Pre-Spring Divisional Outlook: NL Central

Periodically over the next few weeks, I’m going to take an early look at the six divisions in a slightly unorthodox manner. Utilizing batted ball data, we’ll go back over the 2014 season and attempt to calculate each club’s true talent level. Making adjustments for teams’ offensive and defensive K and BB rates and team defense, we’ll calculate each team’s true talent 2014 won-lost record. Then, we’ll take a look at the current Steamer projections for 2015, evaluate key player comings and goings, and determine whether clubs are constructed to be able to handle the inevitable pitfalls along the way that could render such projections irrelevant. The second installment of this series features the NL Central.

First, let’s start it off with a table that will serve as the backbone of our analysis:

STL 0.322 0.485 0.314 0.475 18.6% 7.7% 20.1% 7.7% 100.7
PIT 0.324 0.509 0.313 0.469 20.0% 8.4% 20.0% 8.1% 97.7
MIL 0.317 0.490 0.317 0.496 19.7% 7.0% 20.4% 7.1% 98.6
CIN 0.305 0.456 0.320 0.497 20.9% 6.9% 21.3% 8.4% 96.4
CUB 0.317 0.499 0.320 0.484 24.2% 7.2% 21.1% 8.1% 100.7
MLB AVG 0.318 0.489 0.318 0.489 20.4% 7.6% 20.4% 7.6% 100.0

The first four columns indicate the resulting team AVG and SLG on all of each club’s balls in play (BIP) hit and allowed if they were hit in a neutral environment. The major league average AVG and SLG on all BIP in 2014 were .318 and .489, respectively. Clubs performing above that level offensively and yielding production below that level defensively were above average performers. The next four columns list each club’s offensive and defensive K and BB rates. The MLB averages in those categories were 20.4% and 7.6%, respectively in 2014.

The last column represents each club’s Defensive Multiplier. Again utilizing granular batted ball data, I have established a method to evaluate team defense, from a big-picture macro perspective, rather than the play-by-play micro perspective that methods such as DRS and UZR utilize. Simply compare each team’s offensive and defensive actual and projected AVG and SLG – what each team “should” have hit/allowed based on the speed/exit angle mix of all balls in play (excluding home runs), and convert those actual and projected events to run values. You are basically comparing each team’s defense to that of their opponents over 162 games. If a team’s defense was exactly as good as their opponents’ over 162 games, their team Defensive Multiplier would be 100. Better than average defenses have scores under 100, below average team defenses have scores over 100.

Next, let’s convert all of the data in the first table into run values, and then do same Pythagorean magic, and come up with a series of projected win-loss records. 1) On only each club’s BIP hit/allowed, 2) further adjusted for K and BB for/against, and 3) further adjusted for team’s Defensive Multiplier. This third projection represents the club’s true talent W-L record for 2014. For comparative purposes, each club’s 2014 actual and Pythagorean record are listed.

STL 85-77 87-75 86-76 90-72 83-79
PIT 90-72 90-72 91-71 88-74 87-75
MIL 80-82 81-81 83-79 82-80 80-82
CIN 70-92 70-92 73-89 76-86 79-83
CUB 82-80 75-87 74-88 73-89 71-91

Let’s make some broad observations about each of the five NL Central clubs’ 2014 performance utilizing the data in the two tables above.

The Cardinals are the reigning royalty in the division, a “gold standard” type of club that has used traditional scouting and analytics to remain at or near the top for an extended period. Their offensive BIP authority isn’t overly imposing; both the Pirates and the Cubs hit the ball harder. While they don’t overwhelm the baseball, the Cards use the field better than any club in baseball, and have a high offensive floor. The Cards’ pitchers managed batted ball authority quite well; they ranked just behind the Pirates in this regard, far ahead of the rest of their divisional mates. Based on BIP authority alone, the Cards were an 85-77 team last season.

In addition to using the entire field, Cards’ hitters put the ball in play at a very high rate. Their offensive K rate was by far the lowest in the division last season. Their offensive BB rate and pitching K and BB rates were all right around the MLB average, but that low offensive K rate pushes their projected record up a couple of games to 87-75. Their team defensive multiplier of 100.7 was tied for worst in the division with the Cubs, and nudges their projected record down a game to 86-76, which is smack in the middle between their 2014 actual (90-72) and Pythagorean (83-79) records.

