Winning Identities: 2012-2013 NL Central | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

The Cubs and Brewers did not have a chance in 2013. Not a single chance. The Cardinals, Pirates, and Reds not only made the playoffs as a trio — division winner and both Wild Card spots — but they also did so while completely dominating the division. Through 18 months of baseball between the Pirates, Reds, and Cardinals, the trio of NL Central playoff clubs produced only three .500 or worse months of baseball. The other side of this stat means that they produced winning records in fifteen of their 18 months of baseball in 2013. Certainly, a 13-12 record counts as a winning monthly record in that regard, but we’re also talking about monthly records like 20-7, 19-8, 19-8, 19-9, 17-9, 16-11, and 15-11: this trio of clubs produced twice as many .575+ months of baseball as they did -.500 baseball. Against those three .500 or worse months of baseball, the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis nine produced five months of .650 or better baseball. In fact, looking at each of these clubs’ three best months, each of these clubs played at a 100-win pace for half the season (and even their worst pace was between 81-and-86 wins for half the year):

2013 Best Three Months W-L
St. Louis 54-26
Pittsburgh 51-30
Cincinnati 49-31
2013 Worst Three Months W-L
Pittsburgh 43-38
St. Louis 43-39
Cincinnati 41-41

The Brewers played solid baseball throughout several months of the season, as is a common refrain by now (May really tanked the squad, as Adam recently investigated). Of course, the Pirates, Reds, and Cardinals were so dominant that not even the Brewers’ April, July, and September could make a dent into the standings; if a team’s best pace is 87 wins for a season, that’s not bad, but that team will still fall far behind a 100 game winner.

Analyzing Multiple Years: Division Cores
In general, the 2013 NL Central clubs maintained roster cores that were quite similar to their 2012 counterparts (on opening day, anyway; a number of injuries or replacement issues changed some of those identities over the course of the season). Since these clubs have generally kept the same contributors for two seasons, we have quite a valuable core of records, runs scored / runs allowed tallies, and expected W-L records to analyze. If 162 games is a solid number of games to analyze, 324 is even better; subtracting the 2012 Astros, the NL Central between 2012 and 2013 basically gives analysts a decade worth of baseball to unpack. From these seasons, one can raise a number of questions about team identities and how a 162-game season unfolds.

Trend One: Consistent Cardinals
In Adam’s analysis of the 2014 Brewers schedule, he succinctly summarized the importance of consistency for a ballclub:

Consistency is important in baseball. Not just from players but from the team as a whole. Two bad weeks of baseball can finish a club, especially in a strong, competitive division like the NL Central. If May’s experience taught the Crew anything, it was that monthly records are like grenades. Only one needs to blow up in your face to make it a lost cause.

Certainly, the 2013 Reds prove this point, as they fought for first place throughout the season, but ultimately fell short even though their worst month was “only” as bad as 12-15. On the other hand, both the 2012 and 2013 Cardinals prove the value of consistently. As I analyzed last year, the 2012 Cardinals were able to make the playoffs despite “(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.” Their ability to hover between 13 and 15 wins allowed their August and September surges of 16 and 17 wins to land a playoff spot; even those 16 and 17 win months were third-best and second-best, respectively.

Of course, the 2013 Cardinals were consistent in an entirely different way. This group of Redbirds boasted the best monthly record three times, and the second-best monthly record during their other three months. Their range of victories was much wider than the 2012 Cardinals, as the 2013 club won between 13 and 20 games on a monthly basis; yet, when they won 13 games in July, that was second-best in the division, and they survived a 14-14 June because three NL Central clubs posted losing records:

April 2013
St. Louis: 15-11
Milwaukee: 14-11
Pittsburgh: 15-12
Cincinnati: 15-13
Chicago: 10-16

May 2013
St. Louis: 20-7
Cincinnati: 19-8
Pittsburgh: 19-9
Chicago: 13-14
Milwaukee: 6-22

June 2013
Pittsburgh: 17-9
St. Louis: 14-14
Cincinnati: 12-15
Chicago: 12-15
Milwaukee: 12-15

