The NL Central: Who Should Win It? | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

So here we are at the All-Star Break, with the Brewers clinging to a one-game divisional lead. After two months of acting disinterested, the Cardinals, Reds, and Pirates have come charging back. As of now, the Cardinals are one game back, the Reds one and a half games back, and the Pirates somewhat frustrated at three games back.

Now the question is, can the Brewers hold them all off? To answer that question, we need to look at projections.

Many of you are generally familiar with projections: the statistical expectations for players that ball clubs, and increasingly fans, use to predict the performances of baseball players. You’ve probably heard of PECOTA (published at Baseball Prospectus). You may even have heard of ZiPS, published by Dan Szymborski.

The one you may not have heard of is Steamer; if so, that’s unfortunate. Steamer is making a case as the best publicly-available projection system. Last year, it predicted the average performance of baseball players better than any other system. More importantly, unlike other systems, Steamer actually keeps a close track on significant in-season injuries, and adjusts its projections both accordingly and promptly.

That matters right now, since neither PECOTA nor ZiPS have noticed that players like Yadier Molina and Brandon Phillips will be out for two months, much less adjusted their projections .  That may be one reason both PECOTA and Fangraphs (which averages ZiPS and Steamer’s projections) now see the Cardinals as slight favorites in the NL Central. Admittedly, both PECOTA and Fangraphs are a bit more advanced than what I am about to do here; unlike me, they take their projections and actually simulate the games for the rest of the season. But, those simulations still rely heavily on the quality of the underlying projections, and, as you’re about to see, a more realistic rest-of-season projection system likes the Brewers better.

To make these projections, I started with the projected Fangraphs position player and pitcher wins above replacement (WAR) for the rest of this season, as predicted by Steamer, for each NL Central team. Here is how Steamer rates the teams’ abilities going forward:

Team Hitting Pitching Rest-of Season Total WAR
Pirates 9.5 2.8 12.3
Cards 8.2 3.1 11.3
Brewers 7.7 3 10.7
Reds 6.8 3.9 10.7
Cubs 6.1 3.2 9.3

The bad news, if you want to look at it that way, is that the Brewers rank behind the Pirates and Cardinals in projected player production, tied with the Reds at the back of the four contenders. The good news is that the differences aren’t that significant, and the Brewers start out with a small head start in the standings when play resumes on Friday.

We can take the projected WAR by Steamer for each team for the rest of the year, convert it to team wins, and come up with a projected standings differential. If you care about the math, check it out in the appendix below. If you don’t care, please continue:

Team Hitting Pitching tWAR Wins to date Current Games Behind Win Factor Final Games Behind
Brewers 7.7 3 10.7 53  0.0 0.826882 0.0
Cards 8.2 3.1 11.3 52 -1 0.826882 -0.5
Reds 6.8 3.9 10.7 51 -1.5 0.826882 -1.5
Pirates 9.5 2.8 12.3 49 -3.5 0.826882 -2.2
Cubs 6.1 3.2 9.3 40 -12 0.826882 -13.2

So, there you have it: not much is projected to change. According to Steamer, the Pirates will lead the rest of the division with their bats, while the Reds keep pace with their pitching. The Cardinals will continue their overall resurgence, while the Brewers will hang in there and, most likely, generate enough production to win the division.  Steamer is somewhat bullish on the Cubs remaining competitive from day to day, not that it will do them much good.  But the real point, here, is that none of the contenders has a clear advantage, and the Brewers need not take a back seat to anyone down the stretch.  As it currently stands, the 50th percentile expectation is that the Brewers retain a narrow lead as the season concludes.

Two final notes: first, these are average values for each team. There is nothing wrong with averages: they are quite literally the expected values for any given statistic. But, random variation (or, if you prefer, “chance’ or “luck”) will mess with these expectations. At least one NL Central team will probably overperform its expectation, while one or two others drift off pace a bit, due to injury or something else.  But that’s why they play the games, and why we all bother to watch.

Second, one could reasonably argue that the Brewers will outpace what Steamer has projected for them. Steamer was bit pessimistic about the Brewers coming into this year, and several Brewers have so far outperformed what Steamer expected. That may, or may not continue. Similarly, the Brewers’ comparatively low pitching projection is based on their low projected Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) metric. But Brewers pitchers have outperformed that statistic all year, better than most teams. That by no means proves that they will continue to do so, but it reminds you that the Brewers enter the second stage of the 2014 season with plenty of upside.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter @bachlaw.

All statistics from Fangraphs.

Appendix

In 2014, ~.82 team fWAR correlates to one team win.  The correlation is .78, and p<.001 (very statistically significant).

You can probably assume that 31 wins (the rounded-up intercept) is about what a replacement level team would have produced by the All Star Break. 

Finally, rather than worry about strict innings projections, I assumed that players unaccounted for by these team projections were replacement level, either individually or in the aggregate.

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Comments

Tell us what do you think.

  1. Nicholas Zettel says: July 16, 2014

    Jonathan, how does the Brewers’ batting WAR rank so low when their offense is clearly better than both St. Louis and Pittsburgh? Is it simply that those systems do not expect the Brewers’ bats to keep it up?

    • Vin B says: July 16, 2014

      I think “hitting” is short for position players so the defense counts here as well. Reyonlds/Overbay, Aramis, Weeks & Davis aren’t expected to prevent too many runs.

    • Nicholas Zettel says: July 16, 2014

      True, but even in that regard, doesn’t the Brewers’ shifting strategy have some impact on their defensive efficiency? Outside of individual fielding performances, the club has been consistently excellent fielding in 2014. I’d have to imagine that that’s a positive impact on expected wins.

  2. Biglance says: July 16, 2014

    Second Half will be a dogfight. St Louis cant win it without a healthy Wacha. Already heavily strapped without Molina. They just continue to do things right.
    Cincinnati has best pitching both starters and closers although they have key injury’s with Phillips and Votto. Also need a healthy Bailey.
    Pittsburgh playing good ball and will be a tough out
    Milwaukees pitching exposed in last month. Gallardo has to be a worry with his declining velocity.Although Rodriguez had a nice first half I would be worried as he also tailed off in last month. They really need a hard throwing right handed relief pitcher. They have the best everyday lineup in the division but Ramirez and Braun have to stay healthy which is doubtful. I think Nelson will do well in second half which will be a plus. Need a first baseman if they want to contend.

    Will be interesting

  3. Sphere says: July 17, 2014

    I think the loss of Molina will affect the rest of the Cardinal pitching staff in a negative way which is hard to predict. The Catcher-Pitcher relationship is one of the very few instances in baseball where “chemistry” matters a lot. It is not uncommon for a manager to pair the backup catcher with a certain starting pitcher so they learn to work together, and the manager can rest the starter once a week without breaking up battery mates.

    With Yadier out for a few months the Cardinals staff are going to have to learn to work with Tony Cruz (and the new backup catcher for that matter). Not just in terms of getting on the same page selecting pitches, but also dealing with a catcher who can’t shut down a running game on his own, block 0-2 breaking balls in the dirt almost every time, and do a good job framing pitches on the edges. One would assume the pitchers are going to be less effective with Cruz behind the plate.

    • Biglance says: July 17, 2014

      great point

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