It seems like eons ago that the Pirates were pining for that elusive breakthrough .500 season. They have now established themselves as one of the few clubs in baseball that is above average in all phases of the game. Their offensive BIP authority was by far the best in the division, and their pitching staff nosed out the Cards’ for best contact management ability. Their staff yields tons of ground balls, which were hit more weakly on average than the typical grounder. Based on BIP authority alone, they were a 90-72 club, best in the division.

The Pirates’ offensive and pitching K and BB rates were all clustered around the MLB average; a bit better on offense, a bit weaker on the mound, keeping their projected record at 90-72. The Bucs really don’t get credit for the excellence of their offense, as their pitcher-friendly home park helps to tamp down their raw offensive stats. They also had the second best defense in the division, with a 97.7 defensive multiplier. This pushes their projection a game higher to 91-71, better than their actual (88-74) and Pythagorean (87-75) records; the Pirates were the best true-talent team in the Central in 2014.

The Brewers were not expected to contend last season, but front-ran into September before collapsing out of the playoff race. Both their offensive and pitching BIP authority were very close to MLB average, but 4th best in the division, ahead of only the Reds. Based on BIP authority alone, they were an 80-82 club.

Their relatively low offensive K and pitching BB rates allow them to tack a game onto their projection to 81-81, and a solid team defense (98.6 multiplier) allows them to add two more to 83-79, pretty much in line with their actual (82-80) and Pythagorean (80-82) records.

The Reds nosedived out of contention last season, largely due to the absence of their marquee player, Joey Votto, for the bulk of the season. Their offensive BIP authority was by far the worst in the division. They also struggled greatly on the mound, with Homer Bailey and the recently traded Mat Latos both missing significant time. Based on BIP authority alone, this was a 70-92 club.

While their pitching staff had the best K rate in the division, their offensive BB rate was the worst, and their projection remained unchanged after taking K and BB rates into account. The Reds did have the best defense in the division to fall back upon (96.4 multiplier), increasing their projection to 73-89. This lags behind their actual (76-86) and Pythagorean (79-83) records, but indicates that the Reds may have been even worse than they appeared last season.

Lastly, we have the Cubs, likely the most “interesting” team in the division. Their offensive BIP authority was actually quite good, above MLB average and second in the division. Their pitching staff contact management ability was about MLB average, and third in the division, though far behind the Pirates and Cards. This, despite the presence of Edwin Jackson. Based on BIP authority alone, the 2014 Cubs were a better than .500 club, at 82-80.

The Cubs, like the Astros in the AL West, were hamstrung by an extreme offensive K rate last season. This, in addition to a low offensive K rate and a high pitching staff BB rate, shaves seven games off of their projection, to 75-87. They matched the Cards for the worst defensive multiplier in the division at 100.7, shaving one more game, down to 74-88, very close to their actual (73-89) and Pythagorean (71-91) records.

Let’s now look forward. Below are the current 2015 Steamer projections, as of Wednesday afternoon:

STL 87-75
PIT 86-76
CUB 84-78
MIL 77-85
CIN 76-86

Let’s briefly label and discuss some key facets of each club below. One note; I haven’t delved into the clubs’ respective bullpens, as year-to-year club performance in that area tends to fluctuate wildly.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS – The “Blue Chip, Perennial Contender That Some Love To Hate” Club
Their floor is high, their ceiling low, compared to other contenders. They have a knack for acquiring veteran performers at the ideal time, for the ideal price. Getting Jim Edmonds for Kent Bottenfield is just one example, but probably the best one. Mark McGwire is another. Could Jason Heyward be the next in the lineage? If they can fix his swing, unlock his power, and then extend his contract, they just might have a monster on their hands. Oh, and he’s 25. Their lineup is solid and balanced, but key pieces such as Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday and Jhonny Peralta either have entered or just about to embark on their respective decline phases.