July 2013
Pittsburgh: 14-12
St. Louis: 13-12
Cincinnati: 14-13
Chicago: 14-13
Milwaukee: 14-14

August 2013
Cincinnati: 16-11
St. Louis: 16-13
Pittsburgh: 14-14
Milwaukee: 13-14
Chicago: 8-20

September 2013
St. Louis: 19-8
Pittsburgh: 15-12
Milwaukee: 15-12
Cincinnati: 14-12
Chicago: 9-18

One last note: it’s rather frightening to consider that the 2012 and 2013 Cardinals underplayed their run differential and expected W-L by nearly ten full wins. No one needs to hear that the Cardinals might not have reached their full potential for victories in the last two seasons, especially not as players such as Matt Carpenter and Allen Craig switch to new positions to allow more organizational Cardinals their chance to play in the big leagues.

Trend Two: Beyond Run Differentials
I noted last year that the 2012 Pirates alluded to their June and July explosion by significantly outplaying their run differential in May. Thanks to 11 one-or-two-run victories, the Pirates were able to overcome a series of rough losses to salvage a winning record in May 2012. Once again, the Pirates outplayed their run differentials in 2013, this time extending their artistry to April, August, and September. 12 of the Pirates’ 15 April victories in 2013 were within three runs, which nicely offset a trio of blow-out losses.

2013 First Half:
St. Louis: 57-36 (462 RS / 335 RA, .6452, 60 wins)
Pittsburgh: 56-37 (357 RS / 311 RA, .5591, 52 wins)
Cincinnati: 53-42 (413 RS / 350 RA, .5789, 55 wins)
Chicago: 42-51 (384 RS / 394 RA, ,.4839, 45 wins)
Milwaukee: 38-56 (369 RS / 434 RA, .4255, 40 wins)

2013 Second Half:
St. Louis: 40-29 (321 RS / 261 RA, .5942, 41 wins)
Pittsburgh: 38-31 (277 RS / 266 RA, .5217, 36 wins)
Cincinnati, 37-30 (285 RS / 239 RA, .5821, 39 wins )
Milwaukee: 36-32 (271 RS / 253 RA, .5294, 36 wins)
Chicago: 24-45 (218 RS / 295 RA, .3623, 25 wins)

Although an important storyline for the 2013 Pirates is that they did not collapse in the second half of the season, one might note that they also outplayed their run differential throughout the second half and benefited from a Cincinnati club that did not play to their potential. In August and September, the Pirates scored 214 runs while allowing 221 runs, but they still managed a 29-26 record to close the season and win home-field advantage for the wild card. These run differential wizards offset seven blowout losses with 18 close wins. Ultimately, if there is any Pirates identity over the last two seasons, it is one of making the most of close games. It doesn’t matter how much a baseball team loses by if they can win a sizable portion of the close games.

Trend Three: Alternating Luck
One of the signatures of the 2012 Cincinnati Reds was their second-half surge, during which they outplayed their run differential by approximately seven wins. Their July surge might have been most important, as they held the streaky Pirates at bay before the Bucs’ second half collapse. If one can draw a lesson of outplaying run differentials from the 2012-2013 Pirates, one can consider the opposite lesson from the Cincinnati Nine. In contrast to the Pirates, the Reds’ luck swapped between 2012 and 2013, as the 2013 Reds underplayed their expected W-L by several victories. In 2013, the Reds split their underperformance equally between the first and second half, which really hurt their standing against Pittsburgh.

For all intents and purposes, the Reds had the elements and RS / RA ratio to be the better club than the Pirates, but they did not capitalize on their advantages. If one wants to argue that looking at a club’s run differential to judge their potential and actual performances is superfluous, one only needs to look at the 2013 Wild Card race as evidence to the contrary. Pittsburgh outplayed their run differential, while the Reds underplayed their potential, and the direct result was that the Reds took the road for their wild card game, losing a potential opportunity to host the Pirates.

