Yesterday, I published an article on Fangraphs Community discussing the effect that strength of schedule can have on early-season offense. Among other things, I noticed that while the Oakland Athletics have been tearing up the league with their bats, they’ve also faced some of the worst pitching in the league for two months straight. Are the Athletics a good team? Sure they are. Would they have scored this many runs if they were facing some decent pitching? Probably not.
How does that analysis apply to the NL Central this year?
The NL Central hasn’t exactly torn it up this season in the offense department. By wRC+, a first-rate metric for evaluating batter production, the clubs currently rate as follows:
“100” is average. This means that every single club in the Division is below average offensively. The Pirates have produced the best, by a small margin, the Brewers and Cardinals are close behind, and the Reds and Cubs have been wholly inept, down in the basement.
Some of this depressed production likely can be traced to the quality of the pitching the NL Central has faced over the first two months, which has been pretty brutal compared to most other teams. As I calculated it, this is what we end up with:
This table may be a bit difficult for the uninitiated, but it’s the same sort of table I had in the article I linked above. Here’s what you need to know: (1) SIERA is a metric that does a really good job of evaluating pitcher talent; (2) The average SIERA in baseball this year is 3.73; (3) A lower SIERA means the pitching staff is better (and tougher for opposing batters); and (4) small changes in SIERA have a big effect on runs scored.
Every single NL Central club has faced pitching that, in the aggregate, was better (lower) than the 3.73. According to my calculations in the last row, it has cost each club from five to eight runs over the course of those two months. Of the NL Central teams, the Brewers were hit the hardest, at eight runs lost, which equates to about one win lost. So, before you criticize the Brewers or Cardinals too much for their hitting struggles, realize that they were facing some fairly tough competition.
What’s important, though, is that this should change for the Brewers in June. Look at the gulf between the quality of pitching the Brewers will face, and the rest of the division next month:
The Brewers get to face some fairly terrible pitching in June. In fact, they are the only team in the division that is facing below-average pitching next month. The improvement is worth an extra seven runs over average, almost an extra win over the course of the month. Compare that to the Cubs and Reds, who once again face tough, above-average pitching, and the lowly Pirates, who are walking into a meat grinder of a schedule that may well finish them off. My method estimates they will lose about 22 runs — which is about 2.5 wins — simply from strength of schedule alone. When you compare the Brewers to the Pirates over the course of June, you have a differential of 29 runs, which is over three wins of expected benefit to the Brewers before they even play the games.
As I noted in my Fangraphs article, this means that Brewers will enjoy in June the same (poor) quality of opponent that the Athletics have been tearing up so far in 2014. The Cardinals have a somewhat favorable schedule as well, but it is nothing like what the Brewers are being handed. With Aramis Ramirez returning to health and the rest of the lineup starting to click, the bottom line is that the Brewers will have no excuses if they do not use their June schedule to bury some of the basement teams in the division, and at least remain competitive with the Cardinals, who have been nipping at their heels.
The Brewers have generally made the most of their opportunities so far this season; this is their next chance to do the same.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter @bachlaw.
All data is from Fangraphs.