The Cards are quite vulnerable if they were to lose any one or more of a number of their frontliners; beside the four regulars referenced in the preceding paragraph, the loss of Matt Adams, Kolten Wong or Matt Carpenter for any length of time would present problems. Peter Bourjos gives them some insurance in center field, but the tragic loss of Oscar Taveras leaves them with limited protection on the outfield corners. Their starting pitching depth is solid, thanks in large part to the club’s ability to hit on late first round picks like Michael Wacha and Marco Gonzales.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES – The “Meet The New Floor, Same As The Old Ceiling” Club
Talk about high floors. The Pirates, though a resurgent organization with improved cash flow and a rising payroll, still can’t afford to hold onto their successful reclamation projections, like Russell Martin and Edinson Volquez. That’s OK, they just buy low on A.J. Burnett after the Phils bought high, likely improving their rotation. Francisco Cervelli won’t be Martin, but he’ll likely be more than adequate, and the financial savings allowed them to take a crack at wild card Jung-ho Kang. They have the division’s best player in Andrew McCutchen, their staff will again yield a boatload of weak grounders, and the club will be well-tailored well to its ballpark.

Their depth and flexibility, very quietly, has become quite good. McCutchen may in fact be their only truly indispensable position player. Their ceiling might not stand out as much as their floor, but Gregory Polanco has substantial upside above his WAR projection, enough to potentially make the difference in the division race. One area of relative weakness; starting pitching depth isn’t great, at least until Charlie Morton and/or Jameson Taillon return from injury.

CHICAGO CUBS: The “Future Is Now, Or Is It?” Club
Here is the divisional X Factor. Their system is, and has been as loaded at the top as any in recent memory, and the wave hit the big league club last season. Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and potentially Arismendy Alcantara are all in line for significant playing time in Chicago this season, and at least the former three have star upside. On the down side, growing pains are to expected, and even in the best-case scenario, these kids won’t exactly address the club’s offensive K problem in the short term. To lower overall club risk, the club wisely acquired veteran stabilizers like Dexter Fowler and Miguel Montero to hold down full-time jobs in key defensive positions. The club has resources, both in dollars and in players such as Welington Castillo and Edwin Jackson, to address any emerging needs.

For a young team that hasn’t tasted contention yet, they have relatively few irreplaceable position players. Fowler, Bryant, and Anthony Rizzo are the three they’d struggle the most without. Their starting pitching depth is strong. The Cubs likely have the highest upside in the NL Central this season, but have a fairly low chance of reaching it. If the kids look comfy in the early going, watch out.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS: The “They Are Who We Thought They Were” Club
Brewer fans didn’t expect much heading into the 2014 season, but were then delighted by an endless spring and summer of wins. Everything unraveled in September, and the 82-80 record that would have been satisfactory on Opening Day suddenly had a bitter taste. The Brewers have had a typically understated offseason, finally addressing their longstanding first base problem with the acquisition of Adam Lind, but weakening their rotation with the departure of Marco Estrada (in the Lind deal) and Yovani Gallardo. The roster has an incomplete feel, even now late in January, and it is quite likely that the payroll savings from the Gallardo deal will be reinvested in some manner into the pitching staff.

Organizational depth remains a problem for the Brewers. The acquisition of Gerardo Parra gives them solid corner outfield insurance, though the loss of Carlos Gomez in center for any length of time would be a killer. Jonathan Lucroy is indispensable behind the plate, and there really aren’t ready replacements anywhere in the infield, with the possible exception of Luis Sardinas behind Jean Segura at shortstop. The departure of Gallardo and Estrada leaves them bone dry behind the likely season opening starting rotation. Though Wily Peralta and Jimmy Nelson have solid untapped upsides, this club’s floor is relatively low.

CINCINNATI REDS: The “Window Might Have Closed” Club
We’ve talked about indispensable players, Plan B’s, etc., quite a bit today, and the 2014 Cincinnati Reds and Joey Votto are living proof of what happens when a solid club with insufficient depth loses such a player. A great deal of the Reds’ organizational value is and was clustered in a small number of players, and most of them have begun to break down physically and/or are entering their respective decline phases.

The Reds had a strange offseason, at once acting as contenders and rebuilders. They broke down one of the few remaining club strengths, their starting rotation, by moving Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon. The players they received, pitchers Anthony DeSclafani and Jonathan Crawford and middle infielder Eugenio Suarez, are promising, but one shouldn’t count on material 2015 production from them. On the other hand, they acquired Marlon Byrd from the Phillies for solid pitching prospect Ben Lively. The 2015 Reds’ upside isn’t great, and the loss of any one of Votto, Brandon Phillips, Todd Frazier, Billy Hamilton or Jay Bruce could spell disaster. Their starting pitching depth is also below average compared to their peers.

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Go Brewers!