Trend Four: Second Half Brew Crew
One of the most contentious issues for Brewers fans is whether the club should enter a “true” rebuilding effort. A lot of analysis at DoU has centered on the dearth of talent in the Brewers’ farm system, as well as the club’s seemingly “middle ground” approach between “contending” and “rebuilding.” Yet, between 2012 and 2013, a peculiar trend dogs the Brewers: after dreadful replacement issues early in the season, a group of young players assembles to win ballgames late in the year. If you’re not inclined to believe this trend is significant, you only need to glance at the first-half and second-half splits between 2012 and 2013:

First Half Expected W-L Actual W-L
St. Louis 110-69 103-76
Cincinnati 102-78 100-80
Pittsburgh 98-80 104-74
Milwaukee 82-97 78-101
Chicago 80-98 75-103
Second Half Expected W-L Actual W-L
St. Louis 84-61 82-63
Cincinnati 82-62 87-57
Milwaukee 79-66 79-66
Pittsburgh 69-77 69-77
Chicago 56-90 52-94

The Brewers’ second half run differential is five games out of first place for the NL Central, and their actual second-half W-L places them solidly in third. If it weren’t for the Reds’ exceptional 2012 second half outplaying their run differential, the Brewers’ second half record would appear even better in the context of the division. The second-half pace is good for 88 victories on a 162-game scale, and moreover, the Brewers have played exactly to their run differential in both the 2012 and 2013 second-half. Their second-half surges are “real,” meaning that we don’t necessarily need to look for close-game victory trends, or other somewhat flukey circumstances to explain their strong second half play. In fact, no NL Central team owns a more extreme split than the Brewers:

Team First Half Pace (162) Second Half Pace (162) Difference
St. Louis 93 92 -1
Pittsburgh 93 77 -16
Cincinnati 90 98 +8
Milwaukee 71 88 +17
Chicago 68 58 -10

From Trends to Roster Building
If you’re Doug Melvin, you have a coin to flip. On the one hand, you can judge your farm system, total records in 2012 and 2013, and contract situations, and move as many pieces as possible to attempt a brief-but-successful rebuild. On the other hand, your much-criticized farm system produced organizational players that did not lay down in either 2012 (among pitching replacements) or 2013 (among fielding replacements), and you have a ballclub that successfully played to win in the second half. One could even argue that Melvin aligned the roster for near-ideal “tank” scenarios as the 2012 and 2013 replacement issues wore on; Melvin simply allowed young or unproven pitchers to try open roles in 2012, and he tried out a gang of new position players in 2013. Instead of losing or having a tough time, these players actually seized their open jobs and forced the organization to make positive decisions about their homegrown players.

If Brewers fans are inclined to criticize Melvin and Mark Attanasio for failing to rebuild, Brewers fans ultimately have to answer a series of 2012 and 2013 performances that suggest there is some talent in the organization. One can argue in several different ways that these streaky performances were flukes, and yet, the organizational players produced winning second halves for two consecutive seasons (while perfectly matching their actual wins to their runs scored and runs allowed ratios). If you’re a Brewers fan looking for a rebuild, you ultimately have to decide that Melvin needs to give up on some of these young players and their performances (in one way or the other), or to look at the other side of the coin (those dreadful first half performances).

However, if the dreadful first half performances are a matter of replacement issues, Melvin arguably addressed those areas of concerns with his 2013 offseason moves; he traded an aging and declining outfielder for a controllable swingman lefty; he assembled an entire gang of actual first basemen that could fit the profile of Miller Park (and a slugging-centered team); he signed yet another true starting pitcher that arguably allows the club to become stronger in the rotation (due to more dependable or quality starts) and bullpen (by pushing swingmen / fringe starters back into the bullpen). As a Brewers fan facing these moves, it may be frustrating to see a back-and-forth ballclub post two ultimately disappointing seasons. Yet, it is difficult to address Melvin’s transactions as anything more than a coinflip; arguably, Melvin did not have one clear direction to choose, and he had two solid halves of production that showed off his organization’s ceiling. If we judge Melvin’s replacement transactions, trades, and free agency signings against that 88-win potential, the 2014 Brewers take a decidedly different look. Now, they actually need to play 162 (baseball season cannot begin fast enough).

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