In May 2012, the Pittsburgh Pirates won 11 games with margins of victory of one or two runs, allowing their club to offset five losses of at least five runs. While the club steadily remained between third and fourth place throughout much of May — hovering around three-to-five games out of first place — they turned 89 RS / 110 RA into 15 wins, setting up the momentum for strong June and July runs. On June 10, the Pirates briefly grabbed first place, and then battled throughout the month to regain the top NL Central position on July 3. For nine days in July, the Pirates were the Central’s top club, prompting the organization to fortify their pitching rotation with Wandy Rodriguez, and prepare for their stretch run.
Reds and Pirates
No matter how good the Pirates were at their very best, the Cincinnati Reds were better. July, as it turns out, was their month in 2012. Of course, the Reds did not post a losing monthly record until their final three games in October, but July was their month; they outplayed the Pirates’ best efforts with their own 19-7 mark, including 13 wins with margins of one or two runs.
First half (w/ run differential winning percentage):
Pittsburgh: 48-37 (345 RS / 313 RA) (.5442; 46 wins)
Cincinnati: 47-38 (358 RS / 316 RA) (.5565; 47 wins)
St. Louis: 46-40 (426 RS / 356 RA) (.5810; 50 wins)
Milwaukee: 40-45 (384 RS / 393 RA) (.4900; 42 wins)
Chicago: 33-52 (317 RS / 386 RA) (.4113; 35 wins)
Houston: 33-53 (344 RS / 416 RA) (.4144; 36 wins)
The differences between the Reds and Pirates were simple: the Pirates built their collection of hot streaks and good months on an early foundation that required them to outplay their run differential. One could have found early signs that the organization would not sustain their first place surge, not with their collection of bats, and not with the concurrent surges of other NL Central competition. After the trading deadline, the Reds piled on 19 August wins and 16 September/October wins, part of a monstrous second half run that featured seven wins beyond their run differential. Of course, the Reds already had a stronger foundation of runs scored/runs allowed than the Pirates did; the Reds’ ability to outplay their actual performance of runs scored/runs allowed elevated their club to the next level of competition for a playoff spot, while the Pirates’ ability to outplay their run differential and then surge in June and July simply brought them into the mix. Unfortunately, the second half went accordingly; the Pirates fell off, while the Reds solidified their division championship.
Second half (w/ run differential winning percentage):
Cincinnati: 50-27 (311 RS / 272 RA) (.5607; 43 wins)
Milwaukee: 43-34 (392 RS / 340 RA) (.5644; 43 wins)
St. Louis: 42-34 (339 RS / 292 RA) (.5675; 43 wins)
Pittsburgh: 31-46 (306 RS / 361 RA) (.4254; 33 wins)
Chicago: 28-49 (296 RS / 373 RA) (.3963; 31 wins)
Houston: 22-54 (239 RS / 378 RA) (.3027; 23 wins)
Consistency is some gold standard in baseball, this highly sought-after ideal, the grand destination for playing all-162, day-in, day-out. In 2012 NL Central, consistency was the St. Louis Cardinals. Despite facing numerous upheavals in their pitching rotation, and an offense that was good — but perhaps not as good as their “true abilities,” the Cardinals maintained similar winning percentages during the first and second halves of the season. In both parts of the season, the Cardinals underplayed their run differential, which results in interesting arguments about their potential to win the NL Central in 2013. While one might note that the Reds outplayed their runs scored/runs allowed, and the Pirates and Brewers surged for one half (each), the Cardinals underplayed their true performance on the field and still managed to make the playoffs (and make some noise as a wild card).
St. Louis: 14-8
St. Louis: 13-16
St. Louis: 13-14
St. Louis: 15-10
St. Louis: 16-13
September / October:
St. Louis: 17-13
While we prepare our expectations for the 2013 season, we should keep the 2012 Cardinals in mind as a model for competing in the National League. Baseball fans are frequently tempted to look at rosters and make all-or-nothing pronouncements about those rosters’ abilities to succeed. I think we frequently consider contending clubs as first-place clubs that dominate, and everyone else fits in that muddled gang of clubs that win 75 or fewer games. Yet, while the entire NL Central was surging (at one point or another), or outplaying their respective run differentials, the Cardinals made the playoffs while (a) underplaying their runs scored/runs allowed, (b) posting two losing months, and (c) posting the best monthly record in the NL Central only once.
Certainly, the Cardinals were not an unassuming ballclub. They scored 765 runs and allowed 648 runs, which is a strong team performance by just about any measure. Certainly, they were not some collection of ragamuffins that sneaked into the playoffs. However, one could argue that they were under the radar; they weren’t in first place one day after May; they spent several five day stretches in third place in June, and also spent much of July and August in third place; they put together strong August and September campaigns, but even those 16-13 and 17-13 stretches were not the best in the NL Central in their respective months. The Cardinals sat in waiting for most of the 2012 season, waiting out their own lulls in performance, waiting out their own problems with their roster, and even waiting out several surges from other NL Central clubs.
Competing with the New Wild Card
When we think about the 2013 Brewers, we should think about the contemporary playoff climate. The Cardinals proved that a team can spend most of the season outside of first place — even four consecutive months outside of first place — and still make the playoffs; a team can even spend a month (or more) in third place and still make the playoffs. We shouldn’t necessarily put stock in the fact that the Brewers surged at the end of 2012; certainly, that surge showed the strength of the Brewers’ roster once healthy, and once a group of youngsters seized their rotation spots (and the bullpen corrected itself). However, we should think about the potential that the Brewers are good enough to sit around in second and third place for most of the season, have some good months here and there, and stay in the mix.
Are the Brewers a club that can contend for the NL Central? Absolutely. The face of the division is changing, the major aces of the last half-decade are aging and a gang of organizational pitchers is vying for their opportunities for glory and a spot in divisional lore. At the same time, these changes are masked by rosters that remain remarkably similar between 2012 and 2013; perhaps the rebuilding Cubs made the most major roster shifts, rather than any of the contenders. More than a contending club, the Brewers are a competitive club, and this is what we should keep in the backs of our minds when we form our 2013 expectations: we don’t need to concern ourselves about whether the Brewers can stay in first place for ___ days; we need to concern ourselves with how close the Brewers can remain to the wild card while playing in second or third place. It’s a strange idea to consider, but the 2012 Cardinals are one model club for the new MLB playoffs system.