingly, the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds have respectively compiled the three best records in Major League Baseball in very different ways. Perhaps fittingly, St. Louis has rushed out to a 47-29 record through a combination of stellar pitching and a patient approach at the plate. Cardinal pitchers have combined for a 3.22 ERA, second-best in the NL. They lead the NL in earned runs, home runs and walks, and are second in the league in strikeouts. Collectively, St. Louis pitchers have posted a 116 ERA+ while surrendering .6 HR/9 while striking out eight batters per game. More impressively, Cardinals  pitching has been dominant despite injuries to starters Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia, reliever Fernando Salas and closer Jason Motte.

St. Louis hitters have also gotten it done in the batter’s box. The team ranks first in the NL in batting average, first in on-base percentage and second in slugging percentage. Cardinal batters have demonstrated exceptional discipline at the plate this season, swinging at less than a third of pitches outside the strike zone. They’ve also shown an impressive ability to put the bat on the ball, making contact with 65.1 percent of outside pitches swung at, and an eye-popping 87.5 percent of pitches in the strike zone. The Cardinals have translated that plate discipline into a +106 run differential, nearly 30 runs better than the second place Detroit Tigers.

Meanwhile, Cincinnati’s hitting and pitching have both been above average. As a team, the Reds rank first in the NL in home runs and walks, and their .328 team OBP is good for third among NL clubs. But those figures could be misleading. Cincinnati hitters can mash, no doubt. But the latter two stats are buoyed by Joey Votto’s outstanding .440 OBP and Shin-Soo Choo’s .424 mark. The rest of the Reds’ lineup is either average or below average in getting on base. Correspondingly, Cincinnati’s run differential is only +59, second in the NL, but far off St. Louis’s figure.

Where the Reds have really made their mark is pitching. Cincinnati pitchers have combined for a 3.45 team ERA, good for fourth in the NL, and have struck out a league-leading 638 batters. Reliever Aroldis Chapman has anchored the Cincinnati bullpen, posting a 148 ERA+, while striking out 15.3 batters per nine innings. But the team’s real strength has been its starters. Bronson Arroyo, Mat Latos and Mike Leake have each been outstanding, each putting up ERAs around 3 in at least 96 innings pitched. In fact, Homer Bailey has been ostensibly the worst member of the starting rotation, posting a 3.75 ERA and an ERA+ of only 106. The strength of that rotation also lessens the impact of reliever Sean Marshall’s shoulder injury.

The Pirates, however, might be the most interesting team in the NL Central. Pittsburgh is in the middle or bottom half of the NL in most offensive categories except RBI, caught stealing and strikeouts. Beyond Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates’ lineup lacks punch. The team’s pitching is significantly better, posting a team ERA of 3.24, and leading the league in hits and runs, while ranking third in earned runs and home runs allowed. Pittsburgh has only posted a +29 run differential, but the team has significantly over-performed its Pythagorean Win-Loss record, which translates run differential into a win-loss estimate. The Pirates’ +29 figure should be good for a 42-34 record. Instead, the team has a 46-30 record and is only one game behind the Cardinals in the NL Central standings.

With about 90 games remaining this season, there’s plenty of time for one team to separate from the trifecta, or for a few games of leapfrog in the standings. What’s certain is that the NL Central race hasn’t been this exciting since 2003, when the Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros and Cardinals finished within three games of each other. But there is one major difference from 10 years ago to 2013. In 2003, each league had only one wild card, and the wild card team couldn’t face a division mate in the first round of the playoffs. Today, there are two wild cards per league — and no limitations based on division. The Cardinals, Reds and Pirates are each vying for playoff spots, and in 2013, they each might get one